Scandalous's Kathie Lee Gifford on Faith, Sensuality, and Smelling a Queen
The famed TV host talks show biz, religion and the holy inspiration behind her first Broadway musical.
Kathie Lee Gifford has faith. Faith in the future of musical theater. Faith in herself. Faith in faith. So it comes as no surprise, considering her life in the spotlight and devotion to devotion, that the longtime TV-personality fixated on the story of pioneering superstar evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson when creating her first Broadway musical, Scandalous. The show, which opens November 15, stars Broadway favorite Carolee Carmello as McPherson, the dramatic and polarizing 1920s faith-healer-cum-provocateur who has been an obsession of Gifford's since college. We talked to Gifford about her attraction to the "sensual" Aimee and the places their stories divide and overlap.
How did you first find out about Aimee?
I first heard about her when I was in college. I remember thinking at the time, "Oh please, nobody could have lived a life like that." I dated, for a short time, the grandson of her 3rd husband. Obviously it didn't work out, but he told me stories about his grandmother. Then, in 1982 I moved to New York and became friends with Frank Gifford. I told him this woman fascinated me. And he said, "I went to her church, I remember seeing her." When he was 12, he went to her temple and saw her two years before she died, coming down throwing her roses. He had a very visceral, carnal reaction to her even at the age of 12, because she was still so sensual. She was an extraordinarily sensual woman, which many deeply spiritual people are.
Then, about 12 years ago, David Friedman and David Pomeranz, my two collaborators, and I started writing songs about her. And here we are about to open on Broadway. It's about as miraculous as anything could be because it's an unusual story, and we're not branded in any way.
That's becoming rare.
Personally, I'm all for everything succeeding. But we can only have so many jukebox musicals and revivals before new shows die out. We can't let that happen. We have to convince people that they really do want to hear and learn new things. We're very spoiled in our culture, and we don't think too much. We sort of want to be spoon fed.
I am fascinated by McPherson because she started out so sincere.
In our culture, too often we present people of faith as either a phony or a fool. It's completely unfair. It's as ugly as homophobia or racism. It's bigotry. It seems like it's the last bastion of condoned prejudice in our world today. We should call it what it is. It's ugly. And stop doing it because it's hurtful.
Anybody who thinks that Aimee was a phony hasn't done their homework. It was only when she went to save that very particular world in Los Angeles that she got seduced by the same world she went to save. I'm fascinated by her story not because of the tabloid part of it, but because of the seduction. Even the strongest amongst us have our weaknesses.
You've openly professed religious belief yourself, right?
I don't consider myself a religious person at all. I don't like to be associated with the crusades or 9/11. Any person who has a true walk of faith with a living god never hurts a human being on purpose in his name. If they're hurting people, if they're beheading people, if they're putting people in chains and keeping them in bondage in life, that's religion. Faith frees you up. Religion puts you in chains. I really do believe that, personally. I don't like to be around religious people, they're very self-righteous.
How did you know that musical theater was the medium for Aimee's story?
She was totally theatrical. She was the first woman to put the Bible on stage. She knew that if she told it brilliantly, you wouldn't be able to get a seat in the house. And she was right. She became the very first superstar. She was the biggest star in Hollywood in the 1920s. It's like a modern day morality tale. You could literally rip it from the newspapers today. Last week it was Lance Armstrong. The week before that it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. The week before that it was Tiger Woods, I think. The week before that it was Lindsay Lohan. Every single week there's a new person who has, in a way, gambled their soul.
On a lighter note, what are some of your favorite musicals?
The first show I remember seeing was Camelot. I was sitting right on an aisle and Guinevere came up right next to me. I remember being so close to her that the gossamer of her gown touched my body. And I could see the sweat on her arm glistening because it was summer. I could look up into her face, and she was so in the zone and so ready to make her entrance. I just remember thinking, "I want to be a part of that magic for the rest of my life." It wasn't so much the smell of the grease paint, it was the smell of Guinevere. She smelled like a queen, and that was it for me.
I knew I'd never be a Barbra Streisand, who is? But I learned along the way is all I had to be was the best me I could be, and I could have a long career.
You have built a career on that.
But if I had spent one minute trying to be somebody else, I wouldn't be here all these years later. Half of finding out what you are in this world is finding out what you're not.
Many of the lines in the show just came from my own life experiences. There's a line in the show where Aimee's about to do something stupid and Emma Jo, her assistant, comes up behind her and goes, "You know, the trouble with trouble is you don't know you in trouble till you in trouble." That line came to me when I could have made a stupid choice but because of wisdom in my life, I thought, "No."
Every single one of us is one decision away from disaster in our lives. I told my kids that all the time, and I said, ‘But you guys, I'm no different. I could do stupid things to this day. Have too much to drink and get behind the wheel. Have an affair on the road. Say something unkind and live to regret.' We're all one choice away from something we regret.
If you had Aimee for an interview and could only ask her one question, what would it be?
I think I would ask her, ‘Aimee, how can I convince people God loves them just the way they are?' There are so many people in this world who don't feel valued. And it breaks my heart when people want to give up because they've been told all their life that they have no value. She'd have a good answer for me.