Shake it up with Danielle Graham

From rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite to raising two caring and confident daughters, Danielle Graham has carved her own unique life path.

Serendipity. Fate. Destiny. It goes by several aliases, but the meaning is the same: some milestones seem to be pre-determined so that our lives will turn out for the best. When needed, the universe will step in to keep us on our path. Most people can attribute at least part of their success to this phenomenon. 

Danielle Graham is no exception. 

The story of how she got her first hosting job, which jump-started her career and led to her current role as the anchor of the popular Canadian entertainment news show, ETalk (and incidentally to where she met her husband) all started with one horrible audition. It seemed like her career was DOA, but the universe had other ideas.

CDs and neon and jumpsuits, oh my!

Graham had just finished journalism school. With no job prospects on the immediate horizon, she was packing up her apartment in Toronto to move back in with mom and dad in Guelph.  She was reaching for her landline* to actually pack into a box when destiny literally came calling. 

YTV was looking for a new host for its show The Hit List (which any good geriatric millennial will remember tuning into once a week to hear where Ace of Base landed on the list). They were scouring the country for the next “hit” person and although she had zero audition experience, Graham was totally up for it. I mean, how bad could it possibly go?

It turns out, very, very bad. 

She physically cringes as she tells me how she can still picture the audition space. “It could not have gone any worse — nobody’s audition has ever been worse,” she says. “They had this stack of CDs* in the audition space and I talk with my hands and I knocked them all over. They were, like, ‘do you want to start over, or do you want to just…go?’”

*Landline: A telephone that is stationary and connects to the network via traditional wiring. The device usually plugs into a wall jack.

*CD: Late 20th century storage device for data or music. Shortened form of Compact Disc. Often silver in colour, circular and with a hole in the middle.

She chose to just…go.

Graham slinked out to the car with her tail between her legs, cried her eyes out to her mom (who drove her to the audition) and lamented that she would have to completely rethink her whole career plan. 

Needless to say, she did not make the list of top picks that the agency passed along to YTV. But here’s where fate stepped in. The YTV producers didn’t see their new star in the shortlist and asked to see everybody that auditioned. Lo and behold, they were struck by a blonde beauty from Guelph named Danielle Graham. 

Yes, she was literally picked off the cutting room floor. She went in for a second audition with YTV much more prepared and confident, and the rest, as they say, is television history. She started the gig a month later.

“The whole story is so wild, it just had to be meant to be,” she says. “That job led me back to City TV to work at Star which led me to Etalk which led me to meet my husband and have our children. It was a series of events that led me right to where I’m supposed to be now.”

Looking back on her first hosting job, the passage of time has given her clarity and perspective. Ok, granted, the audition was bad, but her talent was evident, and 2021 Danielle Graham is actually quite impressed by her younger self.

“My parents recorded every episode of The Hit List, and last year they asked me if we could digitize them so they could get rid of this bulk of VHS* tapes,” she says. “So, I took the tapes and as I was watching back to the first episode I was, like, ‘good for her! She’s really doing her best in her denim jumpsuit and neon turtleneck!’”

Plus, I remind her, that denim jumpsuits are cool again, so take that!

*VHS: The acronym for Video Home System. VHS used a Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) to record and play analog videotapes.  

Hollywood calling

From YTV, Graham moved on to become an entertainment reporter for Star! Daily before officially landing at Etalk in 2007. Her interview resume reads like a veritable who’s-who of the Hollywood elite: Adele, Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston, Robert Downey Jr., and Tom Hanks. She has become as much a fixture on Oscar night as the red carpet and Spanx. 

“Am I intimidated and nervous? Yeah! But If I didn’t feel nervous, I’d feel like I wasn’t prepared,” she explains. “I interviewed Angelina Jolie last week and this virtual world has made it so different. I used to be able to walk into a space and smile and make small talk, warm people up. But now, you don’t get any of that. I just jumped in a Zoom room and the screen opens and she’s there and then it’s go-time!”

At this point in the interview, my tenuous professionalism dwindles and I have to ask her about my favourite celeb, the Julie Roberts. Yes, Graham has met her several times and was even able to elicit that famous megawatt grin when she swore at her in a press junket (”F**king right, Julia Roberts!”).

It’s an intense and chaotic environment, in this entertainment news business, and Graham points directly to preparation as the key to getting through it relatively unscathed. 

“In terms of the Oscars, it’s the unpredictability factor that makes it so challenging,” she says. “You never know what you’re going to get or when you’re going to get it. You don’t want to miss anything. So, in those moments, I just rely on being as prepared as I possibly can. Lainey (my co-host) and I will quiz each other by saying a name and then listing three things about that person, or movie or ensemble.”

