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So What Do You Do, Kathie Lee Gifford?

The co-host of Today's fourth hour weighs in on Silda Spitzer, Katie Couric and the joys of menopause

- May 21, 2008
It's been almost eight years since Kathie Lee Gifford said goodbye to 'Reege' and turned over her stool on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee to Kelly Ripa. Except for a few television appearances (including a gig as the first female guest host to fill in for David Letterman), the perennially perky Gifford says she was content to step out of the limelight of the small screen. After leaving Live, she says she found "true joy" in her second career as playwright in musical theatre, penning the critically acclaimed Under the Bridge, based on the children's book, The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson, and Saving Aimee, about the life and times of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.

Then, seemingly out of the blue (Gifford would be the first one to agreement with that assessment), she was back on morning television last month as the co-host of Today's estrogen-infused fourth hour with Hoda Kotb. While she's no longer sharing stories about mothering kids Cody and Cassidy ("It's not the same kind of show Live was, it's more like The View where we discuss events of the day"), Gifford is as unabashed as ever about offering her opinions about everything from Botox (she says she uses it) to Viagra (she's speculated men are using it more these days). With new BFF Kotb -- the twosome lunch regularly at Michael's and even have a weekly Wednesday date to take in a matinee -- Gifford is back with a vengeance, happily embracing the moniker of a menopausal fifty-something woman (both issues come up frequently in conversation) with the same zest that made her a fan favorite -- and media target -- during her days on Live.

From the back of a town car shuttling her from New York City to her home in Greenwich, Connecticut with daughter Cassidy (who was sound asleep) at her side having accompanied mom to Today to celebrate 'Take Our Daughters to Work Day,' the tireless Gifford called in to offer her thoughts on surprising second acts, why Silda Spitzer is (for now) standing by her man and the reason television critics' are so tough on "strong women."

Name: Kathie Lee Gifford
Position: Co-host of fourth hour, Today
Resume: Joined Today last month after a nearly eight year absence from morning television; her 15-year run on Live with Regis & Kathie Lee ended in 2000. Prior to Live was a correspondent for Good Morning America for three years. Landed her first television gig in 1974 as the singer on Name That Tune.
Birthdate: August 16, 1953
Hometown: Born in Paris, France and raised in Annapolis, Maryland. "My daddy was an attach� to General Eisenhower -- that's how far back I go. They were very happy years. We didn't move to America until I was five years old."
Education: Attended Oral Roberts University. "I left after two and half years because I already knew what I wanted to do. I was like a racehorse in the gate. I wanted to learn by doing. I wanted to work more than I wanted my degree. I wouldn't recommend it for everybody, but it was the right thing for me."
Marital status: Married to Frank Gifford; two children -- Cody and Cassidy.
First section of the Sunday Times: "I don't read it."
Favorite TV show: "I am a news junkie. I really don't watch the entertainment programs."
Guilty pleasure: "It's got to be theater. I don't know that it's so guilty but any time I get to go to a musical or a play� I love movies, too."
Last book read: "It was a novel a friend sent to me who said, 'This book will change your life.' It's called The Shack which is self-published and they're in their tenth printing already. You will never think about God the same way again after reading that book. It's so creative and out of the box."

You came back to morning television after an almost eight-year absence. How did it happen?
It happened at Michael's.

I knew there had to be a reason I was seeing you there more and more.
I was there on November last year. Hoda [Kotb], Natalie Morales and [ex-producer] Amy Rosenblum just sort of ambushed me. I was saying hello to Jonathan Tisch, who is an old friend, and they were sitting with him and just went, 'We want you to come on the Today show.' I said, 'I don't really have anything right now to promote. And they said, 'No, we want you to cohost. Can you do it tomorrow?' (Laughs) I said, 'No.' After I checked with my assistant Christine, she said I could do it the following Wednesday. So I ended up doing it that Wednesday and before a half an hour of it was through, several of the NBC executives were down on the floor with me asking, 'Would you ever consider doing this again?' It was just so not on my radar. I said, 'Thank you, that is so nice but I don't think so.' So they said, 'Can you come back tomorrow?' And I said, 'No.' I was going out to Long Island because there was a production of my first musical, Under the Bridge, and I had promised to go out to work with the cast. They said, 'Can you come back Friday?' I said, 'No. I'm getting both my feet operated on.' I was out of commission for several months. It was winter, I think, when (vice president of NBC News) Elena Nachmanoff -- called about having a meeting. She's a very smart woman, a lovely woman. A really, really nice person and a straight shooter. I so appreciate that this point in my life. I can smell B.S. a mile away. I don't want to be around it.

