Beneath the occasional fuzz from a Vancouver cell phone connection, you can hear Ben Mulroney grabbing a quick bite of food in between questions. He’s in the middle of a busy day of media interviews for Canadian Idol, and hey, he’s got to eat sometime, right?
As the son of former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Ben has become a media star in his own right at just 29 years old. You can’t miss him. CTV has practically made a brand out of Ben, featuring him in their primetime network promos and calling on him to host their various entertainment specials and shows. Out of all his CTV duties, his most famous is serving as host of Idol, a show that consistently drew over two million viewers last summer.
Idol is back on May 30 and we caught up with Ben to find out what’s in store for the third season — yes, it’s been on the air that long — and to talk about celebrity and family matters.
You’re now filming the third season of Idol. Was it harder to get excited this time around? Was there a been-there, done-that-before feeling?
My feelings about this season are all based on last year. I was really amazed with the level of talent and it emboldened me. In the first year, I didn’t think we had the kind of population to support another season, but last year’s top 10 was fantastic, featuring talent from so many different parts of Canada.
When you think of the Idol franchise, you can’t help but think of the comically tone-deaf singer William Hung. Is there an effort to try and find his Canadian equivalent this year?
Well, we’re on TV and we need the best and the worst to come out. But William Hung defied all the rules. There was no need for him to go through the rest of the audition process. His success didn’t have anything to do with the Idol process at all. While I haven’t seen that sort of awfulness in Canada, I don’t think you can strive to find another William Hung. He just appeared. If you want to try and find him, you would fail anyway.
Initially, Idol faced a lot of criticism for not being Canadian enough or not being as good as the American version. Has that kind of criticism dissipated over time?
Yeah, people criticized us at the time claiming the show wasn’t Canadian enough. People take it for granted now that we get two million viewers. Before we started, there were worries that Canadians would celebrate their own only if they wore a hockey jersey… We may not have as much money as the American show does, but we’re trying different things. I think the high point, was [season two’s] Gordon Lightfoot week, where the contestants played their own instruments.
Since you do lighter, entertainment-oriented programs, I don’t think many people realize that you have a law degree from Laval. Were you at one time preparing for a career in politics?
I never felt any pull towards politics. Dad said having a law degree was the best tool that he ever had. So when law school was done, my obligation was over.
It doesn’t sound like you particularly wanted to go to law school.
In the first year, I was very much going through the motions. It wasn’t the happiest time, but I’m glad I did it.
So were you ever a practising lawyer?
I was called to the bar, but I missed out on a few mandatory meetings. I would’ve been an awful lawyer, anyway.
Why is that?
I have no killer instinct. I’m too conciliatory when someone makes a good point; I give them kudos.
You have said that being the former Prime Minister’s son has helped you get your job and that you probably wouldn’t be where you are today unless you were a Mulroney. Do you still feel that way?
Absolutely. It has opened so many doors for me, and other people may not like me saying that, but I don’t care. I’ve only been proud of it. Though I think the longer I stay in this business, the less logical it becomes that I’m still here because of my family name. The longer I’m here, those people who think there’s some conspiracy to keep me on the air, the more they sound like nutbars.
You made a guest appearance on an episode of Royal Canadian Air Farce and made this joke: “I think I’d like to spend a little more time with my dad this year, who knows, with a little luck, maybe he’ll end up being as successful as me.” It was funny, but the audience “ooohed,” as if you’d be in big trouble with your dad for saying that.
People get the wrong impression about our relationship. I think they expect me to go home and sit in front of my dad in a suit and tie at the end of the day. There’s a lot of love and respect between us.
I’ve heard that sometimes he jokingly introduces himself as “Ben Mulroney’s father.”
(Laughs) Yeah, he’s done that.
Do you think you’ll ever grow out of your father’s shadow in the eyes of the media?
Unless I become Prime Minister, which I have no intention of doing, I have no problem with being a runner-up to my dad. Besides I don’t like to think of it that way, since there’s a negative connotation to that.
Okay, just one last question along these lines. Your father was known for reading all of his press. Does he read yours, too? Should we be worried?
It depends. What kind of article are you writing?
Uh, just a profile.
Okay. Well, if he happens to see an article about me, he’ll read it. And he remembers it. He soaks up information like a sponge and he still reads ten papers a day. When he is on the road, he subscribes to a news service and reads all his clippings.
You told us in an interview last year that you would describe yourself as a “company man” for CTV. Is that still true?
Yes. I buy into what they’re doing there and what they want to do.
But do you worry about over-exposure? It seems like you’re on CTV a lot.
I’m the guy next to the spotlight, not the guy in the spotlight. That’s like saying there’s too much Lloyd [Robertson] because he’s on [the news] every night. Not that I’m comparing myself to Lloyd Robertson.
You’ve covered the red carpet for CTV many times. What’s that experience like?
You get a plot of land the size of postage stamp and you’ve got to have useless information in your head. You have to know how to cut a star short [during a conversation] because there’s a bigger one next to them. It’s all a blur the next day, so you hope that the bosses like it.
During the Oscars, you have to work the red carpet next to Joan Rivers. Any interesting Joan stories?
Well, in the final moments of the show last year, I was interviewing the last remaining star on the red carpet, which was Renée Zellweger. We had sort of run out of things to talk about, but she wasn’t letting go. She said to me that if we stopped talking that she’d have to talk to Joan — which she didn’t want to do. Meanwhile, Joan was freaking out. You can hear Joan screaming on the show, hand poking through the camera. I said goodbye with Renée and signed off. Joan had 15 seconds left.
But how do you remember all the stars’ names and what they’re in. It looks easy, but having done it a couple of times in Canada, I found it really hard. You’re like, I recognize that person, but what’s their name?
(Laughs) When I did The Chatroom [on Talk TV], we did a segment called “Canadian celebrity or cop?” We had people call in to try to guess whether a picture was of a Canadian celebrity or a cop. By no means is that an indicator about the quality of Canadian talent, though. I’ve been doing this for a while now, so I feel confident that if I don’t know who they are, chances are that the audience doesn’t know who they are either.
About Robert J. Ballantyne
Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.