When Today Show news anchor and co-host Natalie Morales landed her first job at NBC Studios in New York, she knew she wanted to move closer to the city. She and husband Joe Rhodes had a house in Connecticut that was already full of furniture. (They’d come a long way. Years earlier, Rhodes had wooed her with a Valentine’s Day dinner he’d cooked with pots and pans he’d bought on his lunch hour.) They knew downsizing to an apartment would be a challenge. They started looking in Manhattan, but their search expanded to New Jersey. “Everything seemed to be a fixer-upper,” says Morales. Then she set her eyes on a brownstone in Hoboken. “First sight, I fell in love with it,” she says. And a meal at Zafra—now one of her favorite local restaurants—sealed the deal. “I said, ‘This is where we are definitely living,’” she says.
Hoboken should be flattered. Morales, a striking beauty in her early 40s with dark hair and light eyes, lived on four different continents before she graduated from high school. Her father, who is Puerto Rican—her mother is Brazilian—dedicated 24 years to the U.S. Air Force, and the family moved every two to three years, which is how Morales breaks down her own personal timeline. She says when she was in the fourth through sixth grades, she remembers her father gathering the family in front of the TV to watch 60 Minutes every Sunday night, a ritual that would later influence her career choice.
But moving around, to Panama, Spain, and Brazil, was hard on Morales. As soon as she made friends in one place, she’d leave with her parents and two sisters to start anew someplace else. Nevertheless, she “grew up” in Madrid, where she lived from ages 12 to 17. But right before her last year in high school, her parents moved the family back to the U.S. to live on a military base in Dover, Delaware.
“Dover didn’t have much but the airport space at the time,” says Morales. And going from a major European city to an American suburb was a shock. “I had to learn what it meant to be American at an American high school,” she says. Having lived at the same base for a few years as a child, Morales says she had ideas of what it might be like. “I had all these illusions of football games and cheerleaders,” she says, but her experience wasn’t at all like she’d imagined. Her school didn’t offer the sports she played like soccer or volleyball, and no one was interested in starting a new friendship while wrapping up old ones. “I felt I left a lot behind in Madrid,” she says. The one bright spot was being cast in the lead role in the “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Not being able to put down roots taught Morales how to adjust to new places and people. “It made me all that much stronger,” she says. It was also probably the best education she could have gotten. “It was incredible as a young kid to see the world, and it’s truly what inspired my passion for journalism,” she says.
She can pinpoint the moment she decided to pursue that career. It was 1977, when President Jimmy Carter visited Panama to negotiate the Panama Canal Treaty. Morales and her family were living there, and she got to shake Carter’s hand. “I was there for part of history,” she says. “I experienced it.” Decades later, Morales returned to Panama on assignment with the Today Show and used footage her father had kept of that handshake in her final edit. “It’s the amazing way we come full circle in life,” she says. As a journalist, Morales likes to be on the scene, reporting history as it is unfolding.
Morales majored in journalism and Latin American studies at Rutgers University. Though she had written a few articles for the student newspaper, she was committed to broadcast journalism, but she had a hard time finding a job in her field after graduation. When Chemical Bank in New York City offered her a spot in the management training program, she took it.
At the end of the program, participants either continued in banking or went into business. “Or you take my option and leave the industry altogether and follow your heart,” says Morales. And her heart was telling her to try journalism. “I knew at that point, I had to go for it,” she says.
She got her break working behind the scenes at Court TV. “It was sort of my real foot in the door,” she says. Morales finally got in front of the camera at News 12 the Bronx. She did everything from writing and producing to shooting and anchoring. “I fell in love with it completely,” she says. Morales later became a correspondent for WVIT, a subsidiary of NBC in Hartford, Conn., then for MSNBC and NBC News.
Morales’s international heritage and upbringing has influenced her work. “It’s who I am,” she says, “and I think it gives me an incredible perspective on stories that people might otherwise not think about.” She says she is proud to be a Latina and that with the most recent Census, it seems people are realizing Latinos are becoming a majority. “We’re here and we want to do more,” she says. “Give us opportunities. We are capable.”
Being able to speak Spanish has been a boon; she’s one of the few bilingual reporters at NBC. “It’s been an amazing advantage to me in telling a lot of stories,” she says.
While covering the rescue of 33 Chilean miners trapped underground for more than two months, Morales translated the Chilean president’s speech for NBC News. She says for such a difficult task, she could have used three brains. “I give translators all the credit in the world,” she says. But it was the story itself that really captivated her. “I still can’t believe that all are alive,” she says, “and how they were able to execute the mission to save them and just seeing the passion and being in the desert with their families.” The coverage won Morales a National Headliner Award in 2010.
As a reporter, says Morales, people expect you to be unemotional, but for some stories, she’s had a hard time remaining stoic. When CBS news anchor Dan Rather broke down in tears during his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman six days after the 9/11 attacks, she thanked him. “It was liberating in the sense that a lot of times we can feel like we have to have this tough exterior and just report, report,” she says. But reporters are also human, she says, and sometimes viewers want to see that too.
Though Morales is an acclaimed journalist, getting criticized can sometimes get to her. But it also makes her work that much harder. “I always have to keep on my game,” she says, “and make sure I am getting better and better.”
Morales starts her day at 4:15 a.m. “I pretty much hit the ground running,” she says. At the studio, she’s busy reading newspapers and newscasts, checking scripts, and rewriting segments. Then, there’s hair and makeup, and the show starts at 7 a.m. “It’s go go go,” she says. But being a part of the show is fun. “One day, I will be interviewing the top newsmaker … then turn around and do a fashion segment,” she says. “It never gets old.” She especially loves to do stories that allow her to travel. She’s looking forward to covering the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where her husband and two boys will accompany her.
Though they are still quite young, Josh, 8, and Luke, 3, have already done quite a bit of exploring outside their hometown of Hoboken. “The two of them have more passport visa stamps than I had the first couple of years of my life,” Morales says. But when they are at home with their three rescued pets, they enjoy the lifestyle. Morales loves being able to walk to the park or to a restaurant, and she likes running along the waterfront and sometimes even makes it all the way to the Newport section of Jersey City.
Morales says she doesn’t “juggle” work and family. Rather, a wonderful set of Hoboken friends—and one great nanny—catch the proverbial balls she tosses in the air each day. “I am just really lucky,” she says.
She’s called Hoboken home for 10 years, and still when she tells people where she lives, she sees disdain on their faces. Morales tells them Hoboken has so much going for it, but she also wouldn’t mind keeping it a secret. “We know how good we have it,” she says. “We don’t need all those Manhattanites to come over and check us out.”—07030