"I've known it was coming for a long long time and you want to get your story out before somebody else tries to tell your story in an inaccurate way," she told her Today family
For Kathie Lee Gifford, getting the news out there that she would be leaving the Today show after 11 years was a massive weight off her shoulders.
“I feel so relieved,” the 65-year-old said on Wednesday’s Today, a day after she revealed the news during Kathie Lee & Hoda.
“I’ve known it was coming for a long long time and you want to get your story out before somebody else tries to tell your story in an inaccurate way,” she told her Today family — including Savannah Guthrie, Al Roker, and Hoda Kotb. “I’ve always tried to be an authentic person, I’ve been honest all along, so when you’re misrepresented, it bothers you because you say, ‘I want everybody to know my truth.’ “
Fans of Today may have been surprised by Gifford’s departure, but there was at least one person who knew: Kotb, who co-hosts Today‘s fourth hour with Gifford.
“Hoda’s known it for a long, long time,” Gifford said. “All these other projects have been bubbling up … and it’s so exciting. Movies and music and so many wonderful things. And I need the time for them to do them properly.”
As Gifford previously told PEOPLE, she had intended to leave last year — until Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct scandal rocked the network.
She reiterated the story on Wednesday. “I went to our bosses here, actually almost two years ago and said, ‘I’m going to do one more year with Hoda woman. I’ll go out. I’ll retire with 10, a nice round number, 10 years with my sun goddess from Egypt.’ And so that was the arrangement until we had some turmoil here in our midst,” Gifford recalled.
“Noah Oppenheim came to me and basically said, ‘Kathie, can you just stay? Say for a little longer?’ ” she said. “I don’t want to leave, I just have to do my other stuff. So I said, ‘If you guys can work it out for me so I can still do my projects, and I’ll stay.’ And I was thrilled with that decision. But now there’s like, six other projects.”
As exciting as the future is, Kotb, 54, wanted to take a moment to look back.
“We have to sit for a minute with what was,” she said. “Those 11 years. I always felt like sitting next to you was a master class in this broadcasting business. Because nobody — nobody, nobody — does it like you do it. Nobody ever has and nobody ever will. You are all by yourself. I think like everything’s contagious. Your fearlessness is contagious.”
To illustrate her point, Kotb recounted a story from early on in their relationship: “I remember it’s Valentine’s Day, and we had just kind of met. I said, ‘I hate Valentine’s Day.’ You said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I met my ex-husband on Valentine’s Day. My divorce papers came on Valentine’s Day. Everything’s terrible!’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s so sad.’ Anyway, we get out on the set, and there’s balloons and flowers. And I go, ‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ and Kath goes, ‘Not for you!’ “
Gifford, and the rest of the crew, erupted into laughter. “That’s [your] fearlessness in everything,” Kotb added. “There’s signs outside for you. You’ve been in everyone’s lives for so many years.”
In his memo to NBC staffers announcing Gifford’s departure, Oppenheim began, “It is with mixed emotions that I share the news Kathie Lee Gifford has decided it’s time to leave TODAY.”
“As we all know, Kathie Lee’s plate has been overflowing lately with film, music and book projects, and after giving us eleven extraordinary years, she’s decided to focus her attention full-time on those other creative endeavors,” he continued.
“When we first launched this incredible hour, no one could have predicted the lightning (or rather, wine) in a bottle that is Hoda & Kathie Lee. Whether in studio or on one of their many road trips, they have delighted our audience with their distinct brand of fun, friendship and adventure. During that time, Kathie Lee has cemented her status as one of the most enduring and endearing talents in morning television. In short — she is a legend.”
“As Kathie Lee told me today: ‘In 2008, I joined the TODAY Show family intending to spend one year. But something unexpected happened along the way: I fell in love with a beautiful, talented, extraordinary Egyptian goddess named Hoda, and an amazing group of individuals who work tirelessly and joyfully at their jobs, many of them starting at midnight, creating an unprecedented four hours of live television. I stayed year after year, making a million memories with people I will never forget. I leave TODAY with a grateful heart but I’m truly excited for this new creative season in my life. Many thanks to all the wonderful people who made the years fly by.’
According to the memo, Gifford will stay with the show through her 11th anniversary on April 7, 2019.
A source told PEOPLE that Gifford would sign one-year contracts throughout her tenure, and that her exit is bittersweet for the NBC staff.
“She would always say, ‘This is my last year,’ but nobody ever thought she was actually going to leave,” the source said. “Now that she’s really leaving, it’s just really sad.”
“People were sobbing” during her announcement, the source added. “She’ll be back here and there for sure … everybody loves working her, so it’s sad for her to go. People are going to genuinely miss her, but they know how excited she is about her movies and music … but selfishly, people love her. She’s a legend.