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- November 02, 1992
- Vol. 38
- No. 18
Kathie Lee's Story
Regis's Sidekick Opens Up About Her Previous Marriage, a Miscarriage, and Family LIfe with Frank
This is classic Kathie Lee: Determined. Funny. Upbeat. Ready to meet all challenges. (And pining for her Frank, whom she calls "the tight end of my dreams.") But there is another side to the naughty-but-nice morning show star—whose sunny days with son Cody, 2½, and lovey-dovey nights with husband Frank Gifford are all grist for her talk show mill—and it is one that the 10 million viewers of Live with Regis & Kathie Lee may be less familiar with. For buried beneath that Carnival Cruise Lady exterior is a past that includes a disastrous first marriage and years of hard, sometimes humiliating work before she found her cozy place at Regis Philbin's side.
As she sits in the peach-and-cream living room of her Greenwich, Conn., renovated farmhouse, munching on Twizzlers, she is in a thoughtful mood. For Kathie Lee has just spent the past year dredging up half-forgotten moments in order to write (in collaboration with PEOPLE contributor Jim Jerome) her autobiography, I Can't Believe I Said That! Though the best-selling book is full of those oddball turns of phrase that make Kathie Lee what she is—her recollection of the first "wing-wang" she ever saw (on her childhood dog, Zorro) and her pet name for the saddlebags on her thighs ("wuggies")—writing it was sometimes tough going. "I would sob for hours about certain incidents," she says, her eyes brimming over even now. "I've suffered in ways that are perhaps going to be surprising to people. But my message is: Trust God with your life, and He'll make something beautiful out of it. It may take a long time, but He will."
Not that her life story was wrought of hardship alone. Kathie Lee Epstein was born in 1953 in Paris, to Aaron, a chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy who'd been posted to France, and his wife, Joan (their son, David, was 3, and Michele came along in 1955). She describes her childhood as a "warm fuzzy bubble that didn't burst for years." When Kathie Lee was 4, the family returned to the U.S. and set up house in Bowie, Md. Her parents, with whom she is still close, were like "Ward and June Cleaver crossed with Billy and Ruth Graham," she says.
In fact one night when Kathie Lee was 11, Joan Epstein, while watching Billy Graham on TV, announced she had been born again. Soon after, Kathie Lee took her own "walk with Jesus," as did her sister. Aaron Epstein, a nonobservant Jew, also "rededicated himself to the Lord," says his older daughter. A year or two later, Kathie Lee learned what had precipitated her mother's spiritual awakening: In 1957, when Kathie Lee was 4, Joan had had an abortion rather than have an unwanted fourth child. (Says Kathie Lee now: "When she told me about it, I didn't judge her. The one thing that suffering should do for a person is make you compassionate.")
So while other kids greeted the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, Kathie Lee was busy "doing needlepoint to Streisand," cheerleading, and singing folk songs with her sister at Veterans Administration functions and local coffeehouses. When she was 17, she won Maryland's Junior Miss Pageant and went off to the national contest where her idol, Anita Bryant, was a judge. Kathie Lee was disqualified from the finals (in her usual bubbly way, she'd made friends with a member of the pageant staff, not knowing that it was against the rules even to talk to boys), but after high school she landed a job in Key Biscayne, Fla., working as a nanny to Bryant's four children. Says Gifford, who was later dismayed by some of Bryant's public statements condemning gays: "She was very very good to me."
In 1972, grooming Kathie Lee for a career in Christian entertainment, Bryant arranged for her to attend Oral Roberts University in Tulsa on a full music scholarship. Gifford eventually became one of the minister's World Action Singers, a group Roberts featured on his evangelical TV show. But Kathie Lee never felt entirely comfortable at the university. "They tried to cookie-cutter all of us," she says. "I wanted the diversity of life. God went to the trouble to make us unique. They wanted us to believe the same way, think the same way."
