Well, Hi There: Jian Ghomeshi, live and off the air
Jian Ghomeshi’s climb to the top of the CBC required plenty of ambition, glad-handing, star-chasing, stubble maintenance and serial dating, plus a couple of workplace meltdowns
One day, roughly five years ago, Jian Ghomeshi got a severe headache and felt sharp pains in his chest. “I thought I must have a brain tumour or be experiencing a heart attack—that I must be dying,” he says now. A few days later, he started to feel dizzy, had trouble breathing and headed for the nearest emergency room. The doctor took note of his symptoms and asked if he’d done any coke (he hadn’t). It turned out to be a panic attack, and he was eventually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He now visits a midtown psychologist once a week. When the demands of hosting Q, Ghomeshi’s CBC radio show, don’t allow him to leave the office, he and his shrink talk over Skype. The sessions help him cope. “I’ve worked through a lot,” he says. “Feeling like an outsider because of my Iranian background, trust issues. A lot of not feeling good enough.”
Like so many performers, Ghomeshi has an outsized ego to match his insecurity. He interviews some of the world’s biggest celebrities on his show, and often he’s the diva in the room. Last fall, Q staff were on lockdown as they prepared for an interview with Drake, figuring out how to pull something fresh out of a guy whose every Twitter feud makes international headlines. Without warning, Ghomeshi went quiet, then announced he was going for a walk. The show’s producers freaked out—no one knew where he’d gone, or when he planned to return. Minutes before Drake was scheduled to arrive, Ghomeshi slipped back into the studio as though nothing were out of the ordinary. The interview was a good one: Drake talked about the demands of success, which is something the guy asking the questions could relate to.
Q airs at 10:06 every weekday morning, right after the news. Ghomeshi opens every show with the same salutation: “Well, hi there,” delivered in a raspy growl. It’s a calculated transition from the gravity of the news broadcast into a program that’s his personal fiefdom. To say that Ghomeshi has extended the reach of a Canadian public radio host is an understatement, like saying Justin Bieber has heightened the aspirations of tween buskers from Stratford. Q is one of the most popular radio shows in Canada and is syndicated by 160 U.S. stations. A weekly televised version of the show draws 300,000 viewers, the Q YouTube channel averages 1.5 million hits per month, and the podcast gets about 250,000 downloads every week. He manages to unite an unusually diverse audience of indie-loving university students, retirees and every age in between with a programming mix that is broad yet curated (a recent broadcast featured an interview with former prime minister Joe Clark, a Martha Wainwright song and a segment on why the majority of Icelanders believe in elves). Ghomeshi’s radio fame helped his memoir, 1982, debut at number one on the bestseller lists when it was published in 2012.
At the youth-starved CBC, he has become the go-to cool guy. His bosses put him in front of a mike or camera whenever possible. This month he will be part of the broadcast team in Sochi, offering a side of politics and pop culture with his athlete interviews. (“From Putin to Pussy Riot,” is how Ghomeshi put it during a promotional event marking the start of the 100-day countdown back in October.) In March, he will host Canada Reads, a reality contest where prominent Canadians advocate for prominent Canadian books. For a guy who has always felt like an outsider, he has managed quite deftly to plant himself in the centre of everything.
Ghomeshi’s office is on the second floor of the Front Street CBC building. When I visit, he apologizes for the mess—piles of books and CDs, papers stacked on every available surface. The room is steps from the Q studio. He is dressed in his usual uniform: a slim-fit V-neck, black blazer, distressed denim and haphazard stubble that is in fact deliberately maintained using the level three setting on his electric beard trimmer. Much of Ghomeshi’s wardrobe comes from GotStyle on King West. He’s 46 years old but, like George Stroumboulopoulos, Jorn Weisbrodt and other middle-aged Toronto arts and media power brokers, he dresses young. It’s important for him to appear hip and connected to emerging culture—getting mistaken for an establishment figure would be fatal.
