LIFE OF THE PARTY
I Got Drunk on a Cruise Ship With Kathie Lee Gifford
Over a glass (or two) of her very own brand of rosé, the Today host discusses how, 15 years after leaving Regis Philbin, she staged her wine-fueled morning show comeback.
It took a lot of effort to have a glass of wine with Kathie Lee Gifford. But, as they say, it takes hard work to achieve your dreams.
Sure, most of us could just flip on the TV at 10 a.m. on any given weekday and toast a glass with the Notorious KLG, who famously imbibes every morning as co-host of the fourth hour of the Today show. (Been there, done that.)
This was different. It was the Holy Grail. Kathie Lee Gifford would be debuting the new rosé from her wine collection, called GIFFT (!), on a Carnival cruise ship. After a small presentation, we would be meeting privately.
My entire life had been leading up to this.
What I encountered was a lovely, joyful dame, one who is acutely self-aware about her “brand”—morning TV’s most beloved wino. She’s smart, too, about the wine she’s peddling, the travel empire she’s representing, and the public personality she’s cultivated. She’s candid, and we’re tipsy.
And all it took to arrive at my floating church to meet my deity and imbibe in her sacramental beverage was a harrowing Uber journey to the edge of Manhattan through godforsaken tourists and the sea-bound labyrinth they were milling in.
In frantic search for help in what was quite literally a manifestation of my worst nightmare—a crowd of tourists in Really Good Moods because they were about to go on vacation, but stressed as hell because they were about to go on vacation—I sought out Carnival employees.
“I’m here to see Kathie Lee…?” I said after arriving at a Hudson River dock. “Yes. Proceed to the ship,” a woman responded, as if this ship wasn’t the size of Jupiter and I would just be able to sense my way to my beloved KLG once on it. (Probably, though.) “It’s, uh, a large ship,” I responded. The person had already walked away.
Twenty minutes and more back sweat than I care to admit to later, I had fumbled my way into a lounge nestled in the corner of a casino, decorated with glorious kitsch in Pepto pink and teal. At the end of the room was an artfully arranged display of bottles of GIFFT rosé, the third blend in the line of wine Gifford started a year and a half ago when the most brilliant man in all of the business world approached her in her dressing room and said, “Um…you should obviously have your own wine…”
After enough time had passed for me to throw back my first glass of rosé, Kathie Lee Gifford, like a Venus in her clamshell of booze, stepped on the platform. “I thought you almost said Kelly Ripa!” she joked at the man who announced her. She is perfect.
If you don’t know who Kathie Lee Gifford is, first of all I can’t believe you call yourself a human. Second of all, let me explain. Gifford is most famous for the 15 years she spent hosting the talk show Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee. During that time, from 1985 to 2000, she became somewhat of a camp icon, peppering her morning chat routine with forays into musical theater.
Nowhere was Gifford’s proclivity for camp more evident than in the—bringing it all full circle—Carnival Cruise ads she starred in in the ’80s, in which she’d, sporting an epic 1985 cropped hairstyle and attire that can really only be described by the word “flouncy,” dance around a Carnival cruise ship while singing earworms like “Ain’t We Got Fun.” Make your life instantly better and watch the clip below, and then watch it five more times:
“They told me I was not their first choice,” Gifford laughs while remembering the ads. “I’m used to that. I’m not the first choice for anything. Even Frank [Gifford, her husband] was married two times before me.” Cathy Lee Crosby, Joyce DeWitt, Sandy Duncan, and Bernadette Peters had apparently all passed before they got to her. “I think I was fifth on the list.”
Self-deprecation is one of Gifford’s greatest calling cards, and she employs it in a very vaudevillian way. As she hams it up while giving her wine presentation—“I’ve done everything but stomp the grapes!”—it becomes ever clear that she’s a dame. A broad, in the Liza-Judy-Bette tradition.
At one point she sings a chorus from the Sweet Charity song “If My Friends Could See Now,” which was featured in her Carnival commercials, but substitutes the lyrics with jokes about her rosé. “I’m sorry but that was genius,” she says. Do not apologize, Kathie Lee Gifford, because you are correct!
