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Crushing on Kotb

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Hoda loves New Orleans just as much as New Orleans loves her

New Orleanians have had a big-time crush on the one and only Hoda Kotb ever since the ’90s, when she covered the news for WWL-TV. Today, the award-winning journalist has hit her stride at NBC, cutting up alongside Kathie Lee Gifford as co-anchor of the fourth hour of the Today show and delivering hard news as a correspondent for Dateline NBC. In October, Kotb released her first book, a sparkling memoir titled Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer and Kathie Lee. It chronicles the good, the bad and the ugly of Kotb’s exciting life and career. Kotb rivets readers with boldly told accounts of traveling the world reporting stories in post-Katrina New Orleans and dangerous war zones, along with her ordeals with breast cancer, divorce and uncooperative hair.

As if she hadn’t accomplished enough already, Kotb recently struck authorship gold by garnering the lucrative status of New York Times best-selling author! And after witnessing the droves of enthusiastic fans who showed up to a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Metairie, Kotb is convinced that the wild and wonderful people of New Orleans had plenty to do with her literary success. For those who haven’t yet read Hoda, grab a copy, curl up with a glass of something and be prepared to be wholly inspired by an unstoppable, fabulously fierce, triumphant woman who keeps it real every day, a woman whose personal story features New Orleans as a main character.
Hoda!

Hey, girl! Let’s Party! What are you up to?

What am I up to? Just being suspended in awe witnessing the glorious evolution of Hoda Kotb, in book form, on television, in magazines, everywhere!

You are a total kook! [Laughs] You are nuts! God, I wanna be in New Orleans!

You’re a part of New Orleans history! I laughed out loud reading your new book, plus it was extremely uplifting. After all the horror you endured recently in life, your story shows that your sense of humor is intact and you’re moving forward. Bravo to you. I absolutely love your book!

You’re sweet, Christine! Thank you!

Okay, wait. New York Times best-selling author!? Let’s party!

How did that happen? [Laughs] How in the … how did that happen? You know what I think it was? Half of the book is about New Orleans, because even though I didn’t live half my life there, I feel like it took up even more of half of the space inside me. I think it’s just so interesting when you really connect. And the number of New Orleanians who bought books just changed the whole game. When I went to New Orleans on the book tour, it was like—I can’t even describe it. It’s not about people in Jersey or in other parts of the country. I felt like I was home again.

And we know you’re a girl from Oklahoma and West Virginia, and you’ve got Egyptian roots—and thanks so much for sharing the hilarious “What is you?” story in your book!—but you’re absolutely a girl from New Orleans.

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s so much more me, isn’t it? It’s so funny that even despite my roots and where I grew up and traveled around, I can only feel at home in one place. There can be other places that you enjoy and love, but I think there’s really only one place you can call home in your life. And New Orleans is mine.

The New Orleanian in you clearly shows in your writing. Even while reporting during Katrina, you and the people of New Orleans still found it in you to laugh and scream over you changing your shirt in a car … “Hodie Kodie! We see your …”

[Laughs] Yeah, I learned a million things living in New Orleans, but one of the most important was being able to laugh in the face of real tragedy. It’s amazing how that rescues you and you don’t even realize it. It’s amazing that when you’re in up to your ears in despair and you’re thinking I can’t stand one more minute, somebody steps up and makes you crack up.

The title of the book is absolutely brilliant.

I wasn’t 100 percent sure how Kathie Lee was going to take it. I have to sit next to her every day at work, so I want everything to be pleasant. So after our third glass of lunch, I was thinking, when am I going to drop this bomb on her? I said, “Kath, I have a great idea for a book title: ‘How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer and …’ and I kind of put my hands up in the air and she goes, “Kathie Lee!” So she sort of thought she thought of it. I said, “Oh my God, that’s so genius, let’s use it!” And what I was trying to do with the title is to show that the book’s not a downer. I think that’s really the whole point. Sometimes when you deal with bad things in your life, you just feel heavier, and I wanted you to feel lighter after reading it, not more burdened with stuff. I mean, we all have enough stuff already, for God’s sake.

We get some real insight in your book into what it’s like to work with Kathie Lee.

I joke about her, but the truth about Kathie Lee is that she is one of the most fiercely loyal people I have ever met. She’s exactly the same both in private and in public; she just tells it as it is. And I think she’d take a bullet for me or jump out in front of a car! She’s been so kind to my mom, my family. She bends over backward: “Come over for Thanksgiving, come join Frank and me and the kids!” It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, there’s always a place for me. I didn’t know what to expect, and I was surprised in such a great way. Look, there’s a lot of shtick on the show, but if we loved each other to death on air, picture how dull and horrible the show would be, like a sing-along, like “Kumbaya”! So we spice it up a little, and she’s a really good egg, and I won’t forget how my life has changed since she stepped into it.

You are the brunt of her ribbing on the show, but I guess it’s cool because she’ll take about as much as she’ll dish out.

It’s true, she’s one of those people who gives it out, but she can say anything to our guests, and I am always shocked. She does it in such a funny way, and she is them. She is a celeb—she’s not a journalist and doesn’t claim to be—so when they see her they don’t feel intimidated. But she just says anything to them: “Oh, that would be great if you could just stay married to the same wife!” and the guy laughs. I’m thinking, Wow! She really has a way of being able to ask some tough questions and have fun while she’s doing it.

You must have known you arrived when they spoofed you on Saturday Night Live!

