When the announcement finally came last spring that Access Hollywood host Billy Bush would make his long-rumored transition to NBC’s Today in August, the most surprising part was who was tapped to succeed him: Natalie Morales, news anchor and cohost of Today since 2006.
But the move to a warmer clime was one Morales had been wanting to make.
“I had been coming to the West Coast to do all kinds of interviews and stories, doing the back-and-forth thing,” she says. “I knew that with Billy joining the third hour of [Today], some changes were going to be happening. I saw it as an opportunity for me to try something new, and a West Coast move was something my family and I had always really wanted.”
The idea seemed to make sense to everyone, and a deal was struck: Morales would become cohost of NBCUniversal’s two syndicated entertainment magazines, Access Hollywood and Access Hollywood Live, while continuing to contribute to both Today as West Coast anchor as well as Dateline.
It makes for an extremely demanding schedule. On the day she spoke with B&C, Morales had been up since 3 a.m. to fly to Las Vegas to do a live sit-down with pop diva Britney Spears for Today and flown back to Los Angeles to do both Access Hollywood Live and Access Hollywood.
“I look at it as having fun,” Morales says. “I’m having a great time in my life, and this was an opportunity to branch out and do something different. There will still be challenges and hard-hitting celebrity stories as well as the lighter stuff.”
Morales and Bush officially exchanged jobs at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, where Bush began contributing daily to Today’s 9 a.m. hour while Morales appeared with the Today crew while picking up the Access Hollywood baton with cohost Kit Hoover.
“I loved every second of the Olympics, especially this one because it felt personal to me,” says Morales, an Air Force brat who grew up in Brazil, Panama and Spain and speaks both Spanish and Portuguese. Today viewers could find her instructing them in Portuguese each morning during the show’s coverage of the Rio Games.
“The Games allowed us to introduce people to what I think is a fascinating and beautiful country that unfortunately is going through a difficult time right now,” she says. “That said, it was a successful Olympics, and Rio came out shining in the end.”
Hoover and Morales are both working moms with athletic backgrounds—Morales runs marathons, Hoover came to Access from ESPN—and now they work out or hike together in between shows. In fact, Access Hollywood Live recently aired a segment that followed the duo up a steep hike to the famed Hollywood sign.
“I didn’t think they were going to go the two-woman route, I thought they would go with a man,” says Hoover. “Having a male and female cohost is great because you get two opposite opinions, but with two women it seems more like chatting with a friend.
“Rio was invaluable because it let Natalie and I naturally bond and work together. And because we are hanging out together when we’re not on the air, I think that naturally helps the chemistry when we are on the air. For me, the key to the success of Access Hollywood Live is about the first block and the natural chat between the hosts.”
Hoover and Morales hit it off before Morales even knew she was going to be moving to Los Angeles. At this year’s Golden Globes, there was no seat left at the NBC table, so Hoover called Morales over to sit on her lap, which is where Morales remained for most of the ceremony. At the time, Hoover told Morales: “If there are ever any changes at Access, I think we could work well together.”
Morales joins an established syndicated franchise. Access Hollywood, entering its 21st season, is cleared on TV stations covering 96% of the country. Access Hollywood Live, headed into season 7, this fall was expanded to 60% of the country, just in time for Morales’ arrival.