“There’s something about making mistakes publicly, then being able to bounce back which has allowed me to feel like I can live a really joyful life,” says the former First Daughter
When Jenna Bush Hager sits down at the anchor desk every day alongside her Today with Hoda & Jenna co-host Hoda Kotb, she never knows what might come out of her mouth.
“I don’t worry about what I share about myself. Frankly, I am a pretty open book,” says Bush Hager, 41.
Recent bombshells have included some seriously personal stories, including getting a sunburn on a topless beach while studying abroad in Spain and engaging in “hanky panky” at the White House while her dad George W. Bush was President. But she’s been equally open about deeply sensitive topics affecting women, including fertility struggles and body confidence.
“When I watched her drop those bombs on the desk, I was like, ‘Girl, what are you doing?’” says Kotb. “But she’s unabashedly herself. People spend their whole lives trying to get there, and she is exactly who she is.”
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Bush Hager, who is mom to daughters Mila, 10, and Poppy, 8, and son Hal, 4, with husband Henry Hager, a financier, doesn’t give it much thought. “In fact I try not to put too much pressure on myself for perfection, because I’m nothing close to that. I find perfection to be wildly boring.”
The connection she has fostered with real women has also been the foundation of her popular book club Read With Jenna, which started as a recurring segment on Today in 2019 and has grown to become one of the biggest influences in the publishing industry. Of the 55 books Bush Hager has featured, 39 have become New York Times bestsellers, and 30 have been optioned for TV or film.
“During the pandemic we did a book club on Zoom with Lily King, who wrote Writers & Lovers, with all of these strangers. I started weeping. I realized it was the first time I was having a conversation around anything other than logistics for my kids’ school, work, toilet paper, fear,” she recalls. “It was just a beautiful conversation about a book, and I was able to lose myself with strangers that then felt like friends. I feel so lucky that this is my job.”
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Building on the success of the book club, Bush Hager launched a production company, Thousand Voices, last year. Though on hold because of the writers’ and actors’ strikes, it’s already optioned 11 works for adaptation. “I have a lot of jobs,” she says. “But everywhere I am, I’m 100 percent present.
Being present is something deeply instilled in her. Even when her grandfather George H.W. Bush was serving as President and her grandmother Barbara was First Lady, “they were completely present, so much so that we didn’t quite understand the pressures that they faced with their jobs,” Bush Hager says. She and her sister, then 7 years old, “just thought of them as Ganny and Gampy.”
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Life in Texas (first Midland, in oil country, then Dallas, before the family moved to Austin as her dad became Governor of Texas) felt “normal,” she says.
She and her sister went to public school, her mom was a librarian, and even as her father began to ramp up his political career, “he was definitely a hands-on dad. He was home and with us every single night and was an equal partner to my mom,” she says.
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Christmas visits to the White House and Camp David with her grandfather created precious memories and a chance to dip in and out of another world. “Because I was from Texas, D.C. at Christmastime felt super exotic and special,” she says. “The White House decorated at Christmastime is magical.”
Life as a granddaughter of the President was still a sheltered one, Bush Hager recalls, “but when my dad became President, everything changed.”
He was elected as the Republican candidate in a hotly contested election against Al Gore in 2000 and took office in 2001, just before 9/11 shook the nation.
“We were 18, and he knew how badly we wanted just to go to college and live normal lives,” she says of going off to the University of Texas at Austin with a Secret Service detail (twin sister Barbara headed to her dad’s alma mater Yale). “That was his promise to us: ‘Don’t worry. You can live normal lives.’ Which ended up not being exactly true. We were maybe all slightly naive, to be honest.”
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Bush Hager says the reality of her college days was so dull, she was too embarrassed to take a call from actress Katie Holmes, who reached out when preparing for a role in the 2004 film First Daughter. “I was at the library and living a normal life as a college freshman,” she says. “I felt she would be disappointed with whatever she saw.”
Holmes wasn’t the only one interested in Bush Hager’s college life. The constant tabloid attention during that time left scars.“The world was expecting us to be perfect,” she says of the headlines about her and her sister sneaking drinks while underage. “But our parents did not, which is the absolute best blessing that they could have ever given us: the freedom just to be ourselves and to make mistakes.”
Bush Hager says, ultimately, the public scrutiny hurt deeply but made her stronger. “There’s something about growing up and having terrible things said about you, making mistakes publicly, then being able to bounce back and have resilience from that, which has allowed me to feel like I can live a really joyful life,” she says. “Because I don’t care what people say.”
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