The Cult of Jian: His life as an outcast, who’s standing by him, and why he’s sure he’ll walk

The Cult of Jian: His life as an outcast, who’s standing by him, and why he’s sure he’ll walk

I knew him to be a charming, if temperamental, narcissist who desperately wanted to be adored—and he was, until it all came crashing down. Now he’s surrounded by a small circle of admirers who either believe he’s innocent or have forgiven his sins

Jian Ghomeshi close up (Image: George Pimentel/Getty Images)

Jian Ghomeshi and I first met in February of 1999. I was in my early 20s, and I’d just been hired as an arts reporter at the Globe and Mail. My editor sent me to interview the band Moxy Früvous, who had been gigging around Toronto since I was in high school. They were a terminally geeky folk band who name-checked Margaret Atwood in their lyrics for airplay on CBC Radio. At the time I met them, in a café on the Danforth, they were selling out mid-size venues filled with NDP supporters in itchy Ecuadorian sweaters.

I spent an amiable hour with the band, listening to enthusiastic and semi-delusional talk of their enormous Grateful Dead–style following and imminent U.S. breakthrough, which never happened. Jian, the band’s drummer and singer, was a weedy-looking guy, about a decade my senior, with a penchant for winking after his jokes. He went out of his way to weave an odd mix of earnest liberal values and sexual innuendo into the conversation, referring to the band’s “pinko politics” and then telling me the story of his new favourite “superfan”—an exotic dancer named Moxy who stripped to their song “Michigan Militia” in a combat outfit. In the next breath he was plugging their upcoming benefit for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics. There was something unsettling—and also engaging—about Jian’s habit of mixing the prim with the pervy. Even back then he enjoyed flipping back and forth between politically correct and sexually inappropriate. In any case, he was quotable. Reading over my piece 16 years later, I noticed he was the only one of the band members who got much ink.

After the interview, the band dispersed and I ended up walking and chatting with Jian. We stopped at his car, a tiny vintage pastel-green sports coupe. And then, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, he said, “I’m going to this orgy tonight, do you want to come?” I don’t recall actually saying no, only both of us bursting into laughter as though the whole suggestion had been a big joke. I decided then and there that I liked him. He was weird, but also charming.

More on the Jian Ghomeshi trial

I’d learn later that even Jian’s apparent lack of a filter was carefully calibrated for maximum effect. Long before he was a household name in Canada, he was a master of calculating what other people wanted and presenting them with it—so long as it didn’t conflict with his own ever-pressing desires.

After that first meeting I didn’t see Jian for several months, but we kept in touch. Or, to be precise, he kept in touch with me. Moxy Früvous went on a U.S. tour and Jian would write me long, tortured emails from the road, asking for career and dating advice. Although I can’t recall the specifics now, I remember that the emails went on and on and were full of unfulfilled longing, which would prove to be a perpetual theme for Jian. He always seemed in desperate need of something just out reach—engaged in a never-ending quest to find the balm for his restless soul. He was self-involved in a way that would have been insufferable—one of those people who drone on at the party about their own tedious existential struggles—if he hadn’t also been so culturally literate and charismatic. Also, he spent quite a bit of time buttering me up.

For all his weirdness, Jian was excellent at making connections. In addition to being persistent, he was funny and clever and surprisingly thoughtful. He almost always remembered my birthday in the days before Facebook reminders, though sometimes his greetings were of the canned digital calendar variety (“Happy birthday beautiful—thinking of you today!”). Eventually we became friends.

Mostly when we got together—a handful of times a year, either at a media event or for a quiet dinner—we’d talk about work. For someone who’d experienced success so young, he seemed strangely insecure. I remember being slightly baffled by this—by his 30s, even before breaking into broadcasting, Jian had a solid career as a music manager. He owned two houses, one in Riverdale, which he rented out as an income property, a fact I found mind-bogglingly impressive in my 20s. The other property was an enormous, modern loft-like townhouse in Cabbagetown, where he lived before moving to an even bigger place in the Beach. I visited him a couple of times in Cabbagetown and he was rather house proud, pointing out new pieces of expensive furniture, the gleaming wood floors and his collection of Persian rugs.

Being rich and successful wasn’t enough for Jian. He wanted to be adored. This meant finding a platform and a fan base. He got a taste of fame in Moxy Früvous—jiggling his ringlets as the band busked on Queen West—and now he wanted the same thing but on a bigger scale. He was determined to have establishment credibility. He’s often spoken of feeling like an outsider because of his Iranian background, and I believe that being born on the fringes of the dominant Canadian culture fuelled his ambition.