I certainly didn't want to come in under the wrong expectations. It was just really important to me that they understood where I was at in my life. [Executive producer] Jim Bell came to my house a couple of times. He asked, 'What would it take if you ever did come back? What would the show look like?' I told them I liked Hoda very much. I had never met her before that day at Michael's. I hadn't watched the ten o'clock hour of the Today show. By 10 o'clock every morning, I was well into writing or on a set or studio somewhere. [Hoda and I] had a lunch at The Rainbow Room and they had to kick us out. They were serving dinner by the time we left. We laughed, we cried, we went to the ladies room. She said, 'Kathie, please think about it.' I said to Hoda, 'I just can't imagine.' Then people that I really respect like my husband and Christine said, 'Kathie, it's time. It's the right vehicle at the right time.' So I said yes and the next thing you know I was doing it.

How did you and Hoda prepare to work together?
Hoda came up to the house after the deal was done and the next time I saw her was the day we did the first show. We had never done a run through. We had no idea -- we thought we were only going to be outside that week just to sort of get a little excitement going. The show is basically developing as we do.

I heard the two of you go to a Broadway show every Wednesday afternoon.
I look forward to our Wednesday matinee day. We have lunch and just bond as friends and then we go see something new. It gives us something to talk about on the show the next day. I've seen other versions of many of the shows but she has never even seen these before, so it's so much fun to see them through her eyes. We saw Curtains -- my friend Rupert Holmes wrote that. David Hyde Pierce is so brilliant in it. Yesterday we went to see Crybaby. Next week we're going to see South Pacific. It's fun introducing Hoda to a whole new medium. It comes out of my passion. When I met with the producers before I signed on I said, "Listen guys, if you want me to come back to television, you have to let me come back with my passions intact, or I'll be miserable. It's got to be about music and theater and all that kind of stuff." They said, 'We understand.' They've been great that way. It's been an absolute delight to work with [producer] Brian [Balthazar] and Jim Bell and everybody at the Today show. It doesn't take any more than a 'How about this?' and the next thing you know, we're doing it.

How do you think you've changed since you've left and come back to television?
I'm innately the same person -- I'm too old to change at this point. The difference is, I do care less what other people think. You develop a very tough skin about the things that don't matter. As long as you have a tender heart about the things that do, then you're okay. I'm still candid about things but at the same time, there are places I will not go. But you know what? That was the same way before -- maybe it didn't seem that way. I always edited myself. I have secrets that will go to my grave. If someone tells me, 'I don't want this discussed,' it's not. The only way I've changed is that I've discovered at a late time in life something that fulfills me on a level that I didn't dream existed and that's writing. I hope that can be an encouragement to other people that thought that their life was always basically what they thought it was going to be and there are no more surprises left. That is not true. If you're open to learning, you can get surprised by some lovely things in life. Nothing surprises me more than the joy I get from writing -- whether it's a screenplay, a song or stage show.

If you set yourself up on a pedestal, you're asking for disaster. We do not live perfect lives, and we are not perfect people.

You took a lot of hits in the press during your days on Live. I'm curious to hear what you think about the media firestorm surrounding Katie Couric. Do you find it at all sexist?
I don't know. I just ran into [CBS Evening News producer] Rick Kaplan today. He was my producer at Good Morning America. Frank once said, 'We're a very forgiving country. America will forgive anything except success.' We do love to build people up to tear them down.' Not a lovely quality, but it's true. I think it's just her turn to be in the barrel. We should not take these things so personally -- sometimes people think you have too much, and they need to remind you that you have feet of clay. I think it's unfair. Obviously, she was hired because she is a very fine broadcaster. Only she and the CBS executives can decide if it was the wrong decision for her. It's not any of my business. I feel for her. It's not fun to read those kinds of things about yourself. It's easy to get a paranoid attitude like the whole world is against you when they truly aren't. When you're in the middle of a firestorm like that, you think that's all people are talking about. It's not. It may come up at a cocktail party, but none of us are so important that it's all anybody is talking about.

