On Thursday's Today show, fourth-hour co-anchor Hoda Kotb is going to discuss the battle with breast cancer that she has endured over the past several months. (THURSDAY UPDATE: WATCH VIDEO HERE.) I sat down with her to talk further about this revelation, and, among other things, her Egyptian heritage, her early career rejections, and her obsession with her iPod. Read on.
Q: A lot of people want to know about the pink ring that you wear on your index finger.
Hoda: I wear this, just to kind of... it's not like I need a physical reminder of my breast cancer, aside from what has happened to me. But it just reminds me. I feel safe with it on. I don't know... I think when you make it through cancer, anyone who's survived it and so many people have, everyone gets a take-away. My take-away, what I got from this whole ordeal, was the headline that "You can't scare me." That's what I took away. It's such an exciting, liberating headline. If you survive it, that's what you get. And it also reminds you that your life has limits. It's to be valued and not wasted. I decided I'm not wasting one more minute. Suddenly your life gets clearer, and it weeds everything out. It just gives you clarity. And I also wear the ring just because I know that I'm in a big club with lots of people.
Q: Why did you decide to come forward now and talk about breast cancer?
Hoda: This is one of those decisions that you struggle with, in terms of what to share and how much to share. So I really spoke for two reasons. Number one, it's breast cancer awareness month and I thought it would be a good time to talk about this. And number two, I recently met a guy on a plane, and he said words that I'll never forget. He told me: "Don't hog your journey." And when he said that, my eyes just opened wide. He told me that I could keep everything for myself, or I could use it to help people. So right then and there I told myself that when it's time, I'm going to do it. And I did.
Q: Let's go to some other topics... Lots of viewers want to know about your name. What kind of name is it, and what does it mean?
Hoda: My parents were both born in Egypt. So my name Hoda is so weird here, but in Egypt it's like Jane. I've walked down the streets in Cairo and someone yelled out "Hoda!" and like 10 girls turned around. I'm literally the Jane Smith of the Nile, but here everyone's like "What's your name? How do you spell it? Rhoda?" I did a whole interview once, no lie, where the guy was calling me Yoda. And he was a name injector and said it over and over again. And you know when it's already gone too far, and then you can't correct him? I just started laughing. Luckily it was a taped interview for Dateline so we could edit it out.
Q: So both your parents were born in Egypt, were you born in Egypt?
Hoda: No I was born in Oklahoma. Grew up some in Morgantown, West Virginia, and mainly in Alexandria Virginia. And we went overseas back and forth. We lived in Egypt for a year, and Nigeria.
Q: Do you still have family in Egypt? Have you been back recently?
Hoda: Yes. I haven't been back in a while. Most of the times I've gone back lately were for work-related stories, and on the side I'd get to see my uncles and aunts and stuff like that. But I haven't been back for a few years. We're trying to plan a family trip back soon.
Q: Egyptian is certainly a more unusual ethnicity here in the U.S. Do you have any specific traditions you celebrate, or unique Egyptian practices?
Hoda: My parents raised us red, white and blue. You know a lot of immigrants from that generation wanted their kids to be only red, white and blue. You're going to play baseball, and here's some apple pie. We were raised in that whole tradition of everyone acclimating. My parents felt that they picked this country, and we were going to be like the people in this country. I don't think we lost our uniqueness though. We still have different stuff that Egyptian people eat or drink or do, and we celebrate those things. And we have a bond... I'll get voicemails sometimes from people I don't know saying "We're so proud of you! We're Egyptian!" And I'm like "OK!"
Q: Tell us about how your got your first job on television.
Hoda: I had just graduated from college and I had my resume tape. I borrowed my mom's car and drove to Richmond to meet with a News Director. He met me, put my tape in the machine, and after 30 seconds said "I'm sorry. You're just not really ready for Richmond." But he said he had a buddy in Roanoke who might hire me. So I drove 4 more hours to meet with him, and I was all excited and planning my life in Roanoke. That guy put my tape in and told me that I was not ready for Roanoke, but he has a friend in Memphis who might hire me. And Tennessee is a long skinny state, and he was at the other end, so I was driving forever to get there. Driving driving driving all night long. I'm a bleary-eyed mess when I meet with the guy there, and he tells me that I'm just not ready for Memphis. After that, I was in the car for 10 days driving all over. Everyone kept referring me to someone else and I kept getting rejected. All of Alabama rejected me. Everyone was "so sorry" and I "just wasn't ready." On the way home, I got lost in Mississippi and stumbled upon a sign for Greenville. I met a News Director there and he was watching my tape, and he kept watching it! He watched past the point where everyone else had stopped. It was unbelievable! My heart was pounding. And I'll never forget it. He said: "I like what I see" and hired me on the spot. And honestly, if I had gone to that job first I might not have taken it, because it was such a small market, you had to shoot your own stuff, and you got paid government cheese money. But after everyone else telling me no no no, it was great.
Q: Before being named host of the 4th hour of the Today Show, what was a previous career highlight for you?
Hoda: Anchoring in New Orleans was a big deal for me because I fell in love with that city. In terms of other job milestones, when you get the knock from NBC News... you've been working in local TV your whole life and then someone calls you and says "Hey, what about the network?" I mean, your whole life you dream of the network! Who doesn't dream of the network? I remember when I first got hired at NBC for Dateline, I was freaking. I kept thinking that someone was going to come into my office and say "OK Hoda, it's time to go back to Greenville. Come on. Giddyup!" I still have pinch me moments.
