Friday, July 28, 2000

'Live' without Kathie Lee

Regis' TV partner says farewell today, and fans and foes alike will miss her

By Virginia Rohan
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
and Christine Oliva
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Her marriage, her kids, her sweatshop-produced clothing line — even her brassieres (or possible lack thereof) — all have been dissected under the nation's microscope.

        Howard Stern lambastes her. South Park's Chef lusts for her. Media critics generally savage her — while millions of average Americans without soapboxes adore her.

Continuing coverage
from Associated Press
        When it comes to Kathie Lee Gifford, there's no such thing as a private problem — or a lukewarm reaction.

        But even people who love to hate Ms. Gifford may grudgingly concede that mornings just won't be the same without her.

        The 46-year-old Ms. Gifford, who made a surprise “retirement” announcement on the air several months ago, departs today from Live With Regis & Kathie Lee, the talk show she has shared with Regis Philbin for a decade and a half.

        “I will miss her,” said Lavonne Shepherd, 76, of Indian Hill. “I think she's adorable. I watch her all the time ... It will be hard to keep the show moving without her.”

        Her final Live (9 a.m., Channels 9, 7) is expected to be a funny and poignant affair.

        But Merritt Thomas, 38, of Owensboro, Ky., says all the commotion is unnecessary.

        “I just think it's a lot of build-up over something that isn't that big a deal,” she said. “People come and go all the time.”

        “It's a shame, but in show business, everything comes to an end,” Mr. Philbin said. “We had a great time. We had 15 wonderful years. Remarkable years. Through all the television fads, we survived. We just kept saying to each other, "What did YOU do last night.'”

        Some Tristaters say it's about time Ms. Gifford moved on.

        “Thank God,” said Roger Gramann, 67, of Green Township. “We've had enough of her. She's probably a nice person, but she's just so self-serving.”

Personal humiliations
        Ms. Gifford's morning reign has been marked by spectacular professional success and humiliating personal disasters, including husband Frank Gifford's 1997 tryst with a woman who'd been paid by The Globe to entice him to a hotel room so the supermarket tabloid could get pictures.

        To many, the mostly graceful way she carried on in the face of that devastating development — particularly cruel for a woman who'd often boasted about her marriage on the air — marked a turning point for Ms. Gifford.

        “Obviously, the show's hugely popular and she's got a lot of fans. For the people who identify with her, this gave us another sentimental, emotional characteristic to pin on her,” says Jack Nachbar, professor emeritus of popular culture at Bowling Green State University. “We had the hyper-proud mama; now we've got the long-suffering wife.”

        TV Guide senior writer Mary Murphy says her admiration for Ms. Gifford grew because of her conduct during those trying times.

        “I don't think that's the chic thing to say, but I think that if you're a woman who's survived anything in life, you see her in that way,” Ms. Murphy says. “I feel as if I have watched a woman grow from someone who appeared to be superficial into a woman who can hold her own, and then survive one of the most embarrassing situations a married woman can go through and do it with a lot of dignity. I give her a lot of credit. She showed up every day without tears streaming down her cheeks.”

Larger than life
        In Ms. Gifford's 15 years with Mr. Philbin — three on a local New York show, 12 on their syndicated Live — she became not only a favorite national target, but a pop-culture fixture.

        Ms. Gifford played herself in the movie First Wives Club. She and Mr. Philbin hosted the Miss America Pageant from 1991 through 1995 and have played themselves on The Simpsons, as well as fictional talk-show hosts in a 1998 episode of Diagnosis: Murder (in which Mr. Philbin's character fatally shot his TV partner).

        In an episode of the animated South Park (done without Ms. Gifford's cooperation), she almost got assassinated by Mr. Garrison — and wound up in bed with the libidinous Chef.

        The unique rapport between the relentlessly sunny Ms. Gifford — who, not surprisingly, won Maryland's Junior Miss title at age 17 — and the manic Mr. Philbin was the key to their success. Their chatty, easy, often funny repartee is highly watchable. So is their affectionate bickering, and her “Oh, Reege” prodding.

        Ms. Gifford will be a tough act to follow.

        “Whoever they put in there, it's not going to be the same,” said Donald Trimble, 34, of Over-the-Rhine. “It'll be a different chemistry. Regis is Regis, but he can't carry it on his own.”

        At Mr. Philbin and Ms. Gifford's heavily touted “farewell” show at Westbury Music Fair last week Ms. Gifford said that she was leaving Live because “I decided to stop thinking about my life and start living it.”

Uncertain future
        So what's ahead for her?

        Besides a pop album she's working on — which is due in October and which Ms. Gifford often talks about on Live — she hasn't yet said what career path she'll pursue.

        Before her stint as a special correspondent for Good Morning America in the 1980s, her big break was when she became a featured singer on the game show Name That Tune. That exposure led to a thriving nightclub career — which she could certainly continue to pursue.

        Ms. Gifford — who got to show her comic skills when she subbed for Carol Burnett in Putting It Together one night a week on Broadway last fall — may also gravitate to the Great White Way.

        “She can do anything that she wants to — that's the best part about Kathie,” says Star Jones, a host on The View. “She discovered recently that she really and truly is a comedic talent. ... A sitcom could be in her future.”


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