By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Kareen Mallon
Sitting in a high-ceiling space with no windows, Arisa Cox and I are joking about lightning. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and we are surrounded by rows of chairs in the “elimination area” of Big Brother Canada.
To put things in perspective, we aren’t discussing a phenomenon of nature – instead, we are musing about Cox’s Alexander McQueen dress. Next topic on the agenda: Cox’s immaculate hair. She used to straighten it but I find that almost impossible to imagine, considering the volume of her current incredible hairdo.
A self-confessed “nerd”, Cox has the traits of a successful broadcast personality – she is friendly, funny and very knowledgeable. Since graduating from Carleton’s renowned school of journalism, Cox has tried it all – print reporting, hosting TV shows, participating in reality television, acting and even walking the runway at The Heart Truth fashion show. We catch up with the energetic presenter ahead of Big Brother’s Season 1 finale.
HANNAH YAKOBI: With so many creative projects behind you, was there a defining moment when you knew you wanted to have a career in the entertainment industry?
ARISA COX: I was a very lucky child because I went to an arts elementary school and high school. I loved to paint, dance, sing and perform, but I was better at writing. So when I went to journalism school at Carleton [University], I got a chance to learn about all the finer aspects of journalism. The second we started doing TV, I thought: ‘Ok, I get it – all these crazy experiences in my life can now come together.’
My first time with TV was for CJOH News in Ottawa, and that was one of the toughest experiences of my life to date. I still look back and remember how much pressure and stress there was. But it was also a great rush.
I kind of hit the ground running – you just have to sink or swim. There is an amazing sense of accomplishment when you put a story to bed, and then you have to sort of forget about it because when you wake up the next morning you have no idea what you’re going to be handed. There was nothing like it. I covered everything from fires and parades to charity events. There was a story where a kid’s best friend died in front of him and I was the first one to talk to him…
So journalism became your passion?
Well, doing news is hard on the heart, it’s hard on the soul, it really is. Entertainment got me to tap into the joy in the world. I’m such a political junkie but in terms of work I wanted to stay in entertainment, and I’m so happy I made that choice.
I’m very happy by nature, and it’s easy to hang on to that and keep that energy going. Doing Big Brother Canada gave me an amazing opportunity to not only connect with Canadians but also connect with the people in the audience. Live shows are a lot of fun.
Could you tell us more about your first reality show experience, The Lofters?
When I got on to The Lofters, I came back to Toronto for a year, did the show and went back to Ottawa to finish school.
I guess Lofters was my introduction to a national audience. And that was at the dawn of the modern reality age, since it was right after the first Big Brother, first Survivor, first Amazing Race. No one really knew all those reality TV conventions – they just were not around then.
That was a really exciting time. I was 22 and, you know, still kind of getting to know myself. I’m from Toronto but I grew up in North York. I had straight A’s in high school – I was not partying, I did not drink, have sex, smoke or do drugs.
The Lofters paid us $30,000 for the year and I was like: ‘Wooo, I’m rich!’ (laughs) I had a great time. Basically, that’s how I learned to host shows. We also had a whole web Internet news station, which at the time you couldn’t really do. This was before YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. Now everyone has a computer and can load videos really fast, but back then the show was a bit ahead of its time. I’m so grateful for that experience even though my Mom looked at me like I was crazy when I told her I was going to take this job.
Reality television means constantly having cameras on you. Do you feel like it affects the way people act? How did you try to stay grounded and be yourself?
I kind of ignored the cameras, but that being said I’m from Toronto so I was aware that my family and people I know were watching. I have a West Indian background – my parents are Trinidadian – so I knew that if I did something stupid I would hear about it forever! (laughs)
Luckily, it wasn’t too much of a problem – I won’t lie, I’m a nerd. I love Game of Thrones, I read all the books, I love [J.R.R.] Tolkien, I love my computer. Lofters was before YouTube, and it’s very different now because you can’t live anything down. You can make one mistake when you’re young and have that follow you for the rest of your life. I think the nature of reality shows has definitely changed because of that. There is also that idea of instant celebrity and that’s kind of in our culture from the top to the bottom. You have young people growing up, thinking that the only way they are going to be worth anything is if they are famous, if they are on a television show. I really want to remind everyone that it’s hopefully more about the quality of what you do.