A starring role

Hollywood aside, her most important role is the one she plays at home as a mother to two young and vibrant girls: Beatrix, five, and Marigold, almost two. Raising confident, compassionate young women is a job that she admits comes with immense responsibility.

“In terms of values, B is old enough and savvy enough to understand some pretty big concepts,” she says. “We talk to her a lot about the idea of community and helping. We’re so fortunate in so many ways but we always talk to her about why we give things away and donate and share the benefits of our life with other people. It’s understanding and recognizing that you are not the only person in the universe.”

Graham admits this is a difficult concept for adults to get their minds around, much fewer children. But she is trying to ensure that kindness and empathy are part of the elixir that forms their foundation. She wants them to be people who stand up and speak up for what’s right.  

The idea of beauty, well, that’s a whole other issue. “B is really into princesses, which is great and fine, but I really try not to put a lot of emphasis on appearance,” she says. “Kids are always getting so much external validation. It just comments about how you look all the time. And I really try not to do that. Being kind and brave are things we try to instill.”

Graham is not altogether sure that Beatrix knows what she does for a living. Mother shuns make-up in her normal life, so daughter knows that mommy gets all dressed up and looks beautiful and goes…somewhere. But there are undeniable hints all around the city. “She saw me on a bus shelter and was very confused,” says Graham with a laugh.

She would like to see her daughters become women in a world where equality reigns. She would have no problem if they wanted to follow in their mother’s footsteps on the walk of fame.

“I think I would be okay with it,” she says. “Between my husband and I, we are armed with enough information to guide them in the right direction, which is something I didn’t necessarily have. I would support anything that I thought that they’d really like to take a swing at.”

The balancing act

Like all working mothers, Graham has had to use trial and error to find balance in her life. Some days her family needs more. Some days her work needs more. And some days she needs more. It’s a matter of being intuitive and paying attention instead of just going and going until you implode.

“For me, things really had to change when I had my second child,” she says. “Something really had to give because there’s only so much of me. I was in the trap of the idea that motherhood is martyrdom and you do come last; you give up everything and apologize for needing time. It just wasn’t working.”

The real turning point came during the pandemic. She and her husband decided to ride it out at their remote cottage, five months postpartum. “At the beginning, I was asking ‘can I get in a workout?’” she says. “Then I thought, that language is going to change. I’m not going to ask. Nobody else asks!”

She began working out consistently for the first time in her adult life. She was always one to get really jazzed about something, go all in, and then completely fall off the wagon. “I love boxing, I’m signing up for every boxing class, I’m buying all new boxing clothes, and then six weeks later everything is getting dusty.”

“This was the first time I was really consistent with something and it was really hard because my body had been through so much,” she says. “As time went on, I started to feel strong for the first time. I could do a push-up, which I could never have done before, and I just felt amazing.”

Her inspiration? Author Glennon Doyle taught her to stop doing the things that aren’t working. She learned to shatter her preconceived notions of what being a mother looks like, what being a wife looks like, and what being a working woman looks like. She started to just embrace life on her own terms. 

“I shake it up,” she says. “Today I was feeling a little bit sluggish, so I just got on the bike for 20 minutes. Yesterday, I did some weights. Tomorrow I might not do anything, which is totally fine. It’s re-programming, even the idea of a cheat day, I don’t have those.”

Her relationship with her body has been a rollercoaster over the years, especially in the last five. She’s had a pre-pregnant body, pregnant body, and post-pregnant body (and repeat). “I’ve had five bodies in five years, and I had to get my head around that,” she says. “That’s a lot of bodies and it’s never more evident than when you’re in your closet!”

Graham now has the motivation she needs to stay consistent and focus on health rather than numbers on the scale or on the tags in her pants. That incentive is twofold: to be healthy enough to live as long as possible, to be with her kids, and to set a healthy example for them.

“I’m always thinking about the things I didn’t want my girls to get into, like diet culture,” she says. “B is seeing two parents who take the time to take care of themselves. And that’s something that I hope she takes into her adult life.”

Two degrees of separation

As we come to the end of the interview, I’m sad to see her go. It was like dishing for an hour with a good friend with who I haven’t caught up with for a while. It’s easy to see why she’s so good at what she does; she’s relatable, familiar, and fun. And although I’m no Angelina Jolie, I felt like she saw me.

Secretly though, I’m left wondering if, because we had such a good chat and all, she would mind if I actually called her a friend in public. Because that would mean I could tell everyone that I have a friend who knows Julia Roberts. And that would be so cool because two degrees of separation is pretty much nothing. 

I think I’m going to start doing it; something tells me she won’t mind.

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