The Mysteries of Kari Lake

Craig OuthierJuly 7, 2022
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The former FOX 10 anchor and would-be Arizona governor seemed open to a profile in PHOENIX. Then she wasn’t. We did one anyway.

My failed profile of Kari Lake begins in a Brazilian steakhouse in Scottsdale over all-you-can-eat skewers of grilled tenderloin and roasted chicken hearts.

It’s lunch hour on a Wednesday in September 2021, a little more than three months after the former FOX 10 anchor officially announced her candidacy for Arizona governor. Lake is the keynote speaker at a National Association of Women Business Owners luncheon, and I’m seated next to her – a last-minute addition to the table, a local editor trying to butter her up for a story. 

Addressing the 100 or so civic leaders and distaff CEOs assembled in the banquet room, dressed smartly in charcoal slacks and a designer modal blouse, Lake performs impressively behind the dais. Her elocution is crisp and commanding, delivered in that throaty timbre we all remember from her two decades delivering the news alongside fellow FOX anchor John Hook. Under her trademark pixie haircut, her complexion is flawless and her smile sincere. Her body language is animated but relaxed. In short, she seems purpose-built for the campaign trail.

And the substance of her 20-minute speech? Well, compared to the blithe partisan invective she will unleash at rallies and campaign events over the next year, it’s positively Gandhi-esque. Yes, the 52-year-old takes a swipe at COVID-19 mask laws and CDC policy and quaintly name-drops Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine (“They work… we know that now”). And, naturally, she describes her deep disenchantment with the forces that hastened her departure from FOX 10 the previous March. (I don’t write them down, but the words “mainstream media bias” linger in my head afterward.)

But mostly she stays on point for this presumably bipartisan group of Phoenix-area businesswomen. Reaching back into her childhood, she shares some of the origin-story details I would hope to include in a profile: Raised in rural Iowa, she was the youngest of nine children and not a rich kid by any means, living on her father’s teacher salary. “You had to work if you wanted shampoo,” she says, with a trace of ruefulness, just enough to let you know it was a character-building thing, not trauma.

She also describes a childhood filled with “God moments,” an evocative term that pairs nicely with the small gold cross she has recently taken to wearing on a chain around her neck.

She dovetails into recollections about her career. Perceiving a “Y in the road” between media and politics, she chose the latter. Make no mistake: Leaving FOX 10, even in the wake of myriad controversies, was her decision, her calling. And her family’s. She shares an anecdote about broaching the idea of a governor run with her husband of more than two decades, Valley videographer Jeff Halperin, and giving him veto power over it, acknowledging the upheaval it would likely cause them and their two teenage children.

According to Lake, her husband then went on a soulful hike in the foothills behind their Phoenix home to mull the idea before giving her the go-ahead.

She preemptively answers the questions audience members want to ask, like “Do you miss being on TV?”

“I miss the paycheck,” she self-answers, to a smattering of laughs.

At one point in her speech, she surprisingly points me out to the crowd, seated a few feet away, chewing on the last bites of my tenderloin. She doesn’t do it in an aggressive or condescending way. It feels more like a gesture of tolerance: “See? I might not like the media, but I can still hang with them.”

Afterward, she’s friendly and gracious, if a bit leery. She wants to know if I’ve ever run a negative story about former President Donald Trump. “Because I’m a Trump candidate,” she says matter-of-factly.

I dodge that one and repeat my honest desire to profile her fairly and expansively in the magazine. To tell her life story, her triumphs and miseries, the folds of experience people might not guess from seeing her ads or campaign speeches.

And, I don’t explicitly tell her, to find out what exactly happened to her – how and why an elite Valley journalist seemingly planted a pipe bomb under her own career by moonlighting as a social media provocateur. How and why she transformed from an “Obama-supporting Buddhist,” in the words of one former colleague, with friends in the arts and LGBTQ+ communities, into a far-right firebrand who regularly derides such groups at her rallies. Is it performance, a calculation? Or an authentic metamorphosis? Does she even really want the job? Ultimately, I’ll uncover a thick vein of former coworkers and friends who wonder the exact same things.

I tell her I’m glad we finally met. “I’ve been courting your publicists nonstop for the last couple of weeks.”

She seems amused by the phrasing. “OK. Well, now you can court me.”

Kari Lake as a sophomore at North Scott High School in Eldridge, Iowa, circa 1985; photo courtesy North Scott High School in Eldridge, IA
Kari Lake as a sophomore at North Scott High School in Eldridge, Iowa, circa 1985; photo courtesy North Scott High School in Eldridge, IA

The courtship seems to be going well.