It also explained, in part, his interest in me. I didn’t have much to show for myself back in my 20s, but I did have a column in the country’s most respected newspaper. For Jian, a self-conscious immigrant kid who’d grown up feeling like a nerd and dreaming of David Bowie, that kind of status mattered more than anything.

Jian Ghomeshi at Leah McLaren's wedding The author with Ghomeshi at her 2009 wedding in Muskoka (Image: courtesy of Leah McLaren)

In the summer of 2005, Jian drove out to my farm near Grafton, Ontario, for the night. I made dinner, and we drank some good wine and sat up late discussing his next career move. Any lingering sexual tension had dissolved from our relationship by this point, and an easy camaraderie remained. Jian’s two main modes of communication were flirting and talking about his work, so now we were left with one. I don’t remember us discussing my career—like most beguiling solipsists, Jian had a way of drawing the conversation around to himself. His TV music show, Play, had recently been cancelled by the CBC, and he was very put out about it. He talked a lot about George Stroumboulopoulos, who’d been given his own talk show—a fact that obviously irked Jian, even though he considered George a friend.

I’d seen Jian on Play, and I’d even been interviewed by him during one of his stints filling in as host on the CTV talk show The Chatroom. I remember he was dreadful. He quickly lost control of the debate and let one guest steamroll all the others—a rookie error even I, as a fledgling journalist, could recognize. But worse than that, he had a strange neediness—a sweaty, almost aggressive desperation to be liked—that came across on camera and made even those of us who already liked him squirm in our seats.

TV wasn’t working out for Jian, but there was another way up the greasy pole. He’d done some radio that summer, filling in for Shelagh Rogers on This Morning, and somehow over the sound waves, his anxiety fell away and was replaced by a magnetic calm. He was wonderful at engaging the listener by quickly and articulately dashing up to the edge of a point, then slowing down to a Cheshire cat purr—a trick that would eventually become a signature element of his daily Q monologue. For all his agonizing over ratings and “audience reach” at my farm that summer night, we both knew he’d found his medium on CBC Radio.

As Jian’s star rose, and we both got older, the age of many of the girls he dated stayed the same. It became a standing joke between us that while I’d rejected his advances when we first met, I was now no longer in his preferred demographic. “When did you get too old for me, Leah McLaren?” he used to tease.

Jian Ghomeshi grid of images Jian Ghomeshi was Canada’s poster boy. His squeaky clean public image was carefully constructed: (L to R) 1. As the front man for Moxy Früvous, 1993; 2. As the host of CBC’s Play, 2002; 3. Hosting The Great Canadian Music Dream, 2003; 4. In his 2012 memoir entitled 1982; and 5. As the host of Q from 2007 to 2014 (Images: CBC Image Archive)

What’s startling about the allegations against Jian is not that a seemingly law-abiding person is accused of doing terrible things. That happens all the time. It’s the way Jian wove the most cherished and sacred liberal values of Canadian society into an ingenious disguise that he used to hide in plain sight. He was a wolf in organic, fair-trade lamb’s clothing. One woman I spoke to for this story who is now accusing Jian of sexual assault believes his persona was a deliberate cover for his predatory behaviour. She thinks he created and used his personal brand—one that was endorsed by the same network that brought us David Suzuki and The Friendly Giant—to get in touch with women so he could abuse them. She also believes that for him, in his sickness, that dark irony was a turn-on.

Jian used liberalism and feminism the way Roy Cohn used McCarthyism—as a grand screen of moral superiority that hid his deeper, more urgent desires. Did it turn him on to correct his Q staffers for using sexist language like “manning the phone” and then punch women for pleasure in private? Had he become so desensitized to the feelings of others that he needed to inflict pain in order to feel sexual gratification himself? One former Q contributor, who was close with Jian and knew about his predilection for rough sex, said he used to delight in a bit of dirty talk just before the producers switched the mikes on. Once, just seconds before going on air, he said he liked it when his girlfriend wore a certain baggy wool sweater because he knew it was obscuring the bruises on her breasts.

