Friday, November 5, 2010

Hoda Kotb talks disasters, dates and drunk anchors

Posted By on Fri, Nov 5, 2010 at 6:22 PM

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Ask any New Orleans-bred female journalist which anchor she played at the pretend news desk during childhood trips to the Louisiana Children’s Museum, and chances are her answer will be Hoda Kotb — or “Photo Kotb,” as she is lovingly known by true Y’ats. Kotb earned the distinct love New Orleanians have for their anchors during her stint at WWL-TV from 1992 to 1998, and she eventually moved on to work for Dateline NBC as a correspondent and most recently, as victim to Katie Lee Gifford’s wine drunkenness on the fourth hour of Today. But Kotb’s life hasn’t been without its share of challenges (besides Gifford), and she has battled with breast cancer and with divorce. She chronicles these personal disasters, as well as those she encountered while covering war zones and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in her conversational memoir Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee (she’s very complimentary to her oft maligned co-host in that part of the book, by the way). The always gracious Kotb took a few minutes out of her busy book tour to talk to Gambit about the book, anchors getting drunk on TV and snagging dates at book signings.

How has your book tour been going?
Been amazing. And I have to say this, although I’ve enjoyed every book signing in all the cities — Chicago, Atlanta, a bunch in the New York tri-state area — something about New Orleans is just on a whole different planet. I can’t even describe it. It’s place that you come and you get baked cookies, and people come to your book signings dressed as clowns. Like “Hoda, we did it just for you!” Drew and Britney Brees sent flowers. It’s the warmest, fuzziest feeling you can have from anything, I think. I’ve been so incredibly overwhelmed and grateful. I can’t even describe it.

So I’m sure you’re excited to get back here eventually.
Oh, come on! That’s how New Orleans is. It’s like a potato chip — you can’t just have a little bite, you have to keep coming back. When I was in the airport, all I kept thinking was “When can I come back?” I’ve got to come back to do this again soon.

How do the book events usually work?
I usually talk for a bit and I sign. I just try to talk a little bit about what is in the book and that kind of thing. For New Orleans, it’s unique because I feel like New Orleanians have been guardian angels for me throughout my career in a weird way. Every time I turn around, there’s someone from New Orleans there when I’m scared. I find it uncanny. When I first came to work at NBC and I was walking in the main lobby of 30 Rock, and it was so big and cavernous and scary, and I’m with the security guard and he doesn’t have my name on the list and I’m trying to pronounce it and spell it and it’s all a big mess, then I hear these women go “Hoda? Is that you?” I turn around, and it’s a tour group from Metairie. And I go, “What? Are you kidding me?” I said to them, “I’m kind of scared.” And they said, “Well, go in there and hold your head up and show them!”

The first time I anchored the news for Today, I was terrified. And a there’s a bunch of people out there with signs. And someone says to me “There are some ‘Who Dats,’ or something, outside looking for … ‘Photo Copy’?” I burst out laughing. When I was covering the Iraq war and I was in Turkey, they sent me to the Incirlik Air Base and I was positioned there, I went through the air base and I heard someone come out and say “Miss Kotb?” with a perfect pronunciation. He said “I went to Bonnabel (High School in Metairie).” I said, “Of course you did. Why else would you be here?” It’s like, at every turn. For New Orleans it’s a different experience for me always.

When you’re talking about the painful parts of your life that you mention in the book, is it difficult to dredge up those memories, or was writing the book catharsis for you?
It’s kind of a combination. It is kind of cathartic, but with anything in your life, you guard certain things really tightly. I used to be of the mindset that it’s better to keep most things to yourself. You can appear open and not really be open. I used to believe that was the right philosophy. But the older I get, and the more people I meet, the more I realize that sharing your journey is the whole ticket. Since it’s not just yours. Your journey’s not just for you, it’s for other people, and you should share it with other people — the painful portions and the rest of it. What bonds us, I think, isn’t always the joyous things. What really bonds us is when you share a painful moment with somebody. Like, an “I’ve been there, too” kind of thing. So many people have helped me because they’ve been through things and they’ve been through what I’ve been through times a million. They think that I’m helping them, and I can’t even believe it. I’m thinking to myself, I’ve never been stronger than standing here talking to you. It’s funny how when you put something out there, you get it back a million times over.

