"We've watched her grow. Hoda and I both have been just in awe of how she has learned to trust her instincts," Kathie Lee Gifford said of Jenna Bush Hager

By Charlotte Triggs and Natalie Stone
April 08, 2019 03:15 PM
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When Kathie Lee Gifford announced in December that she would be leaving the Today show, she couldn’t think of a better person to fill her position than Jenna Bush Hager.

“I adore her like everybody else does here. She is of course the natural person to take over,” Gifford, 65, told PEOPLE weeks before her final broadcast on April 5.

Today - Season 67
Credit: Nathan Congleton/NBC

In early December, Gifford announced she would be moving on after 11 years in the role to pursue personal projects.

“It’s an exciting time for me, and I’m thrilled about all the projects that are coming up,” Gifford said on the show. “But it’s also hard … because I love everybody here so much.”

Following speculation that Bush Hager, 37, would replace Gifford, the network announced at the end of February that the Today show contributor would co-host the 10 o’clock hour alongside Hoda Kotb.

“I’m so excited, I can’t believe it,” Bush Hager told PEOPLE exclusively. “It feels organic and it feels right. It just feels like the right time for me.” (She first joined the Today show in 2009, later transitioning to a more permanent role on the show as contributor.)

During her interview with PEOPLE, Gifford recalled that she watched Bush Hager “blossom” during the 2018 Winter Olympics, when the former first daughter filled in for Kotb, 54, for two weeks.

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“We’ve watched her grow. Hoda and I both have been just in awe of how she has learned to trust her instincts. Like Hoda had to. Hoda was very trained, very excellent, very award-winning journalist, but she had to learn how to let fly,” Gifford said.

“Jenna came from a teaching background and she had to learn to trust her instincts as well,” she added. “Those were my instincts from day one so I’d have to unlearn stuff, which I refused to do. But we watched Jenna grow and bloom and blossom. And especially the two weeks when Hoda was at the last Olympics. And Jenna, I think co-hosted with me for most of the two weeks that Hoda was gone.”

Gifford said that during that time, “I just watched her bloom.”

“We were over in [the] studio across the street with a live audience and I just sat back and watched it and I went ‘you go, girl.’ We love her. She’s going to be terrific,” Gifford said.

And like the many years she spent alongside Kotb, Gifford was confident that the duo, who debuted as the new co-hosts Monday, will discover their own rhythm for the morning program.

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Credit: Today Show

“She and Hoda are going to find their own rhythm just as Hoda and I had gotten our stuff, how do we do it day after day? All are silly stuff. Have a great show. They’re gonna find their little things just like a couple does,” she continued. “Whether you’re a romantic couple or a professional couple, they’re gonna find their little sweet spots. They’re going to make it their own. It’s going to be fine.”

On Friday, Gifford said goodbye to Today after 11 years, bidding farewell to her co-host and close friend Kotb and the rest of the morning show crew.

“I feel great, I do,” said Gifford as she sat alongside Kotb for her final show. “The last two weeks, since of this crazy stuff began, I had no expectations. You want to bear it well. You want to honor the Lord with whatever you say and do, but you also want to have fun and remind people of why this show worked in the beginning. Because we have fun and we have a friendship and it’s real.”

Of her decision to leave the show, Gifford — who is relocating to Nashville — admitted that it’s been harder than expected.

“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.”

Today airs weekdays on NBC.