Viewers know Hota Kotb (and her mega-watt smile) as the wine-loving, big-hearted host of Today‘s fun fourth hour, but the new co-anchor also has an impressive hard news résumé — which helped bond her to Savannah Guthrie.
“We have really similar backgrounds,” Guthrie, 46, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue, on stands Friday. “We both came up in local news, we both have funny stories about trying to make it work and standing in front of the camera with our bad hair and wishing and dreaming that one day we’d be sitting right where we’re sitting.”
“I think it’s so funny, because for a big chunk of my career, news is all I ever did,” says Kotb, 53. “I didn’t know anything but that. When I started laughing and scratching with Kathie Lee, it was like a whole other muscle, and I like that, too, but people would always say to me, ‘Well, do you miss news?'”
“There was a part of me that missed certain aspects of it,” she adds. “But I think it’s like a muscle, you just work it again, and then there it goes. … I’ve spent my whole career covering news.”
Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb on PEOPLE’s cover
Kotb has been open about dealing with plenty of rejection as a young and hungry reporter.
After studying broadcast journalism at Virginia Tech, Kotb said she was the only one of her friends without a job. Eventually, she borrowed her mom’s car for an interview at a TV station in Richmond, Virginia.
“I walk in the newsroom, and I’ll never forget it. I looked around and I was like, ‘This is awesome. I’m gonna sit there, and I’m gonna date him.’ I planned my whole life!” she told Guthrie during a SiriusXM Leading Ladies event in 2016. “And I remember the news director, he took my tape, he put it in the machine, he played it for a couple of minutes and he stopped it and he said, ‘Oh, Hoda, you are not ready for Richmond. I don’t know why somebody sent you here, but you’re too green, you’re not good.’ You know, ‘Buh-bye.'”
Things didn’t get better as Kotb interviewed at other stations in the following days.
“I was in that car driving around for 10 days. I got rejected everywhere,” she said. “Anywhere you can think of in the Southeast, I got rejected. Birmingham, Alabama, three times, Dothan, all the way down. All the way down into the bottom of the Panhandle. And finally my mom needed the car and I had to go home.”
Her last stop was news center 15, WXVT, in Greenville, Mississippi, which she saw on a sign while driving. It was there that Kotb met her mentor, the late Stan Sandroni.
“He puts the tape in the machine, he plays it, he watches this terrible, horrible 30 minutes. And my heart is pounding because I’m watching Stan watch it, because I can’t believe someone’s watching the whole tape,” she remembered. “When it was over he looked at me, and I’ll never forget it, he goes, ‘Hilda?’ And I said, ‘Yes?’ He said, ‘I like what I see.’ I said, ‘You do?!’ I was like crying, and the man hired me on the spot that day.”
She continued, “And it just reminded me that you just need one person to love you. You don’t need everybody. Sometimes you think you need every single person to think you’re good, and you don’t. You need one, and Stan was my one.”
Kotb went on to work for several news stations, including WWL-TV in New Orleans, Louisiana, from 1992 to 1998.
In 1998, she joined NBC News as a correspondent for Dateline. Kotb has been co-hosting the fourth hour of Today since 2007, when NBC announced that the morning would be expanded to four hours. Kathie Lee Gifford joined in 2008, and the two have been anchoring together since. (In addition to her new gig, Kotb will continue hosting the 10 o’clock hour alongside Gifford.)
In 2010, Kotb won a Daytime Emmy Award as part of Today.
“That morning was so hard, but Hoda and I were in it together,” Guthrie tells PEOPLE. “We are family, and families do go through hard times, and when that happens in good families, you just get closer.”
Kotb continued to fill in for Lauer in the days following his dismissal, and the network liked what what it saw.
”We’re very fortunate to have someone like Hoda who brings immense talent and tremendous positive energy, and then on top of that happens to have wonderful chemistry with Savannah,” says NBC News Group chairman Andy Lack. “It makes this a decision that everyone can embrace and feel terrific about.”
Adds Guthrie, “It was such a shock to wake up one day and not have Matt, but it was the most natural and comforting thing in the world to have Hoda right there. No one wanted that to stop.”