THE LAST TIME THAT Kathie Lee Gifford saw Regis Philbin–and the only time since her final appearance on Live! July 8, 2000–was in late January, over an Italian dinner with their spouses at Valbella, Philbin's favorite restaurant, in Greenwich, Connecticut. "Joy and Frank and Regis and I had a ball," says Gifford, sitting in her cozy midtown Manhattan office. "We had a long, long dinner and a lot of wine and just . . . laughed. I had missed him."

But she hasn't missed the show. She hasn't even watched Live with Regis or Live with Regis and Kelly (Ripa became Gifford's permanent replacement on February 1) once in its entirety since she left. "Think about it," says Gifford with more practicality than defensiveness. "I didn't stay at a television show for 15 years and leave it to then sit home and watch it."

At 47, Gifford looks fit and relaxed in a tight, stoplight-red leather suit and leopard-print heels. Her red-blond hair is blown straight, her makeup flawless. Since quitting Live! eight months ago, she has kept busy. She stars as a substance-abusing sitcom diva in Spinning Out of Control, airing on E! March 18. She is recording two children's albums, Park Animals and Goodnight Angel, due for release in May. This spring, she's making a guest appearance on NBC's Just Shoot Me as a romance novelist who seduces David Spade's character, Dennis Finch. And in May, she is returning to her roots to host the Daytime Emmy Awards.

There's still a lot of Maryland's Bowie High School cheerleader Kathryn Lee Epstein in Gifford today. Early training in strength and spirit has undoubtedly helped Gifford survive media scrutiny with a smile. Nearly two decades of sharing herself on national television (3 years on Good Morning America, 15 with Regis) made her a regular tabloid target. In I996, she was falsely accused of knowingly operating sweatshops in Honduras for her Wal-Mart clothing line. The next year, her husband, Frank Gifford, became as famous for his fling with flight attendant Suzen Johnson as for his careers as a New York Giants halfback and an ABC sportscaster. There were the stories lampooning their children, Cody Newton, 11, and Cassidy Erin, 7 (Kathie Lee and Frank are suing American Media for printing in the National Examiner last year that Cody was "a monster"). There were the tales of mutual animosity between her and Regis and between her and Live! executive producer Michael Gelman. Most recently, the press gleefully reported the failure of Gifford's first post Live! project, the pop album Heart of a Woman, which sold a dismal 50,000 copies.

Nonetheless, Gifford, ever resilient, maintains that her life has never been better. "Remember when you were a kid, going to school Monday through Friday, and you couldn't wait for Saturday?" she says. "That was because Saturday was the day you got to decide whatever you wanted to do." She takes a sip of herbal tea, exhales slowly, and smiles. "l feel like every day in my life now is Saturday."

So you really don't miss the show? I don't. I don't. I do miss the camaraderie of a lot of the people there. But sitting on that stool and talking about my life, that I do not miss. I never want to do it again. I can never foresee a time when that will be in any way exciting, challenging or seductive to me.

Why? Do you have regrets about having shared your life so openly? I happened to catch a few minutes of the show this morning and there was Kelly talking about her little boy. And I thought, There will come a day when she won't feel comfortable doing that any more. I feel sorry about that. Why can't we share a sweet story, in total innocence, without it being perverted? But I'm not responsible for what other people take from a loving, pure heart. So, no, I don't regret whatever I've shared.

How well do you think people actually know you? People have come up to me over the years and said, "We know everything about you." And I smile and say, "You just know what I've shared." I probably shared 10 percent of my life, but they assume you're sharing everything. I don't think there's anything wrong in sharing breast-feeding stories. In sharing menopause stories. You know, potty-training stories. Those are universal things.

Do you think it's hard for people to get past your Live! persona? That was part of the problem with Heart of a Woman. So many people judged that album because it was me, not by the musical content. DJs all over the country said, "The album's fabulous, but it's Kathie Lee, so we can't play it." I told Universal Records it wasn't going to sell well. I said, "My job is easy. I can do a great pop record for you. That's no problem. You've got the much bigger job of convincing America they need that hot new Kathie Lee CD. Good luck." But let it sell 50,000 copies. Let it sell five copies! That was not going to change the thrill of doing that record.

