Kathie Lee Gifford is just getting started.
Sure, fans have been welcoming the former “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” and “Today” co-host into their living rooms for decades. And yes, there are the Daytime Emmy nominations, her short-lived Broadway musical “Scandalous,” hit songs, books, her wine brand and various films and TV roles. Yet Gifford — a born entertainer and perennial dreamer — truly believes the best is yet to come as she continues her 67th turn around the sun and cements her place in Hollywood history with a star on the Walk of Fame.
“I am finally doing what I was born to do,” Gifford says. “There’s a happiness in me now, just when so many other people are retiring and doing whatever they’ve always longed to do. I never stopped doing what I was born to do, but now I have the freedom to totally and completely pursue it.”
The personality is referring to the limiting schedules brought on by a revolutionary, 15-year gig with the late Regis Philbin on “Live” and her more recent, 11-year daytime marathon alongside Hoda Kotb on the fourth hour of “Today.” Gifford walked away from both shows at the height of success, surprising fans and leaving some questioning her sanity or gratefulness in an industry that’s fickle at best.
“A lot of people asked, ‘Why are you leaving your dream job?’” she recalls. “They were great jobs and I was able to help so many people through the years because of those jobs. But it was never my dream job when I was growing up. There were no talk-show hosts — it didn’t exist. My dream was to become an actress and a singer and a writer.”
Since leaving “Today” two years ago, Gifford has pursued it all. She left her home in Connecticut and now resides in Nashville, where she continues to pursue a prolific music career. Last year she released the movie “Then Came You,” which she wrote for herself and Craig Ferguson after hosting a series of “Today” episodes with the comedian. And she continues to work on a series of “Godwink” movies for Hallmark, producing oratorios and writing her 21st book, a compilation of 25 interviews she did with people of varying faiths on their impressions of Jesus.
“I feel like Waldo from those ‘Where’s Waldo’ books. Waldo’s everywhere and you say, ‘What the hell is he doing there?’ That’s me. My whole career,” Gifford says. “What am I doing here? So many people can do so many more things than they believe they can. But they’re paralyzed with fear of failure, I suppose.”
“Kathie is somebody who’s always bubbling with ideas,” says Kotb, who credits Gifford with helping her discover how to be herself on-air. “She is always thinking about the next project. She put on a Broadway show, she puts out albums, she does a television show, she did a movie. She says something is going to happen and she wills it into existence.”
Things didn’t always come so easily, though. After Gifford graduated from Oral Roberts University in 1975, she moved to Los Angeles, found a cheap rental and gave herself a year. She took odd gigs, including serving at a Mexican restaurant on Ventura Boulevard and singing on faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman’s program “I Believe in Miracles,” and she recalls crying herself to sleep many nights. During that time she also did commercials, a “miserable” month-long show with the Windsong Trio at the Landmark Hotel in Vegas and worked as an extra on “Days of Our Lives.”
It wasn’t until about nine months into her journey that she auditioned for a part on a kids’ television show, where a writer named Gary Bloom decided she would be perfect for NBC Studios’ “Name That Tune.” Never one to disappoint, Gifford learned 200 songs in five days and shot an entire year’s worth of life-changing shows in a few short weeks. Looking back, Gifford never dreamed she’d have the kind of successful career that she has had, but she also questions whether she’d make it had she come up in today’s social-media driven culture. Despite her willingness to open up about her personal life on-air and tackle issues with honesty and candor, she’s always said no to reality television in order to preserve control. She says she’s well aware of the disconnect between what is often presented and what is, in fact, reality.
She learned that firsthand when she turned down a producer who wanted to film her life, and suggested Kris Jenner instead. (Gifford is Kylie and Kendall Jenner’s godmother.) That producer mentioned the idea to Ryan Seacrest, and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” was born. “But mom,” Gifford remembers her then-1 4-year- old daughter, Cassidy, saying after watching the 2007 premiere episode. “They’re not like that.”
In the 1990s, Gifford also had a taste of cancel culture when allegations arose that her Walmart clothing line was being produced by children in Honduras. At the time viewers wrote into “Live” and demanded she be fired, despite all her clothing line profits going to fund children’s charities.
“It made no sense at all, but it didn’t need to, because they wanted to sell newspapers,” Gifford says. “I’m not perfect, but I was doing good in the world: taking care of AIDS babies, taking care of crack babies during the pandemic in New York. Somebody had to, and frankly, I felt like the Lord was calling me to it.”
A month later the man who made the allegations publicly apologized to Gifford. “Not one [outlet] carried the apology,” she adds.
The fact that some continued to hope for her failure wasn’t lost on Gifford. In 1997 a tabloid paid a flight attendant to seduce her husband, former football star and sports commentator Frank Gifford, and lure him into a hotel room with a hidden camera. Gifford eventually forgave the father of her children and they remained married until his death in 2015.
