"It's the closest to a hometown I’ve ever felt,” says Hoda Kotb, broadcast journalist and co-anchor of NBC’s Today show. “There’s a magnetism about New Orleans that grabs you right out of the gate.” For Hoda, she means that literally.
It was 1992, and Hoda had just wrapped up a job interview in icy Minneapolis when she stepped off the plane in New Orleans to the rhythm of a jazz band that had gathered at the airport to welcome home a fellow passenger. Hoda was immediately captivated by the music, the mood, and the warmth of the people. She was greeted with a bold embrace by Gail Guidry, the office manager at WWL-TV, the other news station that was vying for her to become their main anchor. Guidry had Crystal Gayle-long hair, the widest grin, and the most genuine hug. The two laughed, chatted, and left the terminal as friends. New Orleans had Hoda from hello.
“Hoda!” “Hey, Hoda, where y’at?” “Welcome home, Hoda!” Her name echoes through the streets as the team from Southern Living captures photos of her on a trip down memory lane. A bridal party invites her to crash their reception, people teeter on bicycles as they strain their necks to see if it’s really her, parents stop for pictures with their kids, teens ask if she’ll FaceTime their moms. Hoda is a superstar here. She’s the sister, daughter, or mother they can’t wait to welcome home. She’s family. And she’s my best friend.
It will be 30 years ago this May when Hoda and I met at WWL-TV, where she was the main anchor and I was essentially an intern. I’d report to work as she was leaving. “Hi! I’m Hoda,” she said. “Hi, I’m nobody!” I replied with a nervous laugh. We clicked from the get-go. Not long after that, Hoda moved into 538 Governor Nicholls Street in the French Quarter, the home of our youth. I say “our” because she helped me pay the deposit so I could live next door. We shared a giant wraparound balcony, countless 2 a.m. conversations, and a lifetime of laughs. “It was like we got to do college over again and be roommates,” Hoda recalls.
And the lower French Quarter was our campus. “It was the perfect corner of New Orleans—all the fun of the Quarter and the charm of a quiet neighborhood. It was within walking distance of some of the world’s greatest coffeehouses, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, and so perfectly located that we’d hear live music out our window every now and then. There were no strangers. It was a real community,” says Hoda.
As we reminisce about the good old days during this interview at the Soniat House, we hear the familiar beat of a brass band playing outside. Hoda steps onto the balcony—to their delight as well as hers—and then quickly retreats. She’s never held herself above anybody. Hoda is a get-in-the-mix kind of gal. She kicks off her heels and runs downstairs into the street, dancing with the musicians, taking selfies with passerbys and group pictures for the band’s website. That’s the beauty of her success. Everyone claims her. She loves them all right back.
It’s that palpable mutual adoration that Hoda now shares with her two daughters, Haley (6) and Hope (4): “I want them to know New Orleans—to love the city and for this to be part of their lives because it’s such an important part of mine. I want them to see what it’s like to be front and center at the parade,” she says. And if you know New Orleans, you know there is always a parade and a reason to celebrate something—a festival, a holiday, Mardi Gras, or a second line marking the beginning of a marriage or the end of a life well lived.
Last year, Hoda and her daughters visited on St. Patrick’s Day. We stopped the car as a parade headed down St. Charles Avenue. The kids climbed on our shoulders and raised their hands and voices shouting, “Throw me somethin’, mister!” It’s the phrase that distinguishes tourists from locals. Both girls knew those words would prompt the people on the floats to drop trinkets below. “Look, Mom!” Hope squealed as she caught a string of beads as long as she was tall. “Mom! Look at this! What is it?” Haley excitedly asked, wrapping herself in a giant pair of green satin underwear. “My children caught underwear. Underwear!” Hoda recalls with a laugh. “Everything is light in New Orleans. ‘Normal’ is being free, and dressing the way you want, dancing in the street even if you’re the only one. New Orleans celebrates the individual. It’s full of characters, and I want my kids to meet them,” says Hoda.
And her daughters will know this city because Hoda has made it a priority. She brings them to the parks, where they play on the giant limbs of ancient oak trees in the shadows of the swaying Spanish moss above. They eat gumbo, barbecue shrimp, beignets, and frozen sno-balls. They go to parades, root for the Saints, and dance to “Oh Happy Day!” I remember the first time I heard that song. It was blasting from Hoda’s apartment next door. “Let’s go to Jazz Fest!” she exclaimed on that spring day in 1993 as she grabbed her keys and flip-flops. The two of us have been going ever since.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was Hoda’s favorite event of the year and became mine too. It’s two back-to-back weekends in the spring filled with music, food, and culture. You’ll still find her there, rain or shine (the rain is more fun, she’ll tell you), dancing from one stage to another. But it’s the Gospel Tent where she’ll be standing in the front row, arms in the air, singing praise for the city she loves that loves her right back.
Photographer Cedric Angeles
Prop Styling Page Mullins
Wardrobe Don Sumada
Makeup Mary Kahler
Hair Laura Castorino
Videographer Bron Moyi
Video Editor WesFilms
Band Bourbon Street Brass Band
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Read the original article on Southern Living.