Rise and Shine: A Day with Kathie Lee Gifford
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Rise and Shine: A Day with Kathie Lee Gifford

Kathie Lee Gifford is back as part of everyone's morning routine as she appears on the Today show. What hasn't changed? Her heart-on-her sleeve, opinion-a-minute self.

Life After "Live"

Kathie Lee Gifford is exultant, almost evangelical, in extolling the miracles of her "bunionectomies." She reaches under the table at Neary's Pub, the Manhattan restaurant she and husband Frank have considered their extended kitchen for more than 20 years. Seconds later she bobs up holding a trophy of the successful surgery: one dainty, open-toe Manolo Blahnik shoe with a spiky three-inch heel. (She manages four-inch versions when she's on the air.) "I could never do the show without brand-new feet," says Gifford. Those tootsies were part of a personal reality check she undertook just after accepting the job to co-host the fourth hour of Today beginning in early April. "I was thinking about going back to work at the age I am [54] and I said, 'At least I have my own teeth.' Well, actually, I have laminates. But I'm still on my own two feet. Well, actually not -- I just had two bunionectomies."

Two at once? Gifford nods. "The first 10 days I was in so much agony that when a friend brought me a cup of coffee, I spilled it, scalded my stomach, and didn't even care. It's nightmare surgery...but they're beautiful now."

An errant bra strap peeks from Gifford's soft-pink boatneck sweater, the only wee flaw in her impeccable on-air grooming -- crisply tailored ecru skirt, smooth, honey-hued hair, and expertly minimal makeup. She has come straight from signing off on-air 20 minutes ago. "I don't do perfect," she says. "Who can?"

A week into her first steady television job since she kissed Reeg goodbye eight years ago and walked off the set of that morning in America institution, Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, Gifford is in a frisky frame of mind. She'll have the corned beef and cabbage, thank you. Yes, a full portion. A pox on those tedious girlie salads.

"People think they have me figured out but they don't," she insists. Critics, cranks, dogmatic feminists -- they've all taken their shots. "It makes me want to throw something," she says of the knee-jerk misconceptions she has endured. Here are a few that rankle the most: That she's ultrareligious. She counters, "Religion binds you. It's like being horrendously constipated. Faith breathes. It frees you to become everything you were meant to be." Others presume to know her politics. "People think I'm this rightwing Republican. I vote separately on the issues and the candidates because I don't want to belong to either club. So I'm a registered Independent and happily so." And to those who reckon there's bad blood with her ex-costar: "I adore Regis. We're having dinner tomorrow night."

A New Attitude

Over the next three hours Gifford will prove herself cheerfully, thoughtfully contrarian, holding forth on faith, infidelity, death, sex, politics, and Botox. Mascara will run. The corned beef will disappear. This is a woman of great energy and appetites, some of which surprise even her. Fittingly, Gifford offers a line uttered in Bella, a small foreign film she loves: "If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans."

Despite her firm new footing, Gifford's Today spot, cohosted with former Dateline NBC correspondent Hoda Kotb, is still finding its legs, trying segments on proper bra fitting and what the male of the species really wants. Since their hour is often televised live from the plaza at Rockefeller Center, she and Kotb, whom she's taken to calling "Hodawoman," began their partnership wrapped in coats and slickers against a chilly spring air. Yesterday the wind took all of Kotb's notes. Live.

"There was this look of panic in Hoda's eyes," Gifford recalls. "I said, 'See what God is trying to tell you? This is not about notes, it's about people. Forget what they said in the preinterview, it's about living in the moment.' I said, 'Hoda, trust yourself. And when you don't trust yourself, trust me. 'Cause we're in this together.'"

Between the fluffy cupcake tastings and movie promos Gifford and Kotb also gnaw on the gristle of current affairs. High-profile infidelity was a topic their first week, owing to the resignation of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer after revelations that he was involved in a prostitution scandal. TV audiences watched Silda Spitzer stand by her man much the way Kathie Lee Gifford did in 1997 when Frank, then 66, was caught in a hotel tryst with a married 46-year-old former flight attendant that was taped for a tabloid. Few women know the torments of those awful public and private moments better than Gifford. And today her hindsight puts an insider spin on conventional attitudes toward marital crises.

