Tragic Details About Kathie Lee Gifford

The following article includes references to sexual assault.

For a few decades, and in a variety of ways, Kathie Lee Gifford has been one of the most relentlessly sunny people in the public eye, or at least in the entertainment industry. Starting off as a teenage pageant contestant named Kathie Lee Epstein, the multi-talented performer made a name for herself as a singer on 1970s musical TV shows, the jingle belting spokesperson for Carnival Cruise Lines, a successful soft rock and inspirational music artist, and most of all, as a ray of chatty, remarkably open, and self-deprecating human sunshine in morning television. From 1985 to 2000, she served as the co-host and grounding foil to the frenetic Regis Philbin on the popular morning show “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee.” A few years later, Gifford returned to the A.M. grind, co-headlining the fourth (and extremely loose and wine-drenched) hour of NBC’s “Today.”

Loved and loathed in equal measure for her bubbliness, effervescence, and almost always unwavering optimism, Gifford suffered a lot in spite of all those good vibes. Here’s a look at some of the darkest moments in the life of Kathie Lee Gifford.

Kathie Lee Gifford had an unsuccessful first marriage

At the age of 11, according to People, Kathie Lee Gifford’s family reaffirmed their faith and became born-again Christians. Gifford would pursue a career in media and entertainment, although in the faith-based sectors. In the mid-1970s, Kathie Lee Epstein moved to Los Angeles, recorded some religious albums, and joined a bible study group taught by Paul Johnson, a gospel music songwriter seven years her senior. They started dating and after what People called “a torturous courtship,” Johnson and Epstein married. Their relationship would become even rockier after they wed.

The pair had waited to consummate their relationship until marriage, and it was slow-going at first. “We just couldn’t seem to get relaxed with each other,” Gifford recalled of her wedding night in her book “I Can’t Believe I Said That.” No long-awaited physical activity went down that night, and instead Gifford spent the evening crying. After failing to connect altogether, and seeking the assistance of pastors and therapists, the couple divorced after six years in 1982, with Gifford telling People that the marriage was “a real disappointment to me” and characterizing it as “not passionate” but “polite.”

Kathie Lee Gifford was assaulted more than once

Kathie Lee Johnson started to enjoy some professional success in the 1970s as the “Name That Tune Girl” on the game show “Name That Tune,” wordlessly singing melodies for contestants to guess, as well as performing on the TV comedy variety show “Hee Haw Honeys,” and serving as an opening act in Las Vegas for the likes of Bob Hope and Bill Cosby. This all meant Gifford travelled in more rarefied circles populated by important people, a couple of whom exploited the power dynamic and behaved wildly inappropriately. In her book “I Can’t Believe I Said That!,” Gifford wrote about a major entertainment figure (whose name she wouldn’t reveal) who forced her hand into his lap, which she called “an unspeakably humiliating and disgusting violation.”

In a 2017 episode of NBC’s “Today,” Gifford discussed an encounter when she was new to Los Angeles as a 21-year-old and went to the home of a man who promised to help her career but instead forced her to watch him perform a sexual act on himself. “I felt grateful I got out of there without being raped,” Gifford said (via People). “But you’re so demeaned, you feel so dirty.”

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Kathie Lee Gifford had a tumultuous love life between marriages

After six years of an uncomfortable and unhappy marriage to gospel musician Paul Johnson, the future Kathie Lee Gifford still wouldn’t find her happily ever after or lifelong partner right away, nor would that happen without some romantic casualties. A few months after Johnson moved out of their home, according to People, Kathie Lee Johnson moved to Manhattan to work as a field reporter for “Good Morning America,” where she met another member of the show’s cast: former NFL MVP and champion Frank Gifford. He was married to his second wife, and 23 years older than Kathie Lee, but she was still interested in him because he possessed what she called “an incredible set of buns.” 

They had palpable on-screen chemistry, but he was spoken for, leading Kathie Lee to date several men over the next few years, such as banker Stan Pottinger. Meanwhile, she became close friends with Gifford, to whom she confided in each of the nine times she broke up with Pottinger. After two years of almost dating, the pair finally got together when Gifford embarked in a heated divorce battle, and they married in 1986.

Kathie Lee Gifford suffered a miscarriage

As anyone who ever watched Kathie Lee Gifford for any amount of time on her two major morning talk shows, “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” and the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today,” knows, the media personality loves to speak in long and loving detail about her two children with husband Frank: son Cody Gifford, born in 1990, and daughter Cassidy Gifford, coming along in 1993.

Kathie Lee was very open and frank about her personal life, particularly as it came to matters of family and health, and in September 1992, she broke some devastating personal news of that nature during an episode of “Regis and Kathie Lee.” According to the Tulsa World, Kathie Lee was in the middle of a two-week Colorado vacation when she suffered a miscarriage. She had announced and discussed the pregnancy on TV beforehand, and said she’d donate all the baby clothes she’d purchased to Hurricane Andrew relief efforts. After helping de-stigmatize miscarriages, Kathie Lee soon thereafter announced she was pregnant once more, and Cassidy was born the following summer.