The fact that we believed the cuddly, wholesome version of Jian makes the crimes he’s accused of doubly galling. Though he never mentioned anything about bondage, domination or a fondness for choking his dinner dates to me, he did enjoy trying to shock me. He once dropped an offhand comment about sleeping with a mutual male friend who was ostensibly straight and had a girlfriend. “It’s no secret I’m bisexual,” he said. His equal-opportunity orientation was known among his close friends, but I always thought of it as more of a political stance than a burning desire. Jian slept with men whenever he felt like it, which was occasionally but not that often. His real preoccupation was women. There were so many I couldn’t keep up. He was unabashedly promiscuous, or at least purported to be. After one bad breakup, he confided in a friend that he’d had sex with dozens of women in two months. He felt “a little out of control,” he added, but it didn’t seem to stop him.

Jian worshipped his family—and the idea of family in general—always saying he wanted to marry and have children some day, but given the fickleness of his affections that seemed unlikely. We’d meet for dinner and he’d scroll through the girls’ pictures on his phone, citing their names, ages and professions. “What about her? Do you think she’s pretty? This one’s a Persian rocket scientist!” He was attracted to women who were clever and women who weren’t, women who’d achieved professional success and women who hadn’t, but two things almost always remained the same: they were all young and they were all thin. Though he’s not a big guy, the women Jian dated were tiny by comparison. His promiscuity was something his friends remarked on, but it wasn’t a big deal, apart from the occasional social embarrassment, like at my wedding, where he aggressively hit on a family friend’s university-age lesbian daughter. To most of his casual acquaintances, Jian was just another successful, commitment-phobic bachelor with a roving eye in a city that’s full of them.

Before the story broke late last October, Jian left town for a while—initially to the Minden, Ontario, cottage of his old friend Jeffrey Latimer, the manager and theatre producer. Latimer, a fantastically connected gadfly impresario and fixture in Toronto showbiz, is responsible for hit musicals like Evil Dead: The Musical and Forever Plaid. Jian had called Latimer and told him his version of why the CBC had fired him, as well as his plan to address the whole sordid ordeal in a Facebook post, which he’d written with the help of his crisis management firm, Navigator. After the Toronto Star published the victims’ side of the story, and the allegations began rolling in, Latimer asked him to leave.

Many of Jian’s friends immediately came out in his defence, protesting his innocence across social media. But as more accusers came forward, his defenders began to go silent. Within a few days, both Navigator and Jian’s publicist, Debra Goldblatt-Sadowski of Rock-It Promotions, had dropped him as a client. His own agent and friend Jack Ross followed suit, and the pop singer Lights, whom he managed, cut ties with him too.

Like many of Jian’s friends and fans, I was persuaded by his Facebook explanation—at first—which suggested that the puritanical CBC was mucking around in his private life and the forthcoming allegations of abuse were the actions of a spurned ex-girlfriend with whom he had engaged in consensual acts of rough sex. I wanted to give an old friend the benefit of the doubt. I even wrote him an email expressing my friendship and urging him to come to me if he ever wanted to tell his story to a journalist (he didn’t respond and has ignored all my subsequent emails).

It’s difficult to describe the shock and confusion that Jian’s friends and acquaintances felt during that time. In those first few days, when the indie rock violinist Owen Pallett went public with a Facebook post saying Jian was his friend but that he believed the victims’ stories, I was filled with relief. After agonizing obsessively with people who knew Jian either well or vaguely, it was the first time someone had honestly summed up the feeling of being torn between the charismatic person we knew and the predatory über-villain portrayed in the media. It turned out Pallett and I both had the same vivid fantasy. “At first,” he told me wistfully, “I kept hoping Jian would call me up and ask for advice and I’d tell him, ‘Just apologize. You need to own this.’ But he never did.”

Soon the volume of accusations crushed any lingering doubt. Why would so many unconnected women fabricate such similar stories for no conceivable benefit to themselves? The actor Lucy DeCoutere, who was the highest-profile of Jian’s alleged victims to come forward, became a point person for others who wanted to tell their story but couldn’t bring themselves to do it publicly. The way she described it to me, she co-ordinated a covert network of women who have spent the last seven months sharing their assault stories with each other. “There are some who have been named and many others who haven’t,” she said. “I know of a woman who he hospitalized. I’d say there are over a dozen who never went to the police or the media.”

I began hearing directly from friends who had been assaulted by Jian and chose not to go to the police. For me, the final stroke came when Reva Seth—a writer I know and respect—went public with a story of being assaulted after a date with Jian in 2002. In a Huffington Post article, she said she wanted her three boys, who are two, five and eight, to understand that a woman shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of something a man does to her without her consent.

