Marilyn Denis has a new office. When we arrive at Bell Media Studios for our interview, the blinds of this office are drawn and her back is to the door as she works. The windowsills are decorated with photographs in frames: friends, family, professional accomplishments. She turns and enthusiastically welcomes us into her new space with a question: “Do you think I should change it?”
She’s talking to Ramsin Khachi, who has accompanied me to the interview. Khachi, aside from being the founder and creative director of KHACHILIFE, has been a resident interior design and home expert on CTV’s The Marilyn Denis Show for the duration of its eight- (and counting) season run. And, of course, the two are old friends. Their shared history is immediately apparent in the warm banter between them as they start talking aesthetics. Should the desk face the other way? Which option is Feng Shui? Which orientation would provide the most floor space?
Khachi suggests turning the desk so that the computer screen no longer faces the door, to perhaps afford Denis a little privacy. She seems playfully confused by this suggestion, and it isn’t long before I understand why: Denis doesn’t need privacy, because she is here to work. When Khachi tells Denis that he often describes her to his American friends as Canada’s Oprah, that indelible work ethic becomes apparent. “But I don’t have a book club!” she quips. “Who’s got time to read?” A person doesn’t need to sit with Marilyn Denis long before also catching a glimpse of the signature wit and charm that have made her a household name. “Did Oprah really read all those books?”
Of course, common sense will tell you that anyone who has achieved as much as Marilyn Denis has in her career has, at some point, worked hard. But Denis, the reigning queen of lifestyle television this side of the forty-ninth parallel, works hard not just at one job, but two. When she arrives at Bell Media Studios in downtown Toronto each morning to film The Marilyn Denis Show, she’s already put in a full day’s work, co-hosting the morning radio show Roger & Marilyn on 104.5 CHUM FM. And that means a 4 a.m. wake up call. It’s a daunting schedule, though in terms of balancing those demands, ‘balance’ isn’t a word that resonates with her. In a true lifestyle television metaphor, Denis likens her schedule, instead, to a pie. “It’s not really about balance; it’s just kind of the same pie,” she says. “It’s just how much attention you put on certain things…It’s about recalibrating.”
Sometimes that means shifting her focus; sometimes that means sacrifices. “I don’t go out much,” she says. In the last three years, she’s made a point of monitoring her stamina and turning things down, declining an invitation on a weeknight or, for media events, sending a producer on her behalf. “I need to be sharp for the CHUM FM morning show with Roger,” Denis says, “but I also have to be ready to take on what this show has.” The reality of the industry, hidden behind the glamorous façade, is that it requires endurance and very hard work. And Denis has always been more than willing to work hard.
That hard work has not been without its rewards, and for Denis, it would seem that her primary reward is the ability to impact lives. Denis is passionate about her guests and viewers — and they’re passionate about her. “The thing that really brings me joy is the meet and greet after the show,” says Denis. “I try to do them every day.” She’s had some fairly profound experiences interacting with her viewers over the years, but perhaps most memorable are viewers like those who approach her to say that they came to Canada from foreign countries and learned English by watching her show. “I get pretty touched when people say certain things like that,” says Denis.
Denis is celebrating something of a banner year. Not only was she the 2017 recipient of the Alan Waters Lifetime Achievement Award (presented by the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards), but she was also presented with an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho. An impressive milestone — especially in retrospect, as there came a time in Denis’ life when it seemed as though her days in television were over.
We get to talking about hindsight, and Khachi calls to mind that old Steve Jobs quote: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
Connecting those dots brings us back to 2008, when Denis left CityLine. She had been with the show for nineteen years and was eager to round it out to an even twenty. But a perfect storm was brewing: the economic crash and Olympic coverage meant that money was tight, and a company merger was happening. CHUM decided to sell, CTV wanted to buy, and Rogers was interested. “People were in survival mode,” she reflects. “I didn’t think there would be another show after that.”
But of course, looking back, Denis is able to see how difficult career hurdles led to bigger and better challenges — and how, when it came to her personal life, the change was a blessing in disguise. “The timing of this was an intervention,” she says. Immediately after she left CityLine, her mother, who was suffering from dementia, became seriously ill. This forced sabbatical afforded Denis the opportunity to focus on caring for her parents, and to recharge before the next big project — though she had no idea, at the time, that a big project was in store.
She remembers one encounter, years before her departure from CityLine, which helped prepare her for the profound changes in both her professional and personal life. “I remember flying out to see my mom and dad in Calgary,” she says. At this time, in 2001, Canadian Airlines was being sold to Air Canada, a merger that was highly publicized and, as one would expect, highly complicated for its employees. During one journey, Denis found herself in conversation with one of her favourite airport workers. (“They’re so darn friendly in Calgary,” she says.) Denis asked the employee how she was handling the transition. “And she said, ‘You know what? You just stay neutral and go with the flow. This is just the tip of the iceberg of things changing.’ And she was right.”