A few weeks after our meet-cute at the churrascaria, Lake’s staff invites me to her “Back the Blue” rally in Cave Creek, held at an Old West-style event space called Frontier Town. Billed as a pro-law-enforcement riposte to the politically toxic “defund the police” movement, the rally draws around 800 supporters, from my eyeball estimate. That’s a ridiculously large crowd for a campaign event still 13 months removed from an election, one of her campaign advisors tells me.

Given the gunslinger mise en scène and undercard of conservative guest speakers – including political commentator Brandon Tatum, a former University of Arizona football player known for co-founding the “Blexit” movement to coax African Americans away from the Democratic party – it figures Lake’s speech tonight will be more pointedly political than the one at the business luncheon. And it is.

She shares a lot less about her childhood and broader life motivations and a lot more about her disgust with the “sham election” that brought President Joe Biden to power, and with Democrats in general. “They have a demonic agenda,” she says flatly about the competition, a statement I imagine is making any Democrats in attendance twitch a bit. I mean, Build Back Better might not be smart economics, but demonic? Isn’t that kind of talk dangerous – or at the very least, needlessly divisive – in this day and age?

I make a mental note to ask her about the comment. Does she envision herself as a governor for all Arizonans, even those to her political left? Is she worried that such hot rhetoric will alienate moderates, who seem to be winning most of the statewide offices these days?

On this evening, in early October, mitigation is clearly not on her mind. She’s brash and maybe a little bit cocky on stage. And she has a right to be. The latest OH Predictive Insights poll has her beating her nearest GOP primary rival, former U.S. Congressman Matt Salmon, by 16 points. Well-funded Arizona regent Karrin Taylor Robson – who will mount a spirited charge in the coming months – now barely registers as a blip. And just a few days prior to the rally, Lake skinned her biggest pelt of all – the much-coveted endorsement from Trump himself.

So, forgive her if she acts like she has this thing locked up. That seems to be the implication when she starts going after the presumptive Democratic candidate, Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, ignoring the more immediate threat of her Republican primary rivals.

“We cannot let her win this race,” Lake tells her supporters, referring to Hobbs. “Frankly, I think she should be locked up.” That’s all the prompting the crowd needs. “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” they chant back.

“Did I say it, or did you say it?” she responds playfully. “All right – we both said it. And I agree. I mean, she was in charge of this debacle of an election, and she wants to run the state. I don’t think so.”

It’s a remarkable exchange, and I want to immediately Tweet about it, Facebook it, anything – but still my fingertips, lest I spook her off the profile. Ultimately, Lake’s comments about electively jailing a political rival with not even the barest legal justification will be reported widely by local media, but later, I conclude that she was just riding the high of Trump’s endorsement and wanted to reward the crowd with a familiar song – in this case, his famous anti-Hillary chant. It’s the MAGA version of playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” for all the Eagles fans out there.

In the days following the Cave Creek rally, everything is looking good for a Kari Lake profile in PHOENIX. She thanks me for attending the rally and starts laying the groundwork for our interview. In an email dated September 16, she writes: “Let me think of locations for a potential interview. Maybe at the Biltmore Hotel, or perhaps at my place in Pine, AZ? It’s a bit of a drive 1:45 from [the] valley, but that is where I am happiest and I may at some point make that my main residence.”

I write back that I love the idea and begin envisioning our interview, seated on a shaded porch under a stand of ponderosa. Me: asking frank and insightful questions about her worldview and political transformation. Her: engaged by my questions, perhaps knocked a little off-center by them, sharing more about herself than she planned to.

“Let me know when you’re free,” I write, after confirming the shape, size and ground rules – no interviews with her children, for instance – of the profile.

And then, crickets. I follow up with an, “I know you’ve been busy, but…” email on October 21. More crickets. And the holidays happen, and then I send her another email after Christmas. “Crossing over into the New Year, readers are going to start thinking about the 2022 election, and their interest in you – as a candidate, longtime journalist and potential leader of the state – will be piqued,” I write, not realizing yet just how lame and mewling that sounds.

Finally, on January 17, I get an email back. “I’m afraid we just don’t trust that this would be a fair article,” she writes. “Not to say I don’t trust you [but] my gut is telling me [to] just sit this one out.”

