The Making of Britt McHenry

Is the rising Fox star a thoughtful conservative or a right-wing troll? As she finds her way in the world of punditry, striking the perfect balance isn’t easy.
Britt McHenry on a set at the Fox News bureau in Washington. Her show, “Un-PC,” will debut on Fox News’ digital streaming service, Fox Nation, on Nov. 27.
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Photos by Mary F. Calvert

Her hair has been loosely curled and teased, her black eyeliner applied, her pink lip gloss dabbed on. A thick cloud of sweet-smelling hair spray has been unleashed, fumigating any natural scent previously on her person. When she gets up from the TV makeup chair, smoothing out her black body-con dress with trendy shoulder cutouts, she towers over everyone in the room, because she is 5-foot-10 and wearing three-inch stilettos. She spits out her gum. Britt McHenry is ready for Fox News.

She’s in the channel’s Washington bureau, on the fifth floor of an undistinguished white office building just north of the Capitol, to film a segment introducing herself to Fox viewers. In July, Fox announced that McHenry, a former sports reporter for ESPN, would be joining their ranks. She’ll co-host a talk show called “Un-PC” on Fox Nation, a digital streaming service launching Nov. 27 that’s designed to be Fox News on steroids. The idea today is for the Fox crew to get some shots of McHenry walking through the newsroom — very natural, very casual — smiling and waving at the hard-working employees behind the scenes. It’s an awkward setup: McHenry doesn’t know these people, she doesn’t even have a Fox ID to let her into the building yet, and she seems slightly unsure of herself.

Britt McHenry on a set at the Fox News bureau in Washington. Her show, “Un-PC,” will debut on Fox News’ digital streaming service, Fox Nation, on Nov. 27.

We’re on a tight schedule: Her boyfriend — a professional tennis player whose God-given name is, I swear to you, Tennys Sandgren — is playing Novak Djokovic at the U.S. Open tonight, and she needs to get back to New York to cheer him on. It is 400 degrees outside on this August Thursday, and later that night, my fiance, an editor at Sports Illustrated, will text me a picture of McHenry sitting in Sandgren’s player’s box, her curls having fallen in the humidity. (McHenry and Sandgren have since broken up.)

Many Fox News viewers probably already follow McHenry on Twitter, where, after her layoff from ESPN in April 2017, she cultivated a provocative brand of conservative punditry. “Between Gigi Hadid’s ‘blackface,’ or as some of us call ‘bronzer,’ & a high school girl’s prom dress, apparently Caucasians have to apologize for existing. The reverse racism is ridiculous in 2018,” she tweeted in May. The month before: “Love triggering the Libs.” In June, she weighed in on the fact that there was no woman on Forbes’s list of highest paid athletes: “I was a D1 athlete & encourage all women to play sports,” she wrote. “For those complaining about equality, men’s sports are predominantly more entertaining & appealing. Sorry.” As a regular guest on Fox News, she has denounced left-wing politically correct culture, safe spaces, and bias in the mainstream media.

In short, it hasn’t taken McHenry long to dutifully check all the boxes on her way to Fox News fame. The process of checking these boxes, however, is not without philosophical tension. The 32-year-old will tell me multiple times that she wants to be a “reasoned” conservative. And yet, it’s her brazen, incendiary style that has earned her a coveted spot at Fox and put her on the path to becoming right-wing royalty.

It’s a balancing act that’s as real on the left as on the right, among MSNBC hopefuls and rising Fox News personalities alike: If you’re trying to become the next big pundit in 2018, flame throwing is the surest path to success, because harnessing social media outrage is the best way to attract an audience. Serious, nuanced opinions don’t get as many retweets — and translated to the TV screen, they simply aren’t as much fun to watch. In this climate, can Britt McHenry — or anyone else who seeks instant cable-news stardom — really make it as a “reasoned” talking head?

McHenry in the makeup chair with Nicole Ferguson, left, and Tamara Montgomery at Fox News in Washington.

McHenry grew up in Indian Harbour Beach and Satellite Beach, small towns on the east coast of Florida. She was always competitive: in soccer, which she played in high school and college, and in academics. When she scored a notch below gifted on an elementary school aptitude test, she made it her mission to always get better grades than the gifted kids. “She’s a pit bull,” her dad, Bill, tells me, always working to prove herself. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, and when she was 16, he was deployed to Iraq, reinforcing the family’s conservative worldview. “You start to naturally watch more cable news, naturally be more engaged in the political discourse,” McHenry says of the time when her father was overseas.