He tells me that if we’re going to spend time together, we should book it in ASAP. The schedule on his computer resembles a game of Tetris right before the Game Over message—coloured blocks cramped one on top of the other with only the tiniest gaps. In this case the colours mean something: red for the time he is on air or onstage, plus high-priority meetings; orange for travel (in the last couple of years, Q has taped live shows in Montreal, New York and Chicago); grey for regular meetings and show prep; yellow for unconfirmed bookings; blue for personal maintenance (thrice weekly workouts, weekly therapy sessions, twice monthly haircuts with celeb stylist Jie Matar); purple for post-workday social engagements.
His time is managed mostly by his executive assistant, a smiley 27-year-old Feist look-alike named Ashley Poitevin. “It’s her job to try and create more white space,” Ghomeshi explains, meaning waking hours that aren’t colour blocked. His evenings are filled with parties, openings, concerts, screenings, debates, awards ceremonies, panels. He gets dozens of hosting requests every month: high-profile literati events like the Giller Awards, as well as small functions within the Iranian community. Those ones, he says, are the hardest to turn down. “I feel like a jerk telling some guy from the Persian community paper to call my publicist, but that’s how it is,” he says. For Ghomeshi, being out in public is always a matter of brand building and relationship management. When he goes to a hockey game, he’s a guest of Molson; when he’s at a concert, he’ll end up backstage, arranging for the band to appear on his show.
One night last fall, Ghomeshi took me to the opening party for a David Cronenberg exhibit at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Even before we cleared the entranceway, he fielded hellos from three people. The upside of being the random woman with Jian Ghomeshi at the Cronenberg party: you get to talk to David Cronenberg. The downside of being the RWWJG: you must also talk to everyone else. Over the course of an hour he has conversations with more than 30 friends, diehard fans and people who recognize him from his 20-foot-tall likeness on the side of the CBC building. Even people who don’t know him approach with chummy familiarity, which is why Ghomeshi goes with “Nice to see you,” when he isn’t sure if he’s met someone before. It’s a tiny trick, and he’s certainly not the first to use it, but in this context it seems like part of a bigger production. During our time together he is unfailingly charming, thoughtful and funny. If we had been on a first date it would have been a good one.
After the party, Ghomeshi heads back to the office to work for a couple of hours before heading home, where he’ll read more interview prep material before bed. He recently sold his Cabbagetown house and bought a century-old home in the Beach. He says living in a low-key, less-than-hip neighbourhood was his way of creating a sanctuary outside the madness of his job. For a month after he took possession, it was still full of unpacked boxes.
Ghomeshi has always been a Type-A personality. When he was growing up, the Ghomeshi household was full of love, along with incredibly high expectations, summed up in his father’s go-to parenting motto—you have done well, now do better. Jian was born in London, England, where xenophobic white schoolmates nicknamed him Blackie. In the mid-’70s, his parents, Frank (a civil engineer) and Sara (an accountant), moved Jian and his older sister, Jila, now a professor of linguistics at the University of Manitoba, to Thornhill. The late ’70s and early ’80s were not an easy time to be an Iranian immigrant—the 1979 Iranian revolution resulted in the presumption that brown skin meant ties to terrorism, among other stereotypes. In 1982, Ghomeshi tells stories about kids asking where he kept his turbans and machine guns. He remembers when a cover of the Beach Boys song “Barbara Ann” was released with the new lyrics “Bomb Iran.” Even within his own family he stood out for his darker skin. His mom made him stay out of the sun to keep him as light as possible. The memoir covers Ghomeshi’s puppy-dog crush on a girl named Wendy, his obsession with New Wave music and his desire to be his idol David Bowie. Ziggy Stardust represented everything young Jian was not—confident, cool, white. The book is funny, at times poignant and undeniably self-mythologizing.
Early on he had his eye on the prize. As a grade schooler he had two paper routes—one for the Globe, one for the Star. At Thornlea Secondary, he was that kid who did everything: student body president, co-host of the fashion show, creator of an open-mike folk music night in the cafeteria. After graduating, he majored in political science at York. He became the president of the federation of students and co-chair of a pro-choice network that sprang into action whenever anti-abortionists tried to intimidate women visiting the Morgentaler clinic on Harbord Street.
