Family & Companions
Kathie Lee Gifford was a singer and nightclub entertainer who rose to prominence in the late 1980s as the co-host of "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee." Her upbeat personality and frequent references to her husband, NFL star-turned-broadcaster Frank Gifford, and their two children, Cassidy and Cody, earned her the admiration of countless daytime television viewers. She maintained a sunny presence on television series and live performances before returning to regular hosting duties on "The Today Show" (NBC, 1952- ) in 2008, where she reinvented her once-conservative persona as a boozy, fun-loving older woman in the company of her cohost, Hoda Kotb. Gifford announced her retirement from "Today" in late 2018, announcing her departure date as April 2019.
Born Kathie Lee Epstein on Aug. 16, 1953 in Paris, France, she spent a portion of her childhood stationed at Naval bases in Europe before her family settled in Bowie, MD. Raised in a Jewish household, her father Aaron was a Navy officer and jazz saxophonist, while mother Joan was a secretary. Strangely, Gifford converted to Christianity at the age of 12 after viewing an educational film featuring evangelist Billy Graham. Following winning the "Maryland Junior Miss" pageant at the age of 17, she went to live and work for the pageant's co-host, conservative entertainer and spokesperson Anita Bryant. Disenchanted with her duties for Bryant, which included babysitting and secretarial work, she split from the household and attended Oral Roberts University on a fulltime scholarship provided by Bryant. There, she studied drama and music and sang with Roberts' World Action Singers. She later became a frequent performer on Roberts' syndicated evangelical television series, campaigning extensively across the U.S. for him, but ended her association with him in her junior year of college.
Gifford married her Bible study leader, Paul Johnson, in 1976; though she later described the nuptials as a show-biz union, his background as a composer, producer, and publisher of Christian music allowed her to record three gospel albums between 1976 and 1978. Together, Gifford and Johnson also appeared as musical guests on several Christian television programs. The exposure led to work in the secular entertainment industry as well. As Kathie Lee Johnson, she appeared in a supporting role on the daytime soap "Days of Our Lives" (NBC, 1965- ) in 1976, and later sang on the syndicated version of the game show "Name That Tune" (NBC/CBS/syndicated, 1953-1985) between 1977 and 1978. After departing "Tune," she was top-billed on the "Hee Haw" (CBS/syndicated, 1969-1993) spin-off "Hee Haw Honeys" (syndicated, 1978-79) as the daughter of "Hee Haw" regulars Kenny Price and Lulu Roman, who ran a Nashville nightclub. The show was axed after only 26 episodes, but Gifford kept busy as a popular opening performer for headliners in Vegas and other showbiz capitals.
Gifford moved into broadcasting in 1981 when she filled in for television radio personality Regis Philbin on his morning talk show "A.M. Los Angeles" on KABC-TV. Impressed with her attitude and professionalism, the producers of "Good Morning America" (ABC, 1975- ) hired her as a special correspondent and occasional substitute host for Joan Lunden between 1982 and 1985. Gifford also began appearing and singing in network television commercials for the Carnival Cruise line. Despite the abundance of work, Gifford's marriage to Johnson was unraveling, and the couple divorced in 1983. Soon thereafter, she met Football Hall of Famer-turned-commentator Frank Gifford on "GMA" and soon became romantically involved with him. The pair, who shared the same birthday (though 23 years apart), were married in 1986.
Meanwhile, Philbin had relocated to New York City to take over the hosting duties for WABC-TV's low-rated talk show "The Morning Show," which he co-hosted with Cyndy Garvey and later Ann Abernathy. When Abernathy left the show in 1986, Gifford stepped in as co-host, and the show's ratings rose significantly. Two years later, the show began broadcasting nationally under its new title, "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee." The combination of Philbin's manic personality with Gifford's calm, maternal demeanor made it a popular destination for morning viewers. Initially, Gifford's frequent discussion of her home life, which expanded in 1990 following the arrival of her son, Cody, and daughter, Cassidy, in 1993, struck a chord with stay-at-home and working mothers who felt a kinship with her experiences. Comics and talk show hosts, however, made quick work of such a soft target, but Gifford's popularity grew exponentially with each year on "Live;" by the late 1980s and early 1990s, she was a ubiquitous presence on daytime and primetime TV as the host of the Miss America Pageant, a frequent telethon guest, and her own television specials, including "Kathie Lee Gifford's Celebration of Motherhood" (1993) and "Just In Time For Christmas" (1996). A good sport, she accepted the jibes at her vanilla image with good humor, appearing as herself on several television shows and in movies like "The First Wives Club" (1996).
