Kathie Lee Gifford was born in Paris, France, in 1953. She was born again at the age of 12 after watching a movie produced by Billy Graham. She attended Oral Roberts University, worked for a summer as a secretary and babysitter for Anita Bryant, and launched her career as a "celebrity" (a word she loathes) in 1974 by appearing on the TV show Name That Tune. In the 1980s, she was the celebrity spokesperson for Slim Fast diet shakes and Carnival Cruise Lines, and worked as a daytime TV commentator on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. These days, she serves as a commentator on the Today Show and is working on a musical called Saving Aimee—a musical she has been writing and directing for over a decade, and that's currently running at the 5th Avenue Theatre. She's hoping that Saving Aimee, like Catch Me if You Can, Shrek, and several other musicals in the past few years, will make the jump from the 5th Avenue to Broadway.
After a read-through/sing-through of the musical a few weeks ago, I met Gifford in a rehearsal hall. She smiled with the intensity of someone whose smiles are both practiced and genuine. Then she turned to a staff member of the theater and asked how long the sing-through/read-through had taken. Too long. "Ugh!" Gifford said and hustled through the door. "I need a glass of wine," she said. "Actually, if I'm being honest, I need a bottle!" Then she smiled some more.
We quickstepped across the street along with Stranger writer Lindy West and, over lunch, shared two bottles of wine (plus a few extra glasses). Gifford was most animated when talking about two things: (1) The life and times of 1920s Christian evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, and (2) the size of Lindy West's breasts. "That's a lot of cleavage for this time of the afternoon," Gifford said in joking censoriousness. "Those things must weigh—what? Five, ten pounds each?" Lindy blushed. Later, in the middle of a story about McPherson, Gifford abruptly turned to Lindy and asked, "Can you even buy a real brassiere?" Lindy blushed again. In the middle of yet another story about McPherson, Gifford turned to Lindy, hooked Lindy's shirt collar with her finger, stretched it out, peered into her cleavage like she was looking for something, and shouted "JIMMY HOFFA?!" so loudly that other diners turned to look.
For a born-again Christian, Kathie Lee Gifford is delightfully lewd. So was Aimee Semple McPherson, who founded the Church of the Foursquare Gospel—a Pentecostal, evangelical church—in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was one of the first megachurches in US history, with seating capacity for 5,300 people. McPherson had a showbiz mind. According to Gifford, McPherson would hire the sexiest out-of-work Hollywood actors she could find to pose nearly nude while she delivered sermons on Adam and Eve. "Her whole idea," Gifford said, "was to give the people what they want, while also giving them what they need."
McPherson was so famous in her day, she shows up in the lyrics to the song "Hooray for Hollywood" as the rhyme for "Shirley Temple": "Hooray for Hollywood/Where you're terrific even if you're good/Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple/Is equally understood." She was also infamous for her alleged affairs (with Milton Berle, among others) and for a trial in which she was accused of faking her own kidnapping to cover up an affair she was having with a married sound engineer.
The final scenes of Saving Aimee concern the trial and its aftermath, but Gifford—who seems to have a sympathetic resonance with McPherson as another famous woman whose private life has been scrutinized—wondered why she was best remembered for her misdeeds. "Was it because she was a woman ahead of her time?" Gifford asked earnestly. "And the history of that time was all written by men? She was so many things—including a feminist!"
I suggested that the American public's fascination with famous evangelical founders of megachurches who get embroiled in sex scandals is not gender-specific.
Gifford switched gears—she can switch gears like a race car driver—and told a story about how her husband, Frank Gifford, had attended a service by McPherson when he was a boy and was aroused. "She was so sensual," she said. "I'm not Pentecostal, but I read scripture, which talks about the gift of tongues. I've prayed for the gift of tongues, but never got them—not that I've had any complaints," she said, winking and gently elbowing me. "You know what I'm saying?"
She didn't seem to want to talk about religion—"I want this to be a musical that even an atheist can enjoy!"—but the conversation kept bumping up against evangelical Christianity and its less loving aspects. She said that most people are unhappy because they don't realize that they are loved perfectly, unconditionally for exactly who they are, which led us straight into the question of evangelical Christians and gays. Gifford switched gears and brought the question back to McPherson, saying that what she did in her private life was pretty much irrelevant and that she had done great works—distributed food, raised colossal amounts of war bonds during World War II, welcomed absolutely anyone into her church, and kept spare beds in her house for distraught teenage mothers whose parents had kicked them out of their homes.
"I don't know what went on in her bedroom," Gifford said, shrugging. Then she smiled mischievously. "But I get the feeling that it wasn't exactly dull, if you know what I'm saying."
Lindy suggested that famous Christians who aren't obsessed with people's bedroom behavior have a duty—a Christian duty—to speak up against the famous Christians who are.
Gifford glanced at her plate and said "Mm-hm" and something like "I just think people should be happy." It sounded like equal parts agreement and dodge. If I had to parse that "Mm-hm," I'd say it sounded like: I know and love and work with gay people. I've been in show business for so long, people's sexual orientations barely even register with me anymore. So people like the kind of sex that they like—so what? It's irrelevant. But I'm not ready to come out swinging as a celebrity spokesperson for gay-friendly Christianity. Can we please get back to talking about the musical?
So we did.
Gifford said that Carolee Carmello, who plays Aimee McPherson, is "one of the most talented people I have ever known." And that the 5th Avenue is reaching out to Christian communities to sell tickets, but Gifford suspects Christians will be more upset by the musical than anyone else. And that she wanted more cleavage in the posters for the musical and thinks the promotional tagline "Saint or Sinner?" is too tame. She wanted something more like "Saint or Slut?" or "Saint or Whore?" We kept eating and drinking and laughing.
"You'd better be nice," Gifford admonished toward the end. "Frank"—her husband—"knows a lot of Italians."
"That's not the first time I've heard that threat," I said.
"That's not the first time you've been threatened with Frank Gifford's knowing a lot of Italians?" Lindy asked.
"Well, yes," I said. "I guess this is the first time I've heard that threat."
"You'd better be nice," Kathie Lee Gifford said again. Then she smiled.