Carole Taylor, newly appointed chairwoman of the CBC, is the kind of person it would be easy to hate. The "undeclared queen of Vancouver" is smart, wealthy, influential, graceful and gorgeous.
When the former Miss Toronto walks through the lobby of the Pan Pacific Hotel in a stylishly bright, aqua-blue jersey skirt set and snakeskin mules, she still turns heads. At 55, she has a fit, curvaceous figure, bright green eyes, prominent high cheek bones, a brilliant smile and thick brown hair.
"There is certainly an age at which you just don't think about it," Taylor says when asked about the media focus on her stunning good looks. "What's important is what I can bring to a job. Anything else is irrelevant."
What she has is more than 20 years of experience in broadcasting, including a glowing reference from Walter Cronkite, who was so impressed when she interviewed him for W5 that he tried to lure her over the border to work for CBS.
She was also a powerful city politician with strong Liberal connections who declined Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's request to run in the last federal election. And she has successfully parlayed her career in local politics into the business world. She currently sits on four corporate boards (and five non-profit ones) and recently began a one-year term as chairwoman of the Vancouver Board of Trade to thunderous applause, in no small part because she single-handedly saved the much-loved annual fireworks competition, even if she is too irritatingly modest to admit it.
Her private life is the stuff of storybooks. She and former Vancouver mayor Art Phillips fell in love during an interview. She has two successful children (one is a magazine writer in New York, the other a medical student at UCLA). The couple live in a penthouse overlooking Coal Harbour and have a second in Whistler.
But as soon as she sits down, it becomes apparent that she is impossible to hate. She's nice. So nice there's nobody who has anything remotely bad to say about her. She is also compassionate, cultured, committed, hard-working, eloquent and respected and probably loves small animals.
Is she too good to be true?
Her charmed life began in the Toronto suburb of Weston, where she grew up in a middle-class family. Her father worked for an insurance company, her mom stayed home. At 17, while still in high school, she was crowned Miss Toronto. Her modelling experience opened the door to an interview with John Bassett Jr., who had already sniffed out the potential of the baby-boom demographic and was looking for a fresh face to front a new mini-newspaper targeted at teenagers, to be inserted in The Toronto Telegram. The paper soon morphed into CFTO Toronto's After Four television show, with Taylor as host.
"Oh, I would have to admit that it [being a beauty queen]certainly helped," Taylor says, crossing her arms and staring straight into the eyes of the interviewer with the consummate composure of a broadcasting professional -- warm, welcoming, but serious. "I don't go around talking about the fact that I was Miss Toronto. It's had a funny effect because initially it led to the interview that got me the job," which she continued to host while earning an English degree at the University of Toronto. It was there that she met first husband Bryce Taylor, star football quarterback, who is now surgeon-in-chief at Toronto General Hospital. They separated seven years later.
"But from that moment on it was a negative, because some people saw you as less serious. It was also very early days for women in television and there was some expectation that I would probably be very good at doing recipes and not so good at covering wars."
She did go on to cover the front lines of the Yom Kippur War, plus the revolution in Chile and the floods in Honduras. And she continues to speak out against the appalling lack of women in broadcasting and on corporate boards. But first, there was a stint as one of the first co-hosts for Canada AM.
Which led to W5. One of her most memorable coups on CTV's investigative magazine was an exclusive interview with Margaret Trudeau at the height of her controversial Studio 54 days. "I just wrote her a little note card," Taylor says, "because I had a lot of sympathy for the situation she was in -- this young woman all of a sudden in the political spotlight. I thought it must be very difficult for her and wanted to talk to her about it. She told me later that because it was a personal card it hadn't gone through her secretary, where things usually went. And so it ended up on her dresser with some of her private mail and she looked at it and thought, 'Yeah, I'd like to do it.' "
Taylor handled the interview with enough tact to impress the late Pierre Trudeau, who later asked her to run as a Liberal MP. She declined.
She also turned down Walter Cronkite, whom she interviewed about his influence on the Vietnam War. "Afterward, we stayed and talked," Taylor recalls. "He asked if I would consider it. At that time, I had a small child and was on my own. It just wasn't possible."
The next man, however, she couldn't resist. In 1976, Taylor interviewed Vancouver's then-mayor, Art Phillips. "That was it," she says. This soon-to-be husband was a former basketball star who made his fortune in business while still in university. He was older, charming, handsome, divorced.
She moved to Vancouver a year later, and spent another year commuting for W5 before quitting. She was then hired by the CBC to do a regional public-affairs show, but quit in 1978 to help her husband run for the federal Liberals.
If Taylor seems too perfect, you can blame it on Vancouver. "When I first came out here, I didn't even know what the word aerobics meant. I smoked, I drank coffee all night in editing rooms, never exercised in my life. Then I came out here and this was a different world. Everybody was into fitness, even then. Fitness and healthy eating and no smoking. So I got straightened out."
