Every morning, millions of television viewers in the United States tune in to the Today Show for news updates, weather forecasts and celebrity interviews. Most days, the first three hours of the show feature a combination of television personalities that includes Matt Lauer, Meredith Viera, Ann Curry and Al Roker. But during the fourth hour, two other hosts – Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford – transform the Today Show into a decidedly different persona.

 

WORKING WITH KATHY LEE

Time magazine called the fourth hour of the Today Show ‘the happy hour,’” says Kotb with a chuckle. “I guess that’s a good name because we have certainly found that if we’re just enjoying ourselves, no matter who or what is scheduled for the show that day, then the numbers will be fine.”

The “numbers” are viewership totals, the life or death of any television series, and TODAY’s numbers for the fourth hour are up 11 percent compared to the same time in 2009. Kotb acknowledges the comfort in positive ratings growth, adding that she thinks her on screen relationship with Gifford appeals to many viewers.

“When we were initially talking about bringing Kathie Lee to the Today Show, I went out to her house and met her and Frank and Cody,” Kotb recalls. “I remember talking to Frank, and he said, ‘If you trust her and she trusts you, it will work.’ And that has proven to be true.”

THE EARLY YEARS

Kotb began her career with CBS as a news assistant in Cairo, Egypt, in 1986 after graduating from Virginia Tech with a degree in broadcast journalism. She returned to the United States later that year to work as a morning news anchor and general assignment reporter in Illinois and later continued her career with anchor positions in Mississippi, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana. Kotb has said, “In New Orleans, you learn to be yourself,” and she thinks her time in the Big Easy prepared her well for her role on TODAY.

“Most of us as reporters want to be right; we want to stay within the margins and make fewer errors,” Kotb explains. “Unfortunately, that often means that we are never really authentic. When I was in New Orleans, I learned that we are all multifaceted and that it is okay to be all things. I could be covering a huge, important story one day and wearing a crawfish costume the next day, and it was all sort of schizophrenic. The neat thing is that if you mess up in New Orleans, people say,‘Don’t worry about it,’ and you just get on with things. I had never really been myself before then, but New Orleans changed me.”

THE TODAY SHOW, DATELINE AND LETTING GO

In 1998, Kotb left New Orleans to begin working as a correspondent for NBC’s Dateline. She accrued many awards over the next ten years including the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award in 2002, the Gracie Award in 2003, the Peabody Award in 2006 and the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award in 2008. Kotb and Gifford began hosting the fourth hour of TODAY in 2007, a year that also included Kotb’s diagnosis of breast cancer.

“Initially, when we started the fourth hour of TODAY, I kind of fell back into an old habit of trying to make sure everything was right with the show. I had these cue cards in front of me that would tell me who was coming up or what the next segment was,” Kotb says. “After I had been working with Kathie Lee a couple of weeks, with the cards in front of me, I remember she looked at me in the middle of the show and said, ‘Get rid of the cards.’ So I decided to trust her and lose the cards. And I remember watching them fall gently to the ground. Then after that, she and I just started talking, and it was okay. That was really the start of what the show has become now.

“Later, I decided that that idea of losing the cue cards was a really great metaphor for life,” Kotb continues. “When you are unguarded, you are who you are. When you hold back, you give people less, and yes, it is safer, but also more boring. When people know who you are, they will like you or not for who you are, and I think that’s what most people want. You have to let go and realize that you are better off if you are not trying to control everything that happens in your life.”

Hoda Kotb and breast cancer

SHARING HER BREAST CANCER JOURNEY TO HELP OTHERS

Kotb says that being diagnosed with breast cancer was a defining moment in her life, but not the defining moment. Although she chose to share her experience with viewers in an intimate feature story that followed her during surgery and recuperation, Kotb reiterates that cancer is just a small part of how she defines herself.

“Breast cancer is a very personal thing, and if you had asked me if I would talk about this when it first happened, I would have said no,” Kotb explains. “I’m one of those people who think that once something has been done, it’s really done and it’s time to move on.

