How it started

January 2017

I had a hard time sleeping that night, wracked by anxiety. My partner and I had just moved into a new apartment by Spadina Chinatown for her new job. I had just moved back to Toronto from New York City after the end of an unpaid internship at the UN. I didn’t plan on moving back to Toronto because of a job offer I received there (signed the papers and everything) but was blocked by the higher ups just weeks before starting the paid gig. Denied, even after toughing out six months of unpaid internship, living with a Tita in a rough part of Queens, but proving myself capable enough to be offered a job at the United friggin Nations in the first place. That job was supposed to help me pay off student debts, re-gain the 20 pounds I lost for not eating during those 6 months, and have something resembling a career. Budget problems, it always seems.

I was broke. I had no money, no savings, and no real job. A week before that sleepless night, I started working as a bike courier, delivering food through Toronto winter storms for tips, to try and pay the bills. Because I just started doing those deliveries and I spent all that I had on the deposit, I was still short for making ends meet by the end of February with expected OSAP payments.

There really needs to be a better way to come up with ideas, without the anxiety of crushing debt and precarious work keeping you up at night, thinking about everything that’s gone wrong. But it was that sleepless night that it struck me: write an article for GQ Magazine about Jagmeet Singh.

I was freelancing a bit for GQ at the time, with a handful of articles about Canadian politics but for an American audience. It helped subsidize being broke while interning in New York. Those late Condé Nast cheques paid for a lot of pita bread and tortillas at the Jackson Heights Foodtown. Though freelance writing is totally unreliable as a real source of income, it does come in clutch if you get the timing for the cheques right.

I got up and sketched out what I wanted to do. Interviewing Jagmeet Singh for an article made total sense as a way to 1) earn some cash to make it to the end of February, 2) somehow finesse my way into a real job that didn’t involve delivering bad pad thai, 3) elevate the profile of Jagmeet Singh so that he could enter the race to become the leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada.

The NDP weren’t looking great when I came back home after living a couple of years abroad. In Toronto, where I used to volunteer and work for the party as an organizer while studying at UofT, the NDP was basically shut out after the 2014 provincial election and 2015 federal election. I left Toronto with the expectation that I’d come back with Olivia Chow as mayor of the city, but returned to the city under John Tory and his rather tepid administration post-Rob Ford. A lot of friends lost their jobs and Toronto’s left progressives were not in great shape. I think Trump just being elected that fall 2016 added to the doom and gloom I felt coming back at the end of 2016.

After Thomas Mulcair failed the leadership review at the Federal NDP Convention earlier in 2016, a lot of Twitter talk among pundits and party folks circled around "who’s next?” Who could lead the Federal NDP now? Who would lead Canada’s third-place party after that electoral disaster? 2015 was the NDP’s election to lose and they blew it. Who would even want the job of cleaning up that mess?

Jagmeet’s name was, after the convention, one of several tossed around by columnists as people who ought to be in the running to replace Mulcair. Other strong possibilities where thrown out there with strong standing within the NDP as possible candidates, like Nathan Cullen and Megan Leslie.

When asked about it through 2016, Jagmeet would say “wow that was kind of funny and flattering. I’m truly honoured, but at the moment I can’t definitively say that I’m running for leadership.” This was the line his staff trained him on when the leadership rumours started flying. Saying yes and no at the same time is not an uncommon political move, but it also bought time to test the waters and see what would happen, determine if there was a real shot, and prepare. As Mulcair’s interim leadership continued for the rest of 2016, Jagmeet’s name kept coming up among the pundits.

I thought they could use a little push to keep them talking about him. I could also use the cash (it ended up being like $300 USD for that article) to pay next month’s bills. I could also prove to an exploratory campaign team, if there even was on, that I could be useful. I have come to learn that you don’t really get jobs in politics (or most places for Millennials in this day and age for that matter) with your resumé and cover letter. I had to make moves and conditions were right to make this one in particular. It could be my ticket out of delivering pizzas despite two masters degrees in public policy.

Aside from this idea being a quick way to make cash, I knew that making him the subject of an article in GQ was a way to get Canadians to take Jagmeet Singh seriously. I knew that this would get Canadians to pay attention because Canadians care way too much about what Americans think of them.