Music was always a big part of his life. Ghomeshi joined bands in elementary and high school. While at York, he formed Moxy Früvous with his high school friends Murray Foster, Mike Ford and Dave Matheson. The band started off as a satirical comedy group with some music in their act. Ghomeshi wore his hair long with blond streaks. Jack Ross, who has been Ghomeshi’s agent since the Früvous era, first found the band busking under the marquee at the Bloor Cinema. “I thought they had something different,” he says. “I left a two dollar bill and my business card. The next day I got a call from Jian.” Moxy Früvous didn’t have an official front man—all four members sang and played instruments—but they certainly had a leader. Ross jokes that managing a band with Ghomeshi in it was like working with a co-manager. Moxy Früvous peaked in the mid-to-late ’90s with Barenaked-Ladies-meets-Beastie-Boys singsongy rap tunes like “King of Spain” and “My Baby Loves a Bunch of Authors,” which was commissioned by the CBC for the Toronto Authors’ Festival (sample rhyme: “I’ve been flirtin’ with Pierre Berton”). Their eponymous debut tape sold over 50,000 copies, and their first full-length album, Bargainville, went platinum in Canada. The sound was earnest, energetic, unapologetically brainy and about as far from the apathetic grunge of Kurt Cobain as you could get. The band toured non-stop for most of the ’90s. They developed a big following in the States and played regularly in the U.K. Foster says the gruelling schedule was fuelled almost entirely by Ghomeshi’s ambition. Denise Donlon, who would later be Ghomeshi’s boss at CBC Radio but was then in charge of programming at MuchMusic, recalls how the band would send their videos in for play. “Some of them were great, some of them not that great, but if I didn’t play one I would get a call from Jian,” she says. Their hard-core fans—Früheads—followed the band from show to show and attended annual conventions.
In 1999, the other three members of Moxy Früvous were desperate to escape the road warrior lifestyle. They had earned good money by this point (at his dad’s insistence, Ghomeshi bought a house in Riverdale in 1996, which he maintains as an income property). Ghomeshi was the only one who wanted to keep going. A year later, the band’s members talked about announcing their retirement. Then Ghomeshi came up with an alternate strategy. “I remember Jian saying it wouldn’t do any of us any good to say we were former Moxy Früvous members,” says Foster. “It was his idea to say we were on hiatus, but still current members of the band. It was a smart move.”
Today Foster tours with Great Big Sea and is also in a band with Ford called the Cocksure Lads. When I ask if he was surprised by the professional ascent of his former bandmate, he laughs. Foster says he wouldn’t be surprised to see Ghomeshi get into politics. “I don’t know the ceiling of his work capacity. It is extraordinarily high. Matched only by his ambition.”
In 2001, Ghomeshi toured the U.S. as a solo artist, singing antiwar anthems in the Freedom Fries era. He wrote a travelogue for the Globe and Mail about his experience. It was called “A Dove in the Land of the Eagle” and got the attention of a CBC Newsworld producer who was looking for someone to host a new TV show. Play was a square peg on the sober channel. “You had all of this serious programming,” Ghomeshi recalls, “and then, at 11, a pop culture show broadcasting from the bar at the Mövenpick.” In 2005, Play won a Gemini for best general/human interest program. A year later, the show had been reduced to a series of segments on The Hour.
Around the same time, CBC Radio was attempting a revamp, devoting resources to new shows and talent in an effort to appeal to a younger audience. Chris Boyce, then head of radio program development, remembers his first meeting with Ghomeshi. “He told me he wanted to be his generation’s Peter Gzowski. He had never done radio at the time, but he said, ‘Okay, this is where I want to be, and I want you to tell me what I need to do to get there.’ ”
Q launched in the spring of 2007, following a study examining how the nation’s broadcaster might attract the country’s under-50 set. At the time, listeners older than 50 made up 70 per cent of Radio One’s audience. In its first year, Q featured indie bands like Holy Fuck, the Hidden Cameras and MGMT. The show’s audience grew steadily over each ratings period, and the network moved it from the afternoon to 10 a.m.—Gzowski’s former Morningside slot. From the start, Q was available as a podcast. It was the first CBC radio show to make cameras in the studio a standard, all the better to capture its screen-ready star.
