Essay

9/ll’S LEGACY: UNCERTAINTY

PAUL WELLS September 15 2003
Essay

9/ll’S LEGACY: UNCERTAINTY

PAUL WELLS September 15 2003

AND THE WINNER IS... Ben MULRONEY

The ex-PM’s son emerges as a star in his own right

Cover

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Things Ben Mulroney has learned about life in a fishbowl: always be polite; never chew gum in public; people may say they hate you because of your clothes, haircut, family name or the GST, but they probably had no intention of liking you in the first place; if everyone is watching, you might as well take advantage of it.

THERE IS SOMETHING disconcertingly Vegas about the final minutes before the lights go up and Canadian Idol hits the air each Monday and Tuesday night. Maybe it’s the audience fluffer in sparkly pants barking out the dos and don’ts, or executive producer John Brunton’s Rip Taylor moustache, or the celebrity guests in the front row (ladies and gentlemen put your hands together for Brian Orser). At the side of the stage, the 27-year-old host/sonof-a-former-prime-minister jiggles up and down as if someone up on the catwalk was pulling strings. Diet Coke in hand, he smirks,

WHOEVER BECOMES CANADIAN IDOL, one

thing is clear: the show is a ratings juggernaut

points and arches his eyebrows at the friends and the posse of CTV execs who fill the front benches. A high-pitched, teenage-girl shriek of “We love you Ben!” is rewarded with a wave and a smile so pearly that even patrons in the balcony must be able to catch the glint. It’s all so glitzy, so showbiz, so big time.

Which should make it easy to sneer at Canadian Idol. Almost everything about it is a soft target. The slavish replication of a formula— hoary talent show tarted up with vote-at-home technology—that has already been a massive hit south of the border, in the U.K. and in a dozen other places. A set that looks like it was rescued from the Beneath the Planet of the Apes backlot. Judges culled from the nether regions of this country’s celebrity depth chart. A boomer-courting playlist that sees the teenage and twentysomething contestants belting out songs mostly penned before they were born.

But the ranks of critics, both professional

Cover I>

and amateur, still looking down their snoots are rapidly dwindling. Spend some time down at the show’s home, Toronto’s John Bassett Theatre (its nose-thumbing proximity to the CBC Broadcast Centre is pure serendipity), and the reasons become clear. Outside, there are scalpers asking for and getting $100 per ticket, 20 times the face value. Inside, 1,200 rabid fans—preteen girls with handmade signs and stick-on Idol tattoos, friends and family of contestants, adults seemingly unrelated to either groupare buzzing with excitement. When the techno theme music starts and the lights go up at 8 p.m. sharp, the noise from the crowd is like a jet plane at takeoff. You could take cattle prods to a Mike Bullard audience and still fail to generate even a tenth of the excitement. And the enthusiasm appears contagious. At home, close to three million viewers are now tuning in as the show speeds toward its conclusion (CTV will broadcast a two-part finale on Sept. 15 and 16). Idol is now the undisputed No. 1 show in the country, and one of the top-rated ever. Only things like the Olympics, the Grey Cup, and Game 7 hockey playoff matches regularly draw bigger audiences.

Into the centre of the maelstrom strides Ben Mulroney. A wide-smiling, permatanned, slicked-back-hair amalgam of Brian

Cover I>

and Mila, with a sizable dash of Elvis on the side. There’s a slightly apologetic look on his face as he plunges into a script that would make even the most hardened game-show veteran blanch. (“Do I have to say, ‘Can you feel the love tonight?’ ” he asks the writers in a mock plaintive voice during a pre-show meeting. “I couldn’t deliver it a month and a half ago, and I don’t think I can do it now.”) But the cheese factor is part of Idol’s attraction, and Mulroney is comfortable in his role as the designated straight man and whipping boy. If this was vaudeville, his job would be to take the pie in the face without flinching. Nobody involved, least of all Mulroney, makes a secret of the fact that an am-

ateur hour somehow works much better with an amateur-seeming MC.

“THE PERFECT HOST for Idol should be slightly more interesting than vanilla,” Mulroney says over a pre-show meal at a downtown steak house. “Fashionable, but not like he’s trying to upstage anyone, funny but not necessarily a comedian, confident but not necessarily cocky. He should be like a good child: speak when spoken to and recognize his place in the family. This show is first and foremost about the singers, and

then about the judges, and maybe if we’re lucky after that, and we have time, it should be about the host.”

It’s the same spiel he gave CTV executives last winter when they first asked his opinion about their idea of launching a Canadian version of what has become a worldwide television franchise. They must have liked what they heard. Variety shows cost a lot less to put on the air than dramas, but American-style production values like Idol’s don’t come cheap. Naming a relatively unproven newcomer to host was a gambleone that appears to have paid off big.

Three years ago, Mulroney was a law student at Quebec City’s Université Laval, con-

templating a move back to Montreal to do his articling, perhaps at the same blue-chip firm where his dad now hangs his hat. Then, in May 2000, his fortunes suddenly changed. The moribund federal Tories were in town for their national convention, and since the ex-PM couldn’t attend, his son was asked to drop by and wave the family flag. Somebody in the party offices got the bright idea of having pretty blond Catherine Clark, Joe’s daughter, greet the even prettier Ben at the door. The bored media hordes ate it up with a spoon. Mulroney did live interviews on both English and French television. People at CTV sat up and took notice.

He was signed as a correspondent for the chatroom, a six-hour daily gab fest on the network’s TalkTV channel. In July 2001, Mulroney was brought to Toronto to become one of the little-watched show’s hosts. Eight months after that, he was standing next to Joan Rivers on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, interviewing celebrities as the new, highly visible face of entertainment on CTV. A year ago, he became co-host, along with Thea Andrews, of eTalk Daily.