And so the exit from CityLine may have been bittersweet, but it did allow Denis the chance to shift her focus to family as her mother passed away and her father’s health also began to decline. “I was able to be there for that,” she says. “That was a blessing.”
But just as Denis began to adjust to her new routine, enjoying the unprecedented freedom in her days once she finished the morning radio show, a new opportunity presented itself: CTV wanted Denis for a new television show. And not just any show; CTV wanted a show that was all Marilyn. They wanted The Marilyn Denis Show.
Was this the opening of a new chapter in Denis’ life? Definitely. Was it a success? Well…not at first.
“It was horrible,” she says bluntly. “The first year was horrible. It was tough. My mother had just died, my father was kind of back and forth, and everybody had an idea of what they thought the show should be like.” A lack of quality leadership caused the show to flounder as employees struggled with the merger and scrambled to find a new place—and identity—in lifestyle television.
Denis remembers a conversation she had with her father as she grappled with the show in its infancy. “I said, ‘I’m just gonna let them decide what they think this show’s gonna be like, and when the dust settles, I know exactly what the show’s gonna be like.”
And the dust did settle. Denis recalls some great advice she received from some seasoned pros at the station. One colleague pulled her into his office on the fifth floor and said, “This show’s about you and what you have done, and what you want to do, being very much mindful of what your viewers want. I think you’ve got a good sense of that.”
Heeding both his advice and the pearl of wisdom from her favourite airport employee, Denis went with the flow. “I thought, even though this is my name, I’m going to sit back and let them run with it.”
Run with it they did — and the show nearly ended. Denis was invited to lunch with the (now former) president of Bell Media, who had been bracing himself to deliver the news that the show would be ending after only one season. But at the eleventh hour something reversed that decision: her ratings. Viewership showed a steady and promising climb, and the rest is the stuff of Canadian broadcasting history. Denis was ready to tackle the show and finally turn it into the program she always knew it could be. And in the words of Denis herself: “Today, the show is really a good, solid show.”
Denis, a skilled interviewer, is warm and open when it comes to being asked the questions instead of doing the asking. There’s an authenticity in her answers that calls to mind one of the key points of her commencement speech at the University of Idaho earlier this year: be your authentic self. When I ask Denis whether there was ever a learning curve when it came to being herself on camera, she’s firm: “No. Verbally, I can’t be anything that I’m not,” she says. “Did I try new hairstyles? You bet. Did I get cosmetic surgery because I didn’t like my nose, my chin? You bet. But I’m not an actress. People know when you’re [being] phony.”
As we begin to wrap up the interview, Khachi asks Denis whether there’s one question that she has always wanted to be asked. Denis doesn’t hesitate; one can imagine her sitting in countless interviews over the years, wondering if she’ll be asked that magical question. It’s a good one: “Why you?” she says. “Why did you become famous?”
And so Khachi asks: “Why you? Why did you become famous?”
Despite having always hoped for that particular question—why Marilyn Denis?—she has to ponder the answer. A born entertainer, her path wasn’t as clear-cut as those of her academic sisters. In many ways, Denis was the odd one out. “I used to talk to doorknobs,” she says. “I used to talk to the trees — that was my audience. When the trees would sway, that meant applause. I used to put on shows in the living room.” Even as a teenager, Denis had a knack for producing.
She recalls another story when she was fourteen, meeting with her father to balance the budget books for the month. Struggling with the equations, her father had teasingly remarked that she was never going to survive. Denis was livid with him. “I said, ‘I don’t know what you think I’m going to be, but I’ll decide what I’m going to be.’” And, with a teenage precociousness that now makes her chuckle (and made her father, at the time, smile), she had said, “You know what else? I’m going to make more money than you can ever imagine. I will make more money in the first five years of whatever I do than you will in a lifetime!” She laughs. “That drove me!”
Forty-five years later, Denis has turned what she calls that “fire in the belly” into a successful career as one of the biggest names in Canadian broadcasting. “I remember saying to my mom, ‘I want to get up in the morning, I don’t care what time it is, and really love what I do,’” she says. “And I do love it. I will be turning sixty next year, and that’s ok, because I’ve got no other choice…I feel really good, and I still love what I do. And more importantly, viewers and listeners seem to like the thought of me being on the air, being their companion or their voice to get them up in the morning.”
When I leave Khachi and Denis, they’re rolling up their sleeves and getting ready to rearrange her office. I look over my shoulder and see two old friends laughing together, doing what two seasoned pros of lifestyle television do best: improving life, right down to the smallest detail.
The Marilyn Denis Show airs weekdays at 10 a.m. ET on CTV and the CTV GO app.