Ghomeshi’s speedy rise didn’t sit well with everyone. When word got out that Q would also become a weekly TV show, the Globe and Mail’s television columnist, John Doyle, wrote, “It seems that somebody thinks Ghomeshi’s narcissistic natterings are the future of CBC.” Around the same time, This Hour Has 22 Minutes aired a skit called “Strombeshi,” painting both hosts as douchey, self-satisfied twits who sit around fist bumping and waiting for text messages from Bono. The skit tapped in to a suspicion, both inside and outside the CBC, that the leather jacket–wearing, punk rock–loving, self-promoting stars of the new generation lacked substance.
The sneering diminished as the accolades piled up and his show surpassed every conceivable record. The basic format has changed little since it launched. Ghomeshi opens with his scripted thoughts on some topical subject, then transitions to a series of guests. Q’s most distinguishing feature has always been the in-depth interviews. “Jian has really good conversations,” says Boyce. “That might sound like, well, duh, but that’s the thing every radio host aims to do, and it’s a hell of a lot harder to do in practice than it is in theory.” Barbara Walters agrees. In 2008, the esteemed interviewer and notorious tear elicitor went on Q to promote her memoir, Audition, telling Ghomeshi on the air that he was a “very good interviewer”—the ultimate compliment. In 2009, Q beat Gzowski’s audience record and soon became the CBC’s most popular radio show.
One particular segment, in April 2009, changed everything. Even people who have never heard of Q or Ghomeshi know about the time Billy Bob Thornton flipped his biscuits on a Canadian radio show. (The YouTube clip has been viewed more than three million times.) Quick recap: Thornton was touring to promote his secondary career as a musician with his band, The Boxmasters. Before beginning the interview, Ghomeshi gave an introduction, explaining his guest’s current project, while also providing some context—in this case, the fact that one member of this otherwise unknown band was the world-famous actor and screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton. What followed was the 10-car pileup of live interviews. Thornton was nonsensical, petulant and standoffish when Ghomeshi asked him when the band formed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. When questioned about his music, Thornton spat back, “Would you say that to Tom Petty?” before finally explaining (with limited coherence) that he was pissed because Ghomeshi had mentioned his acting career even after his producers had been instructed that the interview would be about the band. The big moment came 12 minutes in, when Thornton called Canadians “mashed potatoes without the gravy.” Ghomeshi retorted, “Oh, we’ve got some gravy,” and became a national hero.
The days after the interview were crazy. Thornton and his band were booed at Massey Hall before cancelling the remainder of their Canadian tour, and Ghomeshi couldn’t go anywhere without fielding high fives (even now, it’s a rare day that someone doesn’t mention the double-B-word). “I remember the next day my phone ringing at like 5:30 a.m.,” says Ghomeshi. “I picked it up and I was live with a Dallas morning show.” He stopped giving interviews after a few days, even turning down a chance to talk with one of his radio heroes, Howard Stern. “I didn’t want it to define my career,” he says. “That was probably a bit naïve.”
For Ghomeshi, the notoriety was a confidence booster. He has since scored Q interviews with Leonard Cohen, Jay Z, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Joni Mitchell and Ai Weiwei. He is especially proud of an interview he did with the famously prickly Lou Reed a few years before his death. He tells me it’s a good example of how he attempts to mirror his guests’ tone and cadence as a way of manufacturing intimacy. “People connect with people who sound like them,” he says. “Not to be too Machiavellian.”
He cares about ratings but also understands the value of staying out of the mud. He instructed his staff not to chase Charlie Sheen during the actor’s mid-meltdown visit to Toronto in 2012 (he felt that capitalizing on what appeared to be mental illness was crass). When Kim Kardashian was passing through town, he squashed his staff’s plan to invite her on the show.
