Even though Hoda Kotb is permanently joining Savannah Guthrie as Today‘s new co-anchor, she’ll still be sipping wine in the morning show’s popular fourth hour alongside Kathie Lee Gifford — who couldn’t be prouder of her friend.
“I feel happy for her because she is having the greatest year of her life, and if she’s happy, I’m happy for her,” Gifford, 64, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “What’s happening to her now is something she would have given anything for earlier on in her career. … Nobody is as good as what they do as Hoda. Nobody spreads more joy. But she has learned that the way you make your living is different from what your life is all about. She has a life to go home to that means more to her than anything she could have dreamed of. I’m not minimizing how huge this is, but I’m explaining this comes to her at the perfect time. … She knows what’s truly important.”
“I cant think about a more beloved person than Hoda at the show,” Gifford adds. “Everybody universally adores her. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She’s more loving and kind, so when these wonderful things started happening for this wonderful woman, we were thrilled for her.”
It’s been a time of controversy and change at NBC’s beloved Today show: Matt Lauer — an NBC veteran for more than 20 years — was fired for alleged inappropriate sexual behavior in November. (Multiple sources describe the cause for termination as an affair that violated NBC’s terms of employment, but in the wake of the news, allegations that included lewd behavior and sexual assault also surfaced.)
“The whole thing with Matt is not something we want to get into. We love this man and we are heartbroken about him being gone. Our sense of joy is tempered by our sense of loss,” Gifford says of Kotb’s success after Lauer’s downfall. “The best way to say it is that it’s a bit bittersweet. Nobody wants to profit off of someone’s pain. But this is reality. It’s a business, and someone has to move on. Matt would be the first to congratulate her and wish her well.”
The network’s turmoil affected Gifford’s own plans to move on from Today: She says she informed NBC last January that she would leave after 2017 to pursue film projects, explaining, “You get to a point of your life where you run out of time to do what you want to do.”
For more on Hoda and Savannah, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday
But then, “Things changed,” she says of Today in the wake of Lauer’s departure. “Some things were painful for us. And we had to adjust, and then they said, ‘If we accommodate your schedule, will you consider staying?’ I wasn’t looking to get out, but I needed the time. So when they accommodated the schedule, then there was no reason to leave. … There’s no better place in a 50-year career. It all worked out, so I’m staying.”
Gifford says Kotb will cut back on travel to make room for her two jobs at Today.
“She’s already the hardest working woman there,” Gifford says. “She figured out a way to keep everything that is bringing great joy into her life and have this dream job.”