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There’s a Reason Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb Are the Toast of Morning TV

These 'Today' show good-time gals know how to have fun

Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb lounge at Kathie Lee's Flordia home (Justin Stephens)

Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford are fine with wine at 10 a.m. on "Today" — and at Gifford's Key West home (above). — Justin Stephens

En españolKathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb just had a sleepover. NBC's hot and hilarious Today hostesses are spending the weekend at Gifford's waterfront home in the Florida Keys doing what they do best: having fun. And AARP The Magazine's writer and photo team have just arrived for a visit.

Must-see video: Kathie Lee and Hoda get seriously silly

"Who's there?" hollers Gifford as she rounds the corner of a hallway and enters the foyer. She's wearing a beige furry bathrobe, black ruffled pajama bottoms — and no makeup. She offers hugs all around and, ever the nurturer, moves into the kitchen, where she nukes a breakfast sandwich for one of her guests and pours coffee for another.

Kotb (pronounced COT-bee) strolls into the dining room with 3-inch rollers in her hair and a huge smile on her face. "You gotta watch Kath," she says. "You need something, she'll give it to you. I was looking for some earrings earlier and she said, 'Take mine!' "

On air, the two women have taken TMI (too much information) to new heights: Today viewers know, for instance, that Kotb, 48, likes her men on the chunky side, and that Gifford, 59, prefers not to partake of certain feminine waxing trends. It's all part of a raucous daily give-and-take that has made the women not just professional colleagues but close friends.

The pair move into Gifford's bedroom, where they paw through a rack of clothing options for the day. "That's a beach cover-up, right?" asks Kotb, holding up a colorful but skimpy shift.

"It's a dress!" exclaims Gifford. "For a far younger woman than Hoda!" Kotb rolls her eyes, and Gifford smacks her on the backside.

"My Egyptian princess," she announces as she looks approvingly at her sidekick, who grew up in Virginia and West Virginia but whose parents are from Egypt.

Kotb ducks into the bathroom to try on a gown and emerges moments later, tugging on its straps. "My boobs are sagging," she moans.

"Welcome to my world," Gifford says, chuckling, and in this manner the morning moves along.

Next page: How it all began. »

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Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb (Justin Stephens)

Kathie Lee and Hoda as AARP The Magazine cover girls. — Justin Stephens

Love at first laugh

Gifford, an actress and singer who's best known for her 15-year stint as cohost of the ABC talk show Live With Regis and Kathie Lee, first met Kotb in 2007. At the time, Gifford was out of the limelight, writing a musical about 1920s evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and raising son Cody, now 22, and daughter Cassidy, 19, with her husband, sportscaster Frank Gifford, 82. (Check out page 6 for a photo of the kids today.)

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Kotb, then a Dateline NBC correspondent who'd divorced that same year, had begun working on the fourth hour of the Today show with NBC newswomen Ann Curry and Natalie Morales, but the chemistry of the threesome wasn't working. "It was a bore," says Kotb. "It needed a spark plug."

"It needed trouble!" offers Gifford.

Enter Kathie Lee.

One day that fall, Kotb, who had never met Gifford, spotted her at a restaurant and had a brainstorm. She introduced herself and invited Gifford to make a guest appearance on the show as cohost. Gifford agreed. The day she guest-hosted with Kotb, sparks flew.

"She changed the room the minute she got there," Kotb recalls. "People were laughing."

But when Today show producers asked Gifford to consider cohosting permanently, she declined. She was happy with her life, and besides, she didn't think she could ever again match the chemistry she had with Regis Philbin.

"It's so hard to find magic the first time," Gifford says. "To think it could happen twice?"

Still, she agreed to discuss the proposition with Kotb over a meal, and the get-together caught them both by surprise. "I only knew the Dateline Hoda," Gifford explains, "but I had lunch with the happy hour Hoda. I loved her!"

Four hours into the conversation, Gifford told Kotb, "You're the kind of person I'd be friends with for the rest of my life." 

