PROFILE

BARENAKED MESS

The fight, the girlfriend, the coke bust: what happened to Canada's most lovable pop star?

NICHOLAS KÖHLER,CATHY GULLI August 4 2008
PROFILE

BARENAKED MESS

The fight, the girlfriend, the coke bust: what happened to Canada's most lovable pop star?

NICHOLAS KÖHLER,CATHY GULLI August 4 2008

BARENAKED MESS

PROFILE

The fight, the girlfriend, the coke bust: what happened to Canada's most lovable pop star?

NICHOLAS KÖHLER

CATHY GULLI

Last February, in the days following a Caribbean cruise hosted by the Barenaked Ladies—a kind of floating music festival with ports of call in the Cayman Islands and Jamaica—Internet message boards dedicated to the annual event came alive with questions about Steven Page, who along with singer and guitarist Ed Robertson fronts the pop band. “I had no idea before the cruise that Steve was no longer married,” wrote one 37-yearold fan. “Last year I saw his wife. This year, I was not on the boat five minutes when I saw him walking holding hands with someone completely different, and it threw me.”

Up until about a year ago, when the couple quietly separated, Page had been married to Carolyn Ricketts, with whom he has three sons. Their split allowed Page to pursue a relationship with 27-year-old Christine Benedicto, a Syracuse, N.Y., mother of two who he met through the social networking site MySpace. “I feel for his children,” posted another fan from the cruise, adding of Page’s new companion: “That explains the weight loss, the beard, etc.” Wrote another: “This is one thing that I loved about the band, that they were still with their high school sweethearts. Oh well, if he’s happy!!”

Very likely, Page is happy no longer. Earlier this month, police in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville arrested the singer, Benedicto, and her 25-year-old roommate, Stephanie Ford, slapping various drugs charges on all three. Police say they peered through a window to see Page sitting at a kitchen table with a capsule of what allegedly proved to be cocaine in front of him. Specifically, Page faces a charge of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the fourth degree, for cocaine, a potential felony. “Yeah,” court documents quote Page as saying, “it’s cocaine.”

His mug shot, complete with protruding lower lip and 3-o’clock-in-the-morning shadow, is the very picture of forlornness. But a police statement taken from Ford otherwise suggests dissipation: Page is accused of having kept the cocaine in a plastic bottle labelled calcium, and to have snorted the drug using a rolled up Canadian bill. Indeed, Ford’s accounting to police of the hours leading up to the arrests is a sordid tale of barroom flirtation, outdoor squabbling and of Ford herself sitting on Page to prevent him from drinking and driving. “Yes,” police say he told them. “I play the guitar and sing.”

But while these developments shocked fans and even those closest to the band, a look at Page’s history of depression and strained relationships suggests he’s no stranger to personal struggle—that he has always been aloof, uncomfortable with his own success and prone to melancholy. His most recent

difficulties appear to have begun when he and Ricketts went their separate ways. Though the reasons for the split remain a matter of conjecture, evidence of Page’s new relationship with Christine, a new-fangled Internet romance, started appearing long ago, for all to see, on the young woman’s Flickr photosharing site. The words, “His voice was so beautiful, it was like cocaine or caffeine, it was my addiction,” are scrawled across one photograph posted to Flickr and reproduced by a blogger last week before Christine retired the page in the wake of her arrest.

In a wide-ranging interview, Christine’s husband, Gregory Benedicto, spoke candidly to Maclean’s regarding Christine’s relationship with Page and its origins. “She’s not some girl that he picked up,” says Gregory. “I think that there’s a genuine connection there.” Indeed, Christine’s husband was as surprised as anyone by the drug charges. Christine and Page, he says, did “all the normal stuff that couples do—from what

I saw there was nothing dark about it.”

The revelations surrounding the arrests have already had serious consequences for the Barenaked Ladies. In the midst of promoting Snack Time, a recording of children’s songs, the band had been scheduled to perform as part of a charity show organized by Disney, not known for its tolerance for rock ’n’ roll indulgence. Last week, the Barenaked Ladies withdrew its participation rather than endure unilateral ouster.

