Sean Hannity was trying to contain an increasingly screechy debate about the Trump family on a recent episode of his eponymous Fox News show. His two guests were discussing the protests at a New York preschool attended by President Trump‘s grandson. “If I went after the Obama kids, I would probably have groups of people wanting me fired,” Hannity said. “Wait a minute…”
But red hot conservative rabble-rouser Tomi Lahren from TheBlaze wouldn’t let it rest. “Sean, if you go after Beyoncé, you’ll have groups of people wanting you fired. Let’s be honest.”
Jessica Tarlov, one of a rotating cast of liberals who regularly appears on Hannity, punched back harder: “What’s your problem with Beyoncé?”
You might not recognize Tarlov’s name, but if you watch enough Fox News, you’ve seen her. She’s the lefty liberal the network’s fans love to hate—“in a fond way,” she insists—ten times a week: as a fixture on the network’s Saturday lineup and the millennial brunette in the Hollywood Squares of Fox panel programming.
Which also means Tarlov is one of the few liberal voices reliably in the President’s ear. In the same moment scandal has demanded a Fox leadership upheaval, Trump’s Twitter-dialoguing with what he watches has caused even more viewers to tune in. “Ratings are through the roof, like epic,” says Tarlov. Fox News continues to be the most-watched cable network in America, which means Jessica Tarlov is one of America’s most-watched villains.
When I meet her at the Hay-Adams Hotel, Tarlov is wearing the same dark denim dress and the same high Fox hair she was in 25 minutes ago when she was talking about Republican healthcare on air. (“I would never go on a first date coming straight from Fox, because it’s never going to look like this again.”) The camera, though, missed the little touches. Her earrings in the shape of small sunglasses, the candy-covered Swatch she wears, her Adidas hi-tops under the table.
Tarlov, 33, has been popping up on Fox for about two years now, long enough to see the chyron below her name change from “Democratic Strategist” to “Senior Director of Market Research for Bustle,” a news and lifestyle site catering to women. It was her old boss from her consulting days, fellow Fox contributor and Bloomberg pollster Doug Schoen, who emailed buddies at Newsmax and CNBC about booking his “minion” on their shows. Tarlov’s first at-bat was a 2013 segment with Kristen Soltis Anderson. Eventually, Fox called and kept calling.
“Much to the chagrin of the Fox viewer,” she says. “‘You again?’ Yeah. Me again.”
Despite growing up in Tribeca surrounded by show business—father Mark is a film producer, mom Judy Roberts a writer—Tarlov didn’t grow up wanting to be on camera. “My sister is the TV person in the family,” she says of younger sister Molly, an actress from the MTV series Awkward. Tarlov took the academic path instead: undergrad at leafy Bryn Mawr College, followed-up by a public policy degree from the London School of Economics. It was through Schoen, who Tarlov had met through her grandparents years earlier, that she ended up running social media for Boris Johnson‘s re-election campaign for mayor of London.
“He has an appeal to people like nothing you’ve ever seen, very similar to how cultish people got about Trump,” Tarlov says of Johnson, who is now the UK’s foreign secretary. “It was weird. He’d do something really embarrassing and he’d get a poll bump. He could survive an Access Hollywood tape, too.”
Tarlov sees her role, and the role of other longtime liberals at Fox like Juan Williams and Julie Roginsky, as a negotiation. “To make information that the audience and even your co-panelists don’t want to hear palatable and maybe also see the rightness in it is the trick,” she says. “You can’t take yourself so seriously that you’re like a harpy, just like yelling all the time. You can’t do any of that.”
Her formula is simple: smile when the anchor says your name, giggle or laugh when you can, and data, data, data. “I am acutely aware of the fact that I’m a solo rider,” she says. “If I’m not prepared, I will lose in spectacular fashion.” There are also the choices most viewers will never know about, like the decision to forego the “Doctor” in Dr. Jessie Tarlov.
“I thought it was a little Doogie Howser,” says the LSE PhD. “I didn’t want to fit—even though I guess I do—some liberal, elitist, ivory tower persona that’s been created.”
But even under all that conservative camouflage, haters find a way. After a Tucker Carlson Tonight segment on fake news, radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones called her “the 8-foot arrogant Brunhilda.” After a second face-off with Lahren, again on Hannity, conservative web host Mark Dice called her a “liberal lunatic” with fewer Twitter followers than Glad (she’s since overtaken the best-selling trash bags). Her Twitter feed is “a sea of nastiness,” she says, and she’s right. Viewers seem to hate her vocal fry as much as they hate her politics.
“But there are conservatives who have watched me go from you-are-super-scared-to-be-on-TV to as comfortable as I am now who will defend me if they see people going after me,” she notices, online and in real life.
“She’s a level-headed liberal and opposition voice,” Lahren says on the afternoon after their third showdown in as many weeks. When Hannity watched the two women bonding in the green room back in February, says Lahren, “The first thing he said to us was ‘Remember, you guys have to fight in a minute.’”
Viewers are responding to the segments between her and Tarlov, Lahren thinks, because they’re “playful, but not a catfight.” Tarlov is adept at deflecting unanswerable questions with humor (“A lot of handbags,” she responded when Tucker Carlson asked where democratic consultants were stashing money after the election) and smart enough to get in on the jokes people tell at her expense. She calls the video Mark Dice made about her “really mean, but it’s really funny.” To promote an upcoming podcast appearance, Tarlov quipped: “If my voice annoys you, this’ll be rough.”
Trickier to throw off course, though, are her liberal detractors. While Tarlov can be a relentless advocate for what she calls the liberal way of life (and once asked Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson to explain what she meant by “family values” 7 times in 60 seconds), there are those who think that Democrats who go on Fox are sellouts or shills. Tarlov lands an answer that sounds somewhere between a reason and a rationalization.
“They think if you’re there, you must be like Joe Manchin, like a faux kind of Democrat,” which the self-described “Hillary-hawk” is not. “I think it is so much more valuable to be a strong voice for liberalism in that environment than to potentially risk having someone else come on, because that segment is going to get filmed.”
It’s an interesting time to be at Fox. The network’s political ascendancy has been marred by what’s happened within the organization since last summer, when former hosts Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, among many others, publicly accused the channel’s founder, Roger Ailes, of sexual harassment.
Tarlov, who learned about the allegations when everyone else did, says she heard no warning grumblings. And while she “never had any issue” herself, she’s bullish about the new regime. “I know how great Bill Shine and Suzanne Scott are now, who are at the helm of it, and [the owners] the Murdochs, as well, you know they run a ton of successful companies,” she says. “And the sons it’s widely…you know, they’re more liberal than Rupert Murdoch or than the organization maybe was run before.”
So what does it feels like to be a resident liberal on Fox right now, knowing that Donald Trump is watching each night, maybe in his bathrobe? “He doesn’t own a bathrobe,” Tarlov deadpans, “except all the bathrobes he’s been photographed in.”
But then she gets serious: “It feels really special and such a unique opportunity. Because when President Obama was president, he wasn’t ever watching Fox News.”