I meet Ben Mulroney at the Black Bull restaurant on trendy Queen St. W., located just outside of his Toronto condo. In between emceeing at the Juno Awards and his script meeting for eTalk Daily, Mulroney is doing interviews to build up buzz for the second season of Canadian Idol. He tells me the next Idol will be better than the last, now that he’s gotten over his “growing pains.”
Even though his grey hairs are noticeable up close, he comes across as naïve. His optimism is almost annoying, but there’s nothing you can say to bring him down. When you ask him why a former Prime Minister’s son became Canada’s most famous host without any credentials – the only controversial thing about him – he’ll shamelessly admit he got his job because of his father. That he’s aware of the nepotism makes the one hot issue surrounding this pretty boy anticlimactic. Now, if he thought he’d been discovered for his amazing talent, that would be a story.
So I guess we’ll just take Canada’s goofy host as is. After all, he’s bilingual, he makes jokes about himself and he’s completely inoffensive. What’s more Canadian than that?
Read on as Ben talks about our Canadian identity, his relationship with the press, and his “hottie” mom. Who knows? By the end of this interview, you might even be happy for him.
So did you watch American Idol last night?
No, I didn’t have the time, but I watched the first two seasons religiously.
Are you competing with American Idol?
Well, Pop Idol didn’t have American Idol to watch, the Australians never saw American Idol before this year, so we were the only ones who had the pre-established benchmark and a very savvy audience who had already seen it twice. So we’re not competing with the Americans, because, as far as we’re concerned, Canadian talent is different, Canadian songs are different, Canadian sensibilities are different. I think we’re competing with an image that’s already in the minds of Canadian viewers. They wanted a sophisticated, slick, fast-moving show that visibly compared favourably with the Americans, but in terms of the sound and everything else.
So how’s it different?
Jenny Gear, last year from Newfoundland, that’s a sound you would not hear on American Idol, that’s a look you wouldn’t have on American Idol, that’s a type of character you wouldn’t have on American Idol, and that’s the glory of the Idol format. The format allows each country to imprint their national identity on it.
Do you think you embody the Canadian identity the show’s looking for?
I just bring my enthusiasm for what it is. You have to understand what they’re trying to do and agree with it on some level in order to host a show like this. I have friends who watch these shows as much as I do, but either don’t get what they’re trying to do, come at it from a cynical point of view, or they watch it because they want to see the disasters or they want to be able to comment about it. You have to believe in what we’re trying to do.
As a host, you’re getting the most attention any Canadian host in your position has gotten before. In fact, Toronto Life called you Canada’s most famous host. How do you feel about all the hype?
I’ve done the big, sweeping interviews with Maclean’s and Toronto Life and I did a couple before that and I think we’re done with those. There was a need to do them, for CTV, I was going to be very high visibility for them and they wanted to know me.
Is that really you?
I actually thought Toronto Life was a little too nice. I thought she was going to pick up on some of the quirky little things and I’m glad she didn’t. Maclean’s was dead on. They were both really fair and quoted me right. Yeah, those are me. Certain things will always come through and I’ll never apologize for, my love for my family, my appreciation for my job, and the recognition of how I got where I got. Those are the things that will never change.
The media has painted you as a teen heartthrob, boy-next-door type. Do you think you’re playing up this image?
Are you playing up any image?
Look, so long as they’re not painting me as something I find offensive, that’s fine by me. I am accessible, but I didn’t live next door. I lived next door to the French embassy, so when they say that, it’s a compliment. It means I’m slightly more grounded than they expected.that means I was raised well, and I don’t take myself to seriously, and I shouldn’t.
Many politicians sons and daughters, like Ben Peterson with Journalists for Human Rights, Sasha Trudeau and Catherine Clarke, are joining the media. Why do you think there’s this trend?
I think we have a unique perspective on the media. Mine came from a very cynical place. I didn’t like what I saw in the media.
What didn’t you like about it?
I find it very funny that Canadians are almost born with a genetic belief so deeply embedded in them that politicians are out there and everything they say is a lie and yet what comes out of the media is almost treated as the truth with a capital T. They’re people the same way, they have agendas the same way, they have allies, they have enemies. And yet for some reason they’re exempt from this cynical belief of people in the public eye. Why? And I watched this, and I wanted to, you know, that’s not fair, I’m part of a wing in the media. I’m not a journalist. But I think with that in mind I kind of got a little more prepared. I also knew a lot of journalists, I had met them personally over many years. So I wasn’t afraid of it.
So what do you love about pop culture?
I was at working at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal and I learned all about the stuff that happens before a show gets on T.V., and I found that fascinating. I wanted to know why a show moves around the dial so often, why a show can’t find a home on what particular network, the politics of the network, and why reality television is so big, you know, it doesn’t cost nearly as much to do as regular television. There’s all the stuff on the other side that I find really fascinating. As a kid, if I ever did feel the need to write something down it was always in screenplay form, that’s how I would see my life play out.
Was your family surprised when you went into entertainment?
They were a little surprised because they didn’t see it coming. I went to law school because I was 21-years-old when I graduated university. I couldn’t fend for myself in the wild yet.
Do you think you grew up sheltered?
Oh completely. Oh yeah. I grew up sheltered and privileged – a dangerous combination – and I grew up naïve and optimistic and believing the best out of people.
