By Samantha Miller
February 23, 1998 12:00 PM

DURING A SNOWSTORM IN 1976, Gayle King, then a 21-year-old TV production assistant with a long commute to her job at Baltimore’s WJZ, accepted an offer to stay overnight with a 22-year-old WJZ anchor named Oprah Winfrey. Although the two barely knew each other, it turned out to be a memorable evening of female bonding. Soon after, the new friends hit the clothing store Casual Corner for a little shopping. “I was making $22,000, and she was making only $12,000, I think,” recalls Winfrey. “So I was the big spender. I remember going in and buying two sweaters for $19.99 and she was like, ‘Wow, you can buy two?’ ”

Times have changed. Sort of. When King tagged along with Winfrey to buy some luxury wheels a couple of years back, King said, ” ‘Wow, you can pay cash?’ ” says Winfrey. “I said, ‘Hey, Gayle! It’s the Casual Corner all over again, only this time we’re buying a Bentley!’ ”

While King, 43, may still not wield the pocketbook power of her superstar girlfriend, she doesn’t dwell in Winfrey’s shadow either. She has found her own path to talk show pay dirt with The Gayle King Show, a half-hour weekday chat-and-advice program. Producers for the syndicated show, which has earned solid ratings since its debut last September, reeled King in by agreeing to tape in Hartford, Conn., where King coanchors WFSB’s 5:30 p.m. newscast and, as a divorced, single mother, raises daughter Kirby, 11, and son William, 10. “I said I had to stay in Hartford,” says King, who refused to give up her anchor job or uproot her children, whose father lives nearby. There was one other prerequisite: Her time slot must never compete with The Oprah Winfrey Show. The friends rely on their daily phone heart-to-hearts too much to be rivals—and find them more valuable than ever now that Winfrey is in Texas battling a lawsuit over her remarks about beef. “The whole experience just feels so surreal to her,” says King. “It’s very draining.”

King’s own career is no easy task. “I’ve walked out of the house with two different shoes on,” says King, who starts her day at 5:30 a.m. with four miles on the treadmill. Her show’s staffers, she says, all have copies of The Little Engine That Could. “Every now and again I have to take it out and chant, ‘I think I can, I think I can.’ ”

According to her colleagues, King can, all right. “She’s got a natural ability to ask the question the viewer is sitting at home thinking,” says Gayle King executive producer Linda Ellman. An earthier complement to Martha Stewart Living, its lead-in in most areas, the show dispenses tidbits about topics from makeovers to fire safety and draws the occasional celeb (Liza Minnelli, the NYPD Blue cast). Staffers praise their boss’s generosity. “If she knows you,” says hairstylist Eneida Bailey, “you’re her whole life.”

The oldest of four daughters of Scott King, an electronics engineer, and Peggy, a homemaker, King attended first through sixth grades in Ankara, Turkey, where her father was stationed. Her shorter sisters nicknamed her (now 5’10”) “Goofy Gayle,” but her gift for gab was no less evident than her height.

King stepped into TV as a psychology major at the University of Maryland, working part-time at Washington’s WTOP before moving on to Baltimore in 1976. King landed an anchor job in Kansas City, Mo., in 1978, but she and Winfrey stayed pals. “Our idea of a Friday night was sitting on the phone, watching Dallas,” says King.

Her social life picked up when she met Bill Bumpus, a Kansas City cop, in 1981. The next year the two moved to Hartford and wed. She started at WFSB, where she has stayed, save for a 1991 gig hosting a short-lived New York City-based NBC daytime show, Cover to Cover. King and Bumpus, now a lawyer, divorced in 1993. (King, currently unattached, declines to discuss the reason.) She and her kids share their red-brick suburban Hartford house with dogs Sheldon, a mastiff, and Spencer, a cocker spaniel King got after falling for Winfrey’s spaniel Solomon. “Probably the only Oprah-copycat move I’ve made,” she says.

Although in 1996 King turned down a seven-figure deal to work on Oprah in Chicago—and to prep as Winfrey’s successor—their bond is as strong as ever. “Gayle is the reason I don’t need therapy,” declares Winfrey. “You know what’s so wonderful about this friendship? People come up to me, introducing their friends to me all the time, saying, ‘She’s my Gayle.’ I wish everybody had a Gayle in their life.”

SAMANTHA MILLER

JASON LYNCH in Hartford

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