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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Former MTV host balances entertainment and social action

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Jessi Cruickshank

Something as simple as a game can change your life. One Canadian redhead who has made a name for herself in the entertainment world is living proof of that.

When TV host Jessi Cruickshank was fresh out of university, she taught a program for kids with special needs – something she still does to this day. She was playing a game called Shark, which involves putting newspapers on the ground and pretending they’re islands.

“I remember swimming around this newspaper ‘island’ and it said, ‘MTV wants you,’” she tells The CJN. “And it was this advertisement for auditions, open auditions, that MTV was having for hosts. And I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that would be fun.’”

Up until that point, pop culture wasn’t really on her radar. The Vancouver native never imagined she’d be paid to talk about celebrities, let alone make a career out of it. In fact, Cruickshank had aspirations to go to Yale University for a master’s degree.

But after countless auditions, she scored a job with MTV Canada. Her first piece of homework was to watch Laguna Beach, a reality show about spoiled high school kids. “I remember watching it and thinking, ‘Oh God, this is horrible,’” she admits. “‘This is detrimental to society. I’m a feminist, and I don’t believe in this.’”

When the head of MTV asked her what she thought of the show, she told him exactly what was on her mind.

“And he said, ‘Well, too bad ’cause you’re going to be doing a show where you talk about it,’” she shares. “And I remember thinking, ‘Excuse me?’”

Eventually, the quick-witted host ended up loving the series and the humour she was able to find in it. Cruickshank says her chemistry with Laguna Beach: The After Show co-host Dan Levy was instantaneous.

“I think that’s what people liked. They just felt they were hanging out with us,” she says. “And honestly, they were.”

But she didn’t realize its success right off the bat. In fact, she only discovered its popularity during the first series finale of the show, when they invited a live studio audience to participate.

“Suddenly we’re told that there are police outside of the building because there are over 6,000 people lined up and blocking Yonge Street in Toronto, trying to get into the show,” she says. “And I remember thinking, I didn’t even know 6,000 people were watching this on television, let alone wanting to come to a live taping.”

She adds: “I threw up in a garbage can backstage before I actually went out to do the show.”

The After Show turned into a smash hit for MTV, airing internationally and using the same format for similar reality shows, The Hills and its spinoff, The City.

That gig opened many doors for her, including the opportunity to interview celebrities like Tom Cruise, Zac Efron, Rihanna, Bill Gates and many others.

One of her most memorable moments happened when she accidentally ripped her tight leather pants in front of singer Adam Lambert.

“I had to do the rest of the interview with a full giant rip on my crotch,” she says.

That’s where Cruickshank’s background in comedy and her ability to poke fun at herself came in handy.

As a kid, she was the only female member in an all-male improv team. This wasn’t just any group. It featured actor Seth Rogen and Comedy Central’s Nathan Fielder.

“At one point, we started to get hired to perform at bar and bat mitzvahs,” she says with a laugh.

The witty redhead was offered a position with CTV’s entertainment news show eTalk as soon as she left MTV in 2010, becoming its Los Angeles correspondent. Aside from CTV, she can also be seen on The CW, where she co-hosts and is a writer for the game show O Sit! 

“I miss Canada so much, I really do,” she says. “I miss my friends and my family, but I just miss living there. I just think it’s a better place to live as a country and sort of our values – I miss it. But being here, I’ve been really lucky.”

Cruickshank says volunteering keeps her grounded. As a Free the Children ambassador, the TV star has travelled around the world. In 2009 she lived in a Kenyan mud hut for 10 days, documenting her unique experience in an MTV special.

“I travel all across North America, speaking at high schools and colleges, talking about my experiences in a fun, light, yet I think, hopefully, inspirational way,” she says.

Cruickshank, who counts her mother, CBC journalist Joyce Resin, as a mentor, says a lot of people ask her for advice.

She always tells aspiring entertainers to start wherever they can and work their butts off.

“This is a whole new era,” she adds. “If you want to be on TV you can film stuff on your iPhone and put it on the Internet. And I think you absolutely should.”  

So what’s next for the MTV alum? She’s looking forward to working on new projects with Free the Children.

“I’m really excited about what’s next. It’s kind of a cool time in my career,” she pauses before adding. “I mean, I want to interview actor Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s the most vain answer I can give you. I’ve never met him, but I think if I did, I would melt.”

In typical Jessi Cruickshank fashion, she adds: “And I’m sure if I do, something terribly embarrassing will happen. It’s not possible for me to have a classy, smooth interview. I’ll say something stupid, that’s just how I seem to roll.”

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