on the today show, hoda kotb is seen in millions of homes every day but she has nothing but love for her former home, new orleans. Hoda shares heartfelt stories about the city that nurtured her to stardom in an exclusive interview with Southern Breeze.
ByDeborah Burst - photography courtesy of NBC/Virginia Sherwood
We squeezed our faces against the blurred window with our point & shoot cameras glaring at what seemed to be miniature skyscrapers crammed on a Monopoly board. Two N’awlins gals—me and my daughter Julie—armed with wish lists on our first trip to New York City less than two weeks before Christmas. First lesson—there’s no dilly-dallying in NYC. At times I felt like a salmon swimming upstream. But Julie took charge as we linked our arms together like linebackers defending Eli Manning. You can stop, gawk, and take pictures, but keep your partner by your side.
Rockefeller Center topped my wish list after years of watching those sappy romance flicks with star-struck lovers skating around a mile-high Christmas tree. I scratched that one off on the second evening of our four-and-a-half day trip. Next up: snow and a celebrity.
A cold front blasted through the city on day three and Julie and I found ourselves shivering on top of the Empire State Building. Later, walking to Grand Central Station, huge flakes of snow tumbled down and inside the Station’s walls as part of a revolving cinematic show as “Let it Snow” echoed throughout the massive hall. I was on a roll. Then my third wish came true.
With an early afternoon flight back, we planned to rise early and catch The Today Show live but woke up to freezing rain. Instead we watched the show on TV including the extra hour with Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford, then took a subway to the FAO Schwarz toy store. We made our way back, and two blocks from the hotel, just minutes from leaving for the airport, the last wish was granted.
Julie caught a glimpse of Hoda Kotb walking down the sidewalk and I gave chase yelling, “Hoda, Hoda, I’m from New Orleans and we just love you.” Hoda gave me the biggest hug, told me how much she missed us New Orleanians, and we took pictures. As we said our goodbyes, I asked about an interview, she replied, “Sure, anytime.” But in our haste to leave, I forgot to get her card. Exactly four months after our chance meeting, and 50 emails later, I landed the interview.
Serendipity, persistence, maybe N'Awlins voodoo...but if you ask Hoda, I think she'll agree: it's pure karma.
New Orleans cradled Hoda in her early years as a reporter and anchor with WWL TV forging a symbiotic bond she holds so dear. She left in 1998 for NBC’s Dateline and now co-hosts The Today Show’s fourth hour with Kathie Lee. For more than a decade this N’awlins fledgling has traveled the globe covering Sri Lanka’s Tsunami, Middle Eastern wars, and even risked her life in Burma to capture a heroine’s story. But she’s still a Southern gal, and like a love affair, Hoda feels the city’s pain and celebrations.
“The city has really shaped me in so many ways,” says Hoda, adding it makes her more open, vulnerable, and ready to accept all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances. “It’s like a warm hand on your heart kind of feeling. That doesn’t happen often and if it happens to you once in your lifetime, you’re lucky. I feel lucky because New Orleans gave me that gift and I take it with me.”
What does she miss most (besides the usual libations)? Hugs! She still recalls her first hug in New Orleans from WWL’s newsroom administrator Gail Guidry waiting to pick her up for an interview. “She wrapped these big arms around me and I remember thinking right then and there, I was going to be working in New Orleans before I met with the news director, because of Gail,” says Hoda who claims that 90 percent of the time when she gets a hug in New York, it’s someone from New Orleans. “You just feel it, like when we saw each other just a few months ago…an instant warmth.”
But how does this warm and fuzzy feeling translate in hard news interviews? What Hoda calls a double edge sword: make the person feel comfortable but challenge them in a respectable way. There’s a curiosity and fascination in meeting someone new, a real desire to learn more, and sometimes a life-changing event.
Curious about some of Hoda’s most challenging interviews, I asked her what story or events stood out the most in her career. The network sent her to Burma to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratically elected leader who was placed under house arrest by the military. She was a prisoner in her own country, away from family, her children, a martyr for her people. Hiding from Burmese military authorities, Hoda, her producer, and cameraman lay in a canoe covered with blankets on the Nam Ruak River between Burma and Thailand. Everything was very clandestine; they were dressed as housewives on a soap-buying trip with secret compartments carved in their shoes to hide tapes and used decoy cars to sneak them out of the house. The stakes were high with a penalty of seven years imprisonment if caught.
With the help of four decoy cars, they made it to the airport with tapes stuffed everywhere and with one giant leap, made it through the airport metal detectors. Armed with Aung San Suu Kyi’s incredulous story, Hoda remembers one poignant moment when asked about the sacrifices she had to make in serving her country. With the clearest look in her eye, she answered, “It wasn’t a sacrifice. I was meant to be here leading my country and I will be here for as long as it takes.”
“I was so in awe of her,” Hoda remembers. “Such a moment for me. We didn’t win an award for it, but how often in your lifetime do you get to sit across from someone like that? That kind of stuff changes you.”
And sometimes you never know what’s around the corner. One day you’re healthy, feeling fine and the next day you’re told you have a potentially fatal disease. Hoda learned she had breast cancer two years ago, and in a snap of the fingers her life came into focus. One night after her surgery, she had an epiphany, four lone words—“You can’t scare me.” Armed with a new courage she went to the network execs asking for the host position with the new Today Show and got it.
“It took breast cancer to give me courage, to ask for something I really wanted,” Hoda says. “When someone puts margins on you, you don’t have lots of time; you do a sprint rather than a slow jog in life.”
Hoda’s professional career is in a good place: hard news with Dateline and what she calls “laughing and scratching” with Kathie Lee. Now at 44, her attention is centered more on personal goals. “I feel like a kid, I’m dating, enjoying myself, meeting interesting people,” chuckles Hoda. “And I get to have that butterfly
Of course return trips to New Orleans every couple of months rate high on the priority list. Getting off the plane, seeing the first person at the Jet Blue counter who says, “Hey Hoda, how’s your mom-an-em?” Hanging at Irene’s restaurant near her old stomping ground at Chartres and Governor Nichols Streets, walking the Quarter, seeing friends, hearing people’s stories, and after all this time, they still call out her name.
“I’ve got people cheering me on,” Hoda says thinking about the signs in The Today Show audience from New Orleans natives. “I think, Oh my god! Okay, I can do it. I want to show the folks in New Orleans that I’m worth everything they gave me and it will translate into something big.”
Published in the Summer 2009 issue
Picked by Deborah Burst
A chance encounter on a New York sidewalk proves that New Orleanians stick together. Southern Breeze contributor Deborah Burst and her daughter Julie ran into Hoda Kotb in front of their hotel at the end of a Big Apple trip, setting the stage for what would be come an exclusive interview with The Today Show co-host.
Deborah says that karmic encounter led to the last of her three wishes being granted: Rockefeller Center at Christmas, snow in the Big Apple, and meeting a celebrity! She and Julie share a few pictures of their trip below.