The former first daughter is a tastemaker with #ReadWithJenna

Since the death of former First Lady Barbara Bush, her granddaughter Jenna Bush Hager has been desperate to find an unlikely family heirloom.

“She had a pincushion that said ‘Reading is sexy,'” the Today with Hoda & Jenna co-host recalled in a recent conversation at NBC’s Rockefeller Center studios in New York, where she is co-starring her daily program Hoda Kotb makes .

“I’m like, ‘Where’s the pillow? Why didn’t I get that?’ I feel so.”

The embroidered article is 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 book ladder that slides along the library shelves is standard.

The image stands in sharp contrast to the time when the tabloids portrayed Hager as a wild child partying while her father, President George W. Bush, was serving in the White House. She was fun but also a serious literature student at the University of Texas at Austin.

“College may have looked that way because going to parties looks more interesting than staying in the library,” Hager said. “No one knows exactly what was going on, and my day-to-day life was much more focused on learning. I’ve worked really hard over the past 20 years to create my own narrative.”

In recent years, Hager has taken her passion for reading to a broader platform. After joining the fourth hour of Today as a co-host in 2019, she began recommending books on a monthly segment of the program and has quickly become a taste maker for publishers.

Of the 49 titles selected for the #ReadWithJenna book club, 36 made the bestseller list. Sixteen of the bestsellers are by first authors including Katy Hays, whose novel The Cloisters was selected in November.

Hager’s eye for material led to a production deal with NBCUniversal’s studio Universal Studio Group earlier this year. With the partnership, she created her own company called Thousand Voices, which has handpicked seven titles, including The Cloisters, for development into a television series.

After completing her morning duties on Today, Hager heads to Zoom meetings with Ben Spector, a veteran producer who previously ran actress Eva Longoria’s UnbeliEVable Entertainment and is now Hager’s Hollywood point of contact.

Hager strives to grow Thousand Voices into a multifaceted media company producing TV shows, podcasts and other projects.

Thousand Voices recently acquired the rights to Summer Sisters, a 1998 novel about female friendships by stalwart young adult author Judy Blume. Hager develops a TV series from it.

“Like any woman my age, I was obsessed with her because she kind of told me the truth before anyone else did,” Hager said.

Social media influencers have become a driving force in promoting titles to readers — TikTok has a book club with a list of “#BookTok award winners” who make recommendations. But book clubs with a recognizable celebrity name — made popular by Oprah Winfrey in 1996 — are still influential. (“Today,” rival ABC’s “Good Morning America” ​​also has an influential book club segment.)

“I would say Reese Witherspoon and Jenna are the top two,” said Libby McGuire, senior vice president and publisher at Atria Books. “It’s the person behind it.”

Three women sit on a talk show set with couches

Today with Hoda and Jenna is co-hosted by Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager with author Katy Hays.

(NBC News)

Hager has focused on new and lesser-known authors who don’t always get marketing support. Her first book recommendation was There There, a novel by Indigenous author Tommy Orange that chronicles the lives 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. “She has demonstrated a unique ability to influence tastes on a national scale,” Oppenheim said. “She has an exceptional eye for spotting emerging talent.”

Woman in a green business suit posing in front of a bookshelf

Jenna Bush Hager at Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, NY

(Elke Scholiers / For the time)

Outside of campaigning for her father, Hager has never been outwardly political (her voter registration is not affiliated with any party). But her #ReadWithJenna selection pays special attention to diverse and underrepresented voices. Thousand Voices acquired the rights to their August selection, 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 broadcasting on TV and social media.

“She did an event at Barnes & Noble with Jamie Ford when his book came out, and she could promote that book just as easily as the editor, the publicist, or me,” McGuire said. “It’s absolutely real.”

Hager has not made a television career. After graduating from college, she accepted a teaching position at a public school in Washington, DC and did an internship for UNICEF in Latin America.

Hager was still a teacher in Baltimore when she landed on NBC’s radar. In 2008, she joined her mother as a co-host on Today to promote a book they had written together. Jim Bell, then executive producer of “Today,” liked what he saw and invited Hager to be an occasional special correspondent. She left the classroom and joined the program full-time in 2010.

Hager eventually succeeded daytime TV legend Kathie Lee Gifford as Kotb’s co-host on the fourth hour of “Today,” a breezy (and sometimes boozy) add-on to the morning news show.

Under Kotb and Hager, the dynamic of the hour has shifted from a wine moms convention to a feel-good celebration of female friendship. The program’s set exudes happiness, using pastel colors reminiscent of Easter eggs and cake frosting, while the hosts chat about pop culture, social media trends, fashion, food and their own experiences with cast members and guests.

“With Kathie Lee, I was watching and learning all the time and always driving the sidecar,” Kotb said. “The difference with Jenna is that we’re more of an equal.”

Although there is a 17-year age difference between them, Kotb and Hager are mothers to young children and often exchange stories about their family life. They sometimes cry during their conversations, even at pre-show production briefings.

“Hoda and I respect and like each other very much, and sometimes we just share, as if she and I were talking to a bunch of people around a table,” Hager said. “There’s one weakness I’m comfortable with.”

Although Hager is a well-known socialite due to her political family, she tells stories about her refined upbringing. She recently revealed to viewers that the first night she spent with her husband while they were together was at the White House while their parents were away.

Hager often talks about how books offer camaraderie. She also learned about the relationship a live TV host develops with viewers over time.

Hager and Kotb recently performed their first shows in more than two years in front of a live studio audience, including a meeting with former First Lady Michelle Obama. The audience greeted them like old friends.

Hager has co-authored two books with her twin sister, Barbara Pierce Bush. During her book tours, she downplayed her own work in comparison to her sister’s role as head of the Global Health Corps, a non-profit organization that trains medical workers across Africa. But her attitude has changed.

“People were like, ‘Tell us about your jobs?’ and my standard response was, ‘Oh, I’ll just sit next to Hoda and get a laugh and Barbara will change the world,'” Hager said. “I don’t do it anymore because in the three years people come up to me and say, ‘I just had chemotherapy,’ or ‘I was on maternity leave and it was really tough, but you guys made me laugh.’ ”

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/business/story/2022-12-13/jenna-hager-bush-nbc-today-book-club The former first daughter is a tastemaker with #ReadWithJenna

Sarah Ridley

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