Dialogue with LIFE+DOG: Kathie Lee Gifford
Photos by Brett Chisholm
There are few people on television these days—or any past—that have experienced the ups and downs of a public life more than the enigmatic Kathie Lee Gifford. She has shared her life lessons for more than 40 years on a variety of platforms, all with the hope that her stories will help and encourage others—and they do! We have faithfully watched Kathie Lee as she has navigated motherhood, aging and the challenge of having her life on display for the world—all with a smile and a self-depreciating humor that is unmatched.
A playwright, producer, singer, songwriter and actress, Kathie Lee has starred in numerous television shows and movies over the span of her career while building an impressive list of achievements in the theater and recording industries.
Kathie Lee was born in Paris, France to Joan Cuttell, a singer, and Aaron Epstein, a musician and former U.S. Navy officer. Based on her tremendous success in the entertainment industry, it is clear that Kathie inherited her mother’s creativity and musical talent.. After serving their station in France, the family moved to Bowie, Maryland where she attended Bowie High School and began singing in the folk group, "Pennsylvania Next Right," which performed frequently at school assemblies. Upon graduation, Kathie Lee attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, studying drama and music which helped her prepare her for her future career in the spotlight.
After graduating, Gifford added Beauty Queen to her resume, representing Maryland in America's Junior Miss Pageant. Her career took off in the 1970s when she became a vocalist on the game show Name That Tune with Tom Kennedy and in 1978, she joined the cast of the short-lived Hee Haw spinoff, Hee Haw Honeys. She started appearing in television advertisements for Carnival Cruise Lines in the 80s and later met her husband, NFL Hall of Famer and sports commentator Frank Gifford, during an episode of ABC's Good Morning America. The couple married in 1986, several months after she began her most famous television role as a full-time morning talk show personality on The Morning Show with Regis Philbin, which she began in the summer of 1985. The program went national in 1988 as Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and Gifford became a household name overnight. Millions of viewers watched her animated descriptions of life at home with her husband and their two children, Cody and Cassidy, and found her stories both relatable and hilarious. We watched as she experienced pregnancy, birth and even the pitfall of post-baby weight loss that so many women struggle with, prompting her to become a spokesperson for Slim Fast diet shakes after Cody was born. During her time on LIVE she received 11 Daytime Emmy nominations and jokes that she “was the Susan Lucci of Daytime Talk”, never winning the coveted award during her time on the show. On February 29, 2000, Gifford announced her decision to leave the show to pursue her singing career and spend more time with her family. Her last show was on July 28, 2000.
After leaving LIVE, Gifford dove into her passion for music, theater and writing. In 1999, she started her own record label, On the Lamb Records and released three albums, including two for children. She also began pouring her heart and talent into musical theater and started writing the musicals Under the Bridge, HATS! The Musical, and her personal labor of love, Saving Aimee. During this busy time she somehow managed to find the time to perform and star in several productions, including Broadway’s Putting it Together and playing Miss Hannigan in the musical Annie. Her writing projects were not solely focused on musical theater, however—Gifford’s roster of books include Listen to My Heart, Christmas with Kathie Lee, Just When I Thought I'd Dropped My Last Egg, and the best-selling autobiography, I Can't Believe I Said That, which chronicles her personal and professional life. She has continued to write throughout the years and has added the popular children’s books, Party Animals and The Legend of Messy M'Cheany to her ever-growing list of accomplishments.
On March 31, 2008, NBC announced that Gifford was to join its morning show, Today, as co-host of the fourth hour, alongside Hoda Kotb, marking her triumphant return to morning television. The "show-within-a-show" has its own opening and theme music, anchors, website and Facebook page, all showcasing the humor and hijinks of the two fun-loving hosts. Since Gifford and Kotb teamed up, the fourth hour has been hailed as “appointment television” by Entertainment Weekly, and “TODAY’s happy hour” by USA Today. In 2010, Gifford received her first Daytime Emmy for her work on the show, ending her previous losing streak and finally earning her a statue of her own. The show has continued to rise in ratings and the pair has gained a devout following that includes celebrities like Anderson Cooper, who has called both Hoda and Kathie Lee a “National Treasure”.
As her children have grown and she has settled into her seat at NBC, we have been able to see another side of Kathie Lee: that of a devoted dog lover. Her love of animals—particularly her three beloved dogs Lola, Louis and Bambino—shines through the screen, giving the doting mom a whole new set of stories about her four-legged children to share with the world. The Giffords’ most recent canine addition to the family, teacup Maltipoo Bambino, is particularly special to Gifford, who adopted him from a Connecticut resident who could no longer care for him. When she first met him, she knew that they belonged together and they have been virtually inseparable ever since. She has shared countless stories—much like she did with her children—about her life at home with her dogs. We have even seen Bambino getting a training session from famed trainer Victoria Stillwell after he was caught red-handed with a prized pair of Valentino shoes from Kathie Lee’s collection. Bambino even makes occasional animated appearances on some of the graphics for the show’s segments like the popular Who Knew segment.