It’s disappointing, but not exactly a gut punch – when someone doesn’t call you back for three months, you’ve got to be in serious denial not to take a clue. But something else in her note proves telling: “We had talked about working on a cover story, but it sounded like that could not be guaranteed. (let me know if that has changed)”

We had never talked that seriously about working on a cover story, but she and her representatives had asked about it on no fewer than six occasions, both with me and a previous writer who had approached her for an interview. But political covers are something we tend not to do at the magazine. Or, at least, haven’t done recently. “Typically, we run theme-based covers (hiking, eating, doctors, etc.),” I explain to her in an email. “If the stars align we might do a ‘journalism cover,’ as we call it internally (for instance, when McCain passed). Still, I can’t in good conscience promise it.”

But “promise” is evidently the magic word here. The only way to unlock the Kari Lake interview level. I get it. She’s becoming a national star. Interview requests – including one with 60 Minutes Australia, which she will famously walk out of during a February taping – are piling up. A cover story is the only thing that would make the investment in time – say, a drive up to Pine, and photo shoot – worthwhile, where our modest city magazine is concerned.

In response, I send her a bullet-point list of reasons she should do the interview, even in the absence of a cover guarantee. I even try on the role of campaign advisor, hinting at the benefit of a softer image: “I want [the article] to be humanizing, which could be potentially beneficial to you as you emerge from the primary into the general.”

None of it works. But what to do with the material I already have? The speeches, the research, the emails – it’s all sunk cost. And the mystery of her Trumpian transformation is still there. So, I plunge ahead.

Kari Lake at Word of Life Mesa church in May 2022; photo by David Blakeman
Kari Lake at Word of Life Mesa church in May 2022; photo by David Blakeman
Kari Lake with drag queen Barbra Seville, circa 2015; photo courtesy Barbra Seville
Kari Lake with drag queen Barbra Seville, circa 2015; photo courtesy Barbra Seville

Over the next four months, from February to June, I have conversations with five of Lake’s former co-workers at FOX 10 – both to build a timeline of her rise and fall at the station, and to glean insight into her remarkable evolution, or “mutation,” as one former colleague archly dubs it, from journalist to candidate.

Most of them agree to talk to me only on the condition of anonymity, and some ask not to be directly quoted.

Something else happens during this four-month time span: Robson, a land-use attorney married to one of the wealthiest people in Arizona, developer Ed Robson, climbs to within a few percentage points of Lake among likely voters. With her vast advantage in campaign cash (roughly $6.4 million to Lake’s $2.5 million, according to Ballotpedia), Robson is able to pump oxygen into the narratives that most threaten Lake’s campaign – namely, that she supported Obama, secretly backs amnesty for illegal aliens and is wishy-washy on gun rights. It’s an existential threat for Lake that she wasn’t likely expecting back in October.

Lake, for the record, has disavowed amnesty and has made “God, Guns and Glory” her unofficial campaign slogan, but her support for Obama in the late 2000s is a matter of public campaign finance record – and survives vividly in the memories of some of her ex-colleagues. They remember someone who not only spoke openly and admiringly of the Democrat (“to distraction,” one remembers), but would stridently endorse his policies off-camera, and even canvassed for him.

Which isn’t to say Lake was a divisive figure at FOX 10 at the time. Quite the opposite. Though described as “odd and complicated,” she was also a gregarious and open-minded woman who was well-liked at the station for many years, and the prevailing current attitude among those I interviewed is one of perplexity and sadness – not only for the way her career ended at the station, but for the way the job itself might have manipulated her psyche. It’s not an act, they say. The “Before Kari,” as one co-worker described her, is gone, and the New Kari is the real deal.

Though her first truly controversial social media moment happened in April 2018, when she dismissed the #RedForEd fair-pay teachers’ movement as “nothing more than a push to legalize pot” on her official FOX 10 Twitter account, the ball started rolling much earlier, according to insiders. FOX 10, like every other media company in the Valley, was pushing its talent for ever-increasing digital traffic in the mid-2010s. More likes, more follows, more clicks, leading to what one former colleague called a “Hunger Games situation,” with lots of competitive pressure between on-air personalities and reporters.

And Lake was good at it, according to insiders, racking up one of the station’s highest Twitter follower counts despite working on the night side of the news operation, which was seen as less conducive to big Twitter followings than the morning broadcasts. “When she found something that garnered attention, she gravitated toward that,” one colleague says.

She also had a reckless, independent streak on social that rankled – and, perhaps, terrified – FOX 10 management, even before #RedForEd. Her colleagues recall a pronounced reluctance on the part of station managers to confront her over the “controversial random things” she’d Tweet. One recalls hearing whispers of an earlier lawsuit – over pay, possibly, or discrimination – that Lake pursued against the station: “Maybe that’s the reason… they were afraid of getting sued again. The ace in her pocket.”