How much of that has changed?
Well, I’m not sheltered any more. I can balance a chequebook. I still believe the best out of people, even when they’ve screwed me over. I still get excited to go to work in the morning. I love going to work in the morning. Honestly, since I started working at CTV – this is another thing that people are going to read and hate me for, because people hate it when people are happy – I have never had a bad experience with a single co-worker.
Ben’s cell phone rings. Excuse me for a second, it’s my sister.
Allô. Ca va? On what? Wha-wha-what air? What did I say? Hold on, what did I say? Someone probably said to me that Diana and mom were the most beautiful people they’d seen or something and I said “Yeah, mom’s quite the hottie.” I hope she took that as a compliment. Did mom take that as a compliment? Okay, good. Okay. À bientôt.
What did you say about your mom?
For the life of me, I can remember saying it, but I can’t remember where or when or to whom. But this obviously got back to my mom, which got to my sister, who thought she needed to relay it to me. All I needed to know was if mom found a way to turn it into a negative. Just in case. But no, she thought it was quite the compliment.
Do you get a lot of calls from family members?
I talked to my youngest brother over the phone last night. I talked to my other brother this morning about what we’re going to get mom for Valentine’s Day and I just talked to Caroline. So by the end of the day, everyone knows everybody else’s business.
So do you think this Canadian Idol‘s going to be better than the last one?
I do. Technically, it will be superior, cause we’ve got all the kinks out of the way. I think I won’t have any growing pains this time. We’re past the learning curve part of it.
You didn’t go to school for this, this has kind of been your training period, so what have you learned about the business?
I learned that working with an audience is easier than not. Everything you say gets a response. I learned that when I do get out on stage and I am speaking, people eventually do shut up, because they want to hear what I have to say. That took awhile to get used to. And I learned that I wasn’t scared. I was excited, and I knew if I was going to screw up I was going to screw up spectacularly, and I wasn’t afraid of that.
Brian Mulroney wasn’t all that popular by the time he resigned. Do you think you’ve had to take any of that blame?
No, if people ever come up to me, it’s to say positive things. No one wants to go out of their way to say something negative to a stranger. You’d have to be a really sad and angry person, and I don’t take any responsibility for people being sad and angry. I’ll pity those people and they hate that even more. Well, then be a little happier, smile a bit. But with the anonymous Internet, that’s where people will post and say a whole bunch of things, which I don’t give a crap about.
Do you look at it?
I don’t wake up first thing in the morning and look, but sure, I want to see what people are saying. If there are going to be people who believe the worst, that’s where they’ll believe it. Unfortunately, that’s where they’re completely illogical about it. Follow this with me: Brian Mulroney was hated, and the only reason Ben Mulroney got his job was because of his father. Well if he was so hated, shouldn’t I have been fired or shouldn’t have I not gotten my job at all, shouldn’t I have been blacklisted from my chosen profession? Or they’ll say, I’m no good and that’s why my dad got me the job. But that doesn’t make any sense.
Because why are you still here?
Yeah, and the perception that my dad was or is hated is probably inaccurate at this point. Because I walk down the street with him and he gets “Nice to meet you Mr. Prime Minister,” he gets “We miss you.” So that’s why I don’t believe the Internet.
So you’ve said being the former Prime Minister’s son has helped you get your job –
Of course that’s how I got my job! Do you think I’m stupid? How many people just get called out of the blue from CTV and asked if they want a job. And as I’ve said before, if I were to not have used the advantages given to me in life, I’d be a freakin’ idiot.
– but do you think it has ever been a burden at all?
No. Of course, it hasn’t been a burden. Never, never, never.
Do you feel that you’ve had to prove yourself to more?
To whom? At this point, I’m in a position where the burden is on other people. If you want to work in entertainment on television in Canada, you have to go through eTalk Daily.
So they have to prove themselves to you?
No, I don’t look at it that way. But there’s no onus on me to do anything anymore. I’ve proved myself with eTalk Daily. When we were shooting The Chatroom eleven o’clock at night on Tuesdays because that was the only time available, we went from a once-a-week show to a daily show on prime time.
Do you think you’ll ever go to the States to work?
I’m not averse to moving anywhere or doing anything… There’s no particular draw to the States except that my sister and brother live in New York. At some point in my life I want to live in Vancouver, I want to go back to Montreal. I want to be here for a while. I want to get into production and I want to get into writing.
Writing for TV?
If the spirit moves me and I have a story to tell that would end up being a book, maybe. But I don’t have that story yet, I don’t have the time for it yet, and I certainly don’t have the skill for it yet.and so umm. I don’t even know what I was going to say there. See things like that, it’s when I lose my keys or I can’t find my wallet and it’s in my back pocket. It’s times like where I say to myself, okay, I pay my taxes, I’m investing in my RRSPs, I just bought a condo, I’m a diligent worker, I go to work everyday, I’m not late, I take my job very seriously. I’m growing up as an individual. I’m becoming a more confident human being. And then stuff like that happens, and you revert right back. When I had a retainer I used to lose my retainer and I’d have to go back to McDonald’s and go through the garbage to get my retainer. I was at the airport once, and I was eating at the food court at the airport and I had my wallet on the tray.
And then you dumped it?
Dumped it in the garbage. I mean, who does that? Who does it repeatedly? So, there you go, lead with that.