Hoda Kotb Reveals the Surprising Celebrity Who Inspired Her Journey to Motherhood

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Hoda Kotb jumps on her Parade Zoom call at 11:45 a.m. sharp. Less than an hour ago, the news anchor was interviewing a career coach on live TV with co-host Jenna Bush Hager for the fourth hour of NBC’s Today show. From 7 to 9 a.m., she and Savannah Guthrie ran down all the breaking news from Capitol Hill and the war in the Middle East. She woke up well before dawn on a freezing January morning in New York City. It’s only Tuesday.

But Kotb isn’t maxed out . . . yet. “I’m still on an adrenaline high,” she admits. “I don’t think I can wind down until after school pickup.”

By the time her daughters, Haley, 7, and Hope, 4, are ready for bed around 7 p.m., she adds, “Man, I’m barely standing.” Then the alarm goes off, and she does it all over again. With a smile, mind you. “I think about the fact that when someone wakes up, the first thing they should see is someone who’s not angry and full of hope and love,” she says.

Related: Hoda Kotb Is the Reason for Daughter Haley's 'Best Field Trip' Ever

Using that positive attitude, Kotb launched Season 5 of her inspirational podcast Making Space with Hoda Kotb (Feb. 19) and wrote her third children’s picture book, Hope Is a Rainbow (out March 5). The bright story encourages young readers to reach for their dreams, whether they’re as big as the night sky or as small as a bowl of purple ice cream. (Chloe Dominique illustrated.) Her oldest daughter served as the inspiration for the title as well as its message: “I’ve learned a lot from her. She loves rainbows and she’s glass half-full and knows bad things will pass and something better is along the way. She’s a walking, talking piece of prose.”

Like mother, like daughter. The Oklahoma native, 59, has endeared herself to Today viewers since 2007 when she ushered in the iconic morning show’s first fourth-hour weekday broadcast. A few months later, Kathie Lee Gifford joined her, and the two carved a niche in the market for their frank and funny discussions (usually over a glass of vino). In November 2017, Kotb took over as the co-host of the first two hours of the show alongside Guthrie. The pairing proved to be a winning combination, and she officially snared the coveted gig a few months later.

Her ascent to the top, however, was decades in the making. The daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Kotb joined NBC in 1998 as a Dateline correspondent after spending more than 10 years in small TV markets. She went on to cover everything from the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Around the time Kotb moved to Today, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. (She’s now in remission.) “I feel incredibly fortunate,” she says. “It’s not like this is lost on me.”

Speaking from her spotless 30 Rock office—professionally organized and color-coded by The Home Edit’s Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin—Kotb talks about her highs and lows for this week’s Parade cover story.

Mara Reinstein: To get the most obvious question out of the way first, what time does your alarm go off in the morning?

Hoda Kotb: I get up at 3 a.m. And I do an hour of stuff that I like, with the shower included. I meditate and scribble in my journal and do a few little things to make sure my day is set. I know it’s weird because who the heck wants to wake up at that time? It’s pitch dark. Nobody is awake. But it’s the only window where nobody from work is calling and nobody from my family is calling. I literally have that one hour. I’m usually out the door around 4:30.

When the alarm rings, do you think how is this my life?

There are some mornings where I don’t even know where I am or who I am. But I quickly try to get into that lane because look, I feel like all these things have seasons. Every job has a season. Every part of parenting has a season. I get tired of hearing people wish their lives away. Like, “Oh god, is Friday almost here?” You get this week. Nothing is promised. And I get to occupy a seat on the Today show and have all these fascinating and incredible conversations and learn new things.

Why was it important for you to write Hope Is a Rainbow?

My little girl Hope is one the brightest shining stars that I have ever encountered. Even if she weren’t my kid, I’d be like, “Who is that kid?” Somebody said to listen to your kids because they teach. So I love that she sees the sunny side.

Do you find that kids just aren’t optimistic in general?

Well, kids are an extension of us. If we’re feeling funky, they’re feeling funky. If we’re feeling lost, they’re feeling lost. It’s been a tumultuous few years for everyone because we’ve been dealing with so many things, from the pandemic to what’s just been going on in life. There is despair. But there’s also hope. I think you need to choose each day thinking, What am I going to do?

Related: 'Today’s Hoda Kotb, Savannah Guthrie and More Seen in Emotional Backstage Footage

You’ve written four books with sunny messages and even your social media posts are very inspiring. Is this really you or do you feel an added responsibility because of your high-profile job?

Everything is put through the same lens, and I’d do it whether I was on TV or not on TV. But I do feel like when you’re in your pajamas with a cup of coffee, there’s a special intimacy there. People do stop me and Savannah on the street and talk to us in a different way. It just reminds me that we’re all kind of vulnerable and probably never more so than when we first open our eyes. So even on my Instagram, if you’re checking social media, you’re going to find something good. I’m not giving you snarky.

Does that mean you’re privately snarky later in the day?

I don’t dig it. Like, I don’t think it’s funny when I see a video of somebody falling. That’s not my thing. Do I have sarcastic friends? Absolutely. I delight in them. But it’s not my jam.

