Fans of NBC's "Name That Tune" know Kathie Lee Johnson. She sweeps on camera, all smiles and bare shoulders, to "la-la-la" title lines of songs for contestants to guess. Gospel music fans recognize her soft brown-eyed gaze. Johnson's latest album, tentatively titled "You Took My Heart by Surprise," will be released soon.
This fall Johnson, 24, plays Kathie Honey in a new syndicated TV sitcom/variety show, "Hee Haw Honeys," a commitment that forced her to turn down the lead in an east coast production of the Gershwin review, "Oh Kay!"
Kathie Lee Johnson's career is at the turning point.
"You just don't do things that go against the way you believe," says born-again Christian Johnson. "I feel limited by my convictions in the same way a doctor wouldn't do a film about how smoking is okay."
Johnson's journey to Hollywood began rather inauspiciously in 1970.
"My senior English teacher threatened to fail me if I didn't enter the Bowie Junior Miss Pageant," says former homecoming princess Johnson. "I was coerced."
But the reluctant contestant won, and won again. It was as Maryland's entry in the National Junior Miss Pageant that Johnson first met Anita Bryant.
"I just fell in love with the lady. She walked into the room and all of us 50 little Junior Misses were standing there and she comes up to one girl and says, 'Have you had your orange juice today?' The girl nodded, 'Uh huh,' and Anita says (here Johnson looks upward), 'My work is not in vain.' She has a tremendous sense of humor."
Johnson lost the pageant, but she won Anita Bryant.
"Anita invited me to live with her and her family in Miami," recalls Johnson. "She and her husband wanted to pour what they knew into someone and they felt that in the 10 years they'd been looking that I was the one."
"It was the hardest year of my life. I was only 18 and I was Anita's and her husband's secretary. I babysat for the four children, took college courses at night and sang on weekends."
Bryant also provided singing and grooming lessons. "I would perform with her occasionally," says Johnson. "I did the 1972 Republican National Convention because she couldn't make it. They said, 'Have Katie come. She's the one who goes for Anita when Anita can't go.'
"My voice started sounding like Anita's," laughs Johnson. "Her voice is immediately recognizable, and I'd hear myself sing and I'd say, 'That sounds just like her!'"
Johnson also felt confined by the strictness of Bryant's Southern Baptist Church.
"I've never been a great churchgoer," she carefully explains. "I get along so much better with the Lord when it's me and Him. I don't like religion. Too much has been done that's so evil and ugly, all in the name of religion, that I think God's got nothing to do with."
When the subject of Anita Bryant's crusade against gay rights is brought, up she takes a deep breath, starts to speak, hesitates, then tossing back her hair she plunges in.
"I love Anita very much, but I totally disagree with her. I don't feel morality can be legislated.
"When I was living with her she wasn't controversial at all. She was the all-American girl - for God and country. The difference for me is that I don't believe America is only a Christian country. I don't say God and country in the same breath. Diversity is what America is all about."
"I think Anita's been caught up in something she never intended. In fact, she's pretty much told me that she never wanted this to happen."
In the fall of 1972 Johnson left Miami for two years at Oral Roberts University and then on to Hollywood, where she spent a year auditioning and doing commercials. Her first major TV role was Nurse Callaghan on "Days of Our Lives."
The former Kathie Epstein met Paul Johnson at a taping of the weekly "Oral Roberts and You" TV program. Paul Johnson is a composer, arranger, producer and publisher, primarily of gospel music. Sharing music, ambition and religion, the two married in 1976.
Having grown up with a mother "who was always there for us," and influenced by a summer of teaching Marabel ("The Total Woman") Morgan's course for "the total girl" at Anita Bryant Summer Camps for Girls, the new Mrs. Johnson decided to stay home of her first year of marriage and "be the precious little wife."
johnson gives a throaty laugh. "That lasted about three months."
Johnson spent her days doing housework, taking Morganesque bubble baths at 5 p.m. and couldn't understand why she kept bursting into tears over the vacuum.
Finally Johnson's tears came over a forkful of spaghetti.
"Paul understood. He said that if he had wanted a cook and a maid he would have hired one. He wanted me to go back to my career. He said, 'Frankly you were a whole bunch more fun then.' He liberated me to be me."
So Kathie Lee Johnson returned to showbiz. Today, armed with Dinah Shore's producer, Henry Jaffe, as her agent, husband Paul Johnson's compositions and a "concern about my folks feeling comfortable about what I do," Johnson has more offers than she can accept. And she dosen't worry about turning them down.