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A public couple confront trouble at home

IN ANECDOTE AFTER ANECDOTE, RECOUNTED TO an audience of millions in a voice of brassy confidence, Kathie Lee Gifford has made life with husband Frank sound so warm, so sexy, so comfy, it's easy to forget that the star of Live with Regis & Kathie Lee has never said things were perfect. Several years ago the couple appeared in an infomercial, Growing in Love, promoting Gary Smalley, a Branson, Mo., marriage consultant, and his line of self-help videotapes and books. Nestled next to Frank on a couch, Kathie Lee proclaimed, "Anybody who knows us knows that nothing is more important than our children and our relationship with each other. It is a source of tremendous joy and security."

These days, though, the Gifford family values are being scrutinized by millions as the couple struggle to weather what friend and counselor Smalley describes as a dreadful storm. "Right now," he says, "they're down in the basement and the wind is howling outside."

Call it Hurricane Suzen. It was unleashed by the tabloid the Globe, which has chronicled two rendezvous Gifford allegedly conducted with Suzen Johnson, a strikingly attractive—and married—46-year-old TWA flight attendant, at New York City's Regency Hotel on April 30 and May 1. At first the Giffords angrily branded as "total fabrication" Johnson's breathless, first-person account of her fling with the veteran football star and ABC Monday Night Football commentator, now 66. But after the tabloid countered by publishing frames from a video it had taped of the May 1 assignation, the Giffords did an abrupt 180: "This experience has been as painful for us as it would be for any other couple," they said in a statement. "However, we will get through this together. We ask that our privacy be respected at this difficult time."

That's a new one, coming from the effusive Kathie Lee, 43, who married Frank in 1986, after a four-year friendship-courtship that began when the two were working for ABC's Good Morning America. She and Frank, a "human love machine" with a great behind, as she has told viewers in her daily give-and-take with cohost Regis Philbin and her bestselling 1992 autobiography, I Can't Believe I Said That! are the parents of two beautiful children, Cody, 7 (who was just weeks old when he made his first appearance on air), and Cassidy, 3. The couple round out each day at their sprawling, seaside mansion in Greenwich, Conn., where, Kathie Lee has said, they pray and sit before a roaring fire, regardless of the season. (Deeply religious, Kathie Lee, who was "born again" at age 12, was previously married to gospel composer Paul Johnson.)

Kathie Lee has worked very hard to make herself—in the words of celebrity manager John Blake—"the American ideal of what a married woman should be." Frank, a grandfather who has three children from his 26-year marriage to first wife Maxine Gifford (including daughter Victoria, who is going through her own marital mayhem), has credited Kathie Lee with ending his roving-eye days. "I get along great with women, but there's no sexual undercurrent anymore," he wrote in his 1994 autobiography, The Whole Ten Yards. His one indiscretion, according to Kathie Lee, was the time he sleepwalked in the nude and wound up in the nanny's bedroom.

Now, overnight, Kathie Lee is a woman betrayed. "It's amazing what she's going through," said an indignant audience member at a recent Live taping, where Kathie Lee's entrance was met with thunderous, unprompted applause. "I don't blame the Globe. I'm mad at Frank." Frank's second wife, Astrid Gifford (they split in 1984 after six years), thinks the greater fault lies with the tabloid—but nonetheless finds his lapse in judgment incomprehensible. "What was he thinking?" wonders Astrid, who lives in Vail, Colo. "He really loves Kathie Lee and adores the children. This moment of weakness could destroy his life."

Others, however, were delighted to see the preternaturally perky entertainer nudged off her self-constructed pedestal. "How embarrassed is she?" gloated diss jockey Howard Stern, an inveterate Kathie Lee basher. "She looks like the biggest idiot." On Comedy Central's The Daily Show, host Craig Kilborn asked actor Ron Leibman, "Why are people so mean to Kathie Lee?" Leibman's answer: "Because she asks for it."

Last year, when it was revealed that her "Kathie Lee" clothing line for Wal-Mart was manufactured, in part, by children in Honduras and illegal immigrants in Manhattan's garment district, Frank went to the New York sweatshop and offered cash and hugs to the underpaid workers. As capitalism, some found the moment—documented by the previously alerted press—crass. As support for his wife—who, in a public-relations coup, transformed herself from an unwitting exploiter of children into an advocate for reformed labor standards—it was sweet. "Frank truly loves me enough to go through the fire with me," she later told Good Housekeeping.

This time, though, Frank is the problem, not the solution. According to the Globe's account, Suzen Johnson, married for more than 15 years to husband Harold, 65, a pool maintenance man in Delray Beach, Fla., met Frank when they sat next to each other on a flight from New York to Fort Lauderdale in 1993. By the end of the trip, she says, Frank had joked about Kathie Lee's frequently recolored hair and slipped her his private phone number. "There was definitely chemistry there," she relates. "We clicked."