Whether it’s “Boozeday Tuesday,” “Winesday Wednesday” or “Thirsty Thursday”, Gifford shows up on set each day ready to have a blast and make millions laugh out loud—many times at her own expense. She is not afraid to try anything on air, even testing an all-natural, human grade dog food on-air (when nobody on set would try it), downing a bite of the “rolled oat” food with a red wine chaser. It’s this type of willingness to be fun and spontaneous that has helped her, and the show, gain more and more dedicated viewers and fans.
And though we may see her acting goofy or parodied on Saturday Night Live, there is so much more to the real Kathie Lee than the chipper chat queen we see. She devotes much of her time to humanitarian work, lending her support to several organizations that help abused, neglected, sick and impoverished children. She serves as a celebrity ambassador for the non-profit organization Childhelp, regularly making appearances at fundraisers and events for the child abuse prevention and treatment charity, and is also a generous supporter. Together with her husband, she has raised money to build and continually fund two shelters in New York City for babies born with HIV and congenital crack-cocaine addiction through the nonprofit Association to Benefit Children (ABC). These shelters—Cassidy’s Place and Cody House—were named in honor of her children Cody and Cassidy, and continue to provide much-needed relief to hundreds of deserving children. Gifford received an honorary doctorate from Marymount University for her humanitarian work in labor relations, and was honored with the National Conference of Christian and Jews Irvin Feld Humanitarian Award for her commitment to bettering the lives of others. She also received Childhelp’s Hearts of Compassion Award for her efforts on behalf of children.
When our staff heard that we were going to have the opportunity to visit with Kathie Lee and her dogs in the actress’s home, we were absolutely elated. Our team—including our creative director Lora Poe, Lindsey Allen and Terry Chisholm—excitedly loaded up in our rented suburban and headed from our hotel in New York to the posh Connecticut zip code that the Giffords call home. You never know what to expect when arriving at someone’s house and meeting them for the first time—especially someone as well-known as Kathie Lee. As we arrived at her waterfront compound, we were first greeted by her amazing staffers, Christine Gardner, Andy and Elvia Medina, and their daughters Julia and Isabella, and then by her precious pups Lola, Louis and Bambino. We immediately began setting up and patiently waited for the star to arrive directly from her Today Show set. As her car pulled up the drive, her three dogs bolted for the door to greet their momma! As she entered, she tossed her belongings and dropped to the floor to kiss and hug her kiddos. It was so great to see that like most of us, she relishes the moment she arrives back to her pack. She then came over and introduced herself, inviting us to sit for a bite to eat and of course…a glass of wine. Sitting at her kitchen table, sipping Pinot Grigio and talking about her day was such a surreal experience—and one we will never forget. You always wonder if the person you see on television every day is the same when the cameras are off, and Kathie Lee was just as charming and kind in person, truly making us feel like we were longtime friends. She is genuine, funny, attentive and, most of all, crazy about her family and her dogs. As we began taking photos the laughter and wine kept flowing, turning what could have been a routine photo shoot into a festive celebration of LIFE and DOGS! After countless gorgeous photos, she went to change into something comfortable and we sat down in her living room to talk about her amazing experiences and her beloved canine companions. In true Kathie Lee Gifford form, she didn’t disappoint and we left loving her even more! With Bambino perched in her lap we dove right in:
LIFE+DOG: What is your favorite thing to do in your off-time?
Kathie Lee Gifford: Oh, definitely be home. Turn on the stereo, listen to great music—maybe write some music myself for some of my musical theater projects—while sitting in my cozy room where all winter long the fire never goes out. I love when our puppies are with us and obviously you have a nice bottle of wine, too.
L+D: And your home is so comfortable, thank you for having us here. How important is your home to you?
KLG: It’s all about home and family and our puppies around here. And a pinch of gratitude. I’m a very grateful person and I always was from when I had a one-bedroom apartment in New York City as opposed to where I live now. I think you are a person who either always understands the concept of gratitude no matter how much you have, or you’re the type of person who no matter how much you get, gratitude never enters your mind. So I’ve always been taught from when I was a little girl and had very little in life other that what I needed—I had a great family and all the love in the world—and was taught to always give as much as possible. There’s a wonderful scripture that talks about if we are blessed in life, it is so we can bless others, because we’re only here so we can pass it on.
The other thing that I have learned while having a career for so long in this business is that it is incredibly important to have a home to go to. The people that we hear about; the ones that are in the papers the most with all of their problems—those are the people who have made their career their life, as opposed to those who have made a living doing what they love to do—but then they have a family or life to come home to that means even more. You have to keep things in perspective. And dogs help you keep everything in perspective. You could have had the worst day, and just received the worst news, and your dogs don’t care. They don’t even know. They’re just happy to see you! And once you’re home they can sense something is amiss, something is not quite right—and they turn on the unconditional love for us. They won’t leave your side, they won’t stop licking you. . .
I remember when our dog Regis was dying and it was three days before we had to put him down and it was a terrible time. The other two dogs that we had—Louie and Lola—they just wouldn’t stop licking him. It was extraordinary. They definitely have an inner communication amongst themselves and they certainly communicate to you. I have been a mother of children and a mother of dogs and there are a lot of similarities! Dogs are easier!
There is so much more to our interview with the incomparable Kathie Lee Gifford. To see the entire interview and photoshoot, pick up a copy of LIFE+DOG Issue 13, or come back here after August 1. View a gallery of Behind-The-Scenes photos from our trip to NYC below.