One year. That's all Kathie Lee Gifford was willing to give when NBC producers asked her to help launch a fourth hour of The Today Show they had decided to try out.
Nearly eight years after she left Regis Philbin's side, the Live With Regis and Kathie Lee alum was primed for a return to the celebrity interviews and casual chatter that made her a household name. Still, she wasn't about to commit more than 12 months of her time.
Then, as she put it on Tuesday's edition of the venerable morning show, "Something happened along the way: I fell in love with a beautiful Egyptian goddess." So one year sharing an anchor desk with Dateline NBC correspondent Hoda Kotb turned into more than a decade. And though she announced her eventual departure this week, the daily grind simply no longer a possibility with the amount of book, music and film projects she has in the works, she admitted it will be tough to pry herself away from the colleague that quickly became family when their 11th anniversary rolls around in April.
"I've been in this business 120 years and never worked with a more beautiful—more beautiful—group of people, who work every day for four hours of live television every day, five days a week," she shared during her tear-filled announcement. "And we have fun and we laugh and we support one another. We know each other's kids' names. We know when someone's having a colonoscopy. We know everything! And we do life together. We do life together. And nobody more so than my Hoda."
Nothing has aged better than the bond between Kotb and Gifford. Except, perhaps, the fine GIFFT by Kathie Lee Gifford wine they sip on the regular during the unbelievably fun ride they create each weekday for the fourth hour of NBC's popular morning show. While millions of viewers tune into to watch their bubbly chats with bold-faced names, vino-fueled antics and franchise favorites such as ambush makeovers and the iHoda playlist, the secret ingredient behind the decade-long success that has sparked ratings, earned them a Daytime Emmy and spawned everything from branded wine glasses to Christmas wrapping paper is the very real, very genuine friendship the Oklahoma-born, West Virginia-raised former news anchor, 54, and the East Coast-bred singer and morning show veteran, 65, have formed.
It's a vibe that allows fans to feel like they're getting a secret glimpse at how two A-list best friends act when they get to hang out—or perhaps how they themselves would appear if cameras were turned onto them and their bestie. "We have fun together," Gifford explained to E! News. "If we have fun, our audience does." Of course, ever the good pal, Kotb gives all due credit to her other half.
"I think it's because Kathie Lee has, like, a mojo and she'll try anything. And I'm talking about in her professional life, in her personal life," she told E! News while celebrating their tenth anniversary this past April. "And I think people watch her and say, ‘Wow, if she can do that. Maybe I can do this.'"
Kotb certainly found her spirit infectious when they were set up on a 2007 lunch at the Rainbow Room, some 65 floors up from where the show tapes at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. Four hours later, Gifford left convinced she'd found the person she wanted to make great television with.
"She thought everything I said was funny. I sang to her and she loved it, so I said, 'I gotta be with Hoda,'" Gifford recalled on Today when they announced her new role the following year. "Timing is everything in life." Beyond that, she shared, "I just loved her," she has said. "I knew that day that even if we never worked together, she'd be my friend for the rest of my life."
For Kotb, it was Gifford's invitation to join her at the sprawling Connecticut mansion she shared with husband Frank Gifford and their kids Cody Gifford, now 28, and Cassidy Gifford, now 25, that clinched it. "I remember on the very first day when you said, 'I'm thinking about coming to the Today show,' and I still remember you said, 'I want you to come out and meet my family,'" Kotb shared during Gifford's announcement. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, I've never worked with anyone who's like that.' I didn't even know that was a thing."
It was there that Frank, the famed New York Giants halfback turned longtime Monday Night Football commentator, let her in on what would be the secret ingredient in their special sauce. "So, I went to your house, and I remember Frank said to me, 'I've been in television for a while, and I want to tell you something: The only way a show works is if you trust that someone's going to catch you,'" she recounted. "He said, 'I don't know about you, 'cause I don't know you, but I know that you are about to work with the most trustworthy person on Earth.' He was right. Because our show is about catching each other when you fall down. That's it."
Both would readily admit their debut in 2008 was a bit of a stumble. As Gifford put it, "We started out as a nothing burger. And we were outside on the plaza and the wind was blowing and the cards were flying. It was a disaster!"
But even as the weather took hold of their cue cards and their well-styled strands, the duo alighted on the simple truth that would turn them into must-see TV: letting viewers in on their budding friendship that would grow stronger with each taping. "We met together at this lunch, we got to know each other, but we don't know a lot about each other," Kotb said, introducing a game where they would each share three fun facts about themselves.
Kotb's included the fact that, much like the Kardashian children, she has no middle name and an anecdote about the period in fourth grade where she tried to hide her perennially curly strands under an oversized knit cap; Gifford gamely revealed how she was rejected for a Charlie's Angels audition in the 1970s for not being enough of a bombshell, and the time she was booted from America's Junior Miss Pageant for talking to a boy.
