March 13, 2000 12:00 PM

At noon sharp on Feb. 29, Kathie Lee Gifford made a quiet getaway from Manhattan’s WABC studios, where she had just made the historic announcement that, come August, she will no longer be cohosting Live! With Regis & Kathie Lee. Reporters chased after Gifford’s chauffeured pearl-white Lincoln sedan as it pulled away. Not too much earlier, Lisa Rinna, the former star of Melrose Place and a guest that day on Live!, had emerged through the studio door. Asked who might replace Gifford, she laughed and said, “I put my name on the list. I’m unemployed.”

In the five months between now and Gifford’s departure, presumably hundreds of Kathie Lee wannabes will come out of the woodwork, but none will be expected to duplicate the 15-year run of the 46-year-old star known for her unbuttoned opinions, her determination to triumph over scandal and a presence that, like morning caffeine, could be stimulating to some and irritating to others.

“The show will go on,” says its longtime executive producer Michael Gelman. Regis Philbin, 68, who has usually played burbling fountain to Gifford’s uncapped geyser, isn’t going anywhere, even though he also helms Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the juggernaut prime-time game show. Only now the morning talk-fest will be “Live! With Regis &—uh, someone else,” says Gelman. “We’re not really going to be able to replace Kathie Lee.”

The startled but appreciative oohs and ahs of the audience as she announced her planned departure indicated as much, but Gifford’s statement seemed to make it clear this was no contract ploy: “All good things eventually come to an end, and I feel that time has now come for me, both for professional as well as personal reasons.” On air, says Rinna, “Kathie was relieved. She exhaled.”

Philbin and Gelman, who knew of the decision the day before, were hardly shocked. “Kathie’s been saying things for a while,” says Gelman. “She has been thinking about moving on.” Indeed, she has publicly hinted about quitting for years and has rarely signed more than a one-year contract. When she subbed as host on recuperating David Letterman’s Late Show on Feb. 24, Gifford even mentioned the question of leaving in a long, self-mocking song about the pitfalls of being Kathie Lee Gifford.

What made Gifford finally uncouple herself from Reege? A major concern, she said on the Feb. 29 show, was to spare her growing son Cody, 9, and daughter Cassidy, 6, the media scrutiny that she branded “disgusting and lurid and horrible.” One recent tabloid reported that Cassidy was being transformed by her mother into a baby beauty queen, a la JonBenét Ramsey. “She wouldn’t take it anymore,” says a spokesperson for Regis & Kathie Lee.

Of course nothing is ever that simple with the perky star. Hollywood Reporter TV editor Michele Greppi, who once dubbed Gifford “Kathie Me,” points out that she has a forthcoming ABC movie, Model Behavior (in which Cody also has a role), and a self-produced record album due this spring. Then, too, her timing raised eyebrows, coming as it does when Philbin, suddenly a television superstar, is negotiating with ABC on a reported $20 million deal. Not that Gifford has ever openly begrudged him his new success. “He’s on top of the world,” she told PEOPLE last November. “He should run for President.”

Gifford herself is aching to branch out. Although she was a mildly successful singer-dancer (and Good Morning America correspondent) before she hooked up with Philbin in 1985, “all her life she has been a very underrated talent,” says her longtime friend, theater and television producer Pierre Cossette. And through more than a decade of celebrity interviews and anecdotes about Cody, she still felt the need, as she told PEOPLE last year, “to keep the juices flowing.” Last December, Gifford made a very belated Broadway debut, subbing for Carol Burnett one night a week in the musical Putting It Together. The reviews were surprisingly good. “She has been a victim for a long time because her persona is Little Mary Sunshine,” says Cossette, “and there is a major hip community out there that doesn’t believe in Doris Day anymore.”

Even the hip, though, occasionally fell under the spell of Gifford, who on TV could be silly, crass, glamorous and brash—”delightful most of the time,” says Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales. “When she would get off on her little tangents, she could drive you absolutely out of your mind.” But in the face of adversity, she proved admirably resilient. When it was revealed in 1996 that her clothing line, Kathie Lee, was manufactured by child laborers in Honduras, Gifford somehow rose to the occasion and became a champion of labor reform, testifying before Congress on the evils of sweatshops.

And when her husband, former New York Giants star and ABC sportscaster Frank Gifford, 69, was caught in a rendezvous with former flight attendant Suzen Johnson, she was impressively stoic, letting it be known that they were seeking counseling but never mentioning her private pain. “This is a woman who went on the air every day as a professional, as a performer and with dignity,” Barbara Walters praised her to PEOPLE.

Love her or loathe her, it is highly unlikely that Kathie Lee will stop performing. “Anybody who is worried that her career is over,” says Cossette, “is making a bad mistake.”

Tom Gliatto

Cynthia Wang and Ivory Clinton II in New York City

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