Page and his bandmates have resisted speaking to media, issuing only simple press releases vowing to fight the charges. Faced with a media horde, Page hired the controversial, high-priced Los Angeles public relations firm Sitrick And Company, whose hardnosed founder, Michael Sitrick, reportedly handled Paris Hilton’s post-jail rebranding as a Bible reader. Sitrick’s high profile prompted Variety to describe it as “Hollywood’s most prominent crisis specialists.” Tammy Taylor, the Sitrick operative working Page’s case, had the unnerving habit of often knowing within minutes exactly who Maclean’s had spoken to in reporting this story.

How did it come to this, that a man as apparently ingenuous and well-meaning as Page would re-enter public life with such a lurid bang? A child prodigy who graduated from high school at 16, Page went on to become an unlikely rock star—a nerdy, chubby figure whose clever pop anthems could occasionally flirt with greatness. Sudden success took an early toll on Page, who struggled with depression in the mid-1990s. Later, as the band broke into the U.S. market on the strength of its 1998 offering Stunt, American journalists stressed Page’s odd depth, intel-

ligence, self-deprecating humour and his penchant for darker-than-pop material. In 1999 he told the Washington Post of his admiration for the novelists Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and John Updike, chroniclers of crisis all.

‘YES/ POLICE SAY PAGE TOLD THEM THE NIGHT OF HIS ARREST. ‘I PLAY THE GUITAR AND SING.’

But despite his bouts of depression and reported moodiness, Page has largely kept his inner demons from public view, always the high-IQ crooner. Recently, it looked as though he had made a successful transition from the buoyant, goofy stagecraft of early Barenaked Ladies to an older, more sober man with heart-on-his-sleeve political commitments. “He’s found a maturity and confidence in terms of trying to lend his profile to things he thinks are important,” says childhood friend Geoffrey Pounsett, a Toronto actor and theatre director.

Like most, Pounsett says he was perplexed by Page’s arrest, and like most he’s unfailingly loyal to his friend. Despite Page’s broken marriage and his past battles with depression, those friends say they never saw troubles with the police coming. Michael Hollett, the publisher of NOW magazine and an old friend of Page’s, is emphatic: “I was stunned, absolutely not a clue that he could be in this position. Steve likes fine wine, you know? He drinks it in moderation. That’s Steven.”

Despite Page’s wacky on-stage persona, behind-the-scenes stories suggest how seriously Page took himself and the degree to which he yearned for approval. He was a precocious child and a perfectionist. “I was the kind of kid who, in art class, if my drawing didn’t come out exactly the way I’d pictured it in my head, I’d just tear it up,” he remembered in the 2001 authorized biography, Barenaked Ladies: Public Stunts, Private Stories, by Paul Myers.

Robertson, who has known Page since the fourth grade, recalls being overwhelmed by him when they first became friends as teenagers at Manitou-Wabing Sports and Arts

Centre in Parry Sound, Ont., where the Scarborough Board of Education hosted an annual 10-day summer music camp. “I was a guy that played video games and liked to stay up all night and watch movies,” Robertson says in the book. “Steve was already a guy that read novels... Steve would say to me, ‘Oh, have you heard this Leonard Cohen record?’ Well, I’d heard of him but it never occurred to me to listen to him.”

Yet Page could still manage to charm just about anyone. In the biography he recalls that although he was never the most popular guy at his Scarborough, Ont., high school, “I don’t think I ever saw myself as an outcast. I was always the best friend of the most popular guy in school.” After an early graduation from high school, Page reluctantly attended nearby York University because his parents, both educational psychologists, hesitated to send him away too young. Page lamented never having “that university life thing,” as he once referred to it: “You know, where you’re supposed to go away and go and get loaded and puke and roll out of the dorm room and go to school. I had three years where I really resented that.”

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He met Carolyn Ricketts in 1987 at the same summer music camp. He was 17; she was older and studying music history at the University of Western Ontario. For their first date, Page took Ricketts to see Paul Simon at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. The courtship continued the following summer at camp, where, along with Pounsett, Page performed original songs as part of their very own concert series. Ricketts soon fell hard for Page.

“Steven sang,” she said, “and I was hooked.”

By 1990, Robertson and Page officially formed Barenaked Ladies as an acoustic duo and soon toured Canada as the opening act for Sean Cullen’s guerrilla comedy troop Corky and the Juice Pigs. On nights when the crowd didn’t get the band’s antics, “Steven was transformed, like the Incredible Hulk, into the Incredibly Angry Young Man,” writes Myers. “Steve would get personally offended by a hostile, or indifferent, crowd reception,” Cullen said.