You’ve travelled a lot for work. Where are you based now?
I live in Edmonton. I moved there last year. My husband is a rolling stone – he’s pretty much lived in every city in Canada. So I’m just here to do the show.
The kids must miss you.
Well, I have my son here, and my daughter was with me the whole time but she just went back with my husband. He’s been coming back and forth. He’s a framer – he builds houses, but we met in journalism school.
How do the kids react when they see you on television? Do they say, ‘Mommy’s on TV’?
The first time my daughter saw me on TV, she cried! She was very young and I’d just gone to work at CBC. She could hear my voice, but I wasn’t there as she was home alone with my husband. Aella was 10 months at the time. She’s three now and she could care less. (laughs)
My one time dabbling in acting was for Camp Rock 2, the Jonas Brothers movie, which I did when I was seven months pregnant with Aella. It was a treat watching that with her and trying to explain she was in my belly when I was in the movie.
My son’s name is Cassius – he is 14 months old and very mellow. He’s super calm compared to my daughter.
In your career, you once decided to not be on a show because they wanted you to straighten your hair. Could you tell me more about that?
I’ve worn my hair in a million different ways: I had braids, long braid extensions and I wore it straight for a lot of high school. But when I was at university I didn’t have time, as I was always studying, and I started to wear it curly. Then my stylist said that if I just layer it, I can actually just wear it curly and not have to do anything. So it’s very low maintenance now, which is great.
So you wake up and it just looks fabulous?
No, my bed head is quite epic, actually! But after a shower and a lot of conditioner, I can finger comb it, and I don’t have to do anything after that. It’s interesting, you know, because there’s a lot more afros around now but there’s a whole little community of us. We pass each other on the street, total head nod – like, ‘I see what you did there, very nice.’
What about your sense of style, how would you describe it?
That’s hard. I like androgyny; I like stuff that’s soft and hard. I’ve been working with a stylist here, Lisa Williams, who’s amazing. She does the styling for the show. She grabs things from all over the city and I’ve gotten to know some really amazing labels that I didn’t know before, like Clover Canyon. It is absolutely one of my favourites now. They make these incredible neoprene print dresses and skirts.
I’ve never been accused of being a girly girl, but I’ve been known to pull out a few summer dresses on vacation.
Tell me about the dress you’re wearing today.
This is Alexander McQueen, rest in peace. I have this amazing thunderstorm print on it. You know you’ve got a winner when you put something and you feel something – I put this on and I feel like a powerhouse. Total attitude, bad-itude if you will! I’m so happy to be wearing it for the shoot.
Now that Big Brother is wrapping up, do you have any specific plans?
I have a big iron in the fire that’s happening in Edmonton, but I can’t announce it yet. And as long as Big Brother will have me, I will be here, as I absolutely love the show.
A lot of shows that are internationally known come to Canada – we slap ‘Canada’ at the end of the name but it just isn’t as good, and I think a lot of people were afraid of that. This show has been able to stand up against any Big Brother in the world. The production value is so high, the house is stunning, the casting job is just top notch.
What do you think is going to happen on the finale, without giving too much away?
Wow, drum roll please. Well, in terms of who takes home the big bank it really could go a number of ways. But top two is very exciting – I can’t wait to hear the arguments that the house guests make to the jury house because that’s how we determine a winner. All I know is it will be edge-of-your-seat television; it’s going to be a two-hour special, you have to go on Twitter at the same time because watching everyone live blog as it happens is probably the most fun thing ever. The hashtag is #BBCAN.
Will you miss the people on the show?
Oh my gosh, every Thursday is devastating because I love each and every one of the people in there. Do I have favourites? Not really. Everyone brings something different to the show and every time someone walks through those doors I just feel such a sense of loss, because we’ve lost another great personality from the house.
And if you’re a live feeder who watches after dark, that’s where you really get to know the characters and someone leaving is a really sad thing. The house kind of turns into something different each week, this show is so organic. Like everyone else, I’m on the computer, checking updates, the spoilers and all that stuff.
Because you want to see what happens?
Yes, I can’t wait and my fingers are crossed for season two – I would love a second crack at the can!
Big Brother Season 1 two-hour finale is tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT only on Slice.