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Queen of All Media

She's at her perky best on her TV show with Reege. But Kathie Lee Gifford also does books, music, ads, even clothes. Is there no stopping her?

February 22, 1996|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kathie Lee Gifford's beaming visage floats over Wal-Mart shoppers perusing racks of her pleated linen-look pants and floral rayon camp shirts. Her voice wafts from TV sets and CD players. And her words fill the pages of four books.

And you thought Cindy Crawford was the most mega-exposed Uber-celebrity.

Fueled by the pep of a dozen cheerleading squads, Gifford is at her perky best as co-host with Regis Philbin on "Live With Regis and Kathie Lee," the syndicated chat show in its 10th year, with 233 markets. From her stool on a New York City set, "America's sweetheart," as her agent calls her, regales viewers with nothing-sacred monologues about everything from her children's potty habits to life and love with hubby Frank Gifford.

And that same upbeat, shoot-from-the-hip style permeates every facet of what has become a seemingly boundless career. So it was only a matter of time before barbs would begin to fly, shot by people who just don't get her enormous popularity.

Washington Post television critic Tom Shales has skewered Gifford. Spy magazine has roasted her, and Howard Stern routinely rails against her holier-than-thou attitude, picking at her like an itchy scab. Said Stern in TV Guide last year: "She has this phony-baloney quality and Pollyanna attitude that I just don't buy."

But if the infamous shock jock prides himself on being "The King of All Media," then Gifford, 42, is the queen. Beyond the talk show, records and best-selling books, she stars in her own TV specials, hawks various products, poses as a cover favorite for women's magazines, has an exercise video, appears in live stage shows with Philbin, and until recently co-hosted the Miss America pageant. Oh, and let's not forget that she's Mom to the oft-mentioned Cody (age 5) and Cassidy (age 2).

Before she was Kathie Lee Gifford superstar, she was Kathie Lee Johnson, struggling wannabe star from Bowie, Md. She had a steady gig as a singer on the quiz show "Name That Tune" when Sam Haskell first laid eyes on her in 1978.

Then in the mail room trenches at the William Morris talent agency, Haskell was so taken with the spirited Johnson that he promised she'd be his first client when he worked his way up to agent. She was, and the two have remained a team.

"People all have agendas," he said, "and Kathie Lee's are as pure as anyone I have ever known. She wants to please people and give them something to relate to--she wants to touch them. In turn, she feels that she's making a difference. Don't we all want to accomplish that?"

(One of the differences Gifford wants to make is in the lives of kids. Working with the Assn. to Benefit Children, a New York-based national advocacy group for HIV-infected and crack-addicted babies, she has helped launch two shelters: Cody Gifford's House and Cassidy's Place.)

Gifford's alliance with Carnival Cruise Lines dates from 1984, when she was a guest correspondent on "Good Morning America." Carnival President Bob Dickinson said he was looking for a spokesperson "who had talent, who could sing, dance, and was attractive to men without being threatening to women."

He added that the cruise line's business has quadrupled since Gifford came on board, so it's no wonder her new contract ensures three more years as Carnival's TV pitchgal.

Wal-Mart apparently wanted the same kind of all-American package. The discount chain's Kathie Lee Gifford Collection debuted in 1995, her second eponymous clothing line (the first, once sold in department stores, is no longer made). Pieces in the '96 spring collection, including short-sleeve shell tops, straight skirts, long floral-print dresses and tailored pants, cost less than $30. A design team from the clothing manufacturer works with Gifford to create the styles, and proceeds benefit her children's charity.

"We term it 'Go to church, to work' kind of apparel," said William DuBose of Wal-Mart. "The customer we have in mind is 25 to 50, most likely has children, and is rushed for time."

Added Haskell: "[Gifford's] whole thought process is, 'This is a way to help the association and also another way for me to reach out to the people who trust me. For under $50, anybody can look like this.' It's a way of giving a sense of style and self-confidence to women who can't afford to buy a $1,000 outfit."

*

But Gifford sells more than just makeup, vacations and clothes. She has called herself the Moral Majority's Madonna, and in her autobiography describes herself as "an anomaly. A thriving career woman who also stands up for traditional values."

Who could ask for a more wholesome spokesperson? To her credit, Gifford has acknowledged that coming across as a wide-eyed, goody-two-shoes turns some people off.

TV critic Shales, for example. While he maintains he has at times praised Gifford, he's not offering any roses now.

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