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”.
“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. . .” —Kathie Lee Gifford to LIFE+DOG
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!
L+D: Luckily they can’t talk back to us!
KLG: But they certainly let you know how they feel. . . and may take revenge by relieving themselves on your dining room table as one of my precious little pooches has done. Oh my gosh, so many funny stories!
L+D: What do you do to get away from the hectic demands of your job?
KLG: Well living here, outside of the city, certainly helps. I have a little teeny apartment in the city—in the same building as Hoda actually—but I definitely appreciate the escape. Sometimes I will see Hoda in the morning and she’ll say she went out the night before because it’s so hard to escape and say “no” in New York; there is so much going on when you’re asked to host events or come here or there. Frank and I lived in the city for several years before we had our children, and I remember when we used to have to go to three black tie events a week! Between the groups we supported personally, getting invited to sing at an event, or Frank being asked to emcee, it was a lot! I’m so glad I had that time in my life where I got to do all of those things and get all dolled up and stay out late, but it’s getting harder and harder to want to leave our home now! Frank has to put on his ‘monkey suit’ and I have to put on three pairs of Spanx to get into a dress that used to fit so we can head into the city instead of being at home around the fireplace with our family. And when I say family, I mean, me, Frank, Cody, Cassidy, Lola, Louie and Bam. And usually we have a lot of company and friends!
When we first got this place, we felt that God had blessed us so much that we really better enjoy it before the real owners came back and kicked us out! We’ve always loved having our friends come and enjoy it with us, too. This past weekend we had more than 20 people here to see my daughter Cass perform in a play, and that’s really a joy. When you have a home that fits everyone in their own spot and the puppies are barking and the fire is roaring, kids are on the piano. . . it’s a real home. I have waited a long time to have a living room like this—in all beiges—because my kids are grown. The puppies are the ones who make the mess, but I forgive them! They don’t know any better, but my kids do! We are so blessed because everyone who works with us at our home—we have some incredible people—all love the dogs just as much as we do.
L+D: You have interviewed many incredible people. Who interests you or impresses you the most?
KLG: There have been a few people in my career from when I started doing it with Regis in 1985 that have really just been amazing. My two favorite celebrities were Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman. And when I thought about it later, it was because while I admired their life’s work enormously, they’re the two people that lived their celebrity life in a way that inspired me the most. They lived their lives to help other people and nobody has ever set a higher standard. Angelina does it now—she has six kids and you see her in Cambodia!—and I admire very much people who realize how blessed they are and use their talents and their position and platform that they have to make the world a better place for other people.
L+D: What was it like meeting these legends?
KLG: When I met Audrey Hepburn, I was still doing the show with Regis and she had flown all night long from Ethiopia where she was doing work for UNICEF. Nobody knew at the time that she had colon cancer. She was my favorite movie star, and yet there was this humility about her—a pure joy; I have never met a more beautiful human being. And you read her story and realize everything she and her family endured during World War II and see that out of pain and suffering can come gratitude and an appreciation for the people you bond most with in life. Legends such as Ms. Hepburn have a profound sense of respect and don’t take a single thing for granted.
And with Paul I had the extreme pleasure of becoming great friends with him before he passed away; nobody raised more money for charity than Paul. He was one of the most delightful human beings you would ever want to share a beer with. He was just so real!
L+D: What are some of your favorite memories from your legendary career?
KLG: In 1995, we had Dr. Billy Graham at the house for my Christmas special. I sent a note asking him to come on the show and the first word that came back said, “Mr. Graham loves you, but he doesn’t ever do secular shows,” and I said all I wanted was for him to come to my house and read the Christmas story to my kids along with passages from our family Bible and it would be not only the highlight of my show, but the highlight of my life. And so he came to my house, and it was the most wonderful time…his visit created not only incredible work-related memories but memories that my family and I will cherish for the rest of our lives, and that’s what really counts.
It was also really fun in the beginning, before we went national and were local. It was fun to be local and not have the national spotlight on you, creating something unique and unusual with a woman and a man hosting a talk show without writers—the world hadn’t seen anything like that before. I’m really grateful that we had that.
L+D: There have been a lot of copies of that since then!