When I interviewed Deborah Norville at the end of last year she discussed the difficult time the press gave her when she replaced Jane Pauley. Why are the critics seemingly so much harder on women in broadcasting -- particularly morning television?
I think they are very threatened by strong women to this day. I don't think the press is equally as tough on Obama as they have been on Hillary. Maybe they have had more to deal with on Hillary since she's been around longer, but I think it's hard to be a woman in the world. It's still very much a man's world. But we're seeing great progress, and we should not lose sight of that.

There's so much blather today about 40 being the new 20 and 50 being the new 30. How much pressure do you feel to look a certain way for your new job in a medium so obsessed with youth?
I'm over 50 so I'm just so grateful to still be here and feel as good as I do. Nothing is easy in life. It gets harder as you get older. Being healthy is a choice I make every day. I just came from Michael's where I had my usual free-range chicken and spinach without the French fries. You can have it all, but you can't have it all at once. Even though I exercise, I had to lose a little weight before I started this show because I had gotten into the habit of putting on my sweat pants and scrunchie every day to go to work and sit there writing. I had put on 10 pounds since the last time I'd been on camera, so I had to get rid of it. Hoda is like 5' 10," so the better thing to do instead of dieting myself into a frenzy is to say, "Can you believe the legs on this woman? She's an Egyptian goddess." Just be honest about it. If anything is missing in our culture today -- everybody is putting a spin on everything. I've just always tried to be as honest as I could with people and by being that way they see your humanity. You might live a life that, in some people's eyes, is more thrilling or exciting, but you never want people to feel worse about themselves because they're watching you -- you want them to feel better. So by making fun of yourself, you put people at ease about their own problems. We're all in this together. If you set yourself up on a pedestal, you're asking for disaster. We do not live perfect lives, and we are not perfect people.

Speaking of setting yourself up for disaster, two days after you joined Today you were sitting there talking about Elliot Spitzer and how Silda Spitzer was handling the very public embarrassment she faced. You made the comment that she was doing what she needed to do to keep her family together as you did when you were faced with the public scandal involving Frank. Did that feel at all funny to you?
It was the truth, and it helps people who might be facing the same situation get through it. I've had thousands and thousands of letters and emails from people who have gone through that who have said it encouraged them that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It's not that you stop loving. You don't like them for a while. You get mad. You're very mad and very hurt. The trouble with love in our society is that we only have one word for it. You look at the original Greek there's all different kinds of [words for] love. Unfortunately, we live in an Eros-saturated society where we only think of that kind of love. Well, that's too bad when you go through something in life that challenges that concept. We also live in an instant society. We want to take a pill for everything that ails us. Certain things in life cannot be hurried. With certain things, there is no magic pill -- you are going to have to go through it.

You shared a great deal of yourself with viewers when you did Live, but these days there is a particular breed of celebrity that just lives to be in front of the camera 24/7 with reality shows that follow their every move. Where do you think we are culturally as it relates to that? Have too many 'personalities' given too much of themselves?
I think so. There is so little mystery. So little romance. That's what missing in our sitcoms, our movies -- there's so little imagination left anymore. I think it's a shame. I'm trying to raise my children to understand the difference. At the same time, I don't want to raise my daughter on, 'They lived happily ever after.' That's bunk, too.

Are you encouraging your kids to go into the business?
I've always encouraged them to be whatever they want to be and to do it the best they possibly can. Every child deserves their own dream. I never understood parents who say, 'You've got to be a doctor because you're father is a doctor.' I'm surprised both our children have chosen to go into the entertainment field. I'm delighted, but I wouldn't have cared if they wanted to do something else either as long as they're wonderful human beings. That's what we raised them to be. The choice of their vocation is up to them.