In 1984, she went back into journalism, but quit two years later to run for city council. She soon earned a reputation as then-mayor Gordon Campbell's troubleshooter. Ken Dobelle, who is now Premier Campbell's deputy minister in charge of the cabinet, but was then city manager, recalls how city clerks vied for the opportunity to work with her, while senior staff always tried to get her on side of their issues because they knew she would get a strong hearing.
"I remember a party she had at her home to recognize the people she worked with," Dobelle says. "It was an eclectic mix, everyone from senior staff to secretaries. But the most spectacular thing, and everyone commented on it, was this panoply of exotic desserts she made herself with her hot little hands. There were God knows how many. They must have taken days to create. She is, in fact, one of the few people who, unless you know her, seems too good to be true. She's true. And if you want me to contradict that image, I'm afraid I can't."
Most observers expected Taylor to go on in politics and become premier, if not prime minister. Taylor says she turned down Chrétien's request to run because she wasn't prepared to commit the time required of a federal MP. But when he came calling with the next offer, she jumped at the chance to return to her "media home."
"The opportunity to play a role at this crucial time in public broadcasting was too great to turn down. Because I do think this is a pivotal time. I think that with all of the competition that's out there, with the globalization of culture that we're seeing, to fight for a proper place for Canadian ideas and Canadian culture is going to be a really important battle."
Taylor confesses to having a passion for governance. "It doesn't sound very sexy, I know," she says, laughing lightly. "But I regard corporate governance as a new profession. I think even the university business schools are beginning to recognize the importance of boards."
Some have said her appointment is a political one, but most agree it's a smart one. And her thoughtful study of the corporate family will certainly be an asset at the public broadcaster. Taylor replaces Guylaine Saucier, who resigned late last year, four months before the end of her term, after a long battle with CBC president and chief executive officer Robert Rabinovitch over who was in charge.
In 1991, the Broadcasting Act divided the top position at the public broadcaster into two jobs. The chair is a political position, responsible for reaching out to the community and defining long-term objectives. The president is in charge of administration and day-to-day operations. Rumour has it that Rabinovitch lobbied against the appointment of a new chairman, desiring instead, to see the two jobs rolled back into one. Others say it was he who lobbied for an appointment from the West.
Taylor says she has no inside knowledge about the power struggle, adding that she is an admirer of Saucier. But she anticipates a smooth working relationship with Rabinovitch.
The president has previously suggested that private broadcasters be relieved of their legislated Canadian content obligations while funnelling the money the privates now receive to produce Canadian programs (through tax benefits and grants) back into public broadcasting.
"I have absolutely no idea what the pitfalls to that sort of idea would be," Taylor says, "but I like people who think outside the box. What he is saying, and what I would say, is how can we get more dollars into public broadcasting? So let's try to figure out ways to do that. And when we get them, let's make sure we spend them well."
Taylor's idea of money well spent includes a strong commitment to regional programming, another thorny issue over which Saucier and Rabinovitch clashed. When the president planned to drastically slash regional news last year, the CBC board, led by Saucier, opposed the cuts. A compromise led to the creation of CBC Now,a Vancouver-based national supper-hour show.
In the early nineties, Taylor protested against the Brian Mulroney government's drastic funding cuts to the CBC, which virtually amputated its regional operations. She applauds Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps and the federal government for pumping $60-million back into the CBC this past spring. "And I applaud the board and president for putting every cent into programming. I think that's what the community wants to see."
Taylor is already gearing up for a cross-country tour. She hopes to get out to the East Coast soon and set up brainstorming sessions with community leaders. She wants to talk to CBC staff and editorial boards, watch the regional news programs. But most of all, she plans to listen.
"I think, especially in these early stages, that's going to be a big part of my role, to be a sounding board, to listen and ask the questions."
She has her own ideas, of course. In order to distinguish itself in the 500-plus channel universe, she says the CBC has to do something that nobody else is doing: present Canadians to each other. "To speak to each other, to entertain each other, to laugh together."
She would love to see more cross-Canada checkups on English television. And she's a fan of cultural programming, noting that the production of full symphonies, operas and dances are a classic example of the CBC getting back to its roots.
"These are not money makers -- to put on a full-length ballet. But it's the right thing to do."
In her typically deliberate and responsible fashion, she catches herself before running too far or fast on this train of thought. "I can't get into programming. It's foolish for me, having not even stepped across the door yet."
But if Taylor's experience is any indication, she won't sit still for long. "I think the CBC is in for a period of very capable stewardship under her chair," says Darcy Rezac, managing director of the Vancouver Board of Trade, echoing the sentiments of everyone who knows her. "Just watch her. You'll be dazzled."