KLG: Oh yes! And everyone thinks it looks pretty easy. Of course, it’s not!
L+D: What is your favorite place to visit?
KLG: Well, my favorite place to go and enjoy myself is Italy. I love Italy. I love Italy so much that we made Cody in Italy. And here’s just how much I love Italy—I couldn’t tell you where! If you are just going to enjoy life and food and wine and people, then there is no place that I have ever been like Italy. I like lots of places, but I just adore Italy. If I don’t get to Italy once a year, then I feel like something is missing.
But my favorite place to visit is Israel. Of course, you don’t go to Israel for the food, but you go for the profound impact that it has on your soul. You go for the connection to the divine, the connection to where it all began, and according to scripture, where it will all end. It’s so profound that words cannot even describe it. The last time I went was more than 30 years ago when I missed my high school graduation to go to Jerusalem and study at the first international conference on biblical prophecy. I’ve always been fascinated by that sort of thing. I am so looking forward to going back. Frank and I are going with two huge big bags from L.L. Bean and no makeup and no Spanx, a giant baseball cap, and will have a trip that is purely for our soul.
Sometimes I think people fear the spiritual. They think that what they are going to discover is going to cost them something, when it’s really the exact opposite. What you are going to receive from it is a blessing beyond belief. But people are so afraid that they’re going to have to give something up, that they don’t open themselves up to it
L+D: And many people have very spiritual feelings about their companion animals.
KLG: Oh absolutely. And there has been so much research about healing and how dogs can help people heal. We had this amazing story this morning that we actually didn’t get a chance to share, but there was a woman in a car accident with her husband and two dogs, and her husband passed away as well as one of the dogs. The other dog, a sheepdog, was lost in the desert in Nevada, and the woman was in critical condition. After her pleas of help to find her dog, after 53 days— he was found! He had lost 20 pounds, but she has healed since they were reunited. She felt her husband’s spirit led her to the dog. And you ask yourself, ‘Are they not bonded for life?’
L+D: There are so many unbelievable stories of the bond between humans and dogs.
KLG: You know what I love so much about them is their trust. It reminds me of when I had my babies—they’re so fragile and they could be hurt so easily, and they look up at you with this unbelievable trust. The only thing that has ever come close to that is the look from the dogs. They don’t worry about their next meal; they don’t worry about anything because they know that you are going to take care of them. They don’t know whether they’re living in a mansion or a one-room flat. They don’t judge, they just love. If only we could learn to do that, what a world would we be in!
L+D: What are you most proud of in your career?
KLG: When I look back at what I am the most grateful for, it’s that I have been able to do so many different things that I love. When I was little my daddy said, “Honey, find something you love to do and then figure out a way to get paid for it.” And I love so many things—I love singing, I love acting, I love hosting, stand-up comedy, writing, theater—and I have been able to do it all. The only thing I haven’t done in the entertainment field is porn (laughs). But I have offers, if this TODAY show thing doesn’t work out! Seriously, though; I really am grateful for the opportunity that I have had to do so many different things—from making a little bit of television history with Regis that I am very proud of, to being on an iconic show like the TODAY show—and to be a woman in a world where a woman nearing 60 has something to offer! I am so glad the world has changed in that way— to realize that women have so much to offer.
L+D: We think most people wouldn’t have any idea you’re nearing 60!
KLG: Oh, well thank you to my dermatologist Dr. Wexler! Give credit where credit is due! But really, I think that if you are a happy person, it makes all the difference. I leave every morning and I have those three noses looking out at me waiting for me to come home, and I know I have it all. If I just had my career, I wouldn’t be happy. But if all I had was my family, I would. I am just so blessed that I get to have both. Life is a series of miracles if you open your eyes to it. And it all comes back to gratitude, and that I think is the most important word in the English language, besides love. Sometimes at night I wake up and am just overwhelmed with joy— gratitude for the life that God has given me, and the impact that I have been able to make on other peoples’ lives—and I reach down for Bam and my husband Frank’s hand will already be there. Our dogs are always there for us, aren’t they? It’s just devastating how short their lives are. You have to enjoy every moment together, because you never know how long you will have.