Still, Gifford has said, they struggled to have the same chemistry on camera that they shared in person. So they took their getting to know you game away from the set, and Gifford slowly pushed Kotb outside of her broadcaster comfort zone. "As we worked together a little bit more, she got rid of the IFB in her ear, she got rid of all of her notes and just started talking and sharing life," she explained to E! News' Jason Kennedy. "You start sharing life and you start falling in love with the person. You become real, genuine friends."
They began going to lunch every Wednesday followed by a Broadway matinee, an outing that has become a weekly tradition. "Next thing you know, you and your mom are at my house for Thanksgiving," Gifford explained on Today. "You start sharing life and your friendship shows up on the air. We weren't colleagues for very long. We became friends. And now we're going to be friends for the rest of our lives."
They've already proven they've got the whole I'll be there for you part down pat.
When Gifford's husband of nearly 30 years passed away from natural causes in 2015 at the age of 84, Kotb didn't for one second consider not being by her cohort's side. "I landed and I looked at my phone…and I saw a text from Kathie, Kathie Lee, and she left a voicemail too that Frank has passed," Kotb revealed on the Monday morning episode after his August 2015 death. "She asked for people not to come to her house yesterday so I got out of the airport and drove to her house."
Despite Gifford's protestations, Kotb knew it was the right thing to do, understanding even better than the widow herself what she needed: "When I got there, she looked at me and she said, 'I'm so glad you never listen to me.'"
Kotb stayed for the afternoon, holding her dear friend's hand and listening as she insisted Frank's passing wasn't a tragedy, it was a reason to celebrate the triumph of everything that he had built.
And the next day, when she went on air, this time with Jenna Bush Hager at her side, Kotb continued to send all of her support to her missing colleague, saying. "Kat, I don't know if you are watching—she's probably not—but I miss you and I love you."
Naturally she was, tweeting not moments later, "Thank you Hoda and Jenna for your love and beautiful tribute to Frank. I'm in tears."
And like any friend would in that situation, once Gifford had gotten through the worst of the mourning period, Kotb did what she could to pick her back up. "[Hoda] tried to set me up with one date," Gifford revealed this year to Goodhousekeeping.com. "It did not work out. He wasn't for me."
But you could hardly fault Kotb for wanting to return the favor, the breast cancer survivor crediting Gifford with, as she puts it, "everything good that's happened in my life."
The way she sees it, her connection to the musical theater vet is responsible for the chance night out that led her to 60-year-old financier Joel Schiffman and a relationship she treasured so dearly, she referred to him on-air simply as Boots for two years to protect their union. "I met Joel because I had to make a speech," she shared on Today. "Why did I have to make a speech? Because I worked her and because I worked with you. I wouldn't have been there that day I met him. Haley came as a result of our union, me and Joel. Everything happened."
Haley Joy, of course being her 22-month-old pride and joy that she welcomed into the world on Valentine's Day in 2017. When Kotb began the long, arduous adoption process—"They said, 'We can't make any promises. We wish you good luck,'" she told E! News—Gifford was in the know, one of few the mom-to-be confided in when she got the winter call that Haley would be hers. "How hard it has been to keep this secret," Gifford admitted when Kotb finally shared the news on the show. "I have the biggest mouth in the world and I've said zilch."
But now that she could spill on it, well, she was here to let her pal know just how amazing she was doing, as a new mom and as a human. "I knew everybody would explode with joy the way they have…You know why Hoda? Because you're beloved," she said through a stream of tears. "Everybody loves you. You have so much to give other people and we're so happy to see something so wonderful happen for you because you deserve it."
Of course their friendship is the very definition of two-way street, one in which each half falls all over themselves to explain why they are the lucky ones.
For Kotb, Gifford was the catalyst for her life's recent upward trajectory. "The minute you stepped into my life with both feet, everything changed," she gushed to her co-host, trying her best to put a stop to the tears that threatened to fall. Knowing Gifford's Dec. 11 announcement was coming, she had used her morning journal time to reflect on the day, as she put it, "you chose me." As she scribbled in her trusty notepad, she said, "I remember thinking about, 'How does one person step in your life and change it like that?' You did that for me."
Gifford offered similar praise, reinforcing just how special she felt her "Hoda Mama" was: "I'm just grateful to God for you. Grateful to God for you. God has used you in my life every bit as he's used me in yours. That's the way it goes. No crumbs on the table."
There's no denying that next April it will be painful to say goodbye to their on-air friendship, though by no means will she bid farewell to the unbreakable bond they've formed away from the set. But she's uplifted in thinking about the type of torch she'll pass along to her successor. "Whoever gets the privilege of sitting next to you is going to have the time of their life," she insisted to Kotb, "and the friend for life."
She would know, after all.