In college at Florida’s Stetson University, she was known around campus as a larger-than-life presence, a kind of “tomboy Barbie” who could hang with the boys eating pizza on a dorm room floor, says her friend Amanda Niznik. Even then, she had a warmth that drew people to her. “If she’s in the room, people want to talk to her,” Niznik says.

McHenry had been the editor of her high school paper, and after she studied English in college, her parents encouraged her to go into journalism. While attending Northwestern University’s graduate journalism program, she interned in the political unit at Fox News, running scripts and logging speeches. Once, she fetched Brit Hume’s coffee. She recounts this story in the Fox News makeup chair, as one woman swipes bronze shadow onto her eyelid and another teases her roots. Red hair dryers hang from the ceiling like expensive piñatas. “He goes, ‘Thank you. What’s your name?’ And I’m, like, star-struck,” she recalls. She told him her name, “and he’s like” — she mimes a quizzical expression — “ ‘That’s my name!’ ”

After graduation, she got a job covering community news and anchoring weekend broadcasts for Washington’s NewsChannel 8, and then reporting on sports for WJLA. In 2014, she started at ESPN as a Washington-based bureau reporter. If you don’t follow her on Twitter and are wondering why her name sounds familiar, it’s probably because of this: In 2015, she savagely berated a towing company employee after her car was impounded, and the security-camera footage of the encounter went viral. In the minute-long video, McHenry snipes at the attendant, “That’s why I have a degree and you don’t” and “Maybe if I was missing some teeth they would hire me, huh?” She was widely ridiculed online, and critics called for her to be fired. ESPN suspended her for a week.

She apologized, taking responsibility for her outburst but insisting that the video “is not who I am.” It’s still upsetting for her to talk about. “I know it’s a part of my story, and in some ways, it taught me a lot of resiliency,” she says. “But I just don’t understand why it always has to be brought up in a headline.” She hopes that she gets to a point where her successes eclipse her mistake.

What hurt the most, she says, is that complete strangers made assumptions about her family background. They said that she, lashing out over a minor inconvenience in her North Face jacket and blond top knot, was entitled, lording her degree and full set of teeth over someone just trying to do her job. But she doesn’t come from wealth, she says. She’s from a middle-class family. She’s still paying Northwestern student loans. “I think in the culture we’re in now, it’s so quick to judge people, especially on social media,” she tells me. “I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I wish sometimes that was reciprocated for me, because I had to work really hard. I didn’t have any TV friends to get into this world. I think for anybody, that’s an accomplishment in itself.”

At ESPN, she says, she was frustrated that as a reporter she wasn’t able to share her opinions on issues. She grew restless watching ESPN espouse what she says are liberal viewpoints, like giving the ESPY award for courage to Caitlyn Jenner. She says her managers told her not to like conservative tweets.

The network laid her off last year in a round of mass cuts that included veteran sports reporters. “Heartbreak is bad,” McHenry tells me of her unemployment, “but when you don’t know where your career is going, or when your next check is going to come, that’s a lot worse.” Still, it was during this time that she was able to pursue a new dream. Unencumbered by a reporter’s veil of objectivity, she began dipping a toe into the world of commentary.

McHenry interviews Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith for ESPN after a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)

One of her first attempts was a bombshell. In response to a tweet from a fellow conservative saying that ESPN is a liberal bastion, McHenry tweeted: “I mean I’ve been openly Conservative… look how that ended up.” She deleted the tweet shortly thereafter and has since backed away from the claim that she was fired because of her political beliefs. “I think ultimately, the only people who know what went into the decision were a handful of people in the room,” she tells me. “All I know is that some really great colleagues were laid off, too. And unfortunately, with some of the coverage my Twitter gets, I felt like I sounded very selfish in that regard. … I definitely clashed ideology-wise with some people there, but who knows?” A spokesman for ESPN would not comment on McHenry specifically, instead referring me to a statement at the time of the layoffs that pointed to a company shift in strategy.

Among the most frustrating issues for McHenry to remain silent about at ESPN was football players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. She understood why she couldn’t say anything. “But when you are the daughter of a lieutenant colonel who went to war, and I’m standing on a field looking at players kneeling in front of me,” she says, “to me, that means something else.”