None of the ex-colleagues I speak to can pinpoint precisely when her social media posts started taking on a divisive political tenor. A lifelong Republican before donating a small amount to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, she switched back to the GOP in 2012 during the Democratic primary, her infatuation with Obama having evidently run its course, but there were at least a few years of relative calm before social media activity started stirring things up. Two of the ex-colleagues I interview independently used the term “went down the rabbit hole” to describe her Trumpian awakening. “The more she drank the Kool-Aid, the more she became intoxicated with it,” says one, discussing the reward-feedback loop of social media. But one of them also notes that some in the FOX newsroom approved of the New Kari. “Some say rabbit hole, some say ‘saw the light.’”

Diana Pike was regional human resources director for FOX during Lake’s final years with the station, and did agree to go on the record with PHOENIX. A now-retired Gold Star Mother whose U.S. serviceman son died in 2013 from injuries he sustained in Afghanistan, Pike is well-known in FOX circles as someone who doesn’t particularly care for Lake, and perhaps for good reason – she’s the person who had to manage blowback from the public when her anchor went off the rails.

That would certainly describe the #RedForEd incident, which had such bad optics that the FOX mothership in New York City took note. (Unlike independently owned network affiliates, FOX 10 KSAZ-TV is owned by the network.)

“2018 was kind of her demise, the end of her relationship with the station,” Pike says. “Her thing became, ‘It’s freedom of speech, I have the right to say what I want to say.’”

The next three years essentially became a litigious, soul-dragging scrum between Lake and the station. In July 2019, speaking with her co-anchor Hook, Lake unwittingly dropped an f-bomb on camera while defending her right to appear on the right-wing social media platform Parler, which critics accused of catering to anti-Semites, QAnon conspiracy theorists and other far-right figures. She also Tweeted a debunked COVID-19 conspiracy video in 2020 and, after the election of Biden, began clashing with producers over phrases like “president-elect,” believing his election to be illegitimate, according to sources.

After the #RedForEd incident in 2018, Lake took an unexpected month-long leave, according to Pike. “That’s when she really lost a lot of the newsroom. People had to cover for her. Vacations were canceled, schedules were changed. She thought she’d walk back triumphant into an applauding newsroom. No, people were mad.”

This incident illustrates Lake’s shortcomings as a potential state executive, Pike says. “To have such poor emotional intelligence, [to be] so clueless to a working environment and you want to be governor? What are you going to do when a real crisis hits?”

The other FOX 10 sources who speak to me are also skeptical about her temperament for governor but, in some cases, more sympathetic to her personally. One discussed the “intense scrutiny of appearance” endured by TV news talent – especially female personalities – in the social media era. “The things they read and hear every day… what they look like, their breast size, getting older. People are always coming after you. And you get entrenched mentally.”

A few of the sources lamented the loss of Lake’s friendship – and were sad to see her lose other friendships. This proves to be a recurring theme with Lake late in the primary. In May, The Arizona Republic runs an interview with James “Jimmy” McCain, the son of late U.S. Senator John McCain, whom Lake has posthumously lambasted on the campaign trail. “John McCain may be dead, but he’s reaching up from the grave trying to keep power on Arizona,” she said in a podcast interview in early May. “And it was never about power to help the people of Arizona.”

Though straightforward MAGA talk, there is dissonance in those words coming from Lake. After his passing in 2018, Lake issued an admiring Tweet calling McCain a “war hero, icon and force to be reckoned with.” According to the Republic article, as late as 2019, she visited Jimmy McCain and his wife, Holly, to deliver baby clothes.

“I’m not trying to hurt anyone,” the younger McCain told the Republic, explaining his decision to speak out after Lake’s critical comments about his father. “I’m just trying to say I don’t understand where this person came from, because back then, we were thick as thieves.”

Two of Lake’s ex-colleagues specifically mention her relationships with the LGBTQ+ community. “She had good relationships with people [at the station], especially with LGBT,” one says. “Now they’re horrified by the stuff coming out of her mouth.”

Following a haiku-like Tweet by Lake in June deriding drag queens (“They took down our Flag and replaced it with a rainbow”), a prominent Valley drag artist named Rick Stevens, who has performed for more than a quarter of a century under the name Barbra Seville, came forward in the Republic to reveal an alleged two-decade friendship with the candidate, backed up with photos and text messages, claiming that he once performed – a PG-rated show, he maintains – at a house party with Lake’s teenage daughter in attendance. (A critical detail, given recent legislation in several states to make it illegal for minors to attend drag performances.)