Playing Amanda in Spinning Out of Control seems to be an even bigger departure. Well, since I've never been a drug taker, the hardest part for me was trying to look authentic with the smoking of the dope and the cutting of the cocaine. But I had a very helpful crew. You can't imagine how many of them volunteered to show me the correct way to smoke a joint or the correct way to cut cocaine.... [chuckles]

Have Cody and Cassidy seen the movie? They've seen edited portions. They won't see the director's cut until they're older.

Did you enjoy making it? During the shoot last November, it was four o'clock in the morning, and I was sitting there in the 19-degree Toronto weather with Howie [Mandel, who plays Amanda's levelheaded manager, Marty Levine], exhausted. I looked at him and said, I left the cushiest job in show business. Why am I so happy?"

Why were you? Because that's why I wanted to be an actress. I'd been myself professionally for 18 years, and I really missed the creative thrill of acting. So the further away from me the character was, the more appealing it was.

What parts of Amanda do you understand? I understand her frustration that she can't get the truth told. I understand when she lashes out at the news reports–"Leave me alone! You don't know me!" I put that line in the script. When I was accused of sweatshop abuses, that was completely fabricated. Ultimately, I was vindicated, but for a couple of years, nobody wanted to know the truth.

What is the truth? It doesn't make any sense when you think about it. To be a child advocate your entire life and then one day wake up and say, "I think I'll open a few sweatshops and put some underprivileged kids to work." Hello? I put my money where my mouth is and spent more than a million dollars a year of my own money monitoring factories that already promised me they were doing the right thing. So my factories are triple-monitored at great expense. But that's how much I care. I work for Child Help USA, which battles child abuse. So to be accused of that truly was the most devastating thing that's ever happened to me.

People also relished writing about your feuding with Regis and Gelman. Right. I mean, that's not right, but that's what was written. You go to any other television show and see how long an executive producer lasts. Gelman and Regis and I worked together for 15 years. Sure, we had our disagreements about things. But were they the knock-down, drag-out things you read about? Absolutely not, or how could we have lasted? But nobody asks that question.

It's not interesting when people get along. No, it's not. What is interesting is that the media almost always make it the woman who's the bitch. The woman who's out of control. The woman who's hysterical.

Why do you think that is? Because the world is not ready for strong, independent, successful women. That image is still threatening, and let's admit it, it's still a male-dominated society. I'm no male basher, but I'll bash the men who deserve it.

What do you think of Kelly Ripa? When I found out that she had been chosen, I sent her flowers. I sent her flowers again after her first week. I wish her all the best. I'm struck by the healthy balance she has between saucy and sweet. Somebody who just kisses Regis's rear end, it's going to be such boring television. And somebody who just kicks it, you're going to say, "Excuse me, what gives you the right to kick his rear end?" That's a hard job, to make it funny, moving, real, silly, serious. Let the moment be the moment and still try to look good in your fifth month of pregnancy. Try to leave whatever garbage is going on in your life in the dressing room. Try to put on a happy face for the whole world.

How are things with Frank? Well, the one thing I've learned is that I'm not going to talk about my marriage anymore. We obviously had a good marriage to begin with or we wouldn't be here together four years later. Anything I said about my marriage was honest. But that's no longer for sale. Not that I was selling it, but everybody else did. Nobody really knows what goes on behind closed doors with two human beings. It's nobody's business. And that's all I'm going to say about my marriage or anybody else's.

How do you withstand all the media scrutiny? Cassidy just played the smart pig in The Three Little Pigs, the one who built her house with bricks. Even though it's a little fairy tale, it's based in truth. If you build your home with bricks, when the winds and storms come, you'll have a sanctuary. I built my emotional life on a solid foundation. So when I read this garbage–and truly it is garbage–I put it where it belongs: in the trash can.

How do you pick your battles? I set my sights on when to fight back–the only time we've ever sued has been over our children–and otherwise I live in my own truth. Whether it's the labor issues, my marriage, my children, my friendships, my work, I know the truth. And it does set me free.