Kathie Lee Gifford and Kris Jenner go way back

Gifford, 65, is opening up about her longtime friendship with Kris Jenner, joking about how she helped out the matriarch years before her family made it big on reality TV.

“Kris was having financial problems,” she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “I loaned Kris money years ago because they needed it. They were really struggling.”

And all these years later, the Today show host kids that she’s still looking for her reimbursement check in the mail.

“I want that money back!” she jokes.

Gifford says she and Jenner became instant friends when they met while living in California in the 1970s.

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“We used to go to Bible study together,” she says. “We became very, very close friends. She was still married to Robert [Kardashian] and the children were very little.”

Even then, the Kardashian home was a prime place for a celebrity encounter.

“It was an insane environment. I would be there with Frank and we would be walking in and the Jackson Five would be walking out. And then as I’m leaving, Wayne Gretzky would be walking in and then an uber-model would be, and a rapper,” she says. “It was like central casting. You have to see it to believe it.”

  • For more on Gifford, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
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And after passing on doing a reality series with her own family “many, many times” to keep her professional and private lives separate (“I think it’s very important to make your living one way and then go home to the people that actually are your life,” she explains), Gifford encouraged Jenner to pursue a show of her own.

“This is when reality television was just getting a hold, I told Kris, ‘You guys of all people in the world should have a reality series. You should, it’s made for your beautiful children. You and [then-husband Caitlyn Jenner] at this point now are so interesting.’ Their dynamic was so interesting,” she recalls.

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But even though she saw the early potential of the Kardashian family, even Gifford could have never predicted the show would be in its 16th season.

“Look what’s happened,” she says. “I knew it would make a great show. I had no idea it would become this worldwide phenomenon. I apologize to those of you who hate it and I say, you’re welcome to those of you who love it.”