Are you friends with the other morning TV hosts?

I know Gayle [King]. We text, we call. She is amazing. I feel like Gayle is another shining example of someone who’s authentic to herself and doing fun things. And she shows up for everybody. I have a book party, and Gayle is going to be there. I’ll get a text like, “I saw that you weren’t on the air. Are you feeling OK?” Robin [Roberts] and I have a very friendly relationship, too. We’re always talking about how fun it would be if we did a project together. She’s remarkable. Those are the two I’m closest with.

Do you see yourself in the Today job for the long haul?

I’m not 100 percent sure. It’s a beautiful place to be. But I mean, if you want to know where my lane is, it’s definitely the lighter fare. We can help people. I mean, the 7-to-9 does a lot of that too. There’s so much in the show that I’m passionate about so I’m enjoying it and loving it and I guess we’ll see how it all rolls out.

Circling back to your first job, how did you get your start in the business?

Out of college [Virginia Tech] in 1986, I physically drove my mom’s car around the Southeast part of the United States for job interviews. I got rejected in Richmond [Virginia]. I drove to Memphis because I heard they were hiring but that didn’t work. I got all the way to Dothan, Alabama, which had one of the smallest stations in the country, and one of the guys at the station asked if I knew how to put a video tape in a machine! It was over, and I thought I had messed up my life.

Then what happened?

I decided to drive home. I was playing James Taylor in the car because he’s my I’m-sad music. And I saw a sign for the newscast in Greenville, Mississippi. It was for News Center 15 and it was like No. 187 in the market in terms of size. But the news director hired me and I wept because I had never wanted anything so badly. And from there I hopscotched around the country.

When you’re in these small markets, do you aspire for that shiny network gig?

I didn’t play the long game. In every city, I promised myself that I would fall in love. With the city, with a friend, a boyfriend, a restaurant. And I did. Even in Moline, Illinois, I decided I was home. And opportunities kept presenting themselves. When I was in New Orleans, someone from New York saw me and spoke to me. That’s how it worked.

Did you have a TV role model?

It probably would have been Oprah. And she just celebrated her 70th birthday, which is super cool.

And you’re celebrating your 60th birthday in August. How are you feeling about it?

My 50s were my best decade. I got the job that I didn’t even dream about. And I’ve got the children that were not even dream-able. I can help my family, which is what I always wanted to do. I didn’t think any of it was possible. In my 40s, I got divorced [from sports coach Burzis Kanga] and had breast cancer. Blech. But even all those lessons prepared me for my 50s. I just sat down with Mariska Hargitay and she just turned 60. Jodie Foster just told me it’s her favorite decade. Jamie Lee Curtis is like “Girl, you have no idea how good it is.” My friend Maria Shriver is living her best life in her 60s. And Gayle is 69! All these women are at the top of their game. So I’m pumped.

Would you have been satisfied thriving in your career or did you really ache for kids?

I’m the kind of person who will make my situation good. I was satisfied with my professional life because I was too afraid to say aloud that I wanted children. I thought it was too late. I have enough blessings, I told myself. Don’t be greedy, I told myself. Not everybody gets everything. But if I were sitting quietly in my own space, I would say aloud, “Wow, having children would have been the dream.” Then, all of a sudden, I see a story about Sandra Bullock adopting a child. I’m Googling and we’re the same age. And then boom, here it is.

What kinds of things do you do together? Reading, presumably?

I’m going to give Jenna full credit here because she made reading cool [with her book club]. And so it’s funny because now I have like six books by the side of the bed. And I pick up one and drop another. Now my kids lay in bed at night and I’ll have my book and Haley will have her book and she’ll read for awhile and I’ll read and we’ll talk about it. Like, I’ll tell her about how I’m reading Awe and she’ll talk about Junie B. Jones. It’s really cool.

That fourth hour of Today really was a game-changer for you. What’s the secret sauce?

You know, Kathie Lee launched that rocket ship. She was the gold standard of talk TV. She was unafraid to say, “We don’t give a rip.” I didn’t know talk shows. I didn’t know how to do anything except report on camera. I was so trained to follow rules. So I learned from Kath and grew with her. And it became a social hour. Like, have fun with us. Saturday Night Live spoofed it and everyone was drunk and it was hilarious. Then Jenna showed up and lightning struck twice.

Who makes you more nervous: A celebrity or a newsmaker?

It depends. All I want is someone who tells the truth. No talking points—don’t worry, you’ll be able to say the things you want to say. Let’s just have a real conversation. That’s what I strive for in every interview. I will say Viola Davis made me nervous. She’s someone I had on a pedestal, and I wanted to do right by her.

Surely you must have a mantra. What is it?

“Be here now” is one because I don’t ever want to not be present. The other one is “Clear is kind.” When you tell the truth and be straightforward, it’s kindness. I spent some of my life pretending like I wanted everyone to be happy. And then you realize that’s not serving anybody. You know, you don’t need to pretend. Just leave with loving kindness. That’s it. And then, you know, live a good life.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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