Ken Tucker
August 04, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

It’s the end of an era some of us never thought we’d mourn: No more Kathie Lee Gifford; they must change the title of Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. If nothing else, Kathie Lee managed what few have achieved: She sustained her popularity with an audience of adoring fans even as a good-size chunk of humanity found her annoying and kinda creepy.

Virtually all celebrities must maintain a level of self-absorption that would render you or me a pariah in our own households. Celebrities in the Kathie Lee mode — those who are famous not for any exceptional talent but for simply being famous — are necessarily consumed with the notion that the world finds them interesting. Possessed of a decent singing voice with an abysmal lack of nuanced phrasing, Gifford’s true talent was brazen shamelessness: the way she was willing to fold the details of her personal life into her work. It was this unwavering confidence that people wanted to hear in the conversational opening segment of Regis and Kathie Lee. Gifford’s anecdotes about her G-rated shenanigans as wife to former football great Frank Gifford and mother to her children, Cody and Cassidy, made her fans feel close to her, while the rest of us were repelled by the extent to which she was willing to sell out her family. (Which, of course, didn’t stop those rest of us from watching.)

Kathie Lee’s biggest scandals — the 1996 accusation that her clothing line was being run under sweatshop conditions, and hubby Frank’s clumsy 1997 fling with a flight attendant — were interesting not because they occurred (there’s an awful long list of celebs who’ve been involved in similar sins), but because of Gifford’s response to them. Using her daily presence next to cohost Regis Philbin (you know Regis — nice chap, wears shiny ties, hosts a game show now and then), Kathie Lee regularly converted Live into a one-woman, soap operatic performance piece. At different times she was repentant (she vowed to investigate the details of just who was making her clothes and how) or, more often, tearily self-righteous, inveighing against the wicked media for prying into the seamier aspects of the life she strove so mightily to make seem perfect.

In this, she was like millions of women who try to put the best face on a sagging marriage, or trouble with the kids, or whatever. (Look at Big Brother‘s Karen, trapped in what she’s admitted to her housemates, and therefore the world, is a hellish marital union. She’s the middle-class Kathie Lee Gifford, unable to use money or fame to convert unhappiness into a livable existence.) Combine Kathie Lee’s smiling-through-the-hard-times pluck with a hatred of media inquisitiveness shared by much of her audience, and it’s no wonder she was beloved — and no wonder the poor woman is deluded enough to think she has a career as a performer post-Live.

The winner in all this is, of course, Regis. Throughout Kathie Lee’s tenure, he got to establish his own persona — the Lovable Grouch, an image looked upon more kindly by grouchy media types — and he sat back and played the cleverly prodding straight man to Kathie Lee’s periodic eruptions. It was a role he’d perfected long ago. Some may recall that before Gifford came aboard, one of Philbin’s cohosts in an earlier incarnation of the show, A.M. Los Angeles, was Cyndy Garvey, from 1978 to 1981. Like Gifford, Garvey had a mate with a sports connection: She was then the wife of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Steve Garvey. Blond, beautiful, chatty, and occasionally weepy about her homelife as wife and mother, Garvey was, like Kathie Lee, a ticking emotional time bomb whom Philbin kept in check with artful, steel-nerved delicacy.

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