For starters, she insists, never cast the wronged wife as an object of pity. "She's not humiliated," Gifford says of Silda Spitzer. "He is. Our culture assumes 'what's wrong with her if he's going to a hooker?' Instead of, hello, what's wrong with him? He's going to a hooker when he has a beautiful wife at home and three gorgeous daughters who deserve better than that."

Bonding with the Clintons

And get this: She says it's not really about sex with these power adulterers. "Sex is just a symptom. It's the way he acts out on a problem that's already innate, which may be control, power, self-loathing. I'm not going to try to psychoanalyze men because I'm not qualified to do that. But what's fascinating to me is these are all men who have everything to lose. It's like going to Vegas -- it's a crapshoot and they're going, 'I'm going to win it.'" She pauses to dissect a rosy strip of beef. "I don't understand the men who will risk everything that matters for something that doesn't matter at all."

Despite today's breathless, breaking news reportage on marital sprains and fractures, it's all a very old drama, she says. "Shakespearean. Especially with these high-profile type-A men who are used to nothing but power in their lives, it takes this kind of tragedy for them to get on their knees in humility, whether it's before their God or their wife or their country. All three in the case of Bill Clinton."

Gifford knows the Clintons and recalls with gratitude and some humor the day in 1996 that Hillary Rodham Clinton showed up to help cut the ribbon at the opening of Cassidy's Place, which houses the Association to Benefit Children, a New York-based care facility she and Frank were opening to support children who suffer from serious disabling conditions, including AIDS. The timing was unfortunate; both women had just been hung out to dry in the headlines, the First Lady for her federal grand jury testimony in an Arkansas-based real estate scandal and alleged cover-up, and Gifford for the revelation that some of her clothing line was produced in Manhattan sweatshops and by child labor in Honduras. Gifford says the First Lady didn't have to honor an old promise to be there, given the fresh complications. While she declines to assess Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate, she says she was impressed with her loyalty.

"Hillary showed up in the middle of her Whitewater debacle and I was on the page of every newspaper being accused of being a child exploiter. And Frank looks at us and says, 'Gee, I'm not sure the two of you should be seen together in a picture.' Little did we know that the next year, neither of us would want to be in a picture with Frank!"

She laughs easily now. But the late '90s were no picnic for the Giffords or the Clintons. During the revelations of the president's affair with intern Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent perjury and impeachment hearings, Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford had a special window into the Clintons' agony. "We have letters from Bill Clinton written at the White House that would break your heart. Written to us. Letters that will never be seen. They're in our safe. He was going through his own personal hell then as well."

Rebuilding Trust

Did the Giffords write back? "I'm not going to say. I'll just say that you find yourself a member of a club nobody wants to join. But if you can use your own painful, horrible experience to be a blessing to someone else going through it, why not?"

More than a decade after her own crisis she still fields questions from women wondering whether they should continue their marriages after a serious breach. "I can't tell you the amount of letters I get from people saying, 'I saw what you went through and I thought if Kathie could stay for her kids' sake, for her husband's sake, I can do it, too.' There's no pill you can take for infidelity to make it go away. You have to decide whether the relationship is worth saving or it isn't."

She is not for staying when there is a continued pattern of bad behavior or abuse. But she points to a certain pragmatism required in modern marriage, telling Today viewers that "if you stay in a relationship long enough, you're going to be disappointed." And with any sort of letdown, she adds, you'd do well to remember what you pledged on that blissful first day: "You have to forgive. You promised to when you got married. Let's go back to those vows. We promised thick, thin, we promised through problems. Problems can make you better if you stick around long enough."

I ask her how she was able to make her own peace when the man she was so sure of hurt her so deeply -- and on tape. "It doesn't seem possible that you can come through it at the time," she says. "But the truth is, if you love something more than you love yourself, you will get through it. I'm talking about the children. If it's all about you, you're guaranteed not to get through it."

Still, she says she needed a sharp-eyed guide on the bumpy road to forgiveness. "When Frank and I went through it all, my dear friend the counselor said, 'If you can't forgive your husband, forgive your children's father.' It changed everything. Because my children's father is the finest man I know. He's easy to forgive, rather than the one who hurt me personally. The minute I got my eyes off me, that's when the real healing started." She's not suggesting that everything changed instantly when she shifted focus. "It's so hard. Trust takes one second to lose and a lifetime to rebuild."

