The Stunning Transformation Of Kathie Lee Gifford

Few people in the entertainment realm are more closely associated with daytime television than TV personality extraordinaire Kathie Lee Gifford. In fact, Gifford can boast not one but two very different — but equally successful — runs on hit morning shows, first alongside television legend Regis Philbin on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" and then partnering with Hoda Kotb on NBC's "Today."

Gifford's cheery disposition and homespun anecdotes charmed television viewers throughout those years. However, according to her former "Today" co-host and close friend Kotb, fans might not know Gifford as well as they might think they do. "She gives the illusion that we know everything about her, that she is an open book. She is not," Kotb explained in an interview with AARP, revealing that what people have seen on television is a mere fraction of a far more complex personality. "There is a very serious person she keeps inside," Kotb added.

Clearly, there's a lot more to the singer, actor, author, and talk show host than meets the eye.

She was raised Jewish but converted to Christianity as a child

Long before she was known as Kathie Lee Gifford, she was first Kathie Lee Epstein. Born in Paris (her father, Aaron Epstein, was a Navy officer posted to France), she spent the first few years there before the family returned stateside. Her parents were Jewish, albeit not particularly religious. That changed when she was 11 years old, and her mother, Joan, announced she'd become a born-again Christian after watching evangelist Billy Graham on television. Gifford followed suit, as did her father and sister.

In addition to singing with her sister as a folk duo, teenage Gifford was an aspiring pageant queen who won Maryland's Junior Miss Pageant. As a result, she represented her state at the national pageant — but wound up being disqualified when she unknowingly broke a rule about talking to boys when she befriended some pageant staffers.

Despite her disqualification, that pageant proved to be a defining moment for her by placing her in contact with singer Anita Bryant, one of the judges. While Bryant would go on to become better known for her ultra-conservative, anti-LGBTQ+ stance than her music, she was an influential force in Gifford's life, hiring the teenager as her children's nanny after she graduated from high school. Bryant envisioned a future in Christian entertainment for her young protégé and pulled some strings to land her a music scholarship at Oral Roberts University.

She began her career as a singer

While attending Oral Roberts University in the early 1970s, Gifford joined the World Action Singers, the vocal group that performed on the TV show featuring the school's founder, televangelist Oral Roberts.

Despite attending a university that reflected the religious values she'd embraced, Gifford never really felt it was a good fit. "They tried to cookie-cutter all of us," she said in a 1992 interview with People. "I wanted the diversity of life. God went to the trouble to make us unique. They wanted us to believe the same way, think the same way."

She wound up quitting, and in 1975, she became one of the many aspiring performers to pull up stakes and head to Los Angeles with plans to pursue a career as a singer and actor. During those early years in L.A., she auditioned for TV commercials, sang on gospel albums, and even landed the bit part of a nurse on the daytime soap opera "Days of Our Lives." Her career in the entertainment industry may have been in its embryonic stage, but she was on her way.

Her first marriage was a disaster

Kathie Lee Gifford was 22 when she met Paul Johnson, then 29, at a Los Angeles Bible study. After several years of dating, they finally tied the knot in 1976. Due to their mutual religious convictions, both had saved their virginity for their wedding night. When the time came, Gifford was ready for action — Johnson, not so much. As she soon discovered, she and her husband simply didn't click in the bedroom — a factor in their relationship that never really changed. 

"[The marriage] was a real disappointment to me, as I know it was for Paul," she told People. "We all want to love and be loved, and when it doesn't happen, it's devastating." 

That lack of sexual compatibility left her feeling rejected and inadequate. After six painful years, they divorced. In a subsequent interview with People, she admitted that Johnson was her spouse in name only. "I don't even like to call him my husband because he wasn't in the truest sense of the word," she recalled. Reflecting on the relief she felt after divorcing, she also learned a major life lesson from her first marriage. "I realized, you know what, we can make all the vows we want in life, but if both people don't want the same thing, it's not going to work out," she declared.

She found lasting love with NFL great Frank Gifford

A few years after her divorce, Kathie Lee Gifford's career was on the rise. In the mid-1980s, Kathie Lee Johnson, as she was then known, had landed a gig on "Good Morning America." It was behind the scenes of "GMA" where she first laid eyes on the butt of the guy who would change her life. "I met Frank Gifford because it was 4 o'clock in the morning at 'Good Morning America,' walking down one of the hallways, and I looked over at somebody in the dressing room — the best set of buns I've ever seen in my life — just leaned over a sink putting in contact lenses," she recalled in a clip from "Holiday Steals and Deals with Jill Martin on TODAY All Day" (via People).