Q: Some viewers have written in asking what you miss the most about New Orleans.
Hoda: You know what I miss? I miss getting hugged by strangers on the street. They walk right up and hug you. Sometimes they don't even ask. Even better that way. It's like a warm blanket wrapped around your shoulders, that city is to me. I feel a real connection. I can say I miss the food and the music, and I do miss all that. But what I really miss is looking at people who look at you the way a relative would look at you. There's nothing better than a pair of New Orleans arms wrapped around you.
Q: Has there ever been a story where it was really hard for you to separate yourself as a human being from yourself as a professional journalist?
Hoda: Probably in New Orleans [after Hurricane Katrina] because it was personal for me. There's one scene that I won't forget. We saw in the distance a group of people hobbling towards us. They were nurses, their feet were bloody, and they had walked all the way from their hospital. They were sobbing, exhausted, and bleeding. After I interviewed them, I saw an ambulance coming and flagged it down. I told them that they needed to drive the nurses. But they told me they couldn't take them because of regulations. I knew I was stepping out of what I was supposed to be doing, but I couldn't help it. The guy said they can't take anyone to a place other than their final destination. So I said: "You know where their final destination is? Where you're going! They just need to get off that highway." So they threw them in the back and took them. I couldn't just leave someone sitting there. It's a weird feeling when you're in some of these tragic situations and you see suffering, and you're holding a notepad. It's weird. I don't miss my deadlines, I always get my interviews done, and I'm not going to not do my work. But I'm also not a robot.
Q: So how's the 4th hour going?
Hoda: Oh God I love it. I love it.
Q: What do you like most about it?
Hoda: I like walking in in the morning, and seeing the crew. That's the first thing I love. Because no matter what hour it is, you hear "Morning Hoda! How you doing?" You walk into this upbeat, pumped up, fun environment. Imagine if you walked in and everyone was all grumpy and grumbling? It just feels good. And I love the camaraderie of the show. I like that there's an authenticity to it, and it feels real. I love working with Ann, and Natalie, and Tiki and everyone else. When we're all together, it just turns into this zany, fun, smart show. I feel really really lucky.
Q: So where's the dance trophy? [In case you missed it, Hoda won Today's "Shall We Dance" competition. Watch her winning moment HERE.]
Hoda: Ha ha! It was too big! Look, my apartment is only so big. I'd have to take out my coffee table to get that thing in. So I'm letting the people at the Today Show guard it for me and take care of it, as I look for space to rent another apartment.
Q: A viewer wrote in the following, and I quote: "In the looks and age driven industry you compete in, how do you find the courage to be open about your actual weight numbers? This morning you said you weighed 140, and I was thrilled that a celebrity of your status would openly talk actual numbers. So many women lie and put an unfair pressure on others to lie as well. Not all women weigh 110 pounds! Thank you for your support of normal, healthy, shapely women!" What do you think about that?
Hoda: You know, I do weigh 140. And that's on the good days! Somedays the scale goes a little higher than that. But I feel like that's me. Look, I'm 5'9". I've always been a big girl. I've always been the big girl in the back of the picture or on the bottom of the pyramid. I have a lot of hangups I'm sure, but one of them is not my weight. That's just not my issue.
Q: Lots of viewers have written in and asked about your personal life. Are you married?
Hoda: I am separated.
Q: Let's do some getting-to-know-you favorites. Favorite movie?
Hoda: I'm so bad with movies. People ask me this all the time and I never know... You know what movie I love and have watched a thousand times? "Love Actually." I love that movie!
Q: Favorite book?
Hoda: I'm going to go with "The Kite Runner."
Q: Favorite music, or band, or singer, or kind of music?
Hoda: I love all kinds of music. I'm so addicted to my I-Pod it's sick. I have to have it on all the time. I listen to everything from Red Bone which is old but fun... I listen to all kinds of country. Lately I've been listening to Jo Dee Messina -- she's just fun, upbeat. Let me look at my I-Pod hang on... [reaches for I-Pod] I love this new I-Pod! It's so cute. Really, I love everything. I hate to say I like it all because that sounds so boring, but I do. I really love country music, I really love old school, and I like Top 40. I like bubblegum pop. I could listen to that all day.
Q: Favorite color?
Hoda: Probably grapeleaves.
Q: Ice cream flavor?
Hoda: Oreo cookie but with big chunks of oreo. Don't give me this skimping on the, oh there's an oreo crumb. I'm talking like chunks of the cookie.
Q: TV show?
Hoda: I watch "Law & Order." And then I watch more "Law & Order." I'm a huge fan. I love that you can turn on any channel and you know what's on? "Law & Order." Like it doesn't even matter -- it could be 3 in the morning, or 6, or when you wake up... I'm addicted. I mean it's the best.
Q: Sports team?
Hoda: I love sports. I love the Saints, and they're killing me this season. And the other team I gotta say... I fell in love with the Yankees living in New York. And I'm so depressed about the whole thing with Joe Torre and everything. That really gives me a pit in my stomach.