“I thought I’d stay a year and here it is 11 years later,” Kathie Lee Gifford said of her time at the Today show

By Charlotte Triggs and Natalie Stone
April 04, 2019 04:41 PM

Peggy Olson, is that you?

Weeks before her final Today show broadcast on Friday, Kathie Lee Gifford opened up to PEOPLE about saying goodbye to the NBC morning news program after 11 years — and channeled Elisabeth Moss’ Mad Men character while at it.

During her PEOPLE photo shoot, Gifford, 65, recreated the Mad Men scene when Peggy, sporting sunglasses, walked into her new ad agency — with office box in hand — after leaving Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, where she began her time as an assistant and worked her way up in the creative department under boss Don Draper (Jon Hamm).

Credit: Brian Doben

In the photo, Gifford looked confident in a long, pale pink gown and oversized sunglasses as she walked down a hallway while holding a box of personal belongings and office materials.

“As I said right from the beginning, it’s bittersweet,” Gifford told PEOPLE about leaving her role as co-anchor. (Former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager, 37, is set to step in as co-host alongside Hoda Kotb on April 8.)

“I thought I’d stay a year and here it is 11 years later,” she said. “And in those 11 years a lot of life has happened.”

MAD MEN, Elisabeth Moss, 'Lost Horizon', (Season 7, ep. 712, aired May 3, 2015). photo: ©AMC
Elisabeth Moss in Mad Men
| Credit: Everett

In 2015, her husband of 29 years, former NFL player and broadcaster Frank Gifford, died at 84. In 2017, her mother Joan died in her sleep at age 87.

With her children Cody, 29, and Cassidy, 26, grown and living in Los Angeles, “I experienced huge changes,” Gifford said. “I’ve become a widow, an orphan and an empty-nester all at once. There’s nothing really keeping me in this part of the country anymore except for my job.”

"Scandalous" Broadway Opening Night" - Arrivals And Curtain Call
Credit: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Now, as Gifford wraps her time at Today, she will also be saying goodbye to New York City and relocating to Nashville, where she’ll be focusing on producing Christian music and films.

“The work that I want to do isn’t here anymore,” she said, gesturing around her dressing room at the show’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza studio. “I am an artist, I’m an actress, I’m a writer, I’m a songwriter, a director now. That’s the stuff that feeds my soul and I know that I’m running out of time to do those things.”

While Gifford’s exit is a deep loss for NBC and her devoted viewers, it’s also a bittersweet goodbye for Kotb, who weathered the highs and lows of life with her co-anchor throughout the past decade.

But despite the physical distance that will now be between them, Kotb, 54, will continue cheering Gifford on from New York.

“Kathie Lee’s been through all the phases of her life in front of America and sharing it for the world, really. I don’t think we have seen that before: Someone who met their husband and had her children and then we witnessed the loss,” Kotb said about Gifford. “You realize, you have watched every phase of life and now she’s in this new act, where she is pursuing new dreams. Kathie Lee is proof to everybody that it’s not too late.”

Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford

And to celebrate Gifford’s new phase of life, Kotb will be making sure that the transition to Tennessee begins with a party.

“The day that I leave the show, Hoda and Jill are getting on a plane with me to go down to Nashville for the weekend because a bunch of my new life has been in Nashville for the past couple of years,” said Gifford, who has already bought a house in Music City. “So we’re going to have a girls’ weekend and I hope we don’t make the papers, if you know what I mean. We’re going to have some fun. They’re going to be my lifetime friends, like Regis [Philbin] too.”