It's not easy being Wendy Mesley

The CBC journalist talks about her TV newsmagazine 'Undercurrents', being a homebody and, yes, we went there, her bad hair days

Supplied publicity photo, 2000
CBC 'Undercurrents' journalist Wendy Mesley Supplied publicity photo, 2000

If there’s one phrase to describe CBC TV journalist Wendy Mesley, it’s “down to earth.” She’s not your typical news anchor, constantly checking her hair in the mirror. At the same time, you understand she’s well known. Famous.

There are typically three things that come up when you mention Mesley’s name: she’s the ex-wife of National anchor Peter Mansbridge, she’s an attractive woman, and finally, she’s a very good journalist.

“It should be the other way around, don’t you think?” Mesley comments.

Born in Montreal and raised in Toronto, as a child, Mesley displayed an early interest in reporting. Her father was a journalist, but he left the family before she was a year old. She got her first break in her late teens, leaving her part-time job scraping cafeteria dishes to answer phones at a local radio station. It was there when she got the chance to do an interview; she was hooked. Taking the next step, she enrolled in the journalism program at Ryerson’s Polytechnic University and later became a print reporter on Parliament Hill. A few years later, she worked her way into television, becoming a reporter for CBC’s The National, and an anchor for various CBC programs. She’s now the host of CBC’s Sunday night current affairs program, Undercurrents.

Despite her hard news credentials, Mesley has had to fight to be taken seriously as a journalist. Though regarded as one of Canada’s top reporters, her physical features are still discussed as part of her public persona.

Vince Carlin, chair of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, who first hired Mesley at the CBC, confirms this enviable struggle, that, yes, she’s had the “disadvantage of being attractive.”

“Let’s get real,” Mesley says, “no one ever complains about being too good-looking. Give me a break. It drives me crazy when people talk about the way I look instead of my journalism.

“I used to go out of my way [to dress down]. When I worked in Ottawa, you couldn’t tell that I had a chest, let alone a waist. I dressed like an old woman because I was trying to look older, but also because I didn’t want anyone to dare suggest that I got there because of ‘womanly wiles.’ Now I’m in my forties and there’s only a few years left where you can still look like a woman. So I figure, ‘The hell with all that!,” she laughs.

As a public figure and a journalist, Mesley is now used to being scrutinized. She’s a regular satirical target on CBC’s Royal Canadian Air Farce, and creepily, even has a love song written to her by a band called Show Biz Giants, titled “I’ve Got a Crush on Wendy Mesley.” She’s also a frequent target of Canadian tabloid magazine, Frank, which once featured, among other lowbrow reports, a pictorial series on her bad hair days.

“Well, I did have pretty bad hair,” she jokes, then self-deferentially pointing to an old publicity photo in her office featuring her at the anchor desk with a large perm. “That’s when I was married to Peter. Look at that! Not that I’ve got great hair now, but at least it’s a little more real.”

As a young reporter on Parliament Hill, Mesley was known for her 20-pound File-O-Fax which she carried everywhere. As the host of Undercurrents, a show that analyses media and information technology, it’s no surprise that Mesley has since upgraded her reporter’s notebook.

“That was my old wallet,” she says. “I’ve got rid of all that junk. I don’t even carry around my checkbook anymore because I got a PalmPilot for Christmas.”

Wendy Mesley poses in her office at CBC Toronto
   Wendy Mesley in her CBC Toronto office Photo: Robert Ballantyne / Popjournalism

Away from the camera, Mesley defies any notion that she is a “star” and admits she’s a “homebody.” Typically, she says that she goes out once a week with her husband, marketing executive Liam McQuade, and entertains friends and family on other days in the week. Family moments are coveted by Mesley, as both her and her husband try to spend as much time as possible at home with their daughter, Kate Rae.

Essentially, this is how one of Canada’s most famous journalists stays grounded.

“My mother would slap me if I ever got too big for my britches,” she adds.

However, Mesley does admit that aesthetic considerations are part of the job when you’re in front of the camera. For example, on Undercurrents, eight-minute stories can take months to produce, and yet Mesley is seen wearing a single outfit.

“I always wear the same outfit for all the shoots, so I really reek by the end of the show,” she says. “I really don’t want people talking about my clothes.

“I think there’s nothing more pathetic than an anchor or a host who watches themselves [on camera], or someone who looks for a particular way of nodding their head, to look ‘sincerer’ or to have gravitas. I think that’s bullshit. I never watch myself on camera. I’ll watch the show, but I’ll never watch tapes of myself. That’s ridiculous.”

Yet, when asked, she’s aware of her tendency to break out into a big smile during big interviews.

“That’s just the way I am. I guess there’s sort of a running gag about me, that the tougher the interview gets, the more I smile. That’s because I love the chase, I love the game, and I love the dance. I love it! So I’m happy. It’s like having a debate with somebody who is trying to keep information from you or trying to sell you a certain piece of information. Quite often you’re interested in a different piece of information – and they know it’s all a dance and they know that you know.”

But know this: it’s not easy being Wendy Mesley. Not only does she have the unenviable task of grilling fellow journalists and prying the truth from unwilling publicists and big wigs, she also has to deal with articles (like this one in part) discussing her looks and not her work. The truth is that her continued success is earned the hard way: through work, long hours and devotion to her show, Undercurrents.

Inevitably, Mesley’s attention has to return to Undercurrents, but as she has gathers her things to rush to watch an edit of an upcoming piece, she pauses in front of a picture of her windsurfing.

“That’s the real me,” she says.