Back in September 2021, early in the interview process with Lake, I was eager to interview a Valley artist we once profiled in PHOENIX, who was friends with Lake and sold her some of his brash, surrealist canvases. It would show a different side to the candidate, I remember thinking, and maybe shine some light on her sensibilities. Through a mutual friend, however, I later learned that the artist posted a friendly Tweet about his friendship and working relationship with Lake and received a torrent of anti-Lake backlash so severe that he removed the post.

I don’t even bother calling him. If he can’t be associated with her on Twitter, why would he want the friendship frozen for posterity in a magazine?

Meanwhile, a few months away from the primary, many moderate Republicans seem to be embracing the same notion that occurred to me back in October at the Cave Creek rally – that Lake might be a friend to Democrats and leftists, after all. Her fiery MAGA rhetoric, while music to the ears of the choir, may alienate too many in Arizona’s greater, politically independent congregation to make her viable as a general election candidate in November.

“Kari Lake is struggling with resources and her narrative is very narrow,” Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin, who closely advised Governor Jan Brewer and is closely linked to the old guard of Republican power in Arizona, told the Republic in June. “It only appeals to a very, very hardcore traditional primary voter that is caught up in Trumpland. There’s a whole bunch of Republican and unaffiliated voters out there that you can appeal to.”

In short, instead of arresting Hobbs, Lake – who still leads Robson by anywhere from 4 to 12 percentage points, depending on what poll you’re looking at – might ultimately propel her to the governor’s office.

Before Trump was elected president, there was an unproven but persistent theory that he really didn’t want the job, that he enjoyed the attention and competition but had a more appealing plan B – to leverage his massive political celebrity and start a TV network built around his personality.

Does Lake have a similar escape hatch? Given her national notoriety, it seems likely she could score a hosting gig on a conservative TV network should her gubernatorial ambitions fail. She’s still great in front of the camera, and now she has a national fan base. Pike, the former HR director, says it couldn’t happen at FOX. “Once you cross a line over there, you’re done. They have very long institutional memory. But I think that’s a possibility at one of the other ones. Newsmax, maybe.”

I wonder how Lake would respond to this theory. It’s a solid journalistic take, but is there enough of the Before Kari left in there to consider the question without going on the offensive, per the MAGA playbook?

Around the same time, in attempting to build a case study of Lake as a person and candidate, I find an old yearbook from her high school days in Eldridge, Iowa, where she was a plucky, motivated baby-of-the-family who managed to graduate from North Scott Senior High a year early, at 16 – presumably because she was accustomed to buying her own shampoo, anyway, so why not get this adult thing started? She was a member of both the yearbook staff and a politics club, which seems on the nose, given her adult CV.

So, I reach out to her one last time, via email, leading with the nugget about her high school career and childhood, hoping it disarms her for a more serious discussion of her campaign, or a real sit-down interview. “How do you think [being the youngest kid in a large family] might have shaped you, as someone who pursued a career in front of the camera? I’ve read that young kids in big families sometimes have to fight for recognition and attention.”

To her credit, she answers quickly, and bats aside the soft-toss psychoanalysis: “We had to fight for food, not recognition.”

She continues: “[The] biggest thing being from a large family taught me was work ethic. Because my father was a public school teacher who taught history and U.S. government, we weren’t rich and didn’t have a lot of material possessions, but we learned to treat people with respect and work hard. It’s pretty obvious when you see me on the campaign trail how hard I work. No other candidate can [out] work me. I will take that same work ethic into the governor’s office and we will accomplish many good things for the people of Arizona.”

I also ask her about her mysterious evolution, or mutation, if you prefer, from an Obama-supporting, drag-queen-befriending journalist into a MAGA firebrand – while conceding the point that people do change: “As we all know, Trump was a Democrat at one point, too.”

Lake’s response confirms what a few of her ex-colleagues speculated to me privately: that she likes a revolution. Likes being swept away by things. And Trump was the nearest revolution handy as she dived into social media.

“I voted for the first black president of the United States because I thought he might end the endless war in Iraq and bring this country some unity,” she writes back. “Unfortunately, he did neither. Thankfully so many people are waking up to the lies of the Democratic party and [their] dead-end policies and joining the America-first Republican Party. I welcome each and every one of them and I ask for their vote.”

So, there it is. Meet the New Kari, definitely not the Before Kari.