COVER STORY

THE TV HOST SAYS IT’S NEVER TOO LATE TO CHANGE YOUR DI­REC­TION AND CHASE YOUR DREAMS

Closer Weekly - - Contents - By LOUISE A. BARILE

To­day co-host Kathie Lee Gif­ford proves it’s never too late to start over and fol­low your dreams.

Kathie Lee Gif­ford grew teary-eyed as she gave an emo­tional thank-you speech dur­ing To­day ’s Christ­mas lunch at Black­barn res­tau­rant in Man­hat­tan. Telling the crowd, which in­cluded co-hosts like Al Ro­ker and Sa­van­nah Guthrie, that she felt “blessed” to have worked with them, she called out a spe­cial trib­ute to her fourth-hour pal Hoda Kotb. “Hoda-mama,” she gushed. “I will love her un­til the day I die — which could be at any minute now.”

Her joke drew a big laugh from the cast and crew — but don’t count this show busi­ness vet­eran out yet. At 65, vi­va­cious Kathie Lee is just get­ting started on the next chap­ter in her ca­reer and life. “It’s an ex­cit­ing time for me, and I’m thrilled about all of the projects that are com­ing up,” she says. “But it’s also hard, be­cause I love ev­ery­body here so much.”

Though she’s made host­ing feel-good tele­vi­sion look easy since she de­buted on Live With Regis and Kathie Lee in 1988, the TV star had been con­sid­er­ing de­part­ing To­day, which she joined in 2008, for quite some time. “Ev­ery­one knew that she wanted to leave for at least two or three years, longer even,” says a show in­sider. “She stayed be­cause of her love for Hoda and for the crew.” A day af­ter her an­nounce­ment, Kathie Lee ap­peared at ease with her big de­ci­sion. “I feel so re­lieved,” she said on the air. “I’ve known it was com­ing for a long, long time.”

THE REA­SON SHE QUIT

Kathie Lee, who cel­e­brated her 10th an­niver­sary on air with Hoda in April, had in­tended to re­tire from To­day in 2017, but Matt Lauer’s sud­den de­par­ture that year due to a sex scan­dal made the net­work brass plead with Kathie Lee to stay.

She agreed, but the tur­moil at To­day only made her more de­ter­mined to quit the show. “What she calls ‘the messy Megyn [Kelly] and Matt year’ re­ally soured her,” says the in­sider, who ex­plains that Kathie Lee was upset by all the vi­cious gos­sip and back­room deal­ing that went on in the wake of the fir­ings. “Matt was no an­gel, but the scram­ble to get his job — it was pretty nasty. Kathie Lee found the lack of loy­alty ap­palling.”

The star saw a sim­i­larly cut­throat at­mos­phere emerge af­ter the net­work can-

“I leave To­day with a grate­ful heart.”

— Kathie Lee

celed Megyn Kelly To­day in Oc­to­ber. “One minute you’re a star and the next minute you’re the hot topic at the wa­ter cooler,” says the in­sider, who notes that the be­hind-thescenes race to be­come the per­son to re­place Megyn grew par­tic­u­larly ugly. “Some of the peo­ple she worked with seemed to change right be­fore her eyes. Kathie Lee is not go­ing to miss any of that.”

STAND­ING ALONE

It’s not just of­fice pol­i­tics that made her quit. Kathie Lee lost her beloved hus­band, Frank Gif­ford, in 2015 and last year her mother, Joan Ep­stein, passed away. Her chil­dren, Cody, 28, and Cas­sidy, 25, are grown now and lead­ing their own lives. “She wants to now, at this point in her life, be re­spon­si­ble only for her­self, not her fam­ily or To­day,” says the in­sider. “This is a piv­otal time for her.”

Though she misses be­ing a part of a large chaotic house­hold, she finds her new free­dom to do what she pleases more ex­hil­a­rat­ing than fright­en­ing. Kathie Lee knows it’s her mo­ment to fol­low her dreams. “All these other projects have been bub­bling up and it’s so ex­cit­ing,” she gushes. “Movies and mu­sic and so many won­der­ful things.”

Her courage to start over has a lot to do with her iron­clad faith in God and des­tiny. “She be­lieves 100 per­cent in Je­sus Christ, so nerves have never been a part of Kathie Lee’s char­ac­ter,” says the in­sider. Her late hus­band, Frank, also in­spired her to be­lieve in her­self. “Frank en­cour­aged her, while he was here and well, to do what was in her heart,” ex­plains the in­sider. “And Kathie Lee is an artist in her heart.”

In this new chap­ter of her life, Kathie Lee has re­solved to “put some good into the world” as ac­tor and phi­lan­thropist Paul New­man did. “I learned from him and from Au­drey Hep­burn, the great­est ex­am­ples of how a per­son can be blessed to have a ca­reer that the world no­tices, but at the same time, you un­der­stand it’s not about you,” Kathie Lee con­fides. “It’s for a pur­pose. So, I just em­u­lated peo­ple like that. I thought, That’s the per­son I want to be.”

To that end, many of Kathie Lee’s fu­ture

“I’ve al­ways tried to be an authen­tic per­son.”

— Kathie Lee

projects will be based in her Chris­tian be­liefs. “She wants a shot at hav­ing a suc­cess­ful faith-based mu­si­cal on Broad­way,” says the in­sider. “She loves do­ing TV cameos, and wants to do faith-based in­die films — to act, write, pro­duce and even direct!” The per­former, who has re­leased 14 al­bums since 1992, hopes to get back into the record­ing stu­dio, too. “A new Christ­mas CD could be ahead for her,” says the in­sider.

Kathie Lee has told close friends that she’s fi­nally ready for new love, too. “She has men in her life, pla­tonic friends that she has din­ner with but noth­ing se­ri­ous — al­though she is open to it,” re­veals the in­sider, who says that Hoda is con­stantly on the look­out for suit­able men to set up with her friend. “Kathie Lee is look­ing for a man with the unique qual­i­ties that Frank had: faith, strength and kind­ness,” says the in­sider.

KISS TO­DAY GOOD­BYE

Say­ing farewell to Hoda, who has be­come far more than a co-host, will be the hard­est part for Kathie Lee, who ad­mits that she never ex­pected to make such an emo­tional con­nec­tion at work. “I did not want to come back to tele­vi­sion. I was go­ing to do it for one year,” she says. “But you start shar­ing your life and you fall in love with this per­son.” The star’s fa­vorite mem­o­ries with Hoda on To­day in­clude “the naked show” — where the hosts ap­peared to do an episode with­out clothes — their on­air girl talk, their many road trips and, of course, toast­ing each other with a glass of wine ev­ery episode. “You be­come gen­uine friends,” Kathie Lee says.

She will re­main on the show through her 11th an­niver­sary on April 7, al­low­ing am­ple op­por­tu­nity for Hoda, as well as fans and friends, to say good­bye and cel­e­brate her sto­ried TV ca­reer. Kathie Lee gushes that she made “a mil­lion mem­o­ries with peo­ple I will never for­get…but I’m truly ex­cited for this new creative sea­son in my life.”

“Many thanks to all the peo­ple who made the years fly by.”

— Kathie Lee

“No­body was more sur­prised than I was when we fell in love,” she says of Frank, whowas 23 years older.

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