Gifford's first television role was that of Tom Kennedy's singer/sidekick on the syndicated version of Name That Tune, from 1974 to 1978.
She also appeared in television advertisements for Carnival Cruise Lines beginning in 1984. Gifford was married to sportscaster and former NFL player Frank Gifford from 1986 until his death in 2015.
Gifford was born Kathryn Lee Epstein in Paris, France, to American parents, Joan (née Cuttell; January 20, 1930 – September 12, 2017), a singer, and Aaron Epstein (March 19, 1924 – November 19, 2002), a musician and former US Navy Chief Petty Officer. Aaron Epstein was stationed with his family in France at the time of Gifford's birth. Gifford grew up in Bowie, Maryland, and attended Bowie High School. During high school, Gifford was a singer in a folk group, "Pennsylvania Next Right", which performed frequently at school assemblies. After high school graduation in 1971, Gifford attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, studying drama and music.
Gifford's paternal grandfather was Russian Jewish from Saint Petersburg and her paternal grandmother was of Native American ancestry. Her mother, a relative of writer Rudyard Kipling, was of French Canadian, English and German descent. After seeing the Billy Graham-produced film The Restless Ones at age 12, Gifford became a born-again Christian. She told interviewer Larry King, "I was raised with many Jewish traditions and raised to be very grateful for my Jewish heritage."
During a summer in the early 1970s, she was a live-in secretary/babysitter for Anita Bryant at her home in Miami. Gifford's career took off in the 1970s (during her first marriage to Christian composer/arranger/producer/publisher Paul Johnson) as a vocalist on the game show Name That Tune with Tom Kennedy. In 1978, she joined the cast of the short-lived Hee Haw spinoff, Hee Haw Honeys.
Following her divorce from Johnson in 1983, Gifford met sports commentator Frank Gifford during an episode of ABC's Good Morning America; they were married from 1986 until his death in 2015.
By that time she was several months into her most famous television role, as a full-time morning talk show personality. On June 24, 1985, she replaced Ann Abernathy as co-host of The Morning Show on WABC-TV with Regis Philbin. The program went into national broadcast in 1988 as Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee, and Gifford became well-known across the country. Throughout the 1990s, millions of morning-TV viewers watched her descriptions of life at home with her sportscaster husband and their son and daughter, Cody Newton Gifford (born March 22, 1990) and Cassidy Erin Gifford (born August 2, 1993). Gifford left the show on July 28, 2000.
She appeared as a spokesperson for Slim Fast diet shakes after Cody was born. She also was the face of Carnival Cruise Lines in the late 1980s and early 1990s, singing "If my friends could see me now!"
In 1996 the National Labor Committee, a human rights group, reported that sweatshop labor was being used to make clothes for the Kathie Lee line, sold at Wal-Mart. The group reported that a worker in Honduras smuggled a piece of clothing out of the factory, which had a Kathie Lee label on it. One of the workers, Wendy Diaz, came to the United States to testify about the conditions under which she worked. She commented, "I wish I could talk to [Kathie Lee]. If she's good, she will help us."
Labor activist Charles Kernaghan spoke to the media and accused Gifford of being responsible for the sweatshop management activity. Gifford addressed Kernaghan's allegations on the air during Live, explaining that she was not involved with hands-on project management in factories.
Gifford later contacted Federal authorities to investigate the issue and worked with U.S. Federal legislative and executive branch agencies to support and enact laws to protect children against sweatshop conditions. She appeared with President Bill Clinton at the White House in support of the government's initiatives to counter international sweatshop abuses.
Since Live, Gifford has made guest appearances in films and television series, and has several independently released albums on CD, including 2000's The Heart of a Woman, featuring the single "Love Never Fails".
In September 2005 she became a special correspondent on The Insider, a syndicated entertainment magazine television show, ending her relationship with that program upon her co-hosting role with Today.
She played the role of Miss Hannigan in a concert performance of Annie at Madison Square Garden in December 2006.
On March 31, 2008, NBC announced that Gifford was to join its morning show, Today, as co-host of the fourth hour, alongside Hoda Kotb. This marked her return to morning television; in many markets, she now airs directly after her old show, formerly called Live! with Kelly. Because the fourth hour of Today airs live at 10:00am ET, and Live! with Kelly airs live at 9:00am ET, Gifford's hour does not compete directly with her former show in most markets. Kotb and Gifford replaced Ann Curry and Natalie Morales. In the weeks prior to Gifford's arrival, ratings indicated 1.9 million viewers of the fourth hour of Today. As of 2014, the fourth hour of Today with Gifford and Kotb has averaged 2.148 million total viewers, an increase of 26 percent over the 2008 ratings.
On an episode that aired March 27, 2010, she guest starred on The Suite Life on Deck, along with her real-life daughter, Cassidy.
Gifford is a celebrity ambassador for the non-profit organization Childhelp. She regularly makes appearances at fund raisers and events for the child abuse prevention and treatment organization and is an ardent supporter.
Frank and Kathie Lee Gifford raised the money to build and continued to financially support two shelters in New York City for babies born with HIV, or a congenital crack cocaine addiction. These shelters were named in honor of her children, Cody and Cassidy. Frank and Kathie Lee also shared a birthday, August 16.
She appeared as herself in the 2015 television film Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!
In the late 1990s, Gifford began working in musical theatre. She contributed a number of musical numbers to Hats, and wrote and produced Under The Bridge, based upon the children's book The Family Under The Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson. In 2000 she released the album The Heart of a Woman on Universal.
In 2007, she premiered Saving Aimee, a stage musical about evangelist Aimee McPherson, at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia. The premiere starred actress Carolee Carmello in the lead role. The show, now titled Scandalous: The Life and Trials of Aimee Semple McPherson, ran on Broadway from November 15, 2012, through December 9, 2012, with Carmello reprising her role as McPherson. On April 30, 2013, Carmello received her third Tony Award nomination for the performance.
On April 16, 2007, Gifford was a guest presenter at the Washington, D.C. Helen Hayes Award Ceremony, honoring contributions and professional accomplishments in theatre.
In 2008, Gifford and David Friedman wrote a junior high school musical entitled Key Pin It Real. The play depicts a coming-of-age story about a young girl named Key Pin. The first production took place in December 2008 in Kendallville, Indiana, at East Noble High School.
Gifford is currently working on a musical adaptation of It's a Wonderful Life with John McDaniel; McDaniel is composing music while Gifford is writing lyrics.