Who Is Kathie Lee Gifford?
Kathie Lee Gifford spent several years pursing a career as a Christian singer. She was invited to Good Morning America when a producer heard her host an A.M. radio show. She joined Regis Philbin on The Morning Show in 1985, and the duo became an instant hit for their banter and chemistry. She co-hosted the fourth of Today show with Hoda Kotb for more than a decade.
Kathryn Lee Epstein was born on August 16, 1953, in Paris, France. Her father, Aaron Leon Epstein, was an American naval officer and weekend jazz saxophonist, and her mother, Joan (nee Cuttell), was a former naval secretary turned radio singer.
Kathie Lee and her two siblings, David and Michelle, grew up in France and several other European countries where their father was stationed. The family returned to the United States in 1957 and eventually settled in Bowie, Maryland, where Aaron Epstein worked as a newspaper distributor and insurance agent. He and his wife later became proprietors of a resort hotel.
One of her grandparents was Jewish and Kathie Lee grew up in a culturally Jewish environment. But she attended Methodist Sunday school in Bowie and became a born-again Christian at the age of 12 after watching a Christian film entitled The Restless Ones, which depicted the tragic results of a young girl doing drugs and having sex.
At 17, Gifford won her state Junior Miss pageant and traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to represent Maryland in the nationwide competition. There she met Anita Bryant, a prominent Christian singer and co-host of the pageant. Bryant immediately saw Gifford's potential as a Christian entertainer and invited her to live and work with her and her husband, Bob Green, at their home in Key Biscayne, Florida. Gifford agreed and spent a disillusioning year babysitting, doing secretarial work and occasionally singing in Southern Baptist churches. She realized that the couple's loveless marriage was merely a front for their careers and that their family life lay in shambles. Wanting no part of the hypocrisy, Gifford opted to leave.
However, Bryant had already secured a full scholarship for Gifford at the evangelical Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as well as a place in Roberts' World Action Singers. Beginning in 1972, Gifford sang on Oral Roberts' television show broadcast from Burbank, California, and traveled throughout the Bible Belt attending revival meetings. Gifford quickly became aware of the manipulation going on behind Roberts' charismatic veneer and dropped out of the university during her junior year.
Experiencing her own form of spiritual awakening, Gifford used the remainder of her scholarship money to rent an apartment in Tulsa. There she spent a few weeks scribbling down her spiritual thoughts, which she eventually published as The Quiet Riot in 1976. In April of that year, Gifford married Paul Johnson, her Bible study group leader and owner of a Christian music publishing company. She later admitted it was a show-biz marriage, no more than "a contract with the state of California." Although the marriage only lasted six years, it was professionally productive. Gifford cut three gospel albums between 1976 and 1978, and the couple often appeared together on religious television shows, such as The 700 Club.
'Live With Regis & Kathie Lee'
Gifford simultaneously began to work on her own, more secular career. While visiting a friend on the set of the NBC soap opera Days of Our Lives, she was hired to play Nurse Callahan, which she did for nine months. She also worked on commercial jingles and made several TV pilots. From 1977-78, Gifford was the featured singer on Name That Tune, replacing song lyrics with "la-la's." This exposure generated a slew of career opportunities, including a part in the TV sitcom Hee Haw Honeys, and gigs as the opening act for such comics as Bill Cosby, Shecky Green and Rich Little in Reno and Lake Tahoe casinos.
In 1981, Regis Philbin left his post at the radio show A.M. Los Angeles, and Gifford substituted as host for two days. Susan Winston, an executive producer of Good Morning America (GMA) happened to be listening and was immediately drawn to Gifford's talent and freshness. She asked Gifford to do some reporting and occasionally substitute for Joan Lunden on GMA in New York. After divorcing her first husband in 1982, Gifford made the move to New York City and began to appear on the nationally televised show.