Mulroney knows that his pedigree was a big part of why he got the job: “Of course the

name gives me an edge. And anyone who says that’s wrong is an idiot. Everyone uses the edges they’re given. If they don’t want to use their edge then fine, I’ll use mine to get ahead of them.” Keeping his gig is another matter entirely. Private television is all about ratings, he argues. If people weren’t tuning in, he wouldn’t be on your screen anymore.

And for the most part, the media swoon that started at the Tory convention is still

in full swing. As the show’s ratings have skyrocketed, so too has the hype about Ben, even in some unusual quarters. Last month, Mulroney’s father woke him up early one Friday to share what has to be a shine job of historic proportions. “He passes from French to English without hesitation, a pure talent,” gushed the Journal de Montréal (owned by Quebecor, where the ex-PM serves on the board.) “Mila and Brian have done a great job. They have created the perfect Canadian—bilingual, cultured, refined, and not a francophobe.” Reading the clip to me over the phone from Montreal, the former prime minister, an infamous follower of his own press, lets out a satisfied chuckle. “This is the good old tribal stuff, you know.”

At home in Westmount, proud mama and papa have been following their eldest son’s rapid rise with no small measure of satisfaction. When Ben was on TalkTV, his father had the set in the basement hooked up to a satellite dish (the only way they could get the show in Montreal), and the family would gather each night over TV-tray dinners to watch. Now that he’s available on the main channel, coast-to-coast, they can see him in the comfort of the upstairs den. “I went out

Cover I >

to lunch with a colleague today and I was inundated on the street,” says Brian Mulroney. “It was like an election campaign, except I’m no longer Prime Minister Mulroney. I’m now Ben’s father, and that pleases me no end.”

Not all of the reviews are so positive, of course. Part of the younger Mulroney’s appeal seems to be inextricably linked to his father’s controversial legacy. In Canadian Idol’s official Web chat room, there are 20,000 comments about the host (only former competitors Jenny Gear and Audrey de Montigny have provoked more discussion). Many posters seem to delight in rehashing past political battles. “If he weren’t the ex-PM’s son,” someone using the handle Ranger Rick wrote recently, “he wouldn’t even be anywhere near the stage except to sweep it.” A blurb in a recent edition oí Entertainment Weekly magazine offered the American perspective on the show’s merits. “Oh Canada—This Blows... The Maple Leaf’s funniest offering since Kids in the Hall.” The only comment about Mulroney was a “who?”in brackets after his name.

The Mulroney family has endured far worse, and Ben is largely stoic about such shots across his bow. There is a reason why

‘OF COURSE THE NAME gives me an edge. And anyone who says that’s wrong is an idiot. Everyone uses the edges they’re given.’

every profile ever written about him contains the word “affable.” The duty to always be polite and let things roll off your back was drilled into him at an early age—he was eight when his dad took power in 1984. That mask hardly ever cracks. When filmmaker Michael Moore said during an interview last year that he hoped Ben wasn’t related to the jerk who used to run the country, Mulroney simply said “yes, he’s my dad,” and took satisfaction in watching the big man backpedal. It takes a lot of prodding to get a story that demonstrates Mulroney actually has a temper. “A guy came up to me when I was at a fast-food restaurant about a year ago and asked if I was Brian’s kid,” he recounts. “He said, ‘Your father’s a sellout,’ and walked away. I thought about letting it go, but then I realized that was the story he wanted to tell— that he had told off Mulroney’s son. So on my way out I walked over to his table, plunked down eight cents and said, ‘Here’s your GST rebate. Have a good day.’ Now that’s the period at the end of his sentence.”

ONE OF THE THINGS that makes Idol compelling is the untainted, unabashed vision of celebrity that it sells. The contestants—

fresh off the train from Anytown and still clutching return tickets—are making the absolute most of their 15 minutes. They preen for the cameras, lust for the spotlight, and would gladly sign autographs until their fingertips bleed. The twist, perhaps the only twist, on the Canadian version of the show is that the host is the only person who has any idea what it’s actually like to be famous. Ben Mulroney spent part of his Labour Day weekend hobnobbing with former president George Bush, Conrad Black, Jean Chrétien and other notables at a mansion-warming hosted by Paul Desmarais Sr., the patriarch of Montreal’s Power Corp. clan. That’s a type of access to the famous and powerful that remains beyond the reach of even the most successful television personalities.

As his fame has increased, Mulroney has even seen his personal life splashed in the gossip columns—everything from speculation that he’s gay to a recent full-page spread in the Globe andMail informing teenage girls everywhere that he’s in love with his girlfriend, Wendy Merry, a 29-year-old Hollywood publicist. He’s mad about that one: “It’s my own damn fault. I opened the door a little too wide.” But he’s convinced he’s still better equipped than his contestants for the rollercoaster ride ahead. “I think I’m smarter about it. I’ve seen how things can get twisted. I don’t believe in the innate goodness of the press.” And even though his close friends say the public Ben is the same as the private Ben, you can’t help but feel that Canadians are seeing just as much of him as he wants us to.

Mulroney knows more people are watching him now. He can feel their glances in restaurants, hear their whispers when he walks by on the street. He says he’s enjoying it, but won’t be particularly worried if it ends. Post-Idol, Mulroney will return to his regular job hosting etalk Daily, CTV’s now-prime-time entertainment show, but he’s coy about his plans for the future. “At some point I’ll be the guy who used to host Canadian Idol. Which will be fine by me.” From the way things look now, the ultimate winner on the show may end up being the guy who already had the biggest advantage. fifi