Kathie Lee Gifford's clothing line was linked to sweatshops

In the mid-’90s, Kathie Lee Gifford partnered with Wal-Mart to allow her name, image, and reputation to be used to sell a line of affordable apparel. That pleasant and profitable arrangement came under fire and rapidly unraveled in April 1996 when, according to The New York Times, National Labor Committee Education in Support of Worker and Human Rights in Central America executive director Charles Kernaghan testified to Congress that the clothes reflecting the squeaky clean Gifford were so inexpensive in part because they were produced by kids in overseas sweatshops. Wal-Mart actually made the labor arrangements without Gifford’s knowledge, but her reputation suffered a big blow. Gifford tearfully addressed the situation on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “You can say I’m ugly, you can say I’m not talented. But when you say I don’t care about children,” Gifford said. “You better answer your phone because my attorney is calling you today. How dare you?”

The Gifford family publicly apologized and became anti-sweatshop advocates, but it wasn’t the last time the Kathie Lee clothing line was linked to poor working conditions. When hit with more allegations regarding sweatshops in 1999, Gifford defended herself on “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee” (via Los Angeles Times), maintaining that she wasn’t aware of what was going on. “This is an issue that just doesn’t go away because sweatshops, unfortunately, haven’t gone away,” she said. According to CNN, Wal-Mart parted ways with the clothing line in 2003.

Frank Gifford was involved in a tabloid scandal

For years at the beginning of “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” co-host Kathie Lee Gifford would tell many long, rambling, and affectionate stories about her husband, sportscaster Frank Gifford, painting a picture of a devoted partner and family man. In May 1997, according to The Washington Post (via the Seattle Times), tabloid publication the Globe reported that Frank Gifford was really a two-faced two-timer, alleging that he’d engaged in an extramarital twist in a Manhattan hotel room with a former flight attendant named Suzen Johnson. Both Giffords publicly dismissed the story.

Globe editor Tony Frost, responding to the Giffords’ threat to sue and “attempts to discredit” the magazine’s reporting, proved the veracity of the story, published the story “Cheating Frank Caught on Camera!” It included 10 photos taken from a videotape recording of Gifford and Johnson’s encounter. That footage was so easy to come by because, as The Washington Post noted, the Globe had paid Johnson to seduce Gifford and bring him into a specific hotel suite that had been rigged up with recording equipment.

The scandal put a strain on the Giffords’ marriage. “We struggled after that for a long time,” Kathie Lee Gifford told “Entertainment Tonight.” “But we stayed together, we saved our marriage.”

The Kathie Lee Gifford-Kennedy connection took a tragic turn

Kathie Lee Gifford is a stepmother to Victoria Gifford, husband Frank Gifford’s daughter from a previous marriage. She was already grown and raised by the time Kathie Lee entered the situation, but they stayed close in adulthood and after Victoria Gifford married Michael Kennedy, part of the prominent Kennedy political family. His parents: the late Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Skakel Kennedy. The late ’90s were difficult for Michael and Victoria. According to People, Michael’s affair with a teenage babysitter was revealed, prompting Vicki to leave him. Then, in December 1997, Kennedy collided with a tree while skiing in Colorado and died at the age of 39.

The shocking death coursed through the Kennedy family and the Giffords, too. In her book “It’s Never Too Late,” Kathie Lee Gifford recalled consoling her stepdaughter through the difficult time while navigating her own grief. “She had loved Michael since she was fifteen years old, and although he had betrayed her and left her emotionally destroyed, she had never wished him harm,” she wrote. Then the job of comforting Ethel Kennedy in the immediate aftermath of her son’s death fell to Kathie Lee. “I quietly walked over to her and embraced her,” the talk show host wrote. “She had always been very candid that Michael was her favorite child of the 11 she had born.”

Frank Gifford's death rocked Kathie Lee Gifford

Kathie Lee Gifford and Frank Gifford were a celebrity power couple, she a long-time morning show host and he a Pro Football Hall of Famer turned “Monday Night Football” sportscaster. The pair weathered a lot of drama and problems and stayed married for nearly 30 years, but their time together ended when Frank Gifford died in August 2015. According to a statement from the family released to NBC News, the 84-year-old football great died of “natural causes” at his family’s home in Connecticut.

Three months after the death, per NBC News, Gifford’s family announced that pathologists delivered a post-mortem diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive and degenerative brain condition widely associated with the repeated blows to the head suffered by professional football players. “Our suspicions that he was suffering from the debilitating effects of head trauma were confirmed,” the Giffords said.

On an episode of “Today,” Hoda Kotb said that Kathie Lee Gifford told her that her husband’s death was “not a tragedy” because he’d “lived to be almost 85” and had “lived an incredible life.” Nevertheless, in 2019, Gifford told AARP The Magazine that her husband’s death left her “dealing with crippling loneliness.”

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