Kirstine Stewart and Zaib Shaikh: always connected

February 25, 2016

It’s a sunny but chilly afternoon at the end of January. The lobby at Four Seasons Hotel Toronto has its regular momentum — people walk in and leave, some are on their phones, others quietly sit on the couch and energetically jump up when their companions arrive.

I’m checking my emails, while simultaneously getting distracted by a massive, fresh flower arrangement. As I head to the other end of the lobby, I notice a woman in high heels and a striking floral-pattern jacket. She has a slow and relaxed, but determined walk. A large garment bag in her hand makes me suspect that she is here to meet me. I walk over and introduce myself to Kirstine Stewart. A warm and very calm smile spreads over her face. We head upstairs to prepare for the interview and photoshoot, but as we enter the room to meet the rest of my team, I get a call from Stewart’s husband, and head back downstairs to meet him.

Zaib Shaikh is standing by the elevator, and typing something on his cellphone. He has an upbeat voice, and enthusiastically shakes my hand. Between ground floor and floor 17, we somehow manage to discuss the traffic, the weather, the upcoming football game and his outfit for our shoot.

Kirstine Stewart is an established executive, formerly the head of English language services at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Currently, she is the VP Media, North America at Twitter. An award-winning professional, she recently published her first book. Zaib Shaikh is a Canadian actor, writer and director. He is well-known for his role as Amaar Rashid, an imam in the CBC Television sitcom Little Mosque on the Prairie. He also starred as Jayesh in Metropia, a soap opera on Omni Television. Shaikh is currently the Film Commissioner and Director of Entertainment Industries for the City of Toronto.

Stewart and Shaikh are a couple of contrasts: she is calm and collected, he is energetic and animated; she speaks slowly, he speaks quickly; she has poise, he has edge. But as our interview unfolds, I notice that they share an equally strong respect, admiration, and a certain protective and caring attitude towards each other. They tell all stories in a very complementary way — if one starts, the other concludes it. Their voices warm up every time they talk about their relationship.

Here is we chatted about that day.

On the cover of The Love Issue this month is the Canadian power couple: Kirstine Stewart and Zaib Shaikh.

On the cover of The Love Issue this month is the Canadian power couple: Kirstine Stewart and Zaib Shaikh.

HANNAH YAKOBI: Since this issue of FAJO is themed as The Love Issue, what can you tell me about the day you met?

KIRSTINE STEWART: The day we met was a work day.

ZAIB SHAIKH: Yeah, we were strangers.

(both laugh)

KIRSTINE: It was the launch of Little Mosque on the Prairie, I think it was a couple of weeks before the actual launch. They started to do press around it, and I remember being in the atrium of the CBC and having to introduce the major cast of the show. I got to Zaib, and the communications person had nicely, phonetically spelled out “Zayb Shaikh” for me. Only they thought his name was “Zaeeb Shaikh”, so I introduced him “and the Imam Zaeeb Shaikh”.

ZAIB: And I thought: “Wow, they can’t even get my name right.”

(both laugh)

What’s going to happen with this show?! Of course, it was very successful in many ways. But that moment, that memory as it turns out, was very significant in a lot of ways because it actually began a personal journey as well as a public one.

KIRSTINE: We worked together for a while after that, but it was an interesting way to meet. I think it was 2005 or 2006. The show launched in January and this probably would have been the December before that.

ZAIB: And then, as Kirstine said, we interacted as the person who runs the network and the cast member of the show.

Eventually you started dating, got engaged and got married! Tell me more about that.

KIRSTINE: Yes, it will be our fifth wedding anniversary this year.

ZAIB: We got married in 2011. At the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto!

It’s funny how we are meeting here today. By the way, this wasn’t intentional. I only discovered it yesterday.

KIRSTINE: I kind of like it though, it’s nice!

ZAIB: Yes, very cool.

KIRSTINE: We actually had three ceremonies as you would in the faith.

ZAIB: We had the Nikah, which is the marriage ceremony. Because of our schedules, we split it up over a six-month period. Some people do it over a weekend, but we couldn’t get ourselves together for a weekend. (laughs)

According to the faith, and the culture on the East side of things, there are three different unique moments to celebrate the wedding. Our birthdays are in May, and because of our schedules we were able to do the actual wedding ceremony in May too. So it’s an important month for us.

KIRSTINE: And then, we culminated with a party. We hadn’t really announced to the public that we were married; they knew we were engaged and that was it. Our actual wedding was very tiny …

ZAIB: Very small, just family and friends.

KIRSTINE: So, we threw a big party at the end of August and invited everybody. I think they thought they were coming to our wedding. We had about 100 people join us and we just announced: by the way, you don’t have to sit through a ceremony, it’s done.