The other thing right now in my life I am proud of is the musical theater work I’m doing right now. It changes every day! I can’t have babies anymore, but I can give birth to five songs! I am getting to work with different collaborators and experiencing different energies and loving everything about it.
L+D: So what are some of the difficulties of the work that you do?
KLG: Well, I have a job that there are sadly people who would run over their grandmother for. And I am so grateful for it. I’ve never in my life worked with a greater group of people than I do right now. There is a crew of more than 200 people in New York working on the TODAY show and it is an incredible family. We kid with each other, we play with each other, we pray with each other, and I am just stunned at how amazing it can be. So I love every bit of my job. For me, the hardest part about it though is the New York winters. I get Seasonal affective disorder and get sad in the winters, and my kids are in sunny California while we’re under six feet of snow…every year I try and convince our producers we need to be doing more in California!
The other hard part, to be honest with you, is the change in our culture where the ‘stars’ are required to interview reality stars. Where I used to be interviewing people like Audrey Hepburn and Paul Newman on a daily basis, now we look at reality stars as celebrities. And while I respect them very much as human beings, I don’t have respect for them as a person of accomplishment in terms of the arts—so it’s hard to feel the same way about them. They haven’t made gorgeous movies, they haven’t performed on Broadway, they haven’t made music that brings joy to you, and they haven’t achieved something based on talent. So it’s hard to look at a steady lineup of reality starts—some of which are my close friends—and sit there with a straight face and ask certain questions. God love Snookie, but I don’t really want to talk to Snookie. But it’s my job and the world that we live in today. Maybe I am a purest because I started in this industry when you couldn’t get a record deal if you couldn’t sing, and you had to work on your talent.
That’s why I am trying to write musicals that are brand new in concept but created in the old vein, where you are transported to another time and place—and you come out changed. I keep trying to put that in the universe, and half the time the universe yawns. But you have to keep trying.
L+D: What was is it like to win an Emmy on the Today show?
KLG: You know what, I was nominated for 11 with Regis and I left and he won right away! I used to say all the time that it didn’t matter if you won or not, and then this one day I got this box and it sat there and I opened it up and said, “OH MY GOSH! —inside was my first Emmy! Frank has three, of course, and always used to tell me I could borrow one of his, but I always said “I don’t want to borrow yours!” It was a total thrill to receive it. Anyway, I sort of felt like the Susan Lucci of daytime talk, and after you haven’t won it for that many years on end and you finally do win it, it’s really sweet. And I was 57 before I won, and then we won again the next year! And my biggest idol now is Betty White, who is winning them now at her age!
L+D: So we know that you’re really passionate about the theater. Tell us what draws you to it.
KLG: My mom and dad. They took us to the theater when I was a little girl —all summer long we used to go this little theater in the round under a tent. I remember it being so hot and watching Camelot, and Guinevere was making an entrance down an aisle but standing next to me in total character. My arm touched the fabric on her gown and I could see the sweat glistening all over from the hot costume outside in August, and I remember thinking, “Oh my GOSH. GuineVERE!” That was it for me, the magic and mystery just took me away.
I started putting on shows in my backyard right away. Our family dog at the time, Zoro, was in every show. He was a terrible actor, but sure did wear costumes very well (laughs). From then on I was just hooked.
L+D: Did you always have dogs in your life growing up?
KLG: I have always had a dog, except when I was in college. I remember praying when I was a little girl that God would not take Zoro until I was in college, because I couldn’t bear the thought of being without him. And my freshmen year in college he passed away and it was an answered prayer for me. At that time, I just couldn’t be there when my daddy had to take him and put him down.
L+D: And what word would you use to best describe your love of dogs?
KLG: Delicious. And the way you need food, you need dogs. Because they’re delicious. They’re a necessity in my life.
We couldn’t agree more! Thank you so much to Kathie Lee, as well as her Today Show and home teams for welcoming us and making this experience so memorable…and fun! To keep up with Kathie Lee, tune in to the fourth hour of Today, visit www.KLGandHODA.com or follow her on Facebook and Twitter @KathieLGifford.
This article was written by LIFE+DOG editor Ryan Rice.
To read more from Ryan, visit his blog on our site.