By the time he turned 20, Page was already penning dark, introspective songs like Brian Wilson, with such mature, melancholy lines as: And if you want to find me I’ll be out in the sandbox/wondering where the hell all the love has gone. In 1992, Gordon, the band’s first full-length album, launched the Barenaked Ladies into the stratosphere. Almost immediately there were signs Page was having trouble adjusting to fame. “The problem on the road is, your time to yourself turns into reflective time,” he laughed during an interview with the Toronto Sun. “And you think, what am I doing here? All these people who want my photograph, what do they really want from me?” Ricketts and Page married in 1993In a later interview, Page described questioning even his closest relationships—including that with a romantic partner. “You start to wonder too, I’m seeing so much of the world now, and I’m with this person and, ‘Do I just love them because they’re part of one world I’ve been to? Do I just love this person because they were there when I was 18 or 19?’ ” By 1996, the couple was struggling. (Ricketts declined to speak with Maclean’s for this story.) “The strain of Steven’s celebrity life-

style, and the fact that he was never home, was causing problems in their domestic life,” Myers writes. What’s more, depression had overcome Page. “Prescription antidepressants helped him to a degree but hindered him in other ways—the medicated Steven could be unpredictable.”

PAGE HAS HIRED THE PR FIRM THAT HANDLED PARIS HILTON’S POST-JAIL REBRANDIHG

In 1998, Page, then the band’s primary lyricist, admitted to being stung by critics. “When you read a bad review, it hurts,” Page said. “The songs are an expression of me, and it’s the critics’ way of saying, ‘You know, I hate you.’ You realize that they do mean it personally, and anybody who tells you they don’t is wrong.”

Page has acknowledged he’s been branded as the “cold or aloof” Barenaked Lady by fans. “I come offstage and they’re so used to seeing somebody who’s extroverted on stage with no inhibitions,” he told Myers. “Then I get offstage and I’m quiet and I don’t know what to say to people, I don’t have a lot to say.” Friends of Page see him as measured but intense. And Hollett notes that many entertainers are withdrawn offstage because “they’re tired of being the centre of attention.” In recent years, however, it seemed that Page had reconciled himself with his fame, using it to boost causes that are important to him. He aligned himself with the NDP, joined the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund, and has been a fervent supporter of the public school system, which his children attend. Page’s appearances on the public stage were increasingly earnest declarations of political support. But perhaps something else was going on.

According to Christine’s husband, Gregory Benedicto—the pair remains close despite their pending divorce—she and Page met as long ago as mid-2006, after Christine became the singer’s first MySpace friend. “One messaged the other and they just kind of started a conversation... I don’t know exactly when things really happened,” says Gregory, who separated from Christine, with whom he shares a 3⅛-year-old son, about a year ago. “But I know that they’re devoted to

each other.” He adds: “I think Christine was a really good thing for him because I think that he was going through some things with his wife. He seemed always upbeat when I saw him and I never got the impression that anything untoward was going on.”

Gregory, who retains custody of their child, often met Page while dropping him off for scheduled visits, and says the couple spent time in both Fayetteville and Toronto. “He always came off as a really upstanding guy,” says Gregory. “He’s a very—despite all this crap—from my understanding he’s a very responsible person.” Christine also has a daughter from a previous relationship, says Gregory. Though she has worked as a writer and designer at small local newspapers, she has more recently run her own business sewing colourful baby diapers that she sells online. “She’s been a fan of the Barenaked Ladies for as long as I’ve known her,” says Gregory. He adds of the singer: “He likes that she’s a BNL fan, but they have common interests outside that—you know, the same interests in movies, the normal stuff that would bring two people together.” Says Pounsett: “They seem to be pretty committed to each other.”

Indeed, Gregory says he was shocked to learn of the drug charges. “I never got the impression they were even into that,” he says. Still, he has decided not to permit his son to visit Christine’s home, he says, “until I know for certain [he] has a safe place to go.” Although Gregory has asked Christine about whether cocaine is part of her life, “She hasn’t really been very clear about the nature of all that. And I think she’s protecting herself right now, which is probably the wise thing to do.”