In April 2008, the fourth hour of Today with Kathie Lee and Hoda launched. From the beginning, the idea was for the women to be loose, candid and lighthearted.

Next page: The why behind the wine. »

Hoda Kotb, Sami Kotb, Joan Epstein and Kathie Lee Gifford appear on NBC News' Today show (Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images)

Bring Your Mother to Work at "Today": Hoda Kotb, and her mom Sami Kotb, Joan Epstein, and her daughter Kathie Lee Gifford, gather on set in March. — Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Cocktails, anyone?

"There are enough channels around where people can get a heavy dose of breaking and bad news," says Kotb. "Our show is a place to forget your troubles."

"We don't take ourselves seriously," adds Gifford. "If we're having fun, our audience has fun. Fun is contagious."

Case in point: Gifford and Kotb are poolside. It's noon now, and, as happens so often on their show, the pinot grigio is flowing. Gifford points at the bottle and shrugs: "It was Jesus' first miracle."

She and Kotb didn't start out drinking on the air, but a few years back, when comedian Chelsea Handler appeared to promote her book Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea, the hostesses served her an array of cocktails. A week later actress Brooke Shields came as a guest and asked for a beverage. "Everybody started wanting their cocktails, and we couldn't be rude," Gifford says.

So now the hostesses launch almost every live show, at 10 a.m., with wineglasses in hand. The wine, says Kotb, "is a prop as much as anything, but it invites you to the party."

Earlier this year tabloid rumors swirled that the party was getting tense — that there was friction between Gifford and Kotb, and that Kotb was looking around for a new gig. While the two pals admit that they sometimes can get on each other's nerves, they insist that, unlike the stereotypes of cat-fighting professional women, their relationship is remarkably noncompetitive and trusting.

For instance, at the pool, perhaps emboldened by the fruit of the vine, Gifford and Kotb agree to put on swimsuits and take a dip for the photographer. Kotb squeals when the water hits her waistline, and Gifford jokes, "Does anyone mind if I pee?" While nothing seems off-limits for their comedic material, Gifford and Kotb, who recently broke up with a long-term boyfriend, agree that there is a line neither will cross.

"We know the vulnerable points," Gifford says. "You don't go for the cheap laugh."

Next page: Life behind-the-scenes. »

Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb sip cocktails by the pool of Kathie Lee's Florida home (Justin Stephens)

Without Kathie Lee, "My life would be half as full," says Hoda. "If I hadn't made room for Hoda, I would have missed out on one of the great blessings of my life," says Kathie Lee. — Justin Stephens

Reality Checks

Both women say they're optimists, but they acknowledge that life's troubles can put a sunny disposition to the test. "You can be an optimist, and then the world falls out from under you," says Kotb, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 and underwent a mastectomy. "At that point you either look for potholes everywhere, or you realize your life has margins, and you stop wasting time."

Gifford has had her share of hardships too, including a widely publicized philandering episode on the part of her husband in 1997. She admits to suffering from depression occasionally and says that her deep Christian faith has helped her to stay focused on the positive.

In addition, the way her younger sister dealt with near death and a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis, after the birth of her only child, inspired her.

"I was furious with God that my beautiful sister, at age 23, would have a colostomy bag hanging off her body for the rest of her life," Gifford explains. "But she said, 'Don't curse God for this bag. It means I get to live the rest of my life, I get to see my daughter grow up.' I was looking at the wrong thing."

What inspires Gifford these days is a comment that the late actor Paul Newman once made to her at a fundraiser for the playhouse in Westport, Conn. "I said, 'Paul, I haven't seen you in so long. How are you?' " Gifford remembers. Newman answered: "I'm 80 years old. I have a pulse."

It has become her mantra. "If you have a pulse, you have a purpose," Gifford says. "Every morning, before I get out of bed now, I take my pulse. If I have one, that means that God's not finished with me yet. I still have work to do on this planet."