Besides, being unapologetic about wine has become the linchpin of Gifford’s TV comeback as the co-host of the fourth hour of Today alongside Hoda Kotb. The ever-present stems of vino in front of the hosts each and every morning is both celebrated and lovingly mocked by viewers and critics, and their pre-lunch drinking has become the identifying element of their show.
What is it like to be a TV personality and be, essentially, defined by wine? To dig into that, Kathie Lee Gifford and I poured a glass of GIFFT rosé and had our private chat. Or as I like to call it, “Kevin’s vision board come to life.”
“It’s not something we ever set out to do,” she tells me when we start talking about the origins of the Today show happy hour. But then she takes a step back. “In fact, I didn’t even want to come back to TV.”
“I thought I had done the best 15 years of television I could do,” she says. “I was writing musicals. I was happy. And how do you get lightning in a bottle again?”
As she tells it, she was practically stalked by the suits at NBC, who were desperate for her to partner with Hoda Kotb for a fourth hour of Today. “Honestly, I didn’t know who Hoda was,” Gifford says. They first met when Kotb, along with then-Today executive producer Jim Bell and host Natalie Morales, ambushed her at a restaurant in New York.
She agreed to co-host for a day. She’s been there seven years.
Originally, she signed a one-year contract. “By the time I was ready to leave was the year Hoda was no longer wearing her earpiece,” Gifford remembers. “She was no longer paying attention to the cards. She was listening and we were having an actual conversation, and a friendship was developing that was really special and started to show in the ratings. So I thought I’d stay. What the heck.”
She jokes about how Kotb was an award-winning journalist and she was “a post-menopausal has-been” when they met. Now they’re co-hosts of TV’s most-watched happy hour.
“The last thing in the world you’d ever expect is for women at 10 o’clock in the morning [to be drinking],” Gifford says. As it turns out, it’s all Chelsea Handler’s fault. The comedian was appearing on the show to promote her book Are You There Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea, and producers had the idea to make a tray of cocktails for her. “We all had a little toast and didn’t think it was anything,” Gifford says.
A few weeks later, Brooke Shields came on and, having seen the Handler segment, asked where her cocktail was. Joel McHale was a guest after that and showed up with his own bottle of Hennessy. “Then the producers decided, let’s put wine on the table and see if anyone has a problem with it,” she says.
Gifford is fully aware that having wine be an inextricable part of your morning show’s success leads to presumptions and judgment, chiefly that she has a drinking problem and is tanked all the time.
“People are going to think what they think,” she shrugs. But she does clarify that there is far less wine-swilling going on than people think. “From the first day I was taught about wine from my father he says, ‘Kathie, you don’t drink wine. You sip wine. You savor it. It’s special. You enjoy every sip of it,’” she says. “So most days that wine just sits there. Sometimes you’ll see me and Hoda do a clink, or for a joke we’ll glug.”
Then there are the days like the one when Olivia Munn visited, in which the Newsroom actress had three glasses of wine over the course of the interview before downing Gifford’s and Kotb’s, too. “It opens up all kinds of opportunities for silliness,” Gifford says. “It’s psychological. I think they want to be part of the party, you know? It’s sitting there, even if nobody’s touched it, it looks like they’re celebrating something.”
Gifford and I are toasting with her rosé just weeks after it was announced that her former partner-in-crime, Philbin, will be officially joining Today’s fourth hour as a contributor, and as the show has been steadily making ratings gains against rival Good Morning America.
“The only thing that’s really different is that we’re a hell of a lot older,” she says about reuniting with Philbin after 15 years. She says the two are better friends now than ever. She was at his house for lunch two weeks ago, and he’ll be over for dinner on Saturday.
“I’m not concerned about it all,” she says. “Because it’s schtick. It’s an old-fashioned showbiz word called schtick.” And if anyone knows about schtick, it’s the woman who’s drinking her own branded wine while talking with a journalist about her show in which she’s known for drinking wine.
With that, we cheers.