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Kathie Lee Gifford: I Can Handle the Spotlight Better Now

04/03/2008 at 11:40 AM EDT

Kathie Lee Gifford: I Can Handle the Spotlight Better Now
Kathie Lee Gifford
Virginia Sherwood/NBC
Kathie Lee Gifford had no intention of returning to TV – she just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

"I was having lunch with a friend at [Manhattan restaurant] Michael's on Nov. 7, and Hoda [Kotb] ambushed me and said, 'Will you come on the Today show?' " Gifford, still lively at 54, told PEOPLE the day of Matt Lauer's announcement that she would co-host the NBC morning program's 10 a.m. fourth hour. She starts next Monday.

After the fateful meal, which lasted into the evening, Gifford could foresee the same on-air chemistry she shared with Regis Philbin as also taking place with Kotb, "For 15 years Regis and I had a ball, and that's why it was successful. I know now that Hoda and I can have fun together, too," she says.

Ultimately, Gifford adds, she was convinced to come aboard Today because, "This show is about other people, not about the hosts. Thank God it's older than I am. It's 56 years old. But I'm now the oldest person on the show!"

And that may be a good thing, especially in terms of dealing with the media spotlight. "I can handle it better now, and I'm wiser," says Gifford. "At my age, you give up your thighs but you gain wisdom."

For more of Gifford's interview, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE magazine, on newsstands Friday.

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