The afternoon is winding down, and Gifford and Kotb are enjoying a late lunch of chicken salad, watermelon and, of course, pinot grigio. They talk about the value of staying open to new experiences. "I thought my heart didn't have any more room for more people," Gifford says. "I felt I didn't have enough time for the friends I already had. But if I hadn't made room for Hoda, I would have missed out on one of the great blessings of my life."

"By the time you reach my age, you generally know what's in you," says Kotb. "But I didn't know. It takes the right person to bring it out. I say thank you to Kathie Lee all the time. Before her, I'd still be doing what I was doing and not know what I was missing. My life would be half as full."

Gifford feels equally enriched by the partnership. "It's like an old man who's taken a young lover," she quips. "He's got a jaunty little step."

Meg Grant is the West Coast Editor for AARP The Magazine.

Next page: Don't go away. We have more Hoda and Kathie Lee! »

The World According to Hoda Kotb

Hoda Kotb Book Signing at Barnes and Noble (Getty Images)

Hoda Kotb at a Florida signing of her 2010 book, "Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee." — Elizabeth Burks/Getty Images

Long-Ago Memory: Sledding. Me, my brother and sister, soaring down the hill and screaming wildly. I remember so clearly that rush. You're scared, but you're not; you're with your brother and sister; and there's not one thing on your mind except for, "We're right here, right now."

Most-Played Childhood Records: "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain & Tennille and "Philadelphia Freedom" by Elton John.

Admired Historical Figure: Anwar Sadat, because he was so bold. He went to the Knesset in Israel when the wounds of war weren't remotely healed. Usually, when you're entrenched in a war, the hate's so deep. But he said, "No, no, I'm going there."

Best Quality: I pick good friends. I like whom I choose to be in my world, and everyone around me is awesome.

Nightstand Essentials: My reading glasses — seven pairs, because I break and lose everything. And Regina Brett's book God Never Blinks. It's full of daily life lessons. She has just such great beautiful insight.

Zeroing In on 50: Kathie Lee regularly tells me that I'm perimenopausal — and I'm not yet, so stop rushing me!

Next Big Thing: I'm a believer that the next great love can be around the corner. Anderson Cooper's mom [fashion designer Gloria Vanderbilt] once said, "I love falling in love." That totally lit me up. I really want to meet the right guy for me.

Next page: Kathie Lee, Frank — and Cody and Cassidy, too! »

The World According to Kathie Lee

Frank Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford, Cassidy Gifford and Cody Gifford (Getty Images)

On a family night out in November 2012, the Giffords strike a pose: Frank, Kathie Lee, and an oh-so-grown-up Cassidy, 19, and Cody, 22. — Steve Mack/Getty Images

Never Again: Get married. [Laughs.] How could I marry again after Frank Gifford? Not possible. It's a little bit bull, but he'll love it.

Don't Miss Them a Bit: My bunions. I had them operated on, and I have gorgeous feet now. The first 10 days I wanted to murder my Zimbabwean surgeon, but after that, he was on Mount Olympus.

Youth vs. People of a Certain Age: The young ones are certainly not as interesting. They're just not!

Guilty Pleasure (Besides Pinot Grigio): Anonymous sex with sailors! That's what I want! No, what I like is guacamole and chips with red salsa!

Age-Defying Secret: Not Botox — though save some for me! It's kindness. You feel like a kid again when you do something kind.

Beauty at 50+: People who've left their egos at the door.

Life-Changing Book: The Bible. I read it every day for an hour. It changes my life on a daily basis.

Worst Purchase: I once got my mother a pink stuffed poodle for her birthday because I wanted it. That's not right. It wasn't about what would make her happy. I've never forgotten that.

Best Teacher: My father was the wisest human being I've ever known. He would say, "I love you too much to deny you the privilege of making mistakes."

Great Advice: Life is hard. Don't sit around and have a pity party. Make something beautiful out of it.

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