Jenna Bush Hager took the seat as co-host of Today's 10 o’clock hour alongside Hoda Kotb, days after Kathie Lee Gifford departed the network

By Natalie Stone
April 08, 2019 11:01 AM
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Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager
| Credit: Today Show

Good morning from Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager!

Following Kathie Lee Gifford‘s departure from NBC, Bush Hager made her debut as co-host of the 10 o’clock hour of the Today show alongside Kotb on Monday.

Credit: Today Show

The pair excitedly kicked off their new hour backstage, with Kotb, 54, questioning if she was the one who was supposed to be the calming force.

“Yes, but you’re not!” replied Bush Hager, 37,

Holding hands, the two headed onstage together and took their seats as Bush Hager joked, “Let’s not fall on the first day.”

Despite stumbling through what Kotb called their “little pregame” — she thought it would be, “Let’s go, yall!” while Bush Hager thought it would be, “Let’s do this, y’all!” — the two pulled it together, with Bush Hager joking they were “off to an okay start.”

In celebration of the milestone, Kotb presented her new co-host with a special gift courtesy of a fan: name-engraved glasses filled with white wine.

Bush Hager then explained just how excited she was — and how her anticipation affected her sleep schedule.

Credit: NBC

“I got in bed and I was calm. [Husband] Henry and I went out for a date night,” she explained, adding that they put on 60 Minutes. “I got on Instagram right before bed and I saw our new Instagram page… At first, I was like, ‘My head looks huge!’ But then I got over that.. And I just screamed and I woke him up… Then I got really hyper. And Henry said he was about to tranquilize me, and then I feel asleep.”

The new host also watched surprise video messages from dad George W. Bush, mom Laura Bush and mother-in-law Margaret Hager, prompting a stream of tears.

“Hey, Jenna, your old dad here on film to tell you how much I love you and how proud I am of you,” her father said. “I know you’ll do a fabulous job.”

Added the former first lady, “Jenna, your mother and your mother-in-law are calling to say we’re so proud of you!”

The praise continued on in the form of a sweet video featuring congratulations from Bush Hager’s sister Barbara and husband Henry Hager, as well as NBC colleagues and high school and college friends.

“She’s earned that, [and] I hope she feels that,” Today co-anchor Savannah Guthrie said.

Bush Hager was then surprised with an adorable appearance from Henry and their daughters Mila, 5, and Poppy, 3, who came on stage in matching dresses holding roses for their mom.

“I’m a wreck!” a crying Bush Hager exclaimed.

For their first joint interview, Kotb and Bush Hager chatted with Kelly Clarkson, who will soon host her own talk show on NBC.

Credit: NBC

In early December, Gifford announced she would be moving on after 11 years in the role to pursue personal projects.

“It’s an exciting time for me, and I’m thrilled about all the projects that are coming up,” Gifford said on the show in December. “But it’s also hard … because I love everybody here so much.”

Following speculation that Bush Hager would replace Gifford, it was announced at the end of February that the Today show contributor and former first daughter was named co-host.

“I’m so excited, I can’t believe it,” Bush Hager told PEOPLE exclusively. “It feels organic and it feels right. It just feels like the right time for me.” (She first joined the Today show in 2009, later transitioning to a more permanent role on the show as contributor.)

The news was jointly announced on-air when Gifford, 65, and Kotb, 54, sat down to open the 10 o’clock hour, joking that it was the “worst-kept secret in show business.” After an emotional Bush Hager took a seat between the two women, she admitted the news made her want to “weep.”

“It feels humbling and I can’t believe it,” said Bush Hager, who spent her teen years in the White House while her father George W. Bush served two terms as president. “My dad just wrote me three words which made me weep: ‘very proud dad.’ “

“Here at NBC and around the country, Jenna is loved,” said Kotb.

“Beloved,” chimed in Gifford.

“Kath is a legend and I still can’t believe … that I have had the great privilege of sitting next to you for 11 years,” Kotb said.

Jenna Bush Hager and Kathie Lee Gifford
| Credit: Nathan Congleton/NBC

Turning to face Gifford, Bush Hager remarked, “Nobody can sip your Chardonnay.”

“It’s Pinot Grigio,” Gifford replied. “Sure they can!”

Bush Hager then said Gifford had been “such a model” and “so generous with her time.”

WATCH: Savannah Guthrie Says Today Costar and Neighbor Jenna Bush Hager Is ‘One of My Closest Friends’

“You are beloved here in so many ways and if I can use some of your grace and have a half of what you’ve done, my life will be a very happy one,” she said.

“This day is about you,” Gifford insisted, before recalling the 2018 Winter Olympics, when Bush Hager filled in for Kotb for two weeks.

“Those two weeks, I saw you blossom,” Gifford said. “You started to trust your instincts, you started to believe in yourself. That you are not only a presence and a gift but you earned it. You earned the right to sit and be something to all these wonderful people that watch us everyday. When you stopped caring what people think, that’s when the magic happened.”

“You keep trusting your instincts,” she added. “And you’re going to sit next to the best person in the world. She has your back because she has your heart. It’s going to be fun. You guys are going to have a ball. I’m going to tune in whenever I can.”

On Friday, Gifford said goodbye to Today after 11 years, bidding farewell to her co-host and close friend Kotb and the rest of the morning show crew.

Hoda Kotb and Kathie Lee Gifford

“I feel great, I do,” said Gifford as she sat alongside Kotb for her final broadcast. “The last two weeks, since of this crazy stuff began, I had no expectations. You want to bear it well. You want to honor the Lord with whatever you say and do, but you also want to have fun and remind people of why this show worked in the beginning. Because we have fun and we have a friendship and it’s real.”

Gifford recently opened up to PEOPLE about her decision to leave the show, admitting it’s been harder than expected.

“I thought I’d stay a year and here it is 11 years later,” she said. “And in those 11 years, a lot of life has happened.”

Gifford said she realized it was time to make a change in her life after she began writing and producing Christian songs and films (her film Love Me to Death, co-starring Craig Ferguson, comes out this month).

“The work that I want to do isn’t here anymore,” said Gifford, who is relocating to Nashville. “I am an artist, I’m an actress, I’m a writer, I’m a songwriter, a director now. That’s the stuff that feeds my soul and I know that I’m running out of time to do those things.”

Today airs weekdays on NBC.