The bloom began to leave the Kathie Lee Gifford rose in 1996 when the National Labor Committee reported that sweatshop workers (including child laborers) were being used to manufacture her clothing line, which was sold at Wal-Mart. Allegations quickly arose that Gifford herself was responsible for overseeing the sweatshop usage, and though she moved quickly to both deny the allegations and work with federal agencies to oppose such work conditions - as well as divert the funds from her line to her two charities, which supported HIV-infected infants - the notion that the impossibly good Kathie Lee Gifford was somehow responsible for exploiting Third World residents for her own purposes stuck hard. The innuendo was supported in no small part by a gleeful gossip industry and a host of comics, many of whom delighted in the possibility of tarnishing her untouchable image.
Gifford's annus horriblis continued the following year, when the tabloid The Globe reported that Frank Gifford had been photographed and videotaped in a compromising situation with a flight attendant. Though reports by ESPN later revealed that the tabloid had paid the attendant a substantial sum to seduce Gifford, the negative publicity contributed to dropping Kathie Lee Gifford's public opinion down another notch. In 2000, Gifford announced that she was leaving "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" to devote more time to her family and her music career, and was replaced by soap actress Kelly Ripa. Gifford released several CDs, including albums of standards and children's songs, and appeared on Broadway in "Putting It Together," a revue of songs by Stephen Sondheim.
She was also a frequent guest star on network series, starring in a TV movie comedy called "Spinning Out of Control" (2001) as a drug- and alcohol-riddled soap actress who attempts to get her life and career under control. In 2005, she returned to television hosting as a special correspondent for "The Insider" (syndicated, 1994- ) and served as guest host on "Larry King Live" (CNN, 1985- ) and "The View" (ABC, 1997- ). She also presented "Saving Aimee," a musical based on the life of 1920s-era evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, in 2007. In March 2008, NBC announced that Gifford would join correspondent Hoda Kotb as the co-host of the fourth hour of "The Today Show" beginning in April of that year. Much publicity was churned out for Gifford's heralded return to morning programming, and it had the desired effect: Gifford and Kotb's easy chemistry-helped by their on-camera indulging in occasional glasses of wine at 10 in the morning-quickly became a morning TV staple and pop culture trope. On "Saturday Night Live" (NBC 1975- ), Kristin Wiig's boozy, braod impersonation of the new Kathie Lee became a sketch staple. Gifford also appeared in the horror comedy "Sharknado 5: Global Swarming" (Syfy 2017) and the romantic comedy "Love Me To Death" (2018), which she wrote and starred in opposite Craig Ferguson. In December 2018, Gifford announced her upcoming retirement from "Today" after a decade, with April 2019 as the target date of her final show.
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Won Maryland's Junior Miss Contest
Competed in America's Junior Miss Pageant; disqualified for talking to a male but not before winning Kraft Hostess Award; made first TV commercial for Kraft products
Moved to Florida and worked for singer Anita Bryant for one-year as a live-in secretary/babysitter
Feature acting debut alongside sister Michie in the religious-themed "Jana"
Had brief stint as a nurse on the NBC soap opera "Days of Out Lives"
As Kathie Lee Johnson, became featured singer on the syndicated game show "Name That Tune"
Appeared regularly on the syndicated variety series, "Hee Haw Honeys"
Became correspondent for "Good Morning America" (ABC), also substituted for Joan Lunden as host
Met future husband Frank Gifford when they co-hosted the Thanksgiving broadcast of "Good Morning America" (ABC)
Became commercial spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Lines
Joined Regis Philbin as co-host of the "The Morning Show" (NYC only)
Co-hosted the nationally syndicated "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee"
First primetime network special, "Kathie Lee Gifford's Celebration of Motherhood"
Introduced the Kathie Lee Gifford collection clothing line in Wal-Mart stores
Made dramatic guest appearance on the CBS series "Touched By an Angel"
Broadway debut as Carol Burnett's replacement in the revue "Putting It Together"
Acted in the ABC movie "Model Behavior"
Announced (February 29) she would be leaving "Live With Regis & Kathie Lee" in July
Hosted the annual telecast of the Daytime Emmy Awards
Had leading role of a drug and alcohol addicted TV star in the E! movie "Spinning Out of Control"
Wrote the book and lyrics for the musical "Saving Aimee" about the life and times of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson; premiered at the White Plains Performing Arts Center
Joined the syndicated entertainment magazine television show "The Insider" as a special correspondent
Join NBC's "Today" for the program's fourth hour (10 a.m.) teaming with Hoda Kotb
Announced she was leaving "Today" in April 2018