In the meantime, Philbin, now co-host of The Morning Show on WABC-TV in New York, was actively looking for a new partner. Watching Gifford on GMA, Philbin was impressed by her vitality and energy and eventually asked her to join him on his show. Ready for a break from the stiffly scripted news program and inspired by the new wave of "reality" shows such as Geraldo! and Sally Jessy Raphael, Gifford decided to take the leap into a lighter forum. She took her seat next to Philbin in June 1985, and the two immediately ignited a chemistry that would become legendary on daytime television. In the first week, Gifford called Philbin a "jerk," beginning a playful cat-and-dog fight, which proved that the vinegar-tongued Philbin had finally met his match.
Two months after their first show aired, The Morning Show knocked Phil Donahue out of first place in the tri-state area, and in 1988, as arranged through an agreement between WABC and Buena Vista Television, Live With Regis & Kathie Lee became nationally syndicated. The live 15-minute "host chat" that opened each show had nationwide appeal and made Gifford and Philbin instant celebrities. Gifford quickly became America's television sweetheart.
Controversies and Personal Life
On October 18, 1986, Gifford married ABC's Monday Night Football sports broadcaster and former NFL star Frank Gifford, whom she had met on the set of GMA. The Giffords went on to have two children, Cody Newton, born in 1990, and Cassidy Erin, born in 1993.
In 1996, the National Labor Committee reported that child laborers in Honduras were producing Kathie Lee's clothing line for Walmart. She denied all knowledge of Walmart's production tactics and immediately embarked on a mission to advocate for stronger laws against sweatshop labor. She further defended herself by assuring the public that all of the profits from her clothing line went to Cassidy's Place, a home she set up for AIDS and crack babies. Despite her efforts, Gifford found herself the butt of jokes for months with her squeaky-clean innocence soiled by the media's attention to her misfortunes.
In 1997, after 10 years of marriage, Gifford received another horrible blow when The Globe tabloid published photographs of her husband with Trans World Airlines flight attendant Suzen Johnson in a New York City hotel room. (The flight attendant was later discovered to have received $75,000 from The Globe to seduce Frank.) Gifford suffered through personal trauma and public embarrassment, but remained with her husband. Her reputation had been, in part, built around her image as the woman who had it all: a highly successful career and a devoted family.
She had become infamous for her constant references to Frank and their children. While her fans loved her candor and intimacy, her critics labeled her personal musings as annoyingly self-righteous. With this scandal Gifford learned the dangers of opening up her personal life to the world. The image of the perfect family had been publicly scrutinized, and she suddenly and immediately became silent and guarded on the topic of her family.
On February 29, 2000, Gifford announced that she would leave Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, then the nation's fourth-highest-rated syndicated talk show, when her contract expired in July. After 11 years on the show, Gifford reportedly wanted to spend more time with her family and to concentrate on her musical career. Her last regular appearance on Live aired on July 28, 2000. Years later, Gifford said one of the reasons she decided to leave Live was because her father was terminally ill. Aaron Epstein died on November 19, 2002.
Other Projects and Albums
Following her rise to fame, Gifford served as the spokeswoman for the Home Furnishings Council, Carnival Cruise Lines, Ultra Slim-Fast and Revlon. In addition, she produced her own fitness video, Kathie Lee's Feel Fit and Fabulous Workout; wrote an autobiography, I Can't Believe I Said That! (1992); ran charity organizations; and sang at venues across the country.
After leaving Live, Gifford released a string of albums, including a set of pop tunes called The Heart of a Woman (2000), Born for You (2000) and a collection of children's songs called Party Animals (2002).
Return to TV on 'Today'
In April 2008, Gifford joined Hoda Kotb on morning television as a co-anchor of the Today show. The two proved a winning pair, sharing glasses of wine as they dished on current events.
Meanwhile, Gifford faced more personal loss with the death of her husband in August 2015. Frank had appeared now and then as a host with Kathie Lee on both Live and Today.
In December 2018, months after celebrating her 10-year anniversary as co-host of Today, Gifford announced that she would be leaving the show the following year.
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