“I had my surgery and reconstruction in March 2007, and in May I went to Ireland as part of the ‘Where in the World is Matt Lauer?’ segment,” she continues, recalling the time shortly after her treatment. “After we finished shooting, I didn’t feel that great, and while I was coming home on the plane, and literally minutes away from putting my iPod ear buds in, this guy sitting beside me started a conversation. He asked me how I defined myself, and then said about himself, ‘I’m ugly and not very smart, but I’m a good CEO because I know how to read people.’ I had a compression sleeve on because the doctors had told me to wear one when I flew, and when I told him about the breast cancer, he said something to me that I will never forget. He said, ‘Don’t hog your journey; it’s not just for you. Think about how many people you could have helped on this plane.’ I started crying because I realized it was true, and at that point, I made the choice to tell my story.

RELATED: Managing Cancer Pain

”After her feature story aired, Kotb began receiving thank-you messages from people throughout the country who were touched by her story. She says she was surprised that people were thanking her because she saw their notes as an important part of her own healing journey.

“After I did the piece, I got a lot of blind hugs and a lot of thank-you messages,” Kotb recalls. “It was very beautiful, because I really needed all kinds of support, but it also felt funny on one level because the messages helped me so much. It was almost like running in the park and hearing people say, ‘You can do it.’”

Hoda Kotb and breast cancer

LIFE AFTER TREATMENT, AND LIFE AFTER CANCER

Part of Kotb’s breast cancer treatment included an extensive eight-hour surgery. Afterward, she eschewed most of the painkillers she was offered, explaining that “I don’t tolerate pain medicine well at all.” Although Kotb was able to cope with her pain, she says that having cancer reinforced her belief that an important part of any healing process involves relying on others for support.

“When you’re in the weeds, it is hard to see, and you start wondering ‘How am I ever going to get out of this?’” she says. “Some people like to read everything, but I didn’t want to know because I’d rather just deal with what comes. I only talked to positive people during this time, and I tell people now that you have to be selfish when you’re dealing with something like breast cancer because one or two negative people can bring the house down.

“I think the biggest surprise for me was that I felt strong and empowered after I finished treatment,” Kotb continues. “At first, I wondered if I would get weird looks or what would happen, but then one day at home, I had an epiphany, along the lines of ‘You can’t scare me!’ Before, it seemed that I had spent my whole life waiting to be noticed and after cancer, it was more like, ‘I’ve had this disease that can kill you, and I’m going to be scared of asking my boss for a raise?’ Are you kidding me?”

Hoda Kotb and breast cancer

LOOKING FORWARD

Now cancer-free for several years, Kotb is focusing on her career with TODAY and Dateline, and she is writing a book that will document her cancer journey as well as provide her thoughts on “life lessons.” Kotb says she spends her off-camera hours “doing New York stuff” like attending Broadway shows and running in Central Park, and she tries to squeeze in a little travel whenever possible between a work day that might find her interviewing Beyoncé or covering her beloved Saints victory in the Super Bowl. It’s a full plate, but one that Kotb says she enjoys immensely.

“I kept a journal during my treatment, and when I wrote the word ‘forward,’ I always felt better,” Kotb says. “Later, one of my friends gave me a ring with the word ‘forward’ on it, and I think that is one of the most important things to focus on when you’re going through something like cancer. It’s easy to get stuck, but if you hang in there, the confidence and appreciation for your time comes after.

“I remember when I told one of my bosses at NBC that I had cancer, he said that he had a lot of friends who had had breast cancer and they all had one thing in common — they were still here,” Kotb says. “That made a huge impression on me, and after treatment, I decided to look for the good things that could come out of having cancer. And I found that basically, you can go one of two ways: you can live inside your head forever or you can just look forward. I choose to look forward.” {PP}

 

Read about Elizabeth Edwards‘ courageous fight with breast cancer HERE.