At one point while at ESPN, she pushed to write a column supporting U.S. Soccer’s policy that players must stand for the national anthem. “There was an article on the site saying that it was blasphemy, that U.S. Soccer was completely wrong, and I wanted to say that they were right,” she says. The column didn’t go anywhere.

[Laid off by ESPN, Britt McHenry is having ‘an awakening’ as a vocal conservative]

Then, on July 4 last year, Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who regularly took a knee during the anthem, tweeted a video of his trip to Ghana. “How can we truly celebrate independence on a day that intentionally robbed our ancestors of theirs?” he asked. McHenry was livid. She banged out a response and posted it on an old Tumblr she’d made when ESPN hired her. “Colin Kaepernick can’t get out of his own way,” she wrote. “Any good deed he does come[s] at the expense of bashing the United States of America.”

“That Tumblr went everywhere,” she tells me. The power to spread her own views was intoxicating. People came up to her on the street, she says, to thank her for it; conservative athletes and coaches and general managers reached out privately to tell her they appreciated her views. (She wouldn’t offer any names on the record because, she says, of the intense backlash against conservatives.) After feeling stagnant, dejected by unemployment, she finally felt as if she had a purpose again. She had the platform, she had the following. “I wanted to start using it in a way that connected with people,” she says. “And it was a lot better than talking about injury reports.”

That led to a gig as a contributor to the conservative news site the Federalist, where she tackled topics ranging from last summer’s white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville to outrage over Melania Trump’s fashion choices. Along the way, the New York Times reported that she, or someone on her behalf, had paid for fake Twitter followers. She denies this. “I was just in the New York Post yesterday,” she tells me, referring to a piece about her then-boyfriend. (She’d been commenting on Sandgren’s Twitter flirtations with the alt-right and apparent belief in the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy.) “If I had to buy followers to prove my worth, then why would there be journalistic interest in what I’m doing?” At her peak, McHenry had nearly 363,000 followers; after Twitter’s purge of what the company deemed fakes, she currently has 287,000.

I don’t want to be extremist. I don’t want to be on the conservative end of, like, a toxic firebrand.
Britt McHenry

As she became more confident in tweeting her opinions on politics beyond sports, she garnered criticism from the left. “Britt McHenry Is Awful At This,” sports website Deadspin proclaimed of her right-wing views. She earned the New York Daily News’ “jerk of the week” superlative three times. “This is someone whose job it is to generate hot takes,” says Dan Cassino, a political-science professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University who wrote the book “Fox News and American Politics: How One Channel Shapes American Politics and Society.” “The problem with that is, you’re going to wind up with a lot of very controversial takes that don’t stand up to a lot of scrutiny.”

Some of her views seemed to contradict each other. In February, she wrote for the Federalist that “no man should ever make unwanted advances on a woman because of what clothing she is or isn’t wearing. A victim of sexual abuse is never, in any way, responsible for it.” In May, she weighed in on a scandal around Redskins cheerleaders who said they were put in unsafe positions. “These women dance in glorified bras and underwear on a field for male entertainment,” McHenry tweeted. “If you don’t want to be treated like a ‘sex object,’ perhaps don’t be one for $.”

She maintains that both views can coexist. “I don’t really think that’s flipping on the topic,” she tells me. “I think that you can absolutely believe a woman should receive respect and not be treated poorly, but you can conduct yourself in a way that would eliminate any excess attention that you don’t want.”

Jemele Hill, a former ESPN staffer who careened to prominence after calling Trump a white supremacist, says she didn’t realize McHenry was a conservative until she left the network. While the two hadn’t been friends, she says, as women at a predominantly male network, they were friendly. (McHenry says they met only once.) Hill reached out to her after the towing-company debacle to offer words of encouragement and assure McHenry that the incident wouldn’t define her. The person she is now, Hill tells me, seems very different from the one Hill knew at ESPN. “It just seems like she’s playing a character,” she says. “I just wonder, if those views had not started gaining her attention, would we be getting this version of Britt McHenry?”

“What I want to do is become the best voice I can for this company,” says McHenry of joining Fox News.