The early morning hours of Friday, July ll,

went awry for Page, Christine and Ford after the trio met at J.P. Mulligans, a pub down the road from Benedicto and Ford’s apartment. According to Ford’s police statement, the trouble started at 11 p.m. on Thursday, just after Page arrived: “Steven and Christine got into a huge fight because Christine was flirting with another guy.” (Greg Benedicto says Christine’s account is that she “saw somebody at the bar that she knew from her past and they were talking and people were a little drunk and Steven came in and—being a little drunk—misinterpreted the situation.”)

Ford told police that Page left J.P. Mulligans determined to drive back to Toronto, leaving Christine behind, but that Ford “sat on him” on the front lawn of the apartment she shares with Christine because Page “had been drinking.” When Christine arrived, Ford’s statement reads, she “started yelling at me not to take Steven’s side.” Then Christine drove off in Page’s car, leaving her own vehicle, according to police, “parked across the sidewalk with its driver’s side door open in the driveway.” Gregory says Christine’s abrupt departure is in keeping with her approach to conflict—that she is “the sort of person that when she gets into an argument, she wants to kind of stay away from the situation for a while to cool off.”

According to Ford’s deposition, she and Page then entered her apartment, where Page had “a bottle that stated that it contained calcium capsules. Most of the label was in French.” Ford describes Page snorting the substance from the kitchen table using a Canadian bill. “We never discussed what the white powder was but I thought it was cocaine,” she says in the statement. “At that point a police officer knocked on the door and Steven and I invited him in.” The officers had been drawn to the scene by Benedicto’s parking job, say police, who arrested her the next morning. An officer “asked Steven if he was sure that the powder he was snorting was calcium because it was testing positive for cocaine, at which time Steven responded: ‘Yeah, it’s

cocaine,’ ” according to a felony complaint filed in court by police.

‘SHE’S BEEN A FAN OF THE BARENAKED LADIES FOR AS LONG AS I’VE KNOWN HER,’ SAYS HER EX

Well-known Toronto criminal lawyer Brian Greenspan, who is familiar with the details of the case and is an acquaintance of Page’s Buffalo, I'l.Y.-based lawyer, Mark Mahoney, is skeptical: “You don’t have to be a forensic magician, you don’t have to have huge experience in criminal law to question the likelihood of that response,” he says. “At that point it’s tested positive for cocaine, I would assume that at that point the intention is to effect an arrest—in the United States there would have to be a warning.” Yet Greenspan notes there is no indication in the court documents that police read Page or Ford their Miranda warnings.

The total weight of the cocaine police say they found in the apartment—10 capsules in the plastic bottle labelled calcium, one capsule on the kitchen table and two more capsules in Page’s pocket—was a mere 0.3 ounces. Page, who has no previous criminal history, will likely not face jail time in the event of a conviction, and, “almost no matter what happens,” according to an upstate New York criminal lawyer, “he would be able to re-establish his ability to come into the U.S.” He is next scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 26.

Friends reject the notion that Page has come unhinged. “Seeing what was reported in the papers was a surprise to me too,” says Pounsett. “He’s the same guy that I’ve known for the last 30 years—certainly I wouldn’t say he’s become someone else or come apart on me in the last little while.” He adds: “Even in the last week, when I see Steve—even with the troubles he’s going through—he’s still my friend, he’s a guy I recognize very well, a guy I know intimately.” Nor does Pounsett believe that Page’s separation from his wife and his subsequent arrest are somehow linked, an indication of “some kind of uncontrollable turmoil

in his life.” Says Hollett: “I don’t see him as an out-of-control guy on some sort of calamitous trajectory, you know?”

In Public Stunts and Private Stories, Myers quotes famed record producer Don Was, who worked with the Barenaked Ladies on the band’s 2000 release, Maroon. “Songs like Falling for the First Time celebrate human mistakes,” Was said, “and that nice guys sometimes do bad things and have to pay for those mistakes.” The song on Was’s mind, cowritten by Page and Robertson, is an upbeat, glossy bit of pop with introspective lyrics: Pm so clean, too bad I can’t get all the dirt off of me, sings Robertson. Anyone perfect must be lying... Page isn’t perfect. And he just might be telling the truth.