Soon after, a telephone relationship ensued. "A couple of years ago there was some conversation about some calls from Frank Gifford," says a friend and a former employee of Harold Johnson's. "So I don't think this is anything new. Harold thought it was funny. He said, 'How ridiculous can it be?' " But the duo did not meet again, Suzen claims, until April 30 at the Regency. That day, she says, they drank wine, kissed and talked about his 40-year-old daughter Victoria's messy breakup with her husband, Michael Kennedy, over Kennedy's alleged affair with the family's teenage babysitter. The next day, after Frank lunched with his wife and friends at the pricey Le Cirque 2000 restaurant, he met Johnson again at the hotel. They snuggled, and soon retired to the bedroom.

They had company. Hidden video cameras documented the couple in their first intimate moments. Johnson, currently on leave from TWA, may have been paid by the Globe for her willingness to be seduced. The Washington Post reported a possible minimum fee of $75,000, but a Globe staffer describes that figure as "not reality." Whatever the sum, Globe editor Tony Frost has no qualms. "Frank Gifford was not dragged kicking and screaming to that room," he says.

The tabloid, already known for its dubious ethics and tradition of paying for stories, may have crossed a legal line as well on this one. As Gifford's lawyer Ron Konecky told PEOPLE: "We are currently exploring our legal options."

As for Johnson, in print she described her marriage as "shaky." Back in the '80s, though, recalls an old friend, "Suzen seemed to really adore Harold." Those were flush times. Harold, who has three children from a previous marriage, then owned a chain of fitness clubs in the Northeast. At one time, says the friend, "he had his own plane and Rolls-Royce." Now the Johnsons live in a tidy, rented duplex in Delray Beach, where neighbors say they keep a low profile. Suzen, who stays in condition at the gym and likes to sunbathe, is described by neighbors as "beautiful," "nice" and "almost too sweet—sweetie, sweetie, sweetie." In the week after the scandal broke, she disappeared altogether, while her husband didn't venture outside their home.

Seclusion is one luxury the Giffords don't have. "Kathie Lee is not just a public figure," says L.A. publicist David Brokaw. "We can't help but feel like an extension of her family." Brokaw does not represent the Giffords, but he did shepherd Roseanne through her divorce from Tom Arnold and believes Kathie Lee should simply explain the situation to viewers. Another Hollywood publicist, Larry Goldman, who handled Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens when he was arrested in 1991, suggests that Frank take the Hugh Grant route: shamefaced contrition. "If he did something wrong," says the publicist, "I'd suggest he say, 'Look, I did what I did, and I apologize to all of those that I have hurt, first and foremost my family. Now we'd like to get on with our lives.' "

What effect the imbroglio may have on either Gifford's career remains to be seen. Despite speculation that she might quit the show, Kathie Lee last week renewed her contract for another year. In Frank's case, "right now, ABC is standing behind him," says Los Angeles Times sports media columnist Larry Stewart. "For the gal who sits down and watches Monday night sports with her husband and likes Gifford, his image might be tarnished a little bit."

According to their relationship guru Smalley, all of his conversations with Kathie Lee and Frank have focused on continuing the marriage. "I sensed right from the beginning that they are both very interested in working this out." Frank turned up at Radio City to promote ABC's fall lineup but largely has stayed close to home. He is contrite, Smalley assures PEOPLE. "He has been so consistent to say how sorry he is, with tears and everything else." Kathie Lee, on the other hand, is angry and will be so for a while, Smalley predicts. "But Frank stuck by her last year, and now she is saying, 'I will stick with you through this.' When I think of couples with the courage to go on, they are near the top of the list."

There is no denying that Kathie Lee has put on a brave face. The same weekend the story was heading for newsstands, she accepted an honorary doctorate from Arlington, Va.'s Marymount University accompanied by both Frank and his daughter's mother-in-law, Ethel Kennedy. Then she delivered a fierce commencement address in which she denounced "a trash-for-cash world, where anyone at any time can stand up and say anything unkind, unfair or completely untrue about you—and then they're rewarded for it financially." Technically she was referring not to the fresh scandal, but to the sweatshop furor. She concluded by thanking her husband, "who stood by me, loved me, encouraged me and defended me.... I love him very much."

Back on the set the following week, she engaged in her usual badinage with "Reege"—one second telling him to wipe some spit from his cheek, the next recounting the kids' latest adventures. After the May 20 taping, she lingered afterward and greeted audience members. "She doesn't usually do that," says a fan in the studio. "Zip, she's out of there."

Nor has she been waxing rhapsodic about the man she nicknamed Lamb-chop. "They're in the middle of it," says Smalley, who flew east on May 14 to be with the couple for two days and has since been in touch with them by phone almost daily—once talking to Kathie Lee right up until airtime. "But pretty soon that is going to die down and they'll have to get back to the rebuilding process." Eventually, he hopes, Frank and Kathie Lee will be able to "talk about this whole thing and explain what happened and what they did about it. But," he adds, "who knows how long it could take before they're ready?"

TOM GLIATTO
with reports from MARY GREEN, MARIA SPEIDEL and CYNTHIA WANG in New York City, CINDY DAMPIER in Chicago, MARISA SALCINES and DON SIDER in Florida, JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles, VICKIE BANE in Colorado and MARY ESSELMAN in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Green,
  • Maria Speidel,
  • Cynthia Wang,
  • Cindy Dampier,
  • Marisa Salcines,
  • Don Sider,
  • John Hannah,
  • Vickie Bane,
  • Mary Esselman.