“Have you been here before?” McHenry asks me as we walk into the Fox News bureau. We’re trailing a Fox News spokeswoman who insisted on chaperoning us for the entirety of our time together. My first TV appearance, I tell McHenry, was on Neil Cavuto’s Fox Business Network show a few years ago. I hate going on camera and was having a low-grade panic attack. “That is exactly how I felt when I went on Tucker for the first time!” she says. In August 2017, McHenry made her Fox News debut when Tucker Carlson invited her on to talk about ESPN’s decision, in the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally, to pull the coincidentally named announcer Robert Lee from calling a University of Virginia football game. (“I think it’s a reflection of society right now, and how left-wing and PC it’s gotten,” she said.) Even though she’d been on TV “a million times,” she was nervous. “But,” she says of Carlson, “he’s the nicest guy in the world, so there’s no reason to be.”

Her denunciation of liberal PC culture hit all the right notes, and she was invited back on Carlson’s show, plus other shows, such as “Watters’ World” and “Fox & Friends.” In March, she nabbed a show on Washington’s Fox affiliate, WTTG, called “Like It or Not,” a news roundup where she and her co-hosts take on topics in the news and give a minute-long spiel on whether they like said topic — or not.

John Finley, who oversees program development and production at Fox News, noticed her work. He knew her from her days at ESPN and was intrigued by her nascent transformation into a conservative media darling. He liked that she was provocative, he says, and had “unusual takes on topics.” Hers is the kind of commentary that riles people up, gets people sharing and retweeting and screaming into the void. “That’s part of the idea behind Fox Nation,” Finley says.

If you have ever been traveling, arrived at your hotel and turned on the TV at 9 p.m. sharp to watch Sean Hannity, only to find that you do not get your favorite channel, Fox Nation is for you. The stand-alone digital streaming service is an effort to give the people who watch Fox News religiously more of the content they crave. The new service, whose slogan is “opinion done right,” will go all-in on commentary. (It is not, Finley says, a play for cable-ditching millennials.) Many of the channel’s biggest names — Laura Ingraham, Hume, Hannity, Carlson — will be creating content for the subscription service. Also joining the lineup, in addition to McHenry, are firebrand Tomi Lahren and professional wrestler and actor George Murdoch, more commonly known as Tyrus.

“Fox Nation’s Un-PC,” co-hosted by McHenry and Tyrus, will be a “freewheeling format” with the goal of having a different guest host on every episode. Ideally, McHenry says, the guests will come from a wide range of backgrounds: a senator one day, maybe, and an actor the next. (She would welcome Kaepernick, she says, but doesn’t think he would come.) There won’t be any commercials, so there will be more room to get creative. They might do skits!

But McHenry wants to cover serious topics, too. In the past year, she has been reading a lot — she’s currently reading Bret Baier’s “Three Days in Moscow” and men’s rights activist Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” — and she says her views are evolving. For example, she doesn’t want to be a no-questions-asked supporter of the White House. She has also realized that she wants to rein in her distinctive persona. “I can’t just tweet at like 9 o’clock at night whatever I want to say,” McHenry tells me. She has talked with her agent and Fox News brass, and has made a conscious decision about how she wants to present herself. “If you’re against something or there’s a nuance to the gun control debate, it’s okay for you to say that,” she says. “Be you, be authentic, and that will gain you more respect in the long run, instead of just being super passionate all the time.”

It has been a learning curve. She says she regrets some of her more fiery tweets, like her attack on Philadelphia Eagles player Chris Long, a vocal Trump critic who donated $1 million of his earnings to charity. “If I made $39 million on ONE contract NFL deal and also came from a rich family, please, PLEASE think critically about why I’d donate a season of salary,” she tweeted in May. “Hello tax write off. All the pub for 1 mil vs 39 mil guaranteed. Libs & Long brothers play you.”

“I would have taken that back,” she tells me over breakfast at the D.C. restaurant Founding Farmers. She arrived a half-hour late, very apologetic, explaining that her Uber driver, for some reason, went from her place in Arlington “all the way around the Mall” before coming back to Foggy Bottom. I’ve spent the past week immersed in her Twitter feed and immediately think of a missive from last year: “The Uber took a ‘weird way,’ is code for a girl really ran 20 minutes late.”

