NEW YORK - Tamron Hall made history early this year when she became the first black woman to coanchor Today's news hours, joining Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, and Al Roker on the morning show's plush orange sofas.
In an instant, the Temple University graduate - who is serious and to-the-point on MSNBC's NewsNation, and a compassionate listener on Investigation Discovery's Deadline Crime With Tamron Hall - added fun-loving and chatty to her on-air-personality arsenal. Each of those identities, she says, is uniquely Tamron.
"I'm not channeling anyone. Why would I?" Hall, 43, asked one recent Monday morning before taking the chair of Today's Take, the 9 a.m. hour of Today. She had just finished applying her makeup (a flawless mix of MAC and Makeup Forever) and affixing eyelashes. The flat iron she used to curl her pixie was still warm.
"I wasn't raised to be, or channel, people. . . . I'm trying to have a unique experience with my viewers and my colleagues here."
Clearly, Hall doesn't allow her image to be defined. And that's smart. Pop culture often portrays black women as one-dimensional: vixens, angry, or petty. As a headliner of three successful news shows, Hall must appeal to a broad audience.
Yet, if Hall reminds TV viewers of Mary Jane Paul, Gabrielle Union's character on BET's Being Mary Jane, there's good reason. Show creator Mara Brock Akil spent a few days shadowing Hall when she was creating the character. Like Paul, Hall is curt but polite and firmly noncommittal about any questions her fans or 115,000 Twitter followers might have about what really makes her tick.
For example, the self-proclaimed fashion-lover says she doesn't have a favorite designer.
"I like what I like," says Hall, wearing a peach sheath with flowing built-in cloak by industry-insider-fave Adeam. Hall's natural hair, which she wears both curly and straight, is no big deal. "For me, there is no stigma to it."
Yes, she has a boyfriend, she says, and then throws out a pearl from The Rules: "I'm single until I'm married." She offers no room to ask any questions about her rumored relationship with MSNBC colleague Lawrence O'Donnell.
Her thoughts on the state of black women in America: "It's not my job to judge or assess," she says. "I think single, black, white, married - people are doing the best they can."
And that's that.
"Tamron is presenting a multilayered, multidimensional black woman, and that is what we need," said Sophia A. Nelson, author of Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama. An essay by Hall called "Follow Your Heart" is included in the book.
"Tamron understands intuitively that, as a black woman, you have to climb out of that box. She talks to a broad swath of people on the Today show. . . . It behooves her to be someone that is and embraces things that are universal."
The website Gawker praised Hall for bringing the "human party" to Today. With a little more than five million viewers, NBC's Today is second to ABC's Good Morning America in overall ratings. But according to Nielsen Media Research, Today is No. 1 among 18-to-49-year-olds, the young parents and professionals who are the target audience for Today's Take.
Richard Prince, of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, says Hall is relatable and different from GMA's beloved Robin Roberts or This Morning's Gayle King.
She can be acerbic: Prince cited a May 2012 NewsNation episode during which Hall turned off the microphone of Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney after she said he insulted her in "my house." But she also can be girlfriendly: Recently, she swooned over Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps' "wingspan."
It's a busy Monday morning for Hall. She was up at 4 o'clock to walk her dogs before heading to Rockefeller Center. Some mornings, she also coanchors the first two hours of Today, but now she has more time to go over her NewsNation scripts with the producers. On Today's Take, she easily segues between stories about a San Diego family rescued at sea and children using curse words in preschool.
Hall has loved the news for a long time. She remembers, in the 1970s, her late father pointing out Iola Johnson, the first African American anchor in Dallas. The first clue that journalism was in her future: Her neighbors in her Luling, Texas, hometown referred to her as "Not Necessarily."
"I was 7 years old, and I challenged everything," said Hall, who keeps a picture on her smartphone of the shotgun house where she lived as a child. "I never accepted answers on face value."
At Temple, Hall majored in journalism, graduating in 1992. She filmed one of her resume tapes in her neighborhood, at 18th and Green Streets, during Fairmount's foray into gentrification.
"I didn't know what path she would take, whether it would be entertainment, news, or features, but I knew she was special," said Lauren Lipton, a reporter at KYW-AM (1060). Hall won Temple's 2010 Lew Klein Alumni in the Media Award, which Lipton nominated her for.
While in Philadelphia, Hall interned with WDAS-FM radio personality Patty Jackson.
"She was a really hard worker," Jackson said, recalling the time the two attended a Take 6 concert together. "We actually became friends.
Hall spent the first five years of her broadcast career in Texas. In 1997, she took a job at Chicago's Fox affiliate WFLD and, in a short time, rose to coanchor its top-rated morning show. Ten years later, she became a correspondent for the then-new MSNBC, and in 2010, the network's vice president and executive editor, Yvette Miley, created NewsNation for her.
"NewsNation reflects Tamron's unrelenting curiosity," Miley said, referring to a piece Hall reported on how the U.S. Army's guidelines could be interpreted as discriminating against black women. "She brings a passion to it every day. She never phones it in."
It's a little after noon now, and Hall is wrapping up for the day - well, at least at 30 Rock.
She's off to edit film for Deadline Crime, a project near and dear to her heart since her sister's 2004 murder in Texas. Police suspect it was a domestic-abuse case, but it was never solved. Will she ever tell her sister's story on the crime-magazine show? Possibly, she says, when the time is right.
Before she slips into her flats and grabs her green "everything" bag, she says:
"I take it seriously that it's a privilege and honor to be a role model to young girls, both black and white. It's not something I take lightly."