You mentioned various cultural influences on your wedding. Could you tell us more about your cultural background?

ZAIB: My parents are Pakistani, but my grandparents were from India, so I have as I call it a “Delhi to Lahore” background. And I was born in Toronto, so I’m a very Toronto boy.

KIRSTINE: My parents are British, so they came over in the late 60s. That was the wave where a lot of people came to Canada. I have a sister and we’ve lived all around the world. The family is all in Southern Ontario now for a change, so that’s kind of nice.

You talked a little about the wedding, but what about the proposal?

ZAIB: I had a very cool experience. The journey of the ring was very special to me. In a way, it involved Little Mosque because I was on the Katie Couric show talking about Muslims in the media and, specifically, North American media. This panel was taking place in New York, and you got flown down there for it. You got picked up at the airport too. I believe that was in winter, so they arranged to be there a little bit earlier.

I landed at the airport and the limo driver said: “Listen, you have time to kill if you want. Would you like to go anywhere?” Now, Kirstine and I really like David Yurman – I have David Yurman watches, and she has David Yurman bracelets and watches. I thought, you know, it would be so cool to take this limo to the David Yurman Madison Avenue townhouse and pick out the ring for the woman I want to marry. I got there and they were excited because I said I’m in town for the Katie Couric show, I have an hour, I know exactly what I want and there it was. I got to package that experience: the Mosque was the reason we met, and I’m a Muslim, so it meant a lot. It gets to be a cool story as I went on to commit to the person I love.

KIRSTINE: And I interviewed Katie Couric later. She was coming to Twitter to speak to our media staff around how she uses it and what’s effective for her. I was interviewing her on stage beforehand, and I said, “Oh by the way, you won’t remember this, but a couple of years ago my husband was on your show; it was Zaib Shaikh.” And she goes, “Oh my God, I remember that.” And I said, “Well, actually, that day is when he bought me my ring and we’re married now.” And she said, “I’m so happy to be part of this story!” It was very sweet.

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Do you have plans for your five-year anniversary?

ZAIB: We were contemplating that, but we are in this very amazing but very busy “time scape thing”. There are some scheduling pressures, but yes, we’ve talked about commemorating.

KIRSTINE: We have a home in Toronto and a home in New York, so it’s not always easy to know what city we’re going to be in that far in advance.

ZAIB: Checking calendars…

(both laugh)

But we definitely looked at each other and said we are going to commemorate this. It was great for our actual wedding, since we had over six months to do it.

KIRSTINE: We have a few different anniversaries to choose from now because of the three different ceremonies.

Tell me about your work is there overlap in what you do? How do you work together not just as a husband and wife, but also as advisors to each other?

KIRSTINE: I would say this has opened up a lot more since we have each gotten different jobs than we had when we first met and when we first got married. When we started getting involved, I recused myself of the show and any decisions. There was a slight advantage to that because it meant you couldn’t talk about it, you didn’t talk about it, you didn’t want to talk about it. Even though we were both involved in something that was connecting us, it wasn’t really connecting us because ultimately there was nothing I could do, if there was an issue, a celebration. It wasn’t in my purview anymore. It was very freeing in that way. But now that we have different jobs, we’re not really even in similar spaces, we’re in media but not in the same way. Different cities, and all that.

ZAIB: I’m in the public sector and Kirstine is in what’s called “a new world”, and she is based out of a different city.

I tend to learn from Kirstine as I get to see how she leads and how she interacts with people: her vibe, her energy, the way she approaches things with grace and elegance. Sometimes I need to learn a bit of grace and civility, depending on the moment. It’s nice to emulate that.

KIRSTINE: And I get to learn energy. I’m not the kind of person who would be as outgoing as him and when I’m with Zaib, it’s a nice way of rounding out our personalities.

Where are you based now, Kirstine?

KIRSTINE: My home is still in Toronto, I come back every weekend, but my day is in New York. I travel a lot. This week I was in Miami, next week I’ll be in San Francisco. I have offices, because I’m responsible for North American media, so I’ve got a team in Washington D.C., New York, Toronto, L.A., San Francisco and Miami. It’s a scattered life and there are things that are always going on around North America. It’s very varied, but that’s fun too. Do it while you can, right?

As a couple, do you have hobbies that you share? Especially doing a bit of a long-distance relationship at times?

ZAIB: Travel is a big thing. We get to be together, in each other’s space, which is nice.

KIRSTINE: Often, he’ll come to New York and we can stay there for the weekend. We love plays, I think we are city folk.

ZAIB: We are very urban, but our honeymoon was actually an amazing South African trip that included a safari and a trip to a national park.