The attraction between the two was mutual — although both were cognizant of the 23-year gap in their ages. They didn't begin dating immediately. As Gifford explained in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation, he initially tried to set her up with one of his friends by inviting them both to lunch, but the spark between the two failed to materialize. "That didn't work out," he said, adding, "But we did."

The pair tied the knot in 1986. "Frank is my husband, my confidant, lover, therapist, parenting partner, and best friend," she wrote of her husband in her 1992 memoir, "I Can't Believe I Said That!"

Partnering with Regis Philbin changed everything

Kathie Lee Gifford landed her biggest break to that point after Ann Abernathy exited her role as co-host of "The Morning Show," the aptly titled local morning show airing on WABC, New York City's ABC affiliate. At the time, station manager Bill Fyffe told the New York Daily News that they'd been auditioning numerous potential co-hosts to partner with the show's beloved star, Regis Philbin. "We have to find the person with the right chemistry for Regis," he explained.

After an extensive search, Gifford was hired as Philbin's new co-host. The decision to leave a national show for a local one may have seemed counterintuitive, but Gifford felt that riffing with Reege would provide her the chance to be herself on TV. "I left 'Good Morning America' to be with Regis because I didn't want to read from a teleprompter," Gifford said during an appearance on the "Tamron Hall Show." "I wanted to be my own person — fail or succeed just as the person that I am authentically."

The duo exhibited such incredible onscreen chemistry that the show was placed into national syndication in 1988, boasting the new title "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee." "Live" proved to be a big hit with viewers. The secret, Philbin once told the Los Angeles Times, was their spontaneity. "I suggested to her early on that we not rehearse our conversation — just kibbutz about our daily lives," he said.

Her husband's affair was a public humiliation, but they were able to get over it

During her free-for-all morning chats with Regis Philbin, Kathie Lee Gifford regularly filled viewers in on what was happening with her husband, Frank Gifford, and their two kids, Cody and Cassidy. The familiarity she established made it all the more humiliating when the supermarket tabloid The Globe published intimate photos of the ex-athlete cavorting in a hotel room with another woman. The tabloid had reportedly paid a female flight attendant to lure Gifford into the room, which had been outfitted with hidden cameras in order to document their tryst.

While there was understandably speculation that the Giffords could be heading to divorce court, they decided to work things out instead. "I had been married at that point in my life for 11 years to a man I adored who had never given me one reason ever to doubt his sincerity or to not to trust him," she explained during a 2000 appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live." "Do I throw away a fine, truly loving, good man who's accomplished enormous amounts of good things in his life?" she asked. "Should he be defined by one stupid mistake?"

Still, getting to that point was an incredibly painful process for her. "It was absolutely devastating," Gifford later told People of her husband's very public infidelity. "Nobody knows what I went through," she added.

The sad reason she ended her 15-year run with Regis

For well over a decade, Kathie Lee Gifford and Regis Philbin were an unstoppable force in daytime television, with the duo sharing 10 Emmy nominations. That wildly successful run came to an end in 2000 when Gifford decided to leave "Live." At the time, she told The Associated Press (via ABC News) that her decision came about after her stint as guest-host of "The Late Show" — while late-night star David Letterman recuperated from heart surgery — left her hungering for new opportunities. "I thought, 'This is the moment where your life changed,'" she explained. "I have to do different things now."

Several years later, Gifford revealed there was a far sadder reason behind her departure: her father, Aaron Epstein, was nearing the end of his life after being diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia, a debilitating disease affecting the brain. "My daddy was dying, and I was not comfortable making it public," Gifford told the New York Post. "I had a very personal reason for not going through yet one more painful experience in a public way."

After Philbin's 2020 death, Gifford appeared on Fox 5 New York to discuss the closeness they shared while they worked together and in the years after. "He was, for 15 years, the best partner a person could ever, ever have professionally, but he was my friend," she shared.

She made a triumphant, wine-guzzling return to television alongside Hoda Kotb

Kathie Lee Gifford had been out of the television game for some time when NBC announced she was joining its flagship morning show, "Today" in 2008. Partnered with "Today" veteran Hoda Kotb, the two went on to host the show's fourth hour — which had been launched the previous year — each weekday.

While speaking with "Real Housewives" alum Bethenny Frankel on her podcast "Just B," Kotb revealed that Gifford's decision to join the show had come with one big condition: that she'd be co-hosting with Kotb and no one else. "She said, 'If it's not Hoda, I'm not gonna do it," Kotb divulged. "She chose me, and I am forever grateful."

