To say that Kathie Lee Gifford has been mocked during her decades on morning television is an understatement. Kristen Wiig impersonated her on “Saturday Night Live” by sticking a straw in a box of wine. Joel McHale mercilessly skewered her on “The Soup.” Jay Leno said during a 1999 late-night monologue that the least popular baby names the previous year were “Hitler and Kathie Lee.” (Leno later admitted the joke crossed a line and personally called Gifford to apologize.)
However, the thing that made Gifford the perfect target for comedians is also what has made her a must-watch TV personality since 1985 and will define her legacy: She has always been, for better or worse, completely and unabashedly herself. For 15 years on ABC’s “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” and 11 years on the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show with Hoda Kotb, the always-bubbly Gifford told viewers everything about her life, often sharing too many details. To some, she was a delight. To others, she was incredibly irritating. But she was always honest.
Friday marked Gifford’s final day on “Today.” She announced her departure last December, and explained to People magazine that the only thing keeping her in New York was her job, especially after her husband and mother died and her two children moved away.
“I’ve become a widow, an orphan and an empty-nester all at once,” she said. In this new phase of life, Gifford, 65, wants to pursue new projects; she also plans to move to Nashville, where she has many close friends.
Her last episode was a busy hour of clip packages, trivia games and surprise celebrity guests from Flo Rida to Barry Manilow. The entire crew appeared on stage, including Jenna Bush Hager, who will take Gifford’s place starting next week. Gifford also revealed that she recently received flowers and a kind note from Howard Stern, which was shocking because he was one of her harshest critics. “That man hated my guts for 30 years,” she said.
Gifford’s polarizing personality has earned her a lot of attention, which partially explains her success in the entertainment industry — even if people are saying negative things, at least they’re talking about you. (A “Today” show publicist said Gifford and NBC executives were unavailable for comment.)
“A lot of people liked her, some didn’t, but she was relatable,” said Marc Berman, editor in chief of TV website Programming Insider. “Everyone had a comment about her. Everyone had an opinion about her. Whether you loved her or hated her, she just resonated.”
In 1985, Gifford — a singer, actress and “Good Morning America” correspondent — caught the attention of producers of “The Morning Show,” which aired on New York’s ABC station. Impressed by Gifford’s “interviewing skills and dynamic on-air presence,” they wrote in a news release, producers hired her as Regis Philbin’s co-host. Their chemistry was palpable and viewers were especially riveted by the first segment of the show, in which the two would banter about their days. Newsday described it as a “secular confessional in which the details of their two lives, no matter how mundane, are transmogrified into showbiz.”
“An hour with Regis and Kathie Lee is as lively as a tap dancers’ convention,” the paper wrote in 1988, the same year that the show went into nationwide syndication and was rebranded as “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee.” Newsday called the show an “upbeat gabfest” and deemed Gifford as “the Living Embodiment of Perk.”
“It comes from the fact that Kathie Lee and I both have backgrounds in live performing. We like being informal. We like being spontaneous,” Philbin told the paper. Gifford added, “Our show is fun because Regis and I have fun together.”
The newly transformed “Live With Regis and Kathie Lee” soon became a gold mine with a loyal fan base, although Gifford caught lots of flak early on, especially for how often she glowingly told stories about her children, Cody and Cassidy. (Not to mention former Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales’ famously vicious reviews of her annual Christmas specials.) Still, “Live” was hugely popular, averaging between 4 million and 6 million viewers daily, according to news reports.
Gifford had her first major backlash in 1996, when a human rights organization reported that Gifford’s clothing line at Walmart was made by children in sweatshops in Honduras and New York. Gifford, who denied knowing about the conditions, appeared in front of Congress to ask, “What can we do to protect labor rights in factories around the world and right here in America?”
A year later, Gifford became the center of a gossip frenzy when it was revealed her husband, Frank, a former NFL star and “Monday Night Football” commentator, had a fling with a flight attendant — whom the Globe tabloid paid to initiate the encounter. While media critics criticized the Globe’s ethics, Gifford was caught in the crossfire. She spoke openly about how difficult it was to move past the scandal and fight for their marriage.
“I think it only added to her success because she didn’t hide from it,” Berman said. “She dealt with it. If you’re going to be a talk-show host, the real ingredient is honesty and to be real with your audience, and that’s exactly what she did.”
In March 2000, Gifford announced that she was stepping down from “Live,” partly because of the increased scrutiny of her family. It became more difficult for her to tell personal stories and talk about her life, because people had started to “sensationalize” anything she would say. “The very thing that’s made the show successful ... has caused a real concern in my life,” she said, according to the New York Daily News.
Even though Philbin told her she was “walking away from what is probably the most coveted job in broadcasting history,” Gifford left that summer. For the next eight years, she pursued other showbiz opportunities, including starring in plays and recording several albums. But she was lured back to morning TV in 2008, when it was announced that she would be the new co-host of the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show alongside “Dateline” correspondent Hoda Kotb.
“It should not have worked. It was a weird pairing and everybody knows it,” Kotb said in an NBC video. “You’ve got an Egyptian journalist and a postmenopausal has-been. That’s what she used to say about the two of us ... who would ever put that together?”
Yet the two of them became best friends and a magnetic TV duo. Fueled by big glasses of wine that became a staple of their show (“Boozeday Tuesday”; “Winesday Wednesday”), they transformed the hour into a goofy yet heartfelt blend of celebrity interviews, feel-good segments and lots of strange jokes. Again, some viewers couldn’t handle it; when Kotb asked McHale why he mocked the show so often, he replied, “Have you seen your show?” But they also maintained a legion of devoted fans, including those who had watched Gifford through the years.
On Friday, Gifford held back tears until the end, when producers played a tribute video from her children, who gushed about their mom as “one of the kindest people on the planet” and recalled what their dad used to say while watching her on TV: “There’s no one like else her ... who knows if there ever will be.”
Gifford, always outspoken about her Christian faith, signed off with a bible verse. “Jeremiah 29 says, ‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.’
“That’s not just true for me,” Gifford said. “That’s true for everybody watching. Trust Him, let Him love you like He wants to love you, like I am loved by all of you. Thank you.”