The trouble with having a friend accused of committing a heinous crime is that you abhor the action but have difficulty squaring it with the individual you knew and cared about. Though none of the allegations against Jian have been proven in court, I now believe he behaved violently and without consent on what appears to be a habitual basis over the past 20-odd years.

For his part, Jian is confident that no matter how bad the evidence looks, he will ultimately be exonerated. He’s a survivor—someone who thrives under stress and is spurred on by external pressure. He knew he would need a team to get him through this, so he did what any survivor would do: he built one.

Sarah Bobas is a delicately pretty woman in her 30s who has worked at various PR agencies around the city. She is currently employed by a company called Jones Media in the position of content and product science director, though her Twitter bio describes her as a “triple threat: PR & Comm strategist, certified firefighter, hovawart owner.” Bobas and Jian dated for a short period of time eight years ago and stayed friends after they split. She’s a key member of his inner circle—people who have stood by Jian since his arrest—and she remains extremely close to him. Some of the women now accusing Jian of sexual assault allege that after the story broke, Bobas contacted them in a friendly manner—as a fellow ex-girlfriend of Jian’s—to ask whether they were planning to go to the media or the police. They suspected Bobas was pumping them for information, under the guise of considering her own options, in order to feed it back to Jian.

Bobas vehemently denies that she was ever assaulted by Jian, or that she was in contact with any of the alleged victims. In a tense email interview, she told me that she continues to support Jian. “I am simply being a good friend to a friend who is in a difficult situation as any good person would do. I have no views on Jian’s criminal case and do not have the ability to provide any intelligent comment on whether he is guilty or innocent.” [See note below.]

There’s friction with at least one of her friends over her decision to stick by Jian. It is a little baffling. Why would an intelligent, independent young woman put herself at risk socially and professionally—and possibly even physically—by continuing to maintain a close friendship with a man accused of multiple counts of sexual assault?

The answer, I suspect, is that she cares deeply what Jian thinks of her. As a close friend of his told me shortly after the story broke, “In terms of psychological agility, you can’t compete with a mind like his, a personality like his.” This is not to say Jian is an intellectual genius. He is knowledgable and well-read but not brilliant. His true gift is his innate ability to control the people nearest to him. According to a story in The Guardian by Kathryn Borel, the former Q producer who says she was sexually harassed by Jian on several occasions at the CBC, he was a master of emotional manipulation both at work and in his personal life. Jian was incredibly thin-skinned, and he used his insecurities as an excuse to be temperamental, petulant, even cruel. He was constantly in conflict with people around him, but his closest friends and lovers always seem to come back for more.

Jian Ghomeshi with his lawyer, Marie Henein Starting in February 2016, Ghomeshi will stand trial on four charges of sexual assault and one charge of choking. He will face a separate trial on the remaining count of sexual assault the following June. His lawyer, Marie Henein, on his left, has said Ghomeshi will plead not guilty to all charges (Image: GetStock)

So what do the people in Jian’s camp today have in common? They may believe Jian is innocent or be willing to suspend their disbelief in order to have the pleasure of basking in his approval and notoriety. Or, they may believe he’s guilty and love him anyway. I don’t wish to shame or expose them—their loyalty is heartfelt, if hard to fathom.

One of those loyal acolytes—I’ll call him David—spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. According to him, Jian’s life post-bail has been quiet, a period of self-reflection and introspection. In David’s words, “a time to slow down.” I’ve known David for years, though I didn’t realize he was a close friend of Jian’s before the scandal. Over the course of our conversations, I realized he wanted to correct the portrayal of Jian-as-predator, which he sees as twisted and unfair.

Jian sleeps at his mother’s house as ordered by the court (living there was one of his bail conditions) but, according to David, he spends his days at his place in the Beach, reading, watching movies and working out. He will leave to go grocery shopping, but that’s about it. His mother is often there with him, the two still grieving for his beloved father, who died just weeks before the scandal broke. And Jian is now focused on clearing his name in court. He is in fighting form, ready for an epic battle against what he perceives to be a pernicious conspiracy of deranged ex-girlfriends enabled by a corrupt and envious media.

“He is taking stock of what life is,” says David. “And obviously this whole situation has made him pause and reflect. I think that, more than anything, he wants to tell his side of the story.” Like Bobas, David claimed to have “no opinion” on whether Jian is guilty. It’s telling that he used almost exactly the same words as she did when explaining why he has chosen to support Jian. “He is a human being,” he said. “As a friend I am supporting him in his time of need. Whether he’s found guilty or innocent, he’s still my friend. In a sense I would argue he’s doing well because he’s secure in the fact he’s not a bad person.”