The duo originated their own signature bit by starting each episode with a hearty glass of wine — something of a rarity for a morning show. The wine-drinking was not premeditated, Kotb explained while visiting "Late Night with Seth Meyers," but began when they jokingly served a glass to comedian Chelsea Handler, who was then promoting her book, "Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea." The next day, guest Brooke Shields asked why she wasn't given a glass of wine. "And then all of a sudden it just happened," Kotb recalled.

Frank Gifford's death left her devastated

Kathie Lee Gifford suffered arguably the biggest loss in her life when her husband, Frank Gifford, died in 2015 at the age of 84. At that point, they'd been married for 29 years. "Our almost 30-year marriage was a real love affair and a true marriage in every sense of the word," Gifford told People.

Three years later, during a 2018 episode of "Today," she referenced the upcoming anniversary of his death. "You have a moment where you just accept that you are a widow," she mused. "It looks weird to you for the longest time. You don't define yourself that way." Despite the years that had passed, Gifford admitted that sometimes she feels as if it's been many years since her husband's passing, while other times it felt so fresh that it could have been yesterday. "You have waves," she said.

The following year, she paid tribute to her late husband in a touching Instagram post. "We miss him everyday but we will hold him again!" she wrote.

The revelation that caused her to exit Today

In 2019, Kathie Lee Gifford announced she was exiting the fourth hour of "Today," bringing her on-air partnership with Hoda Kotb to an end after 11 years. While viewers of the show were certainly sad to see her go, Gifford already felt that she'd overstayed her welcome. "I thought I'd stay a year, and here it is 11 years later," she marveled in an interview with People. She'd experienced some huge life changes during her decade-plus with the show. "I've become a widow, an orphan, and an empty-nester all at once," she mused.

As she explained during an appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," this new status led her to realize, now that she had nobody to take care of and no obligations, that her future was wide open with possibilities. "For the first time in my life, I have the time and the means to go and do anything I want to do," said Gifford, revealing she planned to move to Nashville and focus on making movies.

She was honored with a star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame

Two years after her exit from "Today," Kathie Lee Gifford was honored with a very particular showbiz accolade when she received her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. During the ceremony — which took place virtually — she was lauded by former TV co-host Hoda Kotb, comedian Craig Ferguson, with whom she'd grown close after they made a movie together, and country music icon Dolly Parton.

Kotb praised the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce for making such an excellent choice. "She is in a class all by herself," Kotb said in her speech. "Kathie Lee is an original. I know because I got to sit next to her for 11 years."

In her acceptance speech, Gifford thanked the loyal fans who'd stuck with her over the decades. "I look back on it in awe and wonder," she remarked, "that God blessed me so much to be able to make my living doing what I love to do."

She embraced becoming a grandma

In the 2020s, Kathie Lee Gifford stepped into a new role: grandmother. Her son, Cody Gifford, and his wife, Erika Brown, welcomed sons Frank (a.k.a. Frankie), born in June 2022, and Ford, who arrived in November 2023. Her daughter, Cassidy, became a mother in June 2023, welcoming son Finn, whom she'd nicknamed "Finnston Churchill."

"'Bubbe' is my name," she told "Today" about the grandma name she decided upon, reflecting her Jewish heritage. "It's Yiddish." Interviewed by The List, Gifford gushed about her grandchildren, viewing them as gifts from the Almighty. "When you're holding one of them, or you're looking at them, you realize, 'Oh my gosh, there's no truer words that were spoken. They're miracles. They're miracles straight from God.' It's a great blessing," she said.

Becoming a grandmother, she revealed to People, was reflective of the latest stage in her life, and it was one that she embraced wholeheartedly. "It's a beautiful season of new beginnings for me," she said, "and I wish more people as they age felt that way about the process — that God is not finished with them. As long as we have a pulse, we have purpose."

She had a hilarious response to rumors she was The Golden Bachelorette

In early 2024, Kathie Lee Gifford found herself at the center of some showbiz rumors. According to those reports, Gifford was mulling a return to television — not in another morning show, but as the first-ever Golden Bachelorette on ABC's senior-citizen dating show "The Golden Bachelor."

Speaking with Fox News, Gifford confirmed she'd been approached about the show — and had immediately turned it down. "I've talked to the producers about it, and they said, 'We realized it would be a different kind of show if you do it.' I said, 'Uhhh, yeah!' So, I don't see it happening," she explained, revealing one of the biggest drawbacks she envisioned was the potential for contagious illness. "Here's the thing. You know what you get when you get in a hot tub? Diseases, diseases," Gifford she continued. "And you know what happens when you start kissing on people that you have no idea where their lips have been? It's just dumb."

During an appearance on "Today," Gifford jokingly suggested one change producers could bring about that could sweeten the pot and entice her to give it a shot. "They would have to make [the men] much younger," she quipped.