Former MuchMusic VJ Jennifer Hollett is a globe-trotting journalist, a social-media savant, a women’s rights activist, a recent Harvard grad, a proud NDPer, and a retired b-girl who once opened for the Beastie Boys at the ACC. She wants to be your next representative in the House of Commons.
“If Jennifer Hollett didn’t exist, the NDP would’ve had to invent her.”
This was the subject line of an email a friend sent me a couple of weeks ago as I was on my way to meet the aspiring politician for the first time. It was a slightly backhanded compliment, and a reference to a workshop that Hollett, best known for her former life as a Much Music VJ, was moderating that night in Regent Park. It was the kind of event that seems to push every progressive button: For starters, the subject was how artists can better use social media to network and brand themselves, a worthy if fuzzy cause; it was organized by ArtReach Toronto, a program designed to support arts initiatives for under-served youth; and it was being held in an inner-city neighbourhood that, while in the midst of a much-ballyhooed 15-year revitalization, remains stubbornly synonymous with poverty and urban disaffection.
But the 37-year-old Hollett, who is currently seeking the NDP nomination in the upcoming Toronto Centre by-election, pushes even more buttons than that. She’s youthful and telegenic. Her unabashed commitment to social justice and environmental issues was informed by high-school years spent shuttling between model UN sessions, zine fairs, and punk shows. She was raised by a single mother in St. Catharines. She’s a straight-edge vegetarian, a women’s rights advocate, a social-media guru, and a Harvard grad. Her eclectic CV includes hosting a Gemini-nominated documentary on Afghanistan, as well as a long stint with a b-girl crew called shebang!, which opened for the Beastie Boys and Le Tigre. In fact, she’s just about everything the NDP could hope for in a candidate, particularly in Toronto Centre, often called the most diverse riding in the country. The roughly 13-square-kilometre wedge of land includes among its neighbourhoods Rosedale, St. Jamestown, Church-Wellesley Village, and Regent Park—which, as of last month, Hollett calls home.
In fact, the workshop she was hosting took place right next door to her new condo, in the Daniels Spectrum, a recently opened Artscape complex that also houses, among other groups, a branch of the Centre for Social Innovation. She arrived a half-hour before the event, wearing a hot-pink blazer, abstract Zara blouse, black pants, and flats. Her shoulder-length copper hair was cut much more conventionally than the quasi–New Wave styles she once favoured at Much. Sunny, engaged, and charismatic, she radiated a sincerity most politicians struggle to simulate.
While the room was not very crowded—there were about 30, mostly reticent participants in their teens and 20s—Hollett did her best to pump up the volume. “How are we all feeling?” she yelled, smiling broadly from a riser at the front of the room. “I not only love social media,” she said, “I live social media.” There were three other panelists leading the workshop with her, and one of them was a dancer named Fly Lady Di, from whom Hollett once took a house-dancing class. She didn’t bust any moves that evening, but a few minutes into the workshop, still trying to warm up the crowd, she reflexively grabbed a mic, said, “Let me try an old TV talk-show trick,” and bounded to the floor. She moved smoothly between tables, but somewhat taller than average, even gangly, she hunched over slightly as she walked, as if constantly trying to connect to people on their level—practice, perhaps, for the non-stop door-to-door canvassing she’ll be doing right up until the September 15 nomination meeting.
Hollett may have the showmanship down, but as it happens, she is only one of three high-profile female media personalities vying for the seat that former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae vacated in June. The other two are heavy hitters. Toronto Star columnist and author Linda McQuaig recently announced she would be going up against Hollett for the NDP nod. Seeking to represent the Liberals is Chrystia Freeland, until recently the managing director of Thomson Reuters in New York. Hollett is characteristically charitable about the race—over the years, friends have called her The Diplomat—and doesn’t betray a hint of intimidation. “Who doesn’t like a good competition?” she says. In addition, two other Liberal hopefuls have thrown their hats into the ring: Todd Ross, a former assistant to George Smitherman, and Diana Burke, a Royal Bank senior executive. (As of this writing, the Conservatives and Greens have yet to announce a candidate.)