Since his arrest, Jian has held periodic gatherings at his house in the Beach. “It’s about bringing normalcy to the situation,” David explained. There is no legal strategizing or mention made of the upcoming trials. “Jian has other people to talk to him about that.” No one questions Jian or offers him advice, nor does he ask for it. The atmosphere, David told me, is “not exactly celebratory,” but it’s very positive and warm. “It’s been interesting to watch who has come in and out of the inner circle,” he said. “Some people have come, some have gone, and some have gone and come back. Personally I’ve never had an experience like this in my whole life. It’s about getting down to the brass tacks of what true friendship really is.”

As we spoke, David kept emphasizing just how well Jian was doing. He spoke of his reserves of inner strength with great reverence, and about how Jian was thriving in spite of “the people trying to take him down.” He confirmed that a few members of the inner circle know Jian from the Toronto media scene. McLean Greaves, VP of technology at ZoomerMedia, does not deny his association with Jian but declined to comment. [See clarification below.] Others go back to Jian’s childhood, including one who went to his Thornhill high school. Some are extended family members. All in all, says David, there are anywhere from 10 to 20 people who surround him on a semi-regular basis. Jian has had to network carefully to assemble this group. I know of at least one woman who was deeply upset that her husband—an old high school friend of Jian’s—accepted an invitation to dinner at his house. Jian is wary of journalists and will not tolerate criticism. According to one insider, he looks deep into people’s eyes and says, “Are you fully there for me?” Talking to David, I’m sure he would ace that test.

Several people I spoke to had texted with Jian, though they haven’t seen him in person. The actor and producer Marcello Cabezas invited Jian to a holiday party at his condo last December and emailed the guests in advance to let them know. About 15 people attended, including Bobas, the record producer Jeffrey Remedios and the fashion designer Robin Kay. The mood at the party was subdued. One guest said that he spoke to Jian very briefly. “We talked mostly about me, though at one point Jian said, ‘Obviously there’s a lot going on I can’t discuss.’ It was weird. I stayed an hour and left.”

Mio Adilman, an ex-Q staffer and close friend of Jian’s, said to me, “I really don’t think he has any idea the damage he’s done. Not just to his victims but to everyone who ever cared about him. The reverberations just go on and on.” Adilman has been in touch with Jian by email since his arrest. When I asked why he would want to talk to him, he shrugged and said, “He’s a person.”

As I wrote this piece I kept thinking of the last time Jian and I connected, over email, just a couple of weeks before the allegations surfaced. I’d sent him a condolence note about his father, and he replied almost instantly. Like every email he ever wrote me, it was entirely in lower-case letters.

my dearest leah,

thank you for this kind note. it’s lovely to hear from you.

i won’t pretend to be ok. i’m gutted. still trying to figure out how to even process the loss of my dad. but words from old friends do help.

entre nous: i think i told you once—many years ago—that i had had a longtime crush on you. i think i probably imagined marrying you. ;) well…you lucked out that that never happened (i’m an anxiety-disordered burden!), but the upshot would have been getting to know my dad. he really was the best. and he really could light up a room. you two would have loved each other.

It was quintessential Jian. Grieving the loss of his father but still a consummate flirt, reminding me of our shared (non-romantic) history, complete with a self-deprecating reference to his anxiety issues and winky-face emoticon. I showed the email to my husband, who rolled his eyes and declared it creepy. But like so many borderline inappropriate things Jian did, at the time, it only increased my affection for him. He had a way of flattering people into focusing on him to the exclusion of all else. He was like a demented toddler in his willingness to debase himself in order to ensure he remained the centre of attention. And in this singular ambition, I suppose he continues to succeed.

In a letter to the editor, Sarah Bobas writes: “The suggestion that I had any contact with any of the alleged victims in the Jian Ghomeshi case is completely unfounded. I told Leah McLaren as much during our email interview. The fact that she included my denial in the article doesn’t make printing the allega­tion okay. I’m blown away that a reputa­ble publication like Toronto Life, to which I have been a long-time sub­scriber, would publish categorically untrue claims.”
After publication, McLean Greaves sent the author an email in which he denied being part of Jian Ghomeshi’s inner circle. He said, of his relationship with Ghomeshi: “We have never hung out socially and apart from visiting him during his crisis, we still don’t hang out.”