“I’ve been in this business 45 years, and I’ve done everything but porn,” Kathie Lee Gifford, the co-host of Today’s fourth hour, recently told The Observer over lunch, poking a fork into her onion soup and twisting the cheese around it purposefully.
“I doubt there’ll be an offer anytime soon,” she added with a laugh, “unless people are really sick.”
The secret to her success, Ms. Gifford added, was discovering where her real talents lay. “I long ago realized half of finding out what you are is what you’re not,” she explained. “I was never going to be Barbra Streisand as a singer. I was never going to be Meryl Streep as an actress. But you learn to accept the fact that there’s only one you.”
However, this self-acceptance hasn’t caused Kathie Lee to stop challenging herself. Hence, her new credit as Broadway impresario.
Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, which opens November 15, will test the breadth of Ms. Gifford’s appeal as well as her theatrical talents. The musical, for which Ms. Gifford wrote the book and lyrics (the music is by David Friedman, also a productivity guru and life coach, and David Pomeranz), tells the story of Los Angeles-based evangelical preacher McPherson. Quite possibly America’s first true media celebrity, she emerged at the dawn of radio to become one of the most prominent evangelists in the country. While the play is evolving day by day, the current draft uses as its framing device the perjury trial McPherson underwent near the end of her life, after her mysterious 1926 disappearance while swimming at Venice Beach. Presumed drowned, she eventually reappeared in Mexico, claiming to have been kidnapped. Detractors believed she’d been shacked up with a lover.
As Ms. Gifford pointed out, it’s a hell of a story.
“The biggest challenge of writing Aimee is, what do I leave out about her?” she said. “I have a huge piece of marble that was dumped on my front yard and I’ve been chiseling away for 12 years.” The play, previously called Saving Aimee, played in Seattle last year and is the end result of a lifelong obsession for Ms. Gifford, who said she has read 50 books on the subject. “Which story about her do you tell? Do you tell Aimee the evangelist? Do you tell the first superstar? The genius in marketing? The mother, the wife? Do you just do ‘Tabloid Aimee’?”
It’s as hard to know just what to do with Ms. Gifford. There’s the Kathie Lee who co-hosted the syndicated Live! alongside Regis Philbin from 1985 to 2000, and NBC’s Today with sometime Dateline journo Hoda Kotb from 2008 on—a ray of kooky, garrulous and sometimes self-involved light puncturing the earnest Donahue era. There’s the author and lyricist whose previous play, the 2005 children’s musical Under the Bridge, was crucified by the Times—the phrase “gag reflex” was trotted out—and who’s currently working on an adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life. There’s “Tabloid Kathie Lee,” the harridan of TV talk accused of using child labor for her Walmart fashion line in the 1990s. And, perhaps most importantly, there’s the woman of faith, who first heard about Sister Aimee as a student at Oklahoma’s Charismatic Christian college Oral Roberts University and who hikes around Israel in her spare time.
We asked if she considered herself religious. “That’s what people assume,” she said. “I did go to Oral Roberts University, and I made some great friends there. But I left Oral Roberts. There’s a cookie-cutter mentality in many religions. I bristle against any organization that tries to make us alike. That religiosity thing—I rebel against it, I rebelled against it my entire life. And so did she,” Ms. Gifford said of McPherson. While the show is produced in part by the Foursquare Foundation, an arm of McPherson’s Foursquare Church, it is not a spiritual tract. In fact, when quoting scripture, the play sticks to the Old Testament rather than the New, because, Ms. Gifford said, “In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it’s something that we can all relate to. It doesn’t divide—it unites us.”
On Broadway, hundreds of gay chorus boys, as well as the happy blasphemers of The Book of Mormon and Ms. Gifford’s own lead actress, avowed athiest Carolee Carmello, might differ. But no matter. Ms. Gifford has faith, referring us to a favorite verse: Jeremiah 29:11, in which God sent his prophet a message of hope. “I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper. To give you a future and a hope,” she said, paraphrasing.
The show’s inspirations don’t end with the Torah. A key line of dialogue, “If you have a pulse, you have a purpose,” came from Paul Newman, “one of my favorite people ever in the world,” she said. At a fund-raiser for the Westport Playhouse, Ms. Gifford said, Newman greeted her by getting down on one knee and kissing her hand. He told her, “I have a pulse. That’s a good thing.”