I am curious about another sort of forgiveness -- the kind extended to or denied the Other Woman. Given today's fractured and blended families, millions of husbands and wives must find some uneasy peace with an Other. Gifford's transgressor virtually disappeared after the publicity, but surely she remained a spectral third party. "You want a miracle in your life?" Gifford asks. "Do this: Pray for somebody you can't stand. Pray for somebody that's just done such evil. It's impossible to hate somebody you've just prayed for. It works! When you choose love, hate runs like the cockroach it is."

Overcoming Hardships and Hate

She catches herself revving up to preacher mode and laughs. "Look, it doesn't mean you're going to be best pals and go out to lunch. But it means that person will no longer have any power over you. Because you've chosen to love them, you've chosen forgiveness."

Yes, she tries to neutralize her media critics the same way. Reviews for the musical she wrote after leaving Live, about a homeless family, Under the Bridge, were mixed when it ran Off Broadway in 2005. But it is now in development for a film. Besides two children's musicals on her drawing board, she has worked steadily on a musical based on the life of controversial evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, who preached in the '20s. "It took eight years to write. I've never spent eight minutes on anything -- it was always pretty much get to the next segment as fast as you can."

Staying centered with her family in their Greenwich, Connecticut, home, away from the chatter, made it all possible. "I've never had silence in my life. This is the great gift that my daddy gave me." Enough time has passed that she is able to discuss a key factor in her decision to leave daily TV when she did and find that quiet. Her father, Aaron Leon Epstein, was dying of a Parkinson's-like neurological disorder called Lewy body dementia. Her TV eyes have begun to leak sable eyeliner at the corners as she describes the harrowing progress of his illness. Throughout our conversation Gifford has illustrated points with wise Daddyisms, and it was clearly a profound loss. "He was such a huge part of my life. There was never a time when I didn't know that I could run to my father and say, 'Daddy, it hurts.' And my daddy would hold me. He made sense out of things and gave me good advice, like, 'Take your anger here, Kath, do this with it.'"

During his several years of illness when she was still on Live, she says that her mother, Joan, and her sister, Michie, in Maryland, bore the greatest burden of caregiving. Aching to comfort in some way, Gifford kept sending bushels of her father's beloved blue crabs from Chesapeake Bay -- until one day he had no idea what to do with them. Watching him puzzle over the hard claws was heartbreaking, she says. She was with her father at his peaceful end, and she sorely misses his guidance as she steps back into the public eye.

"The world has not become a nicer place in the last eight years," she says, describing a vicious piece of hate mail that slithered into her home like an asp amid all the good wishes on her Today venture. The vitriol took her breath away. It was signed "A Friend."

She warms her hands around a cappuccino cup and adds quietly, "I can only imagine how miserable this human being is to send that hatred through the mail -- and I have compassion for them."

The restaurant door opens and on this brilliantly sunny day a vivid rainbow is refracted across Gifford's smooth, HDTV-ready forehead. It's a startling effect -- The Amazing Technicolor Kathie Lee.

"Lordy, is it the Botox?" she cracks, looking skyward.

The Next Chapter of Life

Yes, she has taken advantage of this scientific advance. And she is not at all against plastic surgery. "I've gotten several consultations for facelifts and have not gone through with them. I'm afraid I'm going to look freakish. I might do it someday but I don't think it's anybody's business when or if I do. What I'm against is obsession with it. There are people who are addicted. You can hate your nose, hips, rear end, you can hate your boobies -- and still love yourself."

She is looking forward to the next chapter of family life with Frank, who will turn 78 in August. The Giffords are in the market for another home in California. Son Cody, 18, is now 6-foot-3 and headed for the University of Southern California, known for its film program and famous alumni -- such as NFL legend Frank Gifford. "He wants to be a filmmaker, a director," Gifford says.

A West Coast nest will also accommodate the aspirations of daughter Cassidy, 14, who wants to be an actress. Gifford requested that her Today contract allow doing the show from L.A. if need be, should Cassidy land a TV or film role. And here, after all its iterations, is her heart's revised desire: "Now that I'm seeing my children grow, my new dream is for me to write a screenplay my son directs and my daughter stars in.

The unsinkable Kathie Lee gives a theatrical shrug.

"Hey," she says, "it could happen."

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2008.