What happens to your musicals and writing now that you have this other day job?
I finish at 11 [a.m.] -- I get there at 7:30 [a.m.] and I'm out of there at 11. I do my best writing in the middle of the night anyway. I'm menopausal. I never sleep. I can get by on four hours. I haven't slept a night through since I was pregnant with Cody 19 years ago. What I would give for that, but I don't want to do the drug route.

So how are you going to fit everything in?
[The producers] understand that there are going to be times when I can't be there, and they've been great about it. That was the understanding going in. They knew this wasn't something I was looking for. Probably, if I called my agent a year ago and I said, "I'm dying. I gotta get back on television. Get me on the Today show!' It wouldn't have worked out. The fact that I didn't care, wasn't looking for it, and it came to me was because I was already doing what I loved doing.

I know people get sick of me saying it, but my daddy used to say: 'Find something you love to do, then figure out a way to get paid for it.' That's where you're true success will be -- it may not be success the way the world defines it, but it will be true. I want to be happy. I've had all the fame and fortune. It's people that have never had fame or fortune that long for it. They don't know the price that comes with it. I wasn't looking to go down that road again. I was never seeking it at any time. It just happened. I left a national show -- Good Morning America -- to join a local show [Live with Regis and Kathie Lee]. I didn't care, but because I was happy and doing what I loved, success followed.

Do you have new musicals in development?
I have two. I've got a preschoolers' musical called Party Animal and I've got another one I'm very excited about called Key Pin It Real -- It's about a little surfer girl called "Key Pin" Mackenzie who is like a modern day Gidget. She lives in Malibu and is a surfer, and she's trying to be a natural 13-year-old when all these kids are getting plastic surgery and all want to be Paris Hilton. It's hard for a young girl like that who wants to keep it real. I wrote it two years ago for my daughter who is almost 15 now, and we've set it to music. I'm going down for the first read the minute the show ends tomorrow. That's the only difference now -- I can't commit to everything. I use my weekends wisely.

What would you consider your greatest success?
Never presenting a false front. Just being who I am. "To thine own self be true" is a clich� because it's true. It's not that I take any great pride in anything -- I'm very grateful that I was raised by two parents who told me how important that was, and I've tried to pass that on to my children. They ask, 'Aren't you so proud?' And I say, 'No. I'm never proud in that sense.' I do believe pride comes before the fall. I'm extremely grateful. That's the other thing that's missing in our society besides common decency -- it's an attitude of gratitude.

What's been your biggest disappointment?
I don't think negatively, but I guess my greatest disappointment is that my daddy isn't still alive. No one ever embraced life more heartily or joyfully than my daddy. He died five and a half years ago. My only disappointment is that he is not here to see his grandchildren growing up, see my new musicals or turn on the television every morning at 10 a.m. and see me. But I'm also grateful that he's not suffering anymore. I don't look at things negatively. I don't think it benefits you in any way.

The first thing people should learn to say in life besides 'please' and 'thank you' is, 'I'm sorry' and 'forgive me.' All of those things are lost in our culture. Learning how to forgive, learning how important it is to forgive on a daily basis -- sometimes it's forgiving yourself, sometimes it's forgiving a partner, forgiving your parents for things left undone. Whatever it is, do yourself a favor and forgive. If you don't, you will pay a huge consequence.

Do you have a motto?
My faith has been so important to me in my life ever since I was a child. There's a wonderful scripture that says, 'Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness' -- meaning his justice. 'And everything else will be added unto you.' I think we're messed up in the world. I'm not trying to tell people to believe the way I believe but in general, people who seek more of a heavenly consciousness have much more peace in their lives than people who seek treasure. I just have a peacefulness because I try to live my life vertically between me and my maker. When all is well between me and my maker, it's quite interesting that everything is horizontally much better as well. It's when I put the horizontal first in my life that's when I get all screwed up. I'm not a religious person; I'm a deeply spiritual person. I want to live in the moment because all we have is right now.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor of FishbowlNY .

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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