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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

Well, Hi There: Jian Ghomeshi, live and off the air

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.