Through her extensive work as a “Dateline” correspondent, Hoda Kotb has given us firsthand access to domestic and international stories. With her New York Times bestselling books, she has shown us a glimpse into her personal life, the people who continue to inspire and push her, and the stories of six brave individuals. As co-host of the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today,” she helps millions of viewers kick-start their day with a smile. Today, we are thrilled to share our conversation with this inspiring, optimistic FACE of the South: Hoda Kotb.
You’ve received prestigious awards for your professional work and have faced challenges in your personal life. What do you see as your biggest success to date? What has been the biggest hurdle?
I think that every time I have gone through a hurdle, it has seemed like the biggest one at the time. I lost my Dad when I was in college, and at that point in my life, I had never been through anything like that–I didn’t know what that felt like. I just thought how do you make it through something like this? You realize that you can—and do—make it through things. I felt like losing my dad was the most devastating loss because it feels like unfinished business. He didn’t get to see me graduate college or anything that happens in life–get married, do this, do that.
The funny thing about going through an illness like cancer … I think it is harder to be the person next to the person going through the illness. I looked at my mother and my sister and thought, “It must be so much harder to be you.” It is difficult to be the person that wants to help. I’d almost rather be in my shoes than theirs. You learn who you love and who loves you, and you learn how strong you are. And look, a lot of people have been through things that are a million times worse than anything I have ever been through and they are standing tall. Those are the people I look at and say, “I want to be like them.”
I think you overcome things in life that are hard and scary and sad. I don’t consider them successes … you overcome and endure. Those things happened to me; I didn’t make anything happen. My dad passed away, breast cancer came to me. I feel like successes are when you seek something out, and you work at something. Like, you get a terrific job or you meet a terrific person–those are things you seek out, and I feel like the other things just happened to me.
As a breast cancer survivor, what would you offer as advice to another woman struggling with similar challenges (or those watching loved ones face similar challenges)?
My advice is don’t show up with sadness, or sad eyes, or pity. That is something you can sniff out when you are going through an illness. A lot of it is treating the person as you always would have. Look at them with the future in mind, and not with such sadness. I think as a breast cancer patient, you have to surround yourself with people who lift you up … people who inspire you. You realize how strong you are when you go through something. One day I got the four words: “You can’t scare me.” Suddenly you become empowered and emboldened because you have overcome something that could have stopped you in your tracks. You now know what scary is and you have your priorities on what really is frightening and what really is something to spend time worrying about. You hold on tightly to the ones you love, and your life snaps into focus. You suddenly have a realization and that is one of the gifts—I hate saying you get gifts from an illness, but I really do think you get a few.
If you had the chance to interview anyone, dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
Hmmm … who would I interview? I want to interview Kate Middleton. I know there are a lot of presidents and heads of state, but there is something about her that I like. One, because she hasn’t been interviewed. Her and her husband, bring them both in. I like people who aren’t overexposed. You know who I really like interviewing? I like people who tell the truth. Often during interviews you get a spin or a promotion, but sometimes you are sitting with someone and they are so authentically who they are that you go, “Oh my God, this is so amazing.” It is not because they were head of state or because they won an Oscar, it is because they are true.
What would people be surprised to know about you?
I can eat an entire box of Entenmann’s Black & White Cookies in one day. I do not know if that is even surprising! I was in the grocery store and I told myself, “Don’t get them. DO NOT GET THEM.” And, I got them, and that was that. Once I tried them, it was over. Also, I wake up happy. I am not sure what goes on there, but I am grateful that it is that way. I always have music on, I clean up before the cleaning lady comes because I always feel bad and what else? I am really unorganized, but I am never late. I am always five minutes early, but I cannot find half my stuff–I have to allot myself time to find my keys.
You were born in Cairo, lived in Nigeria and have worked and lived all over the United States. Where do you call home, and why?
New Orleans feels like home. I love New York, but there is something about New Orleans that, to me, is like breathing. Sometimes you have a love affair with a city, and it just never leaves you. Nashville is a beautiful place–one of my best friends in the world lives in Nashville, so I come quite a bit. I love Nashville, and I love New York, because it has its own rhythm. They are all unique cities, but New Orleans to me is different. It just fits with me, like two puzzle pieces. It is hot and sweaty and gritty, the music is loud, people hug a lot and you feel loved. I have never been in a city that felt so vibrant and alive, even on its worst day—on a Katrina day, its darkest day—and on its best day, when the Saints won the Super Bowl. It has a real heartbeat.
You’ve reported locally and internationally from locations including Nigeria, war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Burma. What has been the most impactful place you’ve reported from or story you’ve covered and why?
I have covered things around the globe. I went to Baghdad and the Middle East. I went to Burma, to the tsunami in South East Asia and all of these different places … I do think covering Hurricane Katrina was the most difficult for me. Only because I had never, as a national television journalist, had to cover my friends–streets I knew and walked, people I have loved for years, friends I saw on the side of the road. When you know someone’s history … I am looking at everyone during this horrible, horrible time and it was so personal. It taught me a lesson about covering stories: that every tragedy you cover is someone’s home. And you should cover it that way.
What is the biggest risk you have ever taken and what did it teach you?
Probably taking the job at the network (NBC). I was in New Orleans and had a very sturdy, stable job that I loved. I took a risk to be one of many “Dateline” correspondents, and I became a cog in a wheel. But I am so glad I did it at the end of the day, because I have gotten to experience a part of life I never thought I would have.
We have seen you throw back everything from green beer to fine red wine. What is your drink of choice?
It is so funny, because I am not that big of a drinker, and since we have turned our show into this, my mom always says, “They think you drink!” I do like a little red wine with a meal. A pinot is awesome. And I like a little vodka with a little ginger ale and a little mint and a little lime, all mushed up together makes for a good weekend drink.
You’re an extremely busy woman. When you have some down time, how do you unwind and relax?
To me, food and music are chemical—those things are real stress relievers. And mindless watching of terrible, terrible television is great because you just sit there and do not have to think about anything. I watch terrible, bad TV–”The Real Housewives of New York” and “Beverly Hills” and “Atlanta.” Sometimes, because I have watched enough “Law and Order” reruns, I fall asleep in five seconds. I hear the “dun, dun,” and I am out. It is perfect.
Name three things that you absolutely can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends.
Music, for sure. I am hooked on Rachel Plattan’s “Fight Song” right now—it is on repeat. My beat up, ASICS running shoes. If I do not go on a run, I feel like I do not have a place to let off steam. And the third thing is those freaking Entenmann’s cookies! And that is why I need the running shoes … it is all one big circle.
Thank you to Hoda Kotb for taking time to speak with our readers today. Hoda is the featured guest at the Girl Scout Luncheon, benefiting the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee in Nashville, taking place this Friday, September 25. Tickets start at $150 and can be purchased here.