“I was in that car driving around for 10 days,” Kotb recalled in a 2016 interview. “I got rejected everywhere, anywhere you can think of in the Southeast.” Twenty-seven television stations passed. “Finally my mom needed the car and I had to go home.”
Heading back to Virginia, with melancholy James Taylor spilling from the car speakers, Kotb got lost in rural Mississippi. When she spotted a small local television station in Greenville, she decided to try one last time. The station manager liked her tape and hired her at $12,000 a year.
“I made more money working at Ponderosa than I did at my first job,” Kotb said in a 2009 commencement speech at West Virginia University. “I couldn’t pay my bills. I had to juggle which bills I paid. But I was in love.”
The inauspicious start was the launchpad for one of the more interesting careers in television that led to this week’s NBC decision to permanently put Kotb in Matt Lauer’s coveted spot on “Today.” In pairing Kotb (pronounced COT-bee) with current host Savannah Guthrie, NBC has anchored its flagship morning show with two women for the first time since the program launched in 1952.
“This has to be the most popular decision NBC News has ever made,” Guthrie said on air Tuesday morning.
Kotb, who hosts the show’s freewheeling fourth hour beside Kathie Lee Gifford, stepped into the show’s starting slot in November after NBC fired Lauer following reports of sexual misconduct at the network. Rather than see a drop in ratings after the switch, however, the Lauer-less “Today” has surged ahead of longtime rival “Good Morning America.” The New York Times reported “Today” has not maintained such a ratings edge on ABC’s morning show for “four consecutive weeks in more than five years.”
The boost has widely been attributed to Kotb, a broadcaster known for big personality as well as her candor with viewers — even about the most difficult period of her life.
Kotb’s parents were both born in Egypt. In 1960, a week after getting married, the couple relocated to the United States to attend the University of Oklahoma. “My father was awarded a scholarship to study for his doctorate in petroleum engineering and my mother, who already had a law degree in Egypt, was pursuing her master’s in library science,” Kotb told the Wall Street Journal in 2016.
Kotb was born in Oklahoma. The family relocated to Morgantown, W.Va., where her father taught at West Virginia University. When she was 12, the family moved to Alexandria, Va.
“In seventh and eighth grades, I looked really strange,” Kotb told the Journal. “I wasn’t black or white to the kids in school, yet I seemed to be both and neither, which made assimilation on the school bus and in the cafeteria particularly difficult. I never talked to my parents about any of this.”
In interviews, Kotb has spoken often about how her immigrant parents fully embraced their new homeland. “My parents made us red, white and blue when I was young,” she told Media Bistro in 2009. And despite her early trouble landing a job in broadcasting, Kotb has said she never considered her ethnicity as a factor holding up her career.
“When I was rejected so many times, it wasn’t because of my background. It was because I wasn’t good. I knew that. I never dawned on me maybe they don’t want me because of ‘X,'” she said. “It’s not a racial thing for me. I didn’t see the world that way. So when things didn’t go my way, I just assumed I’m going to get mine somewhere else.”
After landing her first steady job in Mississippi, Kotb worked at small stations in Illinois and Florida before landing at a CBS affiliate in New Orleans in 1992. There her work as a reporter and anchor caught the eye of NBC executives in New York City, who hired her in 1998 as a globe-trotting correspondent for “Dateline.” She covered Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and Afghanistan. Her work has earned four Emmy nominations, an Edward R. Murrow Award in 2002 and a Peabody in 2006, among other achievements.
But one of Kotb’s biggest stories was also her most personal. In February 2007, as her first marriage was ending, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Kotb underwent a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. Kotb would eventually open up on television about her experience after her recovery.
“I was reluctant to do it,” she told Media Bistro. “A producer friend of mine said, ‘Why don’t you document it and then do what you want with the tape?’ We documented it, and the whole ordeal was surreal. When you’re healthy and you don’t see anything coming, and someone tells you something and the next thing you’re talking about is major surgery, a mastectomy, reconstruction and post-treatment — you just can’t believe they’re talking about you. It’s like someone hit you with a baseball bat.”
Kotb, however, credited her bout with cancer with pushing her to walk into the offices of NBC higher-ups and ask to host the fourth hour of “Today,” an opportunity that paired her with Gifford and set the stage for her latest job promotion.
“I’ll be honest — I think I would have waited for them to come to me otherwise,” she said. “They may not have. Suddenly I thought, ‘Why not?’ You get one bite of the apple. It was a weird empowering thing in the end.”
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