There’s no question Hollett’s a long shot, particularly in a riding that’s been a Liberal stronghold for decades. (Before Rae, the seat had been occupied by Bill Graham, who’s thrown his support behind Freeland.) She’ll need to overcome knee-jerk reactions from voters reluctant to send a former host of MuchOnDemand to Ottawa. As well, the Grits are in the midst of a giddy, rapidly growing Justin Trudeau love-in and are anxious to retain the only downtown Toronto riding that’s currently not orange. Still, Hollett’s singular blend of street cred, social-media savvy, and rah-rah activism is uncompromising and captivating in equal measure—and arguably the best hope the riding has of capturing some of the spirit of Hollett’s mentor, the late Jack Layton. She is fond of saying that she represents “new politics,” a platitude, maybe, but underpinned by the fact that she’s always represented something kind of new—whether online, on television, or in grad school. More importantly, she’s also always projected an aura of perma-youth, which, in a riding with several universities and colleges, and a disproportionately young population, can’t be a bad thing. She’s the only candidate who could credibly show the grown-ups that kids today aren’t apolitical or apathetic and teach the kids that politics can be, if not cool, then at least relevant to them. Just as the Liberals desperately needed Trudeau’s boyish energy, so, too, does the NDP desperately need Hollett’s theatre of idealism. “Some people were very surprised that I wanted to get into politics,” she says. “But I want people to feel engaged and feel like they are politics. I think that we’ve forgotten that politics is what we make it.”
After the workshop, Hollett took me to a Tim Hortons around the corner on Parliament Street so we could talk further, and she buoyantly described the genesis of her political career. In 2009, Hollett was in-between jobs, freelancing a bit, and emailed Layton’s assistant and asked if she could meet with the leader. Layton agreed and, as Hollett tells it, was impressed by her resemblance to another emerging female politician. “He said I reminded him of Megan Leslie,” Hollett said, referring to the Halifax MP and current NDP deputy leader. “He told me, ‘You’re young, passionate, and smart.’” Layton advised her to start organizing, find other like-minded people, and get a team together. Hollett told the leader that this was just supposed to be an informational interview; she wasn’t even a member of the party. Undeterred, he invited her to attend the NDP convention that year as an observer. While she took him up on his offer, and would later cover the NDP’s historic 2011 success—the so-called Orange Crush—for the CBC, she didn’t actually join the party until after Layton’s death.
Her real origin story begins much earlier, however. A classic early adopter, she was online in 1994, haunting message boards and running her own weblog (a digital analog, so to speak, to the music zines she already read and produced). After getting a degree in journalism and communications at Concordia, Hollett was hired, at 21, to work in new media at Sony Canada, and at 24, she became the youngest manager in the company’s history. That job, in turn, led to a couple years on talkTV’s The Chatroom. (Her co-hosts were Seamus O’Regan and Ben Mulroney.)
In 2002, MuchMusic was on the hunt for new VJs, and Hollett sent in a CV and demo reel. A decade ago, Much was a very different channel than it is today—“There was more of a focus then on politics and social issues,” Hollett says tactfully—and her bosses encouraged her to explore all manner of substantial, even heavy, material. Hannah Sung, another ex-staffer who was hired at the same time, remembers Hollett as a “force to be reckoned with,” and full of ideas. She became known for her activism and her occasionally combative interview style. When she interviewed Destiny’s Child during their reunion tour, Hollett aggressively questioned them about the tour’s McDonald’s sponsorship. She travelled to Afghanistan to host a documentary about youth and women that aired September 11, 2002 (it was nominated for a Gemini), and she was sent to Sri Lanka to cover the Indian Ocean tsunami. Hollett was eventually billed as Much’s “political correspondent,” and in 2004, she hosted a series of election specials that permitted her to conduct lengthy interviews with Layton, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper (a big AC/DC fan, Hollett says). Asked if she thinks her Much tenure might prejudice some people against her, she says, “MuchMusic is mainstream and populist and that’s not a bad thing. I’d hate for something that’s such a big part of Canadian culture and watched by so many people to be held against me.”
In fact, Much was the perfect calling card and led to several opportunities: managing e-communications for PLAN, volunteering with CARE Canada and Journalists for Human Rights in Sierra Leone, and a three-year multi-media stint at the CBC. Most recently, she received a master’s degree in public administration at Harvard’s Kennedy School. As part of a class project, she co-developed the wildly popular SuperPAC App, which allowed viewers to use their cell phones to determine who exactly was bankrolling American political TV ads. She continues to work with one of her professors (and former Obama strategist), Marshall Ganz, on community organizing projects. Last February, after graduating, she moved back to Toronto. No one was counting on Rae vacating his seat so quickly, but once he did, Hollett invited Sarah Lesniewski, a lawyer who she’s known for almost 20 years (they were model UN competitors) to move back to Toronto from the U.K. to lead her campaign team. It wasn’t difficult to persuade her. “Jenn has the most integrity of anyone I know,” says Lesniewski. “We need someone more virtuous in politics.”