In your career, you’re either doing serious stuff, like covering war zones and Hurricane Katrina, or something very lighthearted, like drinking on WWL on Mardi Gras day or on Today with Katie Lee Gifford —
New Orleans gave me really great training for that, I should say.

What do you think it is about how it’s always opposite ends of the spectrum for you?
Whiplash, right? I just think we’re multi-faceted. We have a little angel and a little devil. I think it’s weird that someone just puts themselves in a single box. I like to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but I also like to page through People and Us Weekly. I think we’re like that as human beings. Sometimes we do live on the edges, but I think for the most part, the laughing and scratching with Katie Lee portion of the program, has been such a nice relief for me, too, because I really ingest my stories and when they’re heartbreaking, I really feel it. Sometimes it’s sort of nice to take a breather and enjoy life.

Actually, I remember in New Orleans being so shocked when (former WWL-TV anchor) Bill Elder — the legend — would do stories and bust people’s chops and get politicians and jump out of the bushes and really expose some incredible stories, and then you would see all these really serious journalists on Mardi Gras day whooping it up. I remember thinking, Oh my god! I remember cracking up watching (anchors) Jon Snell or Dennis Woltering or anybody grill a politician then have a clown nose on for Mardi Gras. And they’re still taken seriously, and I realized that is the case. You can be taken seriously. People accept you if you’re sincere in both ways.

What have you learned from doing the book tour, and is there anything you would change if you could?
I really enjoy meeting people on the book tour, and the funniest part of the whole book tour, which is the most unexpected part for me, was like, I’m getting dates on the book tour. Who thought that was going to happen? I was at a book signing and these two young girls — I think 19 or 20 or whatever — were in the back of the line waiting till the end. When they finally stepped up and I asked if they’d like me to sign their book, they said “we want to give you something.” It was a laminated piece of paper that said “10 Reasons You Should Date Our Dad.” It was the cutest thing ever. So I went out with him on Friday. It’s an added fringe benefit of the book tour, which was completely unexpected, which I love. It’s a blast. I think otherwise, I don’t think I would do anything differently. You really get to meet people and talk and hear stories. It’s not really so much a book signing for me as it as a sort of a, like a chat session, kind of. People come up to me and tell me stuff and I’m interested. The thing I did learn from all of this is that it’s much better to be interested than to be interesting. I think that’s important. I think sometimes we forget and think we have to talk about ourselves, but I think it’s much, much better to be interested in what other people are saying than be worried about what you’re saying.

What are some of your favorite interviews you’ve done?
My favorite people to interview — I know this sounds kind of corny — I like people who tell the truth. I don’t care who they are. When you get a real interview, someone who’s not guarded or hiding, or trying to be someone else, just telling the truth. I don’t care if it’s a politician or a celebrity or Mary Smith from down the street. I just think when someone tells the truth, you always have a good interview. Because it’s there’s no filter and I love that, and it’s rare. Really rare.

What do you have planned for the future? Are there any other things you’re interested in doing?
You know, I’m always trying to think of the next thing. I never thought I’d be sitting with Kathie Lee Gifford for God’s sake. Who would think that’d be part of your plan? I’m anxious to see what happens. I like to plan a little, but I feel like if you work hard, the universe opens up. I was watching Maria Shriver at some event and she was talking about visiting her mom’s grave, and it was the first time she’d been there in forever. And she said she was nervous because she was finishing up her job as First Lady and was unsure what she wanted to do next. And her mom said to her — you know, in her head, in her heart — “Calm down. Just work hard and finish this, and finish it properly, and then your next thing will come clear.” Sometimes we’re so busy stepping into the next thing that we don’t even focus on what we’re doing. I kind of like the idea of, you have a job. Finish it, and finish it strongly, and your next thing will come clearer. I feel like there’s always some good guidance. I’m not sure what it would be. I’m not sure specifically. But I’m just going to keep working hard and see what winds up in front.

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