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Kathie Lee Gifford is getting personal — seriously personal.
“I guess my life seems easy to people, but nobody’s is,” Gifford tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. Looking back on a difficult first marriage, becoming a tabloid regular in the '90s and learning after her husband Frank Gifford’s death in 2015 that he had suffered from the degenerative brain disease CTE, “sometimes the past is not your favorite place to visit,” she says. “But I can look back on things with a deeper wisdom now, and if I can share that with people and it helps them, then it’s worth it.”
For Gifford, a deep Christian faith has fueled her lifelong optimism. “I choose to live in life abundantly, I choose to trust God,” says Gifford, who is currently in production on a Christian short film, The Way, in Utah. “And to believe that all the things that have happened to me were not a coincidence.”
For more from Kathie Lee Gifford, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Reflecting on her first marriage to Paul Johnson, a composer, was particularly difficult for Gifford. After meeting at Oral Roberts University, where Gifford was a student, the pair wed in 1976, but it was a sexless marriage. “I was excited about starting a life with someone, but he didn’t feel the same way,” she says. “I felt humiliated sleeping in my guestroom.”
“It was so damaging to me on so many levels, damaging for me emotionally as a woman to be rejected after saving myself all those years,” she says. “And then it was so disappointing on a spiritual level, because I had to ask the Lord, ‘How did I get this so wrong anyway?’ I don't even like to call him my husband because he wasn't in the truest sense of the word.”
Fearful of divorce’s stigma, she toughed it out for six years — and then he left her. “I was relieved,” she says. “I realized, you know what, we can make all the vows we want in life, but if both people don't want the same thing, it's not going to work out. And I was very hopeful that one day I would find a real love.”
She found it in Frank, the football star-turned broadcaster 23 years her senior, whom she met during a stint hosting Good Morning America.
The pair wed in 1986 and welcomed son Cody in 1990 and daughter Cassidy in 1993. “Our almost 30-year marriage was a real love affair and a true marriage in every sense of the word, so God redeemed,” Gifford says.
But they were also tested.
In 1997, a tabloid caught Frank cheating with another woman at a hotel. The Live! with Regis and Kathie Lee host, already reeling from having been accused of using sweatshop labor to make her Walmart clothing line, was gutted.
“It was absolutely devastating,” she says. Gifford sunk into a deep depression. “Nobody knows what I went through. You feel hopeless and you don’t want to live anymore,” she says.
The pair went to counseling, but Gifford contemplated divorce. “If this had been chronic behavior from Frank, I would have divorced him like that,” she says. “After what I'd been through with my first marriage, then to be with a chronically unfaithful husband, no. Nothing in the Bible says we have to stay with that.”
Their counselor’s suggestion that she try to forgive him as the father of her children made all the difference. “That guy I adored and that’s why we were able to turn it around. It was the right thing for my life to forgive my husband. And then work at forgetting.”
Ultimately, Gifford writes in her book that she prayed to God to make her desire her husband more than ever, rekindling a sexual spark in their relationship that saved their marriage.
“He was a very good, dear, gentle, generous man. So many things about him that I valued as my friend, I continued to value in him as my husband and the father of my children,” she says. “But the person you loved the most in your life is the person that can hurt you the most.”
In 2015, Frank died suddenly at the age of 84. In the months prior, “He had been dealing with old age stuff like losing your car keys, putting them in the microwave,” Gifford recalls. The family suspected he might have CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, from the repeated trauma of blows to the head during his football career. Gifford says her son Cody recommended they donate Frank’s brain to science, since CTE can be diagnosed only through autopsy.
“He said, ‘Daddy would want us to do what Jesus wants us to do, and he would want people to be helped,’” she recalls. Frank’s brain went to Boston University, where researchers confirmed the diagnosis.
This summer, both Gifford’s children decided to proceed with small COVID-era weddings.
“Some people are postponing their marriages until they can have the big celebration, but my kids just wanted to be married,” she says.
In June, Cassidy, an actress, married software project manager Ben Wierda in an intimate backyard wedding at his family’s home in Michigan. In September, Cody, a producer, married his longtime love Erika Brown, an actress, at the Greenwich home where he and his sister had grown up, “right where we’d spread Frank’s ashes,” Gifford says. “At both weddings, we just felt Frank just smiling. He had an aerial view, I think.”