At this point, Hollett’s platform is understandably nebulous and not particularly surprising. Two of the most pressing issues for Torontonians, she says, are jobs and housing (also, not coincidentally, the two issues most dramatically affecting youth). Like other Dippers, she is demanding a national housing strategy (something that Canada, alone among G8 nations, does not have). Mostly, she’s honed a political message inflected by disappointment with, even anger at, the Harper government. “I worry that we’re losing ourselves,” she said. “Whether it’s the environment or the Senate or the muzzling of scientists. We’ve always seen ourselves as a country driven by our values—that Canada is a place of opportunity, jobs, security, a healthy environment, safe communities, and accountability. I think we’re drifting away from that. We have to hold the Conservatives to account because they’re failing the country.”
Her intensity is impressive, but by-elections are curious things. They notoriously draw little interest and poor voter turnout. Jaime Watt, the executive chairman of Navigator and a frequent campaign advisor, says they are also not the place for grand ideas. “It’s about organizing, and being the most efficient in getting your people to the polls.” That’s how Hollett’s been spending her days—selling memberships, relentlessly canvassing, attending and organizing events. As Watt points out, however, she has her work cut out for her. The NDP picked up big gains in Toronto in 2011—it now has eight MPs in the GTA—but the Liberals are happily riding the wave of Trudeau’s popularity and, in many polls, the NDP has dropped below where it was in 2011. (“They’ve been in the wilderness since Thomas Mulcair was elected,” Watt says.) But if Hollett does win the nomination and not the by-election, she’ll get another opportunity to run soon. A general election will likely be called in 2015, and, at that point, the riding’s boundaries will be redrawn, splitting it up into three separate electoral districts whose economic complexions more closely hew to obvious party lines. The new Toronto Centre will no longer contain Rosedale, Bay Street, or the waterfront, but Hollett’s home—the perfect setting for her politics—will be smack-dab in the middle.
It’s hard sometimes to shake the feeling that Hollett might turn out to be too good, or earnest, or even guileless, for politics. One small example: When Freeland announced she was seeking the Liberal nomination, Hollett cheerfully tweeted at her, “Welcome to the race @cafreeland Looking fwd to meeting you soon.” Freeland did not respond. But Hollett is counting on the fact that she herself isn’t cynical about politics, that the people who might vote for her are similarly hopeful, and that they’ll admire her rather idiosyncratic and seemingly selfless path. And it’s quite possible that her chirpy exterior is also canny camouflage for a much more chippy inner warrior. “My interest in politics is not just for today,” she said, when asked what she’ll do if she doesn’t win the nomination. Her carefully modulated voice betrayed a slight bit of indignation. “I’m worried about Canada. And whatever the outcome, that doesn’t change. I’m going to fight for the Canada we deserve.”
So you think you can be the Toronto Centre MP?
The downtown federal riding of Toronto Centre has been represented by notable politicians such as Bill Graham, David Crombie, and, most recently, Bob Rae. Containing the wildly diverse neighbourhoods of Rosedale, Cabbagetown, the Church–Wellesley corridor, and Regent Park, it’s one of the most visible in the country. This has attracted some high-profile candidates for the upcoming by-election (date to be determined). Here’s a rundown of the contenders so far.
Jennifer Hollett (NDP)
Experience as a media professional: Former MuchMusic host and CBC journalist.
Platform: She’s concerned about the middle-class and those who can’t join it—with emphasis on housing, jobs, and the environment.
Linda McQuaig (NDP)
Experience as a media professional: A former reporter and columnist with The Globe and Mail, National Post, Toronto Star, and Maclean’s, and author of several books including The Trouble With Billionaires.
Platform: She emphasizes fighting income inequality (and has long opposed austerity programs), as well as expanding government programs and battling climate change.
Chrystia Freeland (Liberal)
Experience as a media professional: Former Globe and Mail, Financial Times, and Thomson-Reuters editor. Author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else.
Platform: Alleviating the plight of the middle-class—it’s the subject of her book, which appears poised to be the foundation of Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberal platform.
Diana Burke (Liberal)
Experience as a media professional: Not much media, per se, but her bio describes her as a “visionary technology pioneer” who helped build information tech initiatives at the Royal Bank and Microsoft.
Platform: She’s outlined concerns that both the economy and the immigration system are rigged to support the powerful.
Todd Ross (Liberal)
Experience as a media professional: None. His resumé is long on community activist gigs involving anti-poverty, environmental, HIV, and aboriginal health programs.
Platform: He pledges to build community engagement—bringing people together to make “real change” on a range of issues.
Travis McCrea (Pirate Party—he’s the leader)
Experience as a media professional: None. He has a Twitter account and has posted commentary on YouTube.
Platform: Civil liberties are the Pirate Party’s main concern—especially online freedom from copyright restrictions.