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Cowboys and braniacs: Calgary native Jessi Cruickshank hosting CCMA awards and Canada's Smartest Person

Cowboys and braniacs: Calgary native Jessi Cruickshank hosting CCMA awards and Canada's Smartest PersonJessi Cruickshank, Courtesy, CBC

In the world of entertainment, it would be difficult to find a nicer corner than the one occupied by mainstream Canadian country music.

Filled as it is with earnest and affable regular-dude types such as Paul Brandt, George Canyon and Gord Bamford, it’s not the sort of place known for cattiness and controversy. Feuds of the Miley Cyrus/Nicki Minaj sort generally don’t erupt when they gather at award shows.

So Calgary native Jessi Cruickshank says she is unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes or Seth MacFarlane at the Oscars when she hosts the Canadian Country Music Awards in front of 10,000 live fans and a television audience Sunday in Halifax. Yes, there will be comedy. But the night will be more celebration than roast, she says.

“There’s less fodder in country music, everyone is just so darn lovely and nice,” says Cruickshank. “There’s not going to be any going after people. They are way too lovely.”

It’s not that Cruickshank was ever known as the queen of mean as a TV personality. But before she turned her attention to the more cerebral task of hosting Canada’s Smartest Person for CBC last year, she interviewed celebs for MTV and eTalk and fearlessly reported on all sorts of sordid shenanigans as host of The Hills: The After Show.

She even had a taste of controversy when it comes to thin-skinned celebs and award shows. Last year when hosting a Juno gala in Hamilton, Ont. Cruickshank got a laugh from the crowd after throwing a fairly gentle jab at electronic music. She suggested it may not require the same levels of devotion as classical music does; something about “a couple of guys spend a few hours messing around on a MacBook Pro … ” This apparently led to a short-lived Twitter tantrum courtesy of Canuck DJ Deadmau5.

“That became a thing online and at the end of the day got me 10,000 followers, so thank you Deadmau5,” Cruickshank says with a laugh. “The whole room laughed, but Deadmau5 got on his phone and tweeted!”
“At the end of the day,” she adds, “he’s going to stop tweeting at some red-headed chick from Canada and dive into his pool of money. So I don’t feel too sad for Deadmau5.”

While she doubts anything of the sort will happen on Sunday, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be boring. There’s some pre-taped comedy bits but Cruickshank says her favourite type of performance is “live, in-the-moment improvised stuff.”

“There’s very much a component of nobody knows what will happen and I think with me people are especially like, ‘Now we really don’t know what is going to happen. What is this chick going to bring to the table?'” she said. “Which is so exciting.”

Cruickshank was born in Calgary but grew up in Vancouver, where she traded barbs with a young Seth Rogen as part of her high school’s improv troupe.

While she cut her teeth interviewing such bright-minded celebs as Zac Efron and the Backstreet Boys, she is convinced it is her gig overseeing Canada’s Smartest Person for the Mother Corp. that turned her “Canada’s smartest TV host.”

After crowning Vancouver law student and St. Albert native Braden Lauer the champ last year for Season 1 of the reality TV competition series, Cruickshank will oversee a new season and new batch of 28 would-be geniuses. As with last year, the contestants will be put through challenges that will measure musical, physical, social, logical, visual and linguistic intelligence. Last year, for instance, contestants were forced to detect whether a celebrity was lying, provide pep talks for a hockey team and try their hand at being a DJ.

Season 2 begins Oct. 2 on CBC and Cruickshank promises it will be wilder than the first.

“The first season was fun and we figured out what worked and it did really well,” says Cruickshank. “For the second season, our goal was just step it up and make everything bigger, better, louder, more entertaining and we really, really did it. We just finished taping it, but gosh it was such a blast.”

While the contestants have yet to be revealed, Cruickshank says they include everyone from a truck driver to a chemical engineer to a “well-known” hip-hop artist to a YouTube sensation.

“They are genuinely, truly, absurdly intelligent in all different ways,” Cruickshank says. “It’s celebrating that and discovering smarts that you didn’t know you have is what makes the show exciting. When you witness a truck driver break records in one of our challenges and the whole audience is going crazy, it’s just amazing. It’s a very cool thing to witness.”

The series will continue to be interactive, with viewers able to play along with an advanced app. Last season, more than a million intelligence tests were completed by the general public. One devoted player scored so well at home last year that CBC signed him up for Season 2.

Cruickshank makes it a point to try out every challenge. This season, the app will allow players to go head to head. Cruikshank plans to take on her father.

“He’s the most competitive person I know,” Cruickshank says. “He was always sharing his results with me, bragging about his results, wanting to know mine.”

Her parents will no doubt be tuning in to watch their daughter host the Canadian Country Music Association Awards on Sunday. Cruickshank says she has early memories of them listening to country music in Calgary. She took to it at a young age.

“As a little kid, when you have giant red hair there are very few role models,” she says. “Before the Little Mermaid, I looked at Bonnie Raitt and the Judds and Reba. They were the only people in the public eye with this big red hair. My parents listened to them so I was indoctrinated into country music via just needed a red-headed hero and found them there.”

Despite the number of celebrities Cruickshank has interviewed, she admits she can still get star struck. She was a presenter of the country awards last year in Edmonton.

“Paul Brandt was the one person who was, as he should be, like the legend walking around who everybody wanted to go to up and meet,” she says. “I very awkwardly, at the very end of the night, introduced myself. I want a Take 2 on that. I want to meet him again in a less-nervous fashion.”

The 2015 CCMA Awards will be aired Sunday on CBC-TV and CMT. Season 2 of Canada’s Smartest Person begins Oct. 2 on the CBC.


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