He’s a demanding boss. The very fact that he’s even considered “the boss” speaks to the amount of power he has amassed at the producer-driven CBC. (“There is no one on staff who can rein him in,” says one CBC Radio producer who has worked on Q.) Several Q alumni have told me Ghomeshi isn’t overly involved in the daily sausage making of the show and will often disappear at key moments. “He won’t answer emails, producers can’t get in touch with him, then if someone makes a call he doesn’t agree with, he’ll flip out,” one former producer told me. There’s a running joke among Q staff that if they want to get in touch with their boss, they should try tweeting him—Ghomeshi is a compulsive tweeter, maintaining flirty relationships with his followers. He is also wary of sharing his chair. One source told me Ghomeshi freaked out and left the office for the day when he found out that Jamie Oliver would be on Q while Jonathan Torrens was filling in as host. Another time, when a clip of guest host Brent Bambury interviewing Cloris Leachman went up on the Q website, Ghomeshi stormed into a senior manager’s office and demanded that the clip be removed. It was, and since then, guest hosts are never filmed.
One drawback of having a famous voice and your face on a 20-foot-high poster is that you’re never free from scrutiny. Last year, Ghomeshi was the subject of a blind item blog post on the website XOJane titled “I Accidentally Went on a Date With a Presumed-Gay Canadian C-List Celebrity Who Creepily Proved He Isn’t Gay.” The writer is a Canadian journalist named Carla Ciccone who offered a detailed account of a horrible date she had with a well-known Canadian radio host named “Keith.” She says he was very handsy and incapable of taking a hint. Ciccone describes her outing as emotionally scarring. To me, it sounded more like something you would tell your girlfriends about with eye-rolling disgust. The post became a hot gossip story, the sort of Page Six item that generally doesn’t get reported in the Canadian media.
Ghomeshi says he heard about the XOJane post from a friend and immediately called his manager, Ross, and his publicist, Deb Goldblatt. They advised him that it wasn’t libelous and not to read it, which he claims he hasn’t (Q staff have reportedly bet on whether or not this is true). Ghomeshi says he has never contacted Ciccone, and the post is still searchable. He doesn’t deny that he went on a date with her, but says from what he has heard of the blog post, it’s largely untrue. Ciccone didn’t return my emails asking for comment.
The blind item incident was Ghomeshi’s first official tussle with the rumour mill, though certainly not the first time anyone has expressed interest in his private life. “He went on a date with my friend,” is a common refrain in downtown media circles. Ghomeshi is aware of the fascination with his relationship status. “I go to a lot of events and get photographed with a lot of women. People will see that and draw conclusions, but that doesn’t mean I’m dating these people,” he says. After a pause: “Do people ask the same questions about Strombo?” Today, he is single, though he has had a few serious relationships. He dated Rebecca Davis, a B.C. actor who appeared in Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies. According to one former Q staffer, he has also dated Feist, Christina Hendricks and Sarah Polley. More often than not he dates 20-something media and culture types: pretty, bright young women who are likely impressed by his status. He says he wants a life partner, wants to be a father, but for now his personal life seems like another opportunity to win over an audience.
The last time I met with Ghomeshi, he drove me out to Thornhill to visit his parents. Their home is lovely and warm and not lacking in photos of Jian and Jila. A blow-up of one of Jian’s Q promo shots hangs in the front hall. His mom tells me she would rather have a grandchild than see her son push for his next professional milestone, though she clearly relishes being the parent of a household name. “We are almost like film stars,” she says. His dad tells me about a trip to Japan, when the man sitting beside him on the plane didn’t believe the guy on the in-flight screen was his son.
On the drive back downtown, Ghomeshi says the trip was like one of the home visits on The Bachelor, where prospective mates meet their could-be in-laws. I laugh, because he’s right—and also because I wouldn’t have taken him for a Bachelor viewer. We spend the last minutes of the drive discussing favourite characters: Desiree the dream girl, Sarah-with-one-arm and the little one with the twitching eyebrow…what was her name again? He pulls over and we go iPhone to iPhone, racing to google her name. “Tierra!” We get it at exactly the same time. Later, when I’m alone, I replay that last conversation in my mind, trying to decide if he was imitating my voice.