NEW YORK — On the Friday before the presidential inauguration, Michael Strahan paid impromptu homage to Michelle Obama’s new bangs during “Live With Kelly and Michael," the morning show he co-hosts with Kelly Ripa. Seated next to Ripa at the desk they share five mornings a week, Strahan entertained the crowd in the show’s studio by donning a wig, batting his lashes and staring longingly into the camera — a ridiculous gesture for any man, let alone one who stands 6 feet 5 inches, weighs 240 pounds and helped the New York Giants win the Super Bowl in 2008 with his talent for driving quarterbacks into the turf.
Not that he has forgone his past life completely. Two days later, Strahan was on millions of television screens once again, this time in a dapper suit and wide plaid tie, offering as a co-host of “Fox NFL Sunday" a nuanced breakdown of the flaws in the Atlanta Falcons’ defense before the team took on the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs.
“Man, I haven’t really had any free time in, basically, forever," Strahan said on a blustery afternoon not long ago. He was exiting the minimalist lobby of his Upper West Side apartment building, hoping to squeeze a quick shopping excursion into a schedule no more forgiving than when he played football. He purchased the apartment, which is a few blocks from the “Live" studio at ABC’s headquarters, last September, after beating out dozens of entertainment veterans (Seth Meyers and Bryant Gumbel among them) to replace Regis Philbin, the show’s host for nearly a quarter of a century.
For Strahan, the job is the apex of what has been one of the more curious and unexpected professional journeys in recent memory. The combination of his two shows, each No. 1 in its time slot, means he is beamed into a larger, more demographically diverse subset of America than even Ryan Seacrest. And when either show is off the air? There’s Strahan in Subway’s national ads; there he is in the celebrity-spattered campaign for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital; and there he is lending his support to same-sex marriage. This fall, he was christened by People magazine one of the Sexiest Men Alive — conclusive evidence that Strahan has established himself as the rare media personality as recognizable to housewives as he is to their adolescent sons.
“He had a following before," said Michael Gelman, the longtime producer of “Live." But with this show, “you have 3 to 4 million people watching you five days a week. When you think about it, who else is seen by so many people for so long?"
Wearing a puffy black down jacket and crisp blue jeans, Strahan, 41, ducked into the back seat of a GMC Denali idling out front of his building; his driver, Greg, was at the wheel.
“Thing is, I don’t really like free time," Strahan said as the vehicle made its way into rush-hour traffic. “People are always warning me that I’m going to burn out" — a justifiable concern given that “Fox NFL Sunday" is done in Los Angeles, giving Strahan a single jet-lagged day off each week and meaning his Monday appearances on “Live" are often done “in a delirium" straight off a red-eye.
“But the truth is," he added, “the only thing that tires me out is hearing people tell me that. Opposite shows, opposite coasts, opposite demographics, opposite everything — I love it, man!"
Here Strahan flashed his disarming smile: the ear-to-ear half moon punctuated by a cavernous gap between his front teeth — a physical manifestation of the cuddly, confidently clownish personality that won over the core audience of “Live."
“He was certainly an out-of-the-box choice," Gelman said. “Frankly, I wasn’t that aware of him. But whatever we threw at him, he was game, which is rarer than you’d think."
Ripa agreed with the assessment, pointing to a particular instance during Strahan’s auditioning phase that convinced her and others he was right for the job.
“Channing Tatum was on the show promoting ‘Magic Mike,’" she recalled, referring to the hit film about male strippers. “And Michael says something like, ‘You’re not the only Magic Mike on this stage,’ and ripped off these tearaway pants and started dancing. It takes a special person to come up with that and pull it off."
Even athletes fortunate enough to find work in television upon retirement typically have to accept radically diminished prospects.
“All the sacrifice, all the pain, it can be like you were renting a life and the rental is up; I didn’t want that, no way," said Strahan, who is undoubtedly earning more than the $5 million he made during his 15th and final season with the Giants, in 2007-8.
Terry Bradshaw, the Hall of Fame quarterback and one of Strahan’s co-hosts on “Fox NFL Sunday," joked last fall that Strahan was now pulling in $16 million, a not unreasonable estimate given Ripa’s reported $20 million salary. (Strahan declined to divulge his salary. “I’m doing fine," he said, “but that’s just Terry being a knucklehead. I wouldn’t tell him what I was making because he might ask me for a loan.")