We’ve been to places where we are immersed in nature but, generally, we’ve got a very urban vibe. It makes us feel comfortable, it makes us feel connected, with each other but also with the rest of the world. And I think being in the business that we are in, the urban environment really speaks to us and that’s probably why we are in the businesses we are in.

What is the most memorable trip you’ve done together, apart from the honeymoon?

ZAIB: Well, Kirstine’s gift for my 40th was a trip to India. I’d never been and, of course, I have cultural roots and ties, and there is a lot of history that I’d never gotten to experience. So that was her birthday present to me and we had this amazing journey through Rajasthan, saw the Taj Mahal, and I got to have this really nice perspective. It was a really beautiful gift from her. I think we connected even more on that trip.

KIRSTINE: It was two years ago. We don’t take long vacations now: it was different when Zaib was shooting because you’d have these long periods where you are working almost 24 hours a day, and then you would have these long periods where you are not shooting, so you can take advantage of the time spaces.

Mine has just been a 24/7 kind of career. First of all, to take the time off for the honeymoon was a big thing. It was the first time in my entire career that I had taken more than a week off – I took 10 days!

(both laugh)

And then India was the second time, and it was a full two weeks, so that was a nice space. You still have Wi-Fi, everything is connected – you can be in a rural part of India or the most remote part of South Africa and still get messages on your Blackberry. It’s funny how that works.

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You both have very striking outfits today, by the way. Let’s talk a bit about fashion, what are you wearing?

KIRSTINE (to Zaib): Why don’t you start, cause I have to think about what I’m wearing …

(both laugh)

ZAIB: Well, I’m wearing an [Ermenegildo] Zegna blazer, I’ve got a Diesel shirt and pants, a Ben Sherman T-shirt and Holt Renfrew socks, from our daughters, my kids know me well. And my shoes are Cole Haan.

KIRSTINE: I’ve got The Row pants, Nina Ricci shoes, the jacket is new, I think it’s Needle and Thread. I wanted a bomber that had some bling and the benefit of living in the States is this little thing called NET-A-PORTER – when you don’t have time to shop much, you see it and suddenly you’re like: “Oh, I could use that.” And it gets delivered right to you.

The red dress I’m wearing later is also Nina Ricci. I got it from The Room. I’ve had a really good friendship with Nicholas Mellamphy, who runs it, and he’s always taken care of me and lent me dresses. It’s been nice to work with him.

Do you ever give each other fashion advice?

KIRSTINE: We shop together a lot.

ZAIB: I think we give each other a lot of positive reinforcement, we tend to not advise as much as we consolidate: “Yeah, that looks great.” We both have pretty good instincts and sometimes it’s: “Yeah, I know that you’re not feeling it and you’re probably right” or “No, it looks amazing.”

KIRSTINE: Whenever we’re shopping for clothes or for the home, we have very similar tastes. Even though they are weird tastes sometimes, they are very similar and we can make decisions very quickly.

ZAIB: Isn’t it nice to be really connected like that?

KIRSTINE: Yeah, when we walk into a store, the sales person is ready for a long conversation and they are always surprised when we say, “Yeah, we want that one.” And they are like, “What?” “Yeah, just that one.”

ZAIB: I don’t think either one of us is compromising. We just agree.

Wrapping up on the topic of love – do you celebrate Valentine’s Day?

ZAIB: Not in a special way, because I have to be honest – sometimes we are actually on different continents.

KIRSTINE: But we love the weekend or two before Valentine’s Day, which is Super Bowl weekend, so we always try to be together somehow. (to Zaib) Even when you were in Sri Lanka shooting, you were watching. And I was seeing it about 10 seconds before, so I had to not say: “He scored!”

ZAIB: We cherish it, we have our hot spots and we commit to that. We really hunker down and we are together – whether it’s with family or just the two of us, it’s cool.

KIRSTINE: We love being here, Toronto is great.

ZAIB: Yeah, we love this city, this is our home no matter where we go. This is where we connect and this is also where we fell in love.

FAJO Magazine would like to extend a special thank you to Four Seasons Hotel Toronto for providing the location for this photoshoot. Four Seasons Hotel Toronto offers 259 spacious, luxury hotel guest rooms, including 42 suites, in Toronto’s glamorous Yorkville neighbourhood. Guests can relax and rejuvenate in the 30,000-square-foot state-of-the-art spa, or enjoy spectacular cuisine by international chef and restaurateur Daniel Boulud at Café Boulud and d|bar. Blending warm sophistication with spectacular design, this stunning luxury hotel has made its mark in our vibrant international city as the only hotel in Canada to ever be awarded both the AAA Five Diamond and Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star ratings. Connect with Four Seasons Toronto on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest.

By Hannah Yakobi
Photography by Robin Gartner, assisted by Josh Fee
Make-up Artist: Chelsea Collinson
Hair: Chelsea Collinson

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