In 2009, I dressed up as Jian Ghomeshi for Halloween. I wore the former CBC radio host's classic attire: leather jacket, second-day stubble, headphones, and the broadcaster's logo. Only one person guessed who I was. At the time, his arts and culture program Q was just two years old, and nowhere near the mammoth success it would be become. But I was already in love with it, and like so many young women in media to come, I crushed on him professionally and personally.
Of course, it feels wrong to admit that now. On Sunday, the CBC announced it would part ways with Ghomeshi amid an investigation in the Toronto Star into claims that he abuses women. Overnight, Ghomeshi has gone from being a Canadian cultural icon to a source of national shame. Now that nine women have come forward — two with their names — with allegations that involve non-consensual violence, our country is processing what it means to turn our backs on a beloved figure. In addition to the women who have come forward, others are reflecting on the close calls they had with Ghomeshi, and how a national treasure managed to abuse his position of power for so many years.
In 2008, Ghomeshi wrote me an email. I had sent him my all-female rap group's CD, accompanied with a handwritten note. My dream was to get our band on his show. He complimented my penmanship — "hot. want to marry the handwriting" — and wrote: "we'll see what we can do about getting you on Q some time. keep me in touch if you ever tour 'round these parts (toronto). yours, j." At the time, I peed my pants. Looking back, it makes me feel scared how excited I was to be in contact with him. From what many of the women who have come forward described, Ghomeshi has a consistent MO: Meet a fawning fan in her 20s, charm her on Facebook or over drinks, and then wait for a private moment to punch, choke, or slap her without warning. He calls it BDSM. They call it abuse.
It's impossible to overstate how entrenched Ghomeshi was in Canada's arts scene. During interviews, musicians loved to reference his '90s-era band Moxy Fruvous, whose first full-length album went platinum in Canada. His show, which is now continuing with other hosts, has an hour-and-a-half long Q&A format and lands diverse A-list interviews with the likes of Louis C.K., Julian Assange, M.I.A., Quentin Tarantino, Lena Dunham, and Drake. Q achieved the highest CBC ratings ever in its 10 a.m. time slot, and since 2010 has aired on more than 180 U.S. stations. Outside of the studio, Ghomeshi hosts Canada's most important literary events and recently wrote a memoir about growing up in the '80s. He was always hobnobbing in Toronto at the book launches, film premieres, and the concerts of guests who frequented his show. If there had been a flag for Canadian culture before last week, it would have featured his face.
His show singlehandedly attracted millennials to CBC, a station with an audience that was 70% middle-aged when Q began. He used Twitter voraciously, often flirtatiously responding to fans. In jeans, a T-shirt, and a blazer he stood out from many of the other hosts who felt more like your parents (though at 47, he is firmly Gen X). But the main attraction for a Ghomeshi fan was his interviewing style. In contrast to the robotic delivery that characterizes many CBC personalities, his dulcet tones and stuttering sentences made his show feel like it was happening in your living room. He could switch from asking Jay Z about his greatest vulnerability to conducting a fast-paced media panel analyzing the downfall of Rob Ford with seamless intelligence and wit. He was a master of both the cool and the cerebral, the new and the nerdy. As a celebrity he existed among us, not above us. You could walk up to him at a party and start talking to him like a friend.
He felt accessible; he was not someone you had to admire from afar. In fact, after he wrote me that email, I met Ghomeshi a handful of times. A friend introduced us following a conference he hosted soon after I graduated from university. A few years ago, another friend dated him and brought me to his birthday party (that friend was not a victim of sexual assault). I remember wanting to get his attention, but settling for a conversation with Kelly Cutrone. In what I used to think of as one of the high points of my journalism career, I recently interviewed him the in the Q studio before he left to cover the Sochi Olympics. I posted a picture of us smiling to my Facebook wall.
While Ghomeshi had a sterling reputation with CBC viewers, many of us in the media and arts scene had heard rumors that he was a bit of a creeper, and certainly, you could ask why the alleged victims ignored rumors about him, shrugged off signs of lechery, and, in at least one case, went back for a second date. But a forward and somewhat sleazy demeanor is exactly what many young women expect from a powerful man full of ego and charisma. His power was part of his appeal. For those in that arts and media scene, Ghomeshi was an idol, the type of person you wanted to be and who could help you get there.
The openness that characterized Ghomeshi is what makes the allegations against him especially hard to stomach. In his public life, he embodied so much of what makes Canada a diverse and accepting country — he's the son of Iranian immigrants with progressive politics who made himself accessible. What's more Canadian than that? So to think he may have used the platform Canadians gave him, the platform he earned with his work, to abuse women feels like a nation-sized betrayal. It's why so many people rushed to his defense when the CBC cut ties with the host, and believed his excuse that the allegations were all about a "jilted" ex and the network's prejudice towards the kinky. We didn't want to believe it. But now, as the allegations of violence continue to pile up, the overwhelming likelihood is that we've been duped. And there will certainly never be another Halloween when I can wear a Ghomeshi costume with pride.