Hoda Kotb, the effervescent co-host with Kathie Lee Gifford on “TODAY”’s fourth hour on NBC, may be one of the most beloved personalities on television, but her professional ascent had an uncertain beginning. In an intimate interview with Arianna Huffington on the Thrive Global Podcast, in partnership with iHeartRadio and Sleep Number, the warm, laughy journalist who also co-anchors “TODAY” on NBC with Savannah Guthrie, talks about her early rejections, two chance encounters that changed her life, and a surprising note found in her father’s desk after he passed away.
Kotb, who was raised in Oklahoma and West Virginia by Egyptian parents — her mother, a lawyer, and her father, a student working toward a degree in petroleum engineering — tells Huffington that for her parents, “the United States was the shiny penny, a place everyone wanted to go.” Kotb’s parents believed in and cultivated the notion of the American dream: “They really instilled in us… that if you work hard, you can literally do anything you want,” she recalls. The pair, who finished their educations at Oklahoma University, were “all about assimilation,” Kotb says, noting that they rarely spoke Arabic at home and were of the “red, white and blue [with] Nike’s on” generation.
Eventually, the family moved to West Virginia, where Kotb’s dad got a professorship at West Virginia University. Kotb tells Huffington that her brother found a letter their late father had written to the dean of his school requesting a pay raise commensurate with his academic peers, given his credentials and the popularity of his courses. “The letter back said something like, ‘Dear Dr. Kotb, you’re making all you’ll ever make at WVU,’” Kotb recalls, marveling that her father never burdened her with the racist subtext of the dean’s denial. “He never told us that. My parents didn’t say, ‘You have to be better, and stronger… because people… aren’t going to hire… or want you.’”
Kotb calls her dad’s decision to protect her and her siblings from that ugly bit of history a gift. “When I was going through life, and getting rejected, I didn’t think to myself, it must be because of that [bias],” she says.
After earning her degree in broadcast journalism from Virginia Tech, Kotb recalls that because of how her parents raised her she was sure she’d land the first job she interviewed for, an hour away in Richmond, Virginia. But it took her 10 days on the road and 27 “No’s” before she found her “Yes,” in Greenville, Mississippi.
When a man at the station in Greenville named Stan Sandroni watched 30 minutes of Kotb’s universally panned audition tape, he said: “Hilda, [yes, Hilda, not Hoda] I like what I see here.” “I was sobbing,” Kotb remembers. That’s the moment it hit her: “You don’t need everyone to love you. You just need one.”
Huffington points out that something — in a metaphysical sense — compelled Kotb to visit the Greenville station, citing the moment Huffington herself confronted her thirty-fifth “No” when trying to sell her second book. Living in London, she’d run out of money and needed a loan to tide her over. On a walk, she saw a Barclays bank. “Something made me go in and ask for a loan, because otherwise I couldn’t keep going,” Huffington reveals. Without assets, the bank manager provided Huffington with the requisite loan. “[He] was my Stan. His name is Ian Bell. I keep sending him a holiday card every year,” she says.
Kotb shared with Huffington another life-changing — and life-affirming — encounter she had in 2007. In the midst of a divorce from tennis coach Burzis Kanga, she was diagnosed with cancer. The reporter only told a tight circle of family and friends, admitting that she “didn’t want to be the person who got looked at with sad eyes,” and had no intention of revealing her diagnosis to the public until she met a stranger on a plane named Ken Duane.
“He said: ‘Don’t hog your journey; it’s not just for you…You can put your stuff deep in your pockets and take it to your grave, or you can help somebody. Choice A, or choice B,’” Kotb remembers.
Kotb bravely chose option B: “I couldn’t believe how freeing it was. It’s like talking about a secret. Once you do, the secret isn’t so scary anymore.”
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