On NBC’s “Today,” Jenna Bush Hager is becoming book publishing’s best friend
Ever since the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, her granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager has been desperately searching for an unlikely family heirloom.
“She had an embroidered pillow that said, ‘Reading is sexy,'” the ‘Today with Hoda & Jenna’ co-host recalled in a recent conversation at the NBC studios in New York’s Rockefeller Center, where she does her daily show. with Hoda Kotb.
“I’m like, ‘Where’s that pillow? Why didn’t I get it?’ I feel like this.”
The embroidered object represents a generational habit for Hager. Her mother, former First Lady Laura Bush, was a librarian and, like Barbara Bush, an advocate for literacy.
Hager, 41, has lived in households, including her own with husband Henry and three young children, where a bookshelf that slides along library shelves is standard operating equipment.
The image is a stark contrast to the time when tabloids portrayed Hager as a wild child partying while her father, President George W. Bush, served in the White House. She enjoyed it but she was also a serious literature student at the University of Texas at Austin.
“College can seem like a thing because going to parties seems more interesting than being in the library,” Hager said. “No one knows exactly what was going on, and my day to day was much more focused on studying. I’ve worked very hard over the past 20 years to create my narrative.”
In recent years, Hager has taken his passion for reading to a wider platform. After joining the fourth hour of “Today” as a co-anchor in 2019, she began recommending books in a monthly segment of the show, and quickly became a publishing trendsetter.
Of the 49 titles selected for the #ReadWithJenna book club, 36 made the bestseller list. Sixteen of the bestsellers are by first-time authors such as Katy Hays, whose novel “The Cloisters” was picked up in November.
Hager’s eye for the material led to a production deal struck earlier this year with NBCUniversal’s Universal Studio Group. With the partnership, she formed his own company, called Thousand Voices, which optioned seven titles, including “The Cloisters,” to make into TV series.
After finishing his morning duties on “Today,” Hager heads to Zoom meetings with Ben Spector, a veteran producer who previously ran actor Eva Longoria’s UnbeliEVAble Entertainment and is now Hager’s point person in Hollywood.
Hager is eager to expand Thousand Voices into a multifaceted media company making TV shows, podcasts and other projects.
Thousand Voices recently acquired the rights to “Summer Sisters,” a 1998 novel about female friendship by timeless young adult author Judy Blume. Hager is developing it into a TV series.
“Like any woman my age, I’ve been wildly obsessed with her because she kind of told me the truth before anyone else did,” Hager said.
Social media influencers have emerged as a force in promoting titles to readers: TikTok has a book club with a roster of “#BookTok graduates” making recommendations. But book clubs led by a recognizable celebrity name — popularized by Oprah Winfrey in 1996 — still have clout. (“Today’s rival ‘Good Morning America’ on ABC also has an influential book club segment.)
“I would say Reese Witherspoon and Jenna are the two older ones,” said Libby McGuire, senior vice president and publisher of Atria Books. “It’s because of the person behind them.”
Hager focused on new and lesser-known authors who don’t always receive marketing support. His first book recommendation was “There There,” a novel by Indigenous author Tommy Orange that depicts the life of Native Americans living in Oakland.
NBC News President Noah Oppenheim said the response validated the company’s belief that Hager could be more than an on-air personality. “He has demonstrated a unique ability to influence taste on a national scale,” said Oppenheim. “He has an extraordinary eye for identifying emerging talent.”
Outside of campaigning for her father, Hager has never been outwardly political (her electoral registration is not affiliated with a party). But her picks #ReadWithJenna pay special attention to diverse and underrepresented voices. Thousand Voices has acquired the rights to August’s choice of hers, Jamie Ford’s “The Many Daughters of Afong Moy,” a novel based on the story of the first Chinese woman to come to America in the 1830s.
Support for a #ReadWithJenna selection goes beyond connecting to TV and social media.
“He had an event at Barnes & Noble with Jamie Ford when his book was published, and he could present that book as well as the publisher, the publicist or myself,” McGuire said. “It’s absolutely genuine.”
Hager did not decide to have a television career. After graduating from college, she took a public school teaching position in Washington, DC, and interned for UNICEF in Latin America.
Hager was still working as a teacher in Baltimore when she landed on NBC’s radar. She joined her mother as co-host of “Today” in 2008 to promote a book they wrote together. Jim Bell, then executive producer of “Today,” liked what he saw and invited Hager to return occasionally as a special correspondent. She left the classroom behind and joined the program full-time in 2010.
Hager eventually succeeded Kathie Lee Gifford, a legend of daytime TV, as Kotb’s co-anchor on the fourth hour of “Today,” an easy-going (and sometimes alcoholic) addition to the morning news schedule.
Under Kotb and Hager, the hour’s dynamic changed from a wine mom convention to a leisurely celebration of female friendship. The program set exudes happiness, using pastel colors that evoke Easter eggs and cake icing as the hosts discuss pop culture, social media trends, fashion, food and their own experiences with contributors and guests.
“With Kathie Lee, I was watching and learning all the time and always rode the sidecar,” Kotb said. “The difference with Jenna is that we are more alike.”
Although there is a 17-year age difference between them, Kotb and Hager are mothers of young children and often swap stories about their family life. Sometimes they cry during their conversations, even during production meetings before the show.
“Hoda and I respect and like each other a lot and sometimes we just share, like she and I are talking across a table with a group of people,” Hager said. “There’s a vulnerability that I’m comfortable with.”
Though Hager is a well-known public figure due to his political family, he offers stories about his rarefied upbringing. She only recently revealed to viewers that the first night she spent with her husband when they were dating was at the White House while her parents were away.
Hager often talks about how books provide companionship. She also learned of the rapport a live television host develops with viewers over time.
Hager and Kotb recently did their first shows in front of a live studio audience in more than two years, which included a meeting with former First Lady Michelle Obama. The crowd welcomed them like old friends.
Hager co-wrote two books with her twin, Barbara Pierce Bush. During their book tours, she downplayed her own work compared to her sister’s role at the head of the Global Health Corps, a non-profit organization that trains health care workers across Africa. But her attitude has changed.
“People were asking, ‘So, tell us about your work?’ and my standard response was, ‘Oh, I sit next to Hoda and I laugh and Barbara is changing the world,'” Hager said. “I don’t do it anymore because over the three year period people come up to me and say, ‘I was having chemo’ or ‘I was on maternity leave and it was really hard, but you made me laugh.’ “
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