She pondered the meaning of this on her way back home to Greenwich—the charitable nature of a Hollywood legend who could have skipped the evening altogether, the belief that there’s always time to make an impact. “I tried to explain to Frank, who was not happy he kissed my hand,” she said. “I told him to be happy that’s all he kissed!”
There she goes again. Ms. Gifford has long been a rebel not just in her theology but in the tightly structured world of TV talk. On Live!, Ms. Gifford and Mr. Philbin would chat at length about themselves for the opening segment, with her contributions largely focused on her children and home life. “Is there anything they won’t say?” asked a 1991 People cover. (A little benign gossip about sportscaster hubby Frank Gifford seems pretty edgy when you’re up against morning infomercials and local news.)
Ms. Gifford sees Live! as somewhat revolutionary—after all, without her kibitzing, would we have ever had Rosie O’Donnell’s pleasantries about the Broadway show she saw last night or the mommy chat on The View? “It was the first time ever on TV—ever—aside from Lucy, that people went through a pregnancy with a woman on television that was real,” she said. “And Regis and I were the first people that I know of where we talked about our lives. We didn’t have a commercial for the first 23 minutes. That had never been done before! And it changed daytime television forever.”
Change can be tough. “With Regis, people who never watched our show accused me of only talking about my children,” Ms. Gifford said. “Somebody accused me of it, and people picked it up, and it became the truth. That’s so untrue. I talked about my kids when it was funny to talk about my kids. I’d talk about a movie if it were funnier, or going to the White House, or stumbling, or throwing up. I talked about life! And when I became a mother, that was a big part of my life.” Besides, she noted, her children eventually banned Mom from bringing them up on-air anyway.
Ms. Gifford’s willingness to put herself out there is what has always made her compelling.
“She’s taught me to let it rip,” said Ms. Kotb. “‘Don’t worry about it. Spontaneity rules.’ She’s loosened my corset so I can breathe, and I’ve tried to check her. We have a banner we run sometimes that says ‘Kathie Lee would like to apologize for what she’s just said, what she’s currently saying, and what she is going to say in the future.’” Certainly there are missteps. Ms. Kotb recalled with chagrin a February 14 broadcast during which her own divorce, on a past Valentine’s Day, had become a hot topic. Thanks, Kathie Lee! “‘That was an in-the-makeup-room discussion, not the we’re-on-TV discussion,’” Ms. Kotb recalls telling her untrammelled colleague. “But for her, it’s just ‘Let it rip!’ There will be potholes and there will be great TV.”
“We want it to be a party, and you’re our guest, and we’re happy to see you,” Ms. Gifford said. “You either get it or you don’t.” A few years back, she became the subject of a savage recurring parody by Kristen Wiig on Saturday Night Live. The late-night version of Kathie Lee affects a fake Valley Girl accent, tosses back tequila shots, and cuts off Ms. Kotb endlessly.
When we mentioned that Ms. Wiig had left Saturday Night Live in the spring, effectively putting an end to the long-running bit, Ms. Gifford was emphatic. “Thank God,” she said. “I prayed that woman would go someplace. But I thought she was brilliant.” For her part, Ms. Kotb is more of a fan. “Our dialogue is the same!” she said. “They don’t have to change it. The straw sticking out of the box of wine? They get it.”
The pair’s habit of drinking wine on the air has come in for some mockery—it is, after all, 10 a.m., a bit early for a tipple. Ms. Gifford has heard the critiques: “‘Those are the two old broads who drink all the time,’” she said, imitating her detractors. “That’s ludicrous! We take a sip of wine during the show, and the rest of the time we’re having fun. I would be in an asylum, or I would be dead, or my husband would be dead, or those people who think that would be dead, if I didn’t keep it in perspective.”
When we arrived at the steakhouse next to the Neil Simon Theatre to interview Ms. Gifford over lunch, she had an ice pack propped behind her neck and a glass of white parked in front of her. “When you’re up at four, it’s happy hour, know what I mean?” she said. As for the neck pillow, Ms. Carmello had told us that whenever Ms. Gifford’s neck went out, “She’s pushing herself a little too far.”
The murmuring about Ms. Gifford’s love for her “Winesday” Wednesday broadcast is nothing compared with the McPherson-kidnapping-size to-do over her Kathie Lee clothing line. She claims she wrote key lyrics Ms. Carmello delivers as Sister Aimee—“Ever felt that the truth was nowhere to be found?”—during the 1996 Walmart scandal, even before she’d conceived of the musical. Though Ms. Gifford had earmarked some profits from the line for her children’s charities in New York before the story broke, and though she stepped out in front of it, transforming herself into an anti–child labor advocate, some viewers remained skeptical—especially since this was the lady who couldn’t stop gushing over her own little angels, Cody and Cassidy. Or so the narrative went, anyway.