Girrrrrl! Someone said, “There’s a spoof of the Today show on Saturday Night Live,” I said, “Okay, I want to see who’s going to play who from the show.” When I saw it I was like, “Oh My God!” Kathie Lee said, “I saw it. It’s nothing like our show.” I go, “It’s exactly like our show! It’s our show! Look at it!” The box of wine? I mean, please!

Okay, sista, you covering the Saints winning the Super Bowl was glorious to read!

I’m trying to think of what other story ever felt better! Because there was nothing like that feeling when that last second ticked off that timer and you knew the Saints had won the Super Bowl. All I could think of was how everyone felt so sorry for New Orleans because of Katrina, and how public that pain was, and I thought to myself that now, the most joyful moment in the city’s history is happening in front of 106 million people. They saw us on our knees, and they’re watching us rise up. When does that ever happen, when you get to see the full circle? And I don’t want to be remembered on my knees, do you? I want to be remembered on that day when you’re on top of the world and there’s nothing better, and everyone wants to be part of New Orleans and everyone wants to wear black and gold and everybody wants to sing every Who Dat song. I remember thinking if you were to define “perfect” in Webster’s dictionary, this has to be the entry.

For sure! And you got to pinch Drew Brees’ butt right after the win. High five!

Can I tell you something? Brittany said to me, “Git Drew! Goose him! Goose him!” I couldn’t even hear her. I was like, Does she want me to pinch her husband’s … tush? All right! I couldn’t believe that I pinched, and he turned quickly, like “What’s going on back there?” and when he saw Brittany and that baby Baylen, he just lit up like a Christmas tree! Everybody knows that they’re the greatest people on earth, but at the book signing some flowers were delivered that said, “Have a wonderful book signing.  Love, Drew & Brittany.” Of all the things they have going on—the second baby was due the next week, he was playing a game that weekend—and they managed to send flowers! They are such a unique and lovely couple. They’re great ambassadors.

Absolutely! What a blessing they are to this city. We’re lucky to have all these rock stars churning out of New Orleans! Wait, let’s go back to New York Times Bestseller! Hello!?

How did that happen? It … it was … look, I’m at a total loss for words. I was completely and totally shocked, Christine.

And you wrote about some unpleasant subjects in the book, too, like your divorce and your ordeal with breast cancer, which happened concurrently. You handled it beautifully and inspired us even more.

Thank you. Everyone has their bad times. The thing I took away from having two tragedies at once—and I know people in New Orleans can relate—it sometimes makes things a little easier to deal with in a strange way, because you can’t focus all the time on your illness because you’re worried about your marriage falling apart, and you don’t worry about your marriage as much because you have to go get another test or operation, so you split your grief. I think in life sometimes, it’s almost like a self-preservation thing that God gives you, in a way. Think of how easy it would be to hug your knees and just stay there. But if you have a few things you’re dealing with or you have children, you can’t stay tucked away like that for too long; something else needs your attention. In a weird way I guess it was a gift I had both at the same time, because I couldn’t fall off the mountain of depression on either. At the end of the day, if you’re still standing, you do get that forward takeaway, that “You don’t scare me.” Suddenly, the little things are less scary. Having an illness is something you should be concerned with but asking your boss for a raise is not. If he says no, that’s just part of life. It’s funny how your life snaps into focus, and you finally get it.

Women go through some excruciating struggles in life. I mean, what’s a girl reporting from the trenches in a war zone gotta do to keep her hair stylin’!?

[Laughs] Oh girl! It is a big issue! I was told, “You’re going to Iraq and Afghanistan.” I was like, “Okay, great!” They were like, “You concerned?” I go, “About a couple of things!” I was trying to figure out what equipment I could use that didn’t need a plug, and how I’d charge it, and if any of these things could possibly blow up the plane if you packed it. But we have our priorities!

And your hair always looks fabulous!

Ok, look, they really shellac it here; this is like a relaxer, a gallon of gel, a hammer and, I don’t know, a chisel? That’s what it takes to get it to sit! [Laughs] It is funny how I plan my days around it. If it’s raining, I can’t go running. I can’t go outside! “What do you mean, we’re shooting outside? Can we shoot inside? It’s raining!” It becomes an issue! You don’t even want to know what I spend on hair products! I have a whole cabinet full of Keratin, revitalizing, shiny, flattening, a balm … who cares! I’m getting them all!

And all the winged creatures that visit the Today show love to take a nesting to that Hoda hair! [Laughs]

Now what’s the problem there? What is up with that? They always say it’s because I’m tall! Why are they always around me? Go to Kathie Lee’s lid for a change! [Laughs]

All the creatures great and small love Hoda, no doubt. And you must just be feeling the love from everywhere regarding your book.

Let me tell you, I feel the love in some places—people are really sweet—but nowhere better than at the signing in New Orleans! My editor from New York showed up and goes, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” It’s so funny watching someone from the outside who doesn’t understand New Orleans, who doesn’t get it. That’s all she kept saying, because people were so loving and kind, and they came with muffins, gifts and pictures from when I spoke at their elementary schools. These two people show up dressed like clowns: “We got dressed for ya, Hoda!” I mean, with the nose, the feet, the hair, the crazy everything! Where does that happen on earth? I mean, come on! [Laughs] I loved it! I was like, look at this, this is perfect! I could have sat there all day. I felt so much love. I felt really lucky and blessed. Some relationships are meant to be short and some are long, that’s just how life is. I feel so fortunate that my relationship with the city of New Orleans is going to last a lifetime. I knew it when I left, and I know it every time I come back. It’s so nice to know that you have something in your life that’s going to last forever.

-CHRISTINE FONTANA