She’d been frustrated by Long’s criticism of the president, she says, and felt like “he was kind of given this carte blanche leash to say whatever he wanted to.” That’s his right, she almost immediately concedes — “freedom of speech, you can say things” — and slamming someone for donating to charity probably wasn’t necessary. She has started to sleep on things before firing off a take, so she has time to simmer down. But it’s difficult to balance. “My boyfriend calls me Thumbs,” she says with a laugh, miming frenzied texting. “I’m feisty. And a lot of it is sarcasm. Sometimes I’ll think, ‘Oh, this is a funny response back to this person.’ ”

In May, she floated another theory for why ESPN had laid her off. “I was white & made too much,” McHenry tweeted. “First to go.” She soon deleted the tweet and tells me she regrets making the claim: “Look, there’s no need to focus on race, and that’s a tweet — any time you’re discussing new jobs, old jobs, there’s so much more that goes into it.”

As a guest on Fox News, she’s shown she can sometimes resist the hardcore conservative bait. In December, as “Watters’ World” host Jesse Watters decried the overreach of the #MeToo movement — “I think right now men are scared” — McHenry declined to take up the refrain. She talked about her own experience as one of just a handful of women in a football locker room covering the NFL, and asserted that both sexual assault and sexual harassment are not acceptable. “I just hope that women feel their strength now,” she said, “but also keep these considerations to not ruin lives or careers.” In another appearance on Watters’s show, in June, she said of the uproar over family separations at the border: “Children should be with their families.” (She also argued that Democrats need to stop whining and come up with some solutions.)

“I don’t want to be extremist. I don’t want to be on the conservative end of, like, a toxic firebrand,” McHenry tells me. She takes a sip of her triple-shot soy latte. She’s spent the week supporting Sandgren at the U.S. Open, and tennis is “so long.” (Sandgren’s match that night would last nearly three hours.) She tells me she wants her audience to know: “ ‘She has her leanings, which are right, but she’s reasoned. She’s not just crazy out there.’ You’re probably like, ‘Too late!’ ” she says, bursting into a self-conscious laugh. “Just joking!”

McHenry in the Fox News offices in Washington.

In the Fox News studio, McHenry sits at a glass-topped news desk, writing on scrap paper with a black Sharpie. The white dome of the Capitol looms behind her; it looks like one of those fake “We’re in Washington!” backdrops, but it’s actually right outside, just a few blocks away. She has filmed two takes of her walking into the studio and arriving at the desk, as if she’s preparing for her show, and now she needs to address viewers. Quietly, she counts herself down: 3, 2, 1. “From little Satellite Beach to coffee runs here at Fox News as an intern when I was just 21 years old, I’m now so happy to join the team,” she says to the camera. “We’re here at Fox Nation, we’re launching something new, and I can’t wait for you all to see it.”

“And Britt,” nudges her producer for the segment, “maybe you should say: ‘I’m Britt McHenry, and welcome to Fox Nation.’ ”

“Maybe I should work that in,” McHenry says. She laughs, then adds, in her best “Anchorman” impression, “I’m Ron Burgundy?

All of this — creating a new place for herself in the world of journalism, putting her beliefs out there for everyone to criticize — was a big risk for her. She had a set career path and was successful at it. She could have had another job in sports if she’d wanted it, she says; she fielded offers last year.

Now she has an entirely new platform to figure out. “I’m in year one of developing a voice,” she says. She’s done filming, and we’re perched on black leather couches in the Fox News green room. It’s easy to latch on to the latest Twitter outrage. The hundreds of beliefs she’s espoused since her political floodgates opened — she’s never made any of those up. But she’s evolving, she says, growing from the person she was even a few months ago. She’s learning from her mentors at the channel, like Brian Kilmeade, the “Fox & Friends” co-host who also came from the sports world, and Finley, the Fox News exec who hired her. She concedes: “When you see something trending, you could play the flame game” — she pretends to throw a grenade into a small TV tuned to Fox News — “right? And you see that in the political world. Some people might get more retweets from it. They’ll get more attention from it. But what I want to do is become the best voice I can for this company.”

In this partisan ecosystem, it’s a fine line between thoughtful commentator and Internet troll. The vast majority of viewers, of Fox News and every other channel, don’t want “reasoned.” They prefer vicious takedowns. Moral absolutism. Drama. But Britt McHenry is seeking something different. “I want,” she says, “to become a trusted voice.”

Rebecca Nelson is a writer in New York.

Correction: An earlier version of this article called McHenry a co-anchor of a new show on Fox Nation. She will be co-host. This version has been updated.

Credits: Story by Rebecca Nelson. Photos by Mary F. Calvert. Designed by Christian Font. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.