A few credits shy of graduating, Kathie Lee left Oral Roberts, rented an apartment in Tulsa and wrote a spiritual diary about coming of age in the '60s (which was eventually published in 1976 as The Quiet Riot and earned her $10,000). In 1975 Kathie Lee made the big move to Los Angeles and began the struggle to launch a performing career—auditioning for commercials, landing big parts in soap operas and recording gospel albums.
Not that performing was the only thing on Kathie Lee's mind. "I was the Last Hollywood Virgin," she writes, and at 22, she was eager to change that. Which may explain her instant attraction to the leader of her Bible study group, 29-year-old Paul Johnson, a blue-eyed, golden-haired gospel composer. After a tortuous courtship, with Paul drawing close and pulling back, they married in 1976. Kathie Lee had convinced herself that Paul was "the ultimate Christian catch." On their wedding night in Acapulco, she learned how wrong she was.
She writes: "It was, like, YABBA-DABBA-DOO! I lost every inhibition I'd ever had. It was time for candles and romance, time to boogie and swing from the chandeliers. And yet we just couldn't seem to get relaxed with each other." She spent the night sobbing her eyes out, though it would be years before she and Paul found the courage to get a divorce.
She says now, her voice trembling with emotion, "[The marriage] was a real disappointment to me, as I know it was for Paul. We all want to love and be loved, and when it doesn't happen, it's devastating." One of the hardest things to accept, she adds, was that "we saved ourselves for so long and expected it to be so good because we had done it 'right.' " The two never managed to settle into a comfortable sexual relationship. Says Kathie Lee: "It was not passionate, and it was not successful, but it was polite."
But she thought she was married for life. So for six wrenching years, Kathie Lee and Paul Johnson lived an "illusion." She kept their one-bedroom ranch house in L.A. clean (vacuuming and weeping, dusting and weeping, mopping and weeping) and prepared candlelight dinners that ended not in romance but in more tears. Husband and wife sought help from both therapists and pastors, but nothing helped. Ironically, just as Kathie Lee began spending her nights in the guest bedroom, she and Paul were becoming a hot couple in gospel-music circles, performing together and gracing covers of Christian magazines.
In the late 1970s, Kathie Lee threw herself into a separate career as well. She became the "La-La Lady" on the syndicated music quiz show $100,000 Name That Tune (singing "la la" in place of the actual words), a "Hee-Haw Honey" on a spin-off of the original Hee Haw, and she opened in Vegas for the likes of Bill Cosby and Bob Hope.
Despite her growing success, like many struggling performers, Gifford reveals that she was occasionally a victim of sexual harassment. Once, she writes, while riding in the car of a man she describes only as a well-known Hollywood player, "he suddenly grabbed my hand and forced it on his lap. He had subjected me to an unspeakably humiliating and disgusting violation." Asked now win she won't name the culprit, Kathie Lee responds simply, "It's not my job to. It's God's job."
In 1981, Kathie Lee came home one day to find that Paul had moved out. She was devastated. "At the end of my marriage, I felt like I had presented myself as a gift to my husband that had been given back," she says. But she also acknowledges that getting divorced was the best thing that could have happened to her—both professionally and personally.
Six months later, when Good Morning America hired her to do some field pieces, she moved to Manhattan, set herself up in a basement apartment on the Upper West Side and occasionally filled in for Joan Lunden. Once, when David Hartman was also out of town, Kathie Lee caught a glimpse of her designated cohost at a mirror putting in his contact lenses. It was Frank Gifford. Her first impression—and one that has endured, as her fans well know was. "he's got an incredible set of buns." But Gifford, once a star halfback for the New York Giants and then, as now, a commentator on ABC's Monday Night Football, was 23 years her senior and still married to his second wife, Astrid.
Kathie Lee was still reeling from the breakup of her own marriage. So, though her mother, who had seen the onscreen chemistry, had already decided that Frank was "smitten" with her daughter, Kathie Lee spent the next couple of years dating a string of men, including banker Stan Pottinger, an ex-beau of Gloria Steinem's. "I did live a very full life before Frank," she says of those years. "Let's just say I was not the best little girl in the world anymore."