“The truth was not convenient!” she said. “You can go visit where the money went—it’s still there, helping 200 little babies today. I wasn’t angry. I was frustrated.” Over time, she said, she has tried to forgive—“Love and hate cannot live in the same place, spatially,” she intoned sagely—and learned to put the haters out of her mind. “I finally, through all of that, stopped caring what people’s opinions were.”
Ms. Gifford understands that TV has not allowed her to show off the side of herself that can quote scripture or ponder the eternal mysteries of life, and she’s fine with it. “Years ago, I thought the show that Regis and I did was the silliest little show on television. Because we showed up, we sat down on stools, and then for 23 minutes we talked about our lives. Could there be anything more shallow in life? Then you started meeting people—and it happens now with Hoda—‘You got my father through chemotherapy. My mother died smiling in the hospital because you made her laugh. You don’t realize how much you get me through my day.’ I don’t minimize it anymore.”
Even so, the kaffeeklatsch is simply not enough of a creative outlet. “I am a 10 percent silly person,” said Ms. Gifford. “I know how to make a good living being a silly person. But I am not a silly person. And there is not one person who knows me well that would ever characterize me in general as an idiot. Or silly. No, I’m not a silly person. I know how to be silly.”
Lately, after the silly stuff is done, she’s been bolting from the studio and rushing off to the theater for frantic revisions. “Sometimes they make changes, and you’re like, ‘Really? I liked the old way,’” Ms. Carmello told The Observer, after announcing that she had just a few hours to memorize a new monologue. Ms. Gifford had determined that using stagecraft to show Aimee first hearing the voice of God just wouldn’t work. Instead, Ms. Carmello would have to describe it. (“We are breaking the cardinal rule of Theater 101: ‘Show, don’t tell,’” Ms. Gifford admitted later.)
For a woman who must start every day on live television, her focus is impressive. “She sat there in a chair and was so quiet and giving to the performers,” director David Armstrong said of a cabaret performance he attended with Ms. Gifford, “and it was so clear to me she wasn’t just there to be famous. She was there because this is what she was most interested in.” Mr. Armstrong jumped aboard after the Seattle production at his 5th Avenue Theatre, which has a track record as a launchpad for Broadway shows (including Hairspray and Memphis, both Tony-winning Best Musicals); this is his first Broadway production. In addition to the Foursquare Foundation, Scandalous’s producers include Dick and Betsy DeVos, heirs to the fortune of Amway founder Richard DeVos, and Great White Way veteran Jeffrey Finn. (In an interview with the Associated Press, Ms. Gifford claimed that the Foursquare Foundation had no input into the content of the show and that many affiliated with the church were angry that the show existed.)
Like many writers before her, Ms. Gifford has occasionally tried to muscle her way into the directorial process, Ms. Carmello said. “They don’t want her to, because it’s not the chain of command, but if it were up to her, she’d talk to all the actors, ‘Give that word a little punch!’” she said. “She’s been scolded for it. She gets frustrated, sitting out there, because she’s got ideas for how best to play things.”
During a recent preview performance, the front few rows were packed with middle-age ladies and patient husbands, an audience of people who were, judging by their eager chatter, significantly more interested in the show’s writer than its subject matter; Ms. Gifford greeted the fans at intermission, blessing them all for coming.
“You come into their home,” she said later. “They’re naked sometimes, or they’re getting ready, they’re in bed, or they’re in their kitchen—I can’t see what they’re doing. I just know they’re out there. And you become their friend, because they start to trust you. You maintain your credibility. You don’t change. With everything changing, this is something they can count on, that they can hang on to. If I did a porno, I’d lose 45 years of credibility. They’d be stunned. I’d get new fans, let’s be honest! But it’d be so disingenuous.”
If Scandalous is a hit, Kathie Lee Gifford will find a measure of redemption after all of the teasing and snark. And if not, there’s always the Old Testament for inspiration. As she put it: “All of the 4,000 years of Jewish history is about getting the Promised Land, losing the Promised Land, getting promised the Promised Land, going back to the Promised Land and screwing it up again! It’s human nature. And that’s why I love studying it so much.”