At some point, Gifford also drew the ire of Howard Stern, who encouraged his fans to boo Gifford when she sang the national anthem at the 1995 Super Bowl. Gifford officially forgave Stern years later when he was at the “Today” studios to promote the launch of “America’s Got Talent.” Gifford went right up to him mid-hair and makeup — despite a building-wide mandate to keep the personalities apart — and wished him luck. Stern later apologized and when Gifford exited “Today” he and his wife, Beth, sent an enormous bouquet of flowers.
“I would be dead without forgiveness,” Gifford says. “Or I would be in Betty Ford clinic or in prison for murdering my husband. I would not be here. You know, pickin’ and grinnin’ in Tennessee, the happiest I’ve ever been in my entire life, if I hadn’t learned to forgive very, very early on.”
Given that sentiment, fans can hopefully forgive the Hollywood Walk of Fame for only now honoring Gifford with a star — something presented to Philbin in 2003 and to Gifford’s “Live” replacement, Kelly Ripa, in 2015. Given Philbin and Gifford’s lifelong friendship, which extended right up until his death last summer, he would have been a natural person to speak at the induction. Still, Gifford will be well represented in the virtual ceremony, as Ferguson, Kotb and Dolly Parton plan to speak on her behalf.
“I’m beyond thrilled that she’s getting a star,” Kotb says. “She’s deserved it for a long, long time.”
“I never dreamed I would have the kind of success I’ve enjoyed. I was never the prettiest woman or girl in any casting call. Ever. And I never will be, especially now,” Gifford says. “I was never the best actress, and yet I never stopped working. I was certainly never the best singer. But I was a really good singer and I worked really hard at it. I still do. I just want to encourage people to be the best they can be. It’s never too late to try.”
Kathie Lee Gifford’s Greatest Hits:
“Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” (1985-2000)
Gifford replaced Ann Abernathy as “The Morning Show” co-host in 1985; three years later the show went national and viewers across the country tuned in five days a week to hear her and Regis Philbin’s signature unscripted banter. “Nobody was more fun to sit there with and just whack that ping pong ball back and forth, back and forth,” Gifford recalls. “I always tried to make him laugh within 10 seconds. That was my goal every morning. And most days I was able to, and then we were off to the races.”
“Late Show With David Letterman” (2000)
As David Letterman recovered from quintuple bypass heart surgery in February 2000, a rotating panel of guest hosts helped keep his late-night show running. Gifford had just wrapped a two-week substitute gig for Carol Burnett in the Broadway run of “Putting It Together” when she was offered one of the spots. By accepting she became the first woman to ever host the series. “I took a song out of mothballs, the first song I’d ever really written, called ‘You Sell’ that I’d done at Rainbow & Stars,” Gifford recalls. “It was a big hit because it talked about the press and how I deal with them. And it just worked beautifully.”
“Today With Kathie Lee and Hoda” (2008-2019)
Gifford wasn’t looking to get back into the daytime game when she agreed to do a show with Hoda Kotb. In fact, she was only going to stay a year, but then she fell in love with her co-star and wound up doing the show for the next decade. It’s an experience for which Kotb is eternally grateful. “She taught me to sometimes get rid of the rules of what people expect,” Kotb says. “Get rid of what people think, and just do you. And I’m forever indebted. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be where I am today without being next to her. She changed the trajectory of my life, without question.”
“Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson” (2012)
Gifford has had a recurring stage presence throughout her entire career, but in 2007 she premiered a stage musical about evangelist Aimee McPherson in Virginia. Years (and tears) later the personality brought the show to Broadway, with Carolee Carmello in the leading role. Although the show shut down less than a month later, Carmello received a Tony nomination for her performance. “It took me 13 years to write the Broadway musical that finally came to Broadway and closed within three weeks,” says Gifford. “It was the most brutal thing I ever went through professionally. Was I crushed? Yes. My show wasn’t a success. And yet, was it? I’ll never know. I get a lot of letters from people still to this day who say that show changed their life. If I define success the way the world does, it’s a rabbit hole.”
Cassidy’s Place and The Cody House (ongoing)
Gifford will always recall a day in the 1990s when she held her very first AIDS baby. In one hand she held the child, weighing in at less than 2 pounds, and in the other was her own healthy, 11-pound newborn son, Cody. “The injustice of that one moment forever changed me,” she wrote in her 2020 book, “It’s Never Too Late.” Gifford went on to establish the Cody House, where volunteers rocked and held AIDS babies until they eventually died, along with Cassidy’s Place (named after her daughter), a facility dedicated to housing babies who lived longer with the disease. Gifford also successfully fought to unblind HIV testing so that at-risk women could be treated ahead of giving birth, decreasing the chance of their children being born infected with HIV or AIDS. To this day both buildings are still in existence.