Still, Kathie Lee and Frank became fast friends, and each of the nine times she broke up with Pottinger she would cry on Gifford's shoulder. Finally, Gifford, who by that time was going through his own acrimonious divorce from Astrid, told her, "That's it! You're hanging out with me." She soon realized, she says, "I don't ever want to go through one day of my life with this man not in it." The two were married on Oct. 18, 1986, on the beach in Bridgehampton, N.Y. "[Frank] is a traditional guy, and his attitude was, 'You're mah woman,' " she says. "Some women regard that as a Neanderthal approach and find it appalling; I found it appealing and sexy."
Even now, with her husband out of town for five days, Kathie Lee is counting down the hours till his return. "I fully intend to be bubble-bathed with candles lit," she says. "Who knows what condition he'll be in. A girl can only hope."
At around the same time she and Frank were falling into each other's arms, Kathie Lee clicked with another important older man. Regis Philbin, who had his own morning show, had been watching Kathie Lee's regular GMA appearances, and he liked what he saw. "My God, she is so alive!" Regis recalls thinking. "She makes David Hartman look like a young guy." Philbin, now 59, brought Kathie Lee on board The Morning Show in 1985, and their little sister/big brother repartee—entirely ad-libbed for 15 minutes every morning—became wildly popular in just one season.
The secret of success for Live with Regis & Kathie Lee (as the show was renamed in 1988) is, says Gifford, that "we don't take ourselves too seriously. And we haw a lot of fun at each other's expense."
In March 1990, Cody Newton Gifford was born. Not since the birth of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's little Ricky in 1953 had a baby's arrival generated so much television attention. For, as she had frequently complained to her audience, Frank, now 62, had been reluctant to start a new family. (He has three children by his first wife, Maxine Ewart, and five grandchildren.) Finally, though, he caved in.
The utterly charming Codesville, as Kathie Lee is wont to call her son, was worth the wait. When his nanny, Christine Gardner, reveals that Cody has lately taken to kissing his image in the mirror, Kathie Lee gasps in mock horror, then says, "Well you know what? There's a lot to kiss. I don't mind narcissism. It's fine in a 2½-year-old—but I really start hating it when they're about 22."
Kathie Lee may have one of the best jobs on television, not to mention livelihoods as a celebrity spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Lines, Slim-Fast and Revlon, and as a singer (she has an album of old standards, Sentimental Journey, coming out in January), but still she finds herself struggling with the inevitable conflict between family and career. Though she can't imagine a weekday without her Reege, she says, "I've pondered putting everything on hold for 5 to 10 years and spending the time with Frank and Cody and any other gorgeous creatures that may come along."
Frank has happily thrown himself into late-life fatherhood, and the decision to try for a second child was his. He fell that his beloved Cody should have a little brother or sister. Says Kathie Lee: "It's the same way his heart softened the first time because he loved me."
But it was a decision that led to heartbreak. Kathie Lee was seven weeks pregnant when the family took a vacation in Colorado in August. After she and Frank celebrated their shared Aug. 16 birthday, Kathie Lee developed flulike symptoms and began cramping. Quickly, it was all over. "I will never forget leaning over the toilet and crying, 'Oh my God, oh my God,' " she writes, but she forced herself to calm down when Cody came in. Frank, she says now, "held me tighter than he's ever held me before."
But Hurricane Andrew, which hit South Florida two days later, made Gifford realize, she says, that "I couldn't feel sorry for myself." And so she and Cody went together to donate some baby clothes she had been saving for her next child to the storm's victims. Now, though she hopes to get pregnant again, the Giffords have also discussed the possibility of adoption. "All my life," she says, "I've had this rainbow-coalition concept in my mind. Wouldn't it be wonderful to adopt a hundred kids, all from a different part of the world?" After all, says Gifford, looking around her lovely home, "I'd rather have God give a baby to somebody who has been fighting infertility her whole life. I have enough to be happy for 10 lifetimes."
SUE CARSWELL in Greenwich
- Sue Carswell.
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