February 16, 2004 12:00 PM

About to embark on his sixth “Where in the World is Matt Lauer?” tour (Feb. 9-13), the intrepid Today show coanchor has been having second thoughts about leaving home. It isn’t just the jet lag. Or the poor hygiene he may encounter—such as when his Nepalese cook prepared a meal in the same pot in which he’d previously washed his feet. (“A terrible shock,” says Today news anchor Ann Curry, since “Matt is a bit of a clean freak. I think this man washes his hands 30 times a day”) Or the genuine risks he may face, like landing on an oil rig off Scotland in the middle of a dense fog in 2001. “It was very stressful,” says Lauer.

Not nearly as stressful, however, as saying goodbye to his wife and kids. “When I first started doing this [in 1998], I was single, and getting on a plane for eight days and 30,000 miles didn’t have that big an impact on my life,” says Lauer, 46. It was during that first five-city tour, in Venice, that the previously divorced newsman proposed to Dutch model Annette Roque, now 38, whom he wed in October 1998. For the next two ‘World” odysseys, Annette accompanied Matt, but in 2001 “I left when she was pregnant, which made it fairly hard,” says Lauer. “I left the next year when we had a newborn [Jack, now 2], which was extremely hard.” Last spring Lauer was away for three weeks covering the Iraq war from Qatar. “And now we have two children,” he says—daughter Romy was born last October—”and it’s a lot more challenging to leave my family.”

So why on earth is he setting off again for parts unknown? (As usual, only a handful of staffers—not including Curry, Katie Couric and Al Roker—know his destinations in advance.) “It’s good for the show,” says the 10-year Today veteran. “The viewers like it. I get an enormous amount of feedback from people who say, ‘I hope you do that again.’ But if somebody said to me, ‘Do you want to do it? Nobody’s going to miss you if you don’t,’ I wouldn’t do it.”

Obviously, his priorities have shifted. “His wife and children are at the center of his universe,” says Lauer’s old Today boss Jeff Zucker, now NBC president of entertainment and news, “and everything revolves around that.”

“Now I define myself by what happens when I walk in that door after work,” says Lauer. At the family’s Manhattan apartment, Jack greets him each afternoon with arms outstretched. “He looks at you and goes, ‘Papa,’ ” says Lauer. “He wants a hug, and then he wants to show you his [toy] planes. My son is a rascal. He’ll have a glass of water in the living room. You’ll say, ‘Jack, do not pour that water.’ And he’ll look at you and…he’ll pour it.” Baby sister Romy, says Dad, “is the polar opposite. Incredibly sweet.”

On a typical evening, Lauer splits his time between prepping for the next day’s interviews and playing with Jack, then retires by 9:30 with his alarm clock set for an ungodly 4 a.m. Making life easier is Annette, a stay-at-home mom. In return, “he’s very doting on her,” says Zucker. “Wherever he is, at dinner or someplace else, he’s always holding her hand and being the ultimate gentleman.” Says Lauer: “We try to pick a night where we can go out, just sit down and have a quiet time together. What you end up talking about is your kids. But that’s fine because that’s a passion we share.”

What Lauer’s fans want to talk about, however, is his hair: What was Matt thinking when he turned up on Today in 2002 with a buzz cut that made him seem more than a little thin on top? And why has his hair more recently looked a little thicker? “There is no strategy. There is no rhyme nor reason,” he says. He’s happy with his current crew-cut length, but “8 out of 10 people walk up to me and say, ‘Grow it back.’ We don’t like the way it looks.’ And you know what?” he says defiantly. “It’s not growing back.”

Besides, he says, it’s easier to maintain a short do while jetting around the world. In August, when Lauer goes to Greece for the Summer Olympics, Annette and the children will join him. “As long as Jack can grow up not having to worry about me not being there,” says Lauer, “if I can keep that balance where family is more important than work, then that’s a good thing.”

Michael A. Lipton. K.C. Baker in New York City

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