Jagmeet was also a perfect fit for GQ and their liberal American audiences who were thirsty to see more people of colour in Western politics, maybe due to feeling malaise after just electing Donald Trump as president. To complement Canadian self-consciousness about what Americans thought of them, American liberals were also obsessed with Canada and Justin Trudeau as prime minister. Jagmeet could easily fulfill the American appetite for CanCon. He wore bespoke suits and colourful turbans, knew how to post an Instagram thirst trap, and is younger than Trudeau.

The idea wasn’t exactly original, I think anyway. Buzzfeed did a listlicle in 2015 that embedded his Instragram posts featuring his style and bikes. That grabbed a lot of attention for very minimal effort. Just a couple of weeks before, Althia Raj put out a full profile on him in the Huffington Post Canada. As a Member of Provincial Parliament in Ontario, it was common to point out that maybe Jagmeet didn’t have the national profile; that he was unknown to Canadians, much less the NDP membership outside of the province. But a profile in a Condé Nast publication meant that Americans were taking notice. We Canadians love it when that happens.

The opportunity was screaming at me, keeping me up that night. I fell asleep later with my phone still in hand, drafting the e-mail pitch to GQ’s digital editor. Despite all that scheming, it all depended on them accepting the pitch.

———

Subject: Pitch: Canada's Most Stylish Politician That's Not Trudeau
Clem Nocos
Tue, Jan 24, 2017, 2:00 PM
to Chris

Hey Chris,

Wondering if you'd be interested in running an article on Jagmeet Singh: recognized for being pretty much Canada's most stylish politician who is also in the running to be Prime Minister for Canada's left-wing party.

While Trudeau has gotten a lot of credit for being the most stylish world leader, Singh is the more stylish Canadian politician. https://www.buzzfeed.com/tanyachen/meet-the-most-stylish-politician-in-canada

I think he deserves some sort of American profile and I could also get in touch with him to ask questions for the article.

Lemme know what you think, man!

Chris
Tue, Jan 24, 2017, 2:45 PM
to me

Hey Clem. This sounds dope. Wanna reach out, see what his people say? I could see a Q+A with him being interesting. And then maybe we can touch base?

———

I sent an e-mail to Jagmeet Queen’s Park constituency office e-mail addresses, but fearing that it would get filtered out by a staffer thinking it too good to be true (I learned later that they didn’t see it until a couple of days after I sent it), I sent a DM to him over Twitter.

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That evening, I got a call from a private number.

“Hi, is this Clement Nocos?” Hi, yes it is. I messaged you earlier. “This is a prank, right? This has to be a prank.” No prank, sir.

To be in something like GQ or Esquire had been something like a top 5 dream goal of his. He’d often joke that it wasn’t often that a bearded man wearing a turban makes it into men’s fashion magazines. He couldn’t do the interview right away because of representing Ontario at a meeting of La Francophonie abroad, but promised to set things up as soon as he got back.

We set up the day to shoot at Queen’s Park with GQ sending along a freelance photographer to tail him around the building. I hastily wrote up questions for the interview, asking about style, faith, politics of both Canadian and American varieties, and his own background. I swapped several bike courier shifts that week to make it happen.

My first time meeting Jagmeet, I think I was caught a bit off-guard. I only knew him from afar, as the first NDP official as far as I knew ever elected in the Brampton-Mississauga region west of Toronto. That breakthrough back in 2011 first gave him a profile. That his constituency was the next to the one where I grew up in made him a person of interest to me from the start.

I also knew of him through watching Jus Reign videos as a distraction from my grad school thesis while abroad in Berlin and Tokyo. Those YouTube videos and Vines helped me with a lot of homesickness. He even shouted out that fact on Jus Reign’s podcast later on, embarrassingly enough. I knew of his style, his political cred, and that he had the capacity to goof off (see Jus Reign videos). What caught me off guard was a personality that was relentlessly and genuinely positive; or “vibes” as he normally said. His personality was “vibes.”

While shooting, the photography crew and I got a tour of Queen’s Park. Even though we had just met, he handed me his phone to take Snapchats, following him around the Ontario Legislature. He complimented my handy social media work with the appropriate use of lingo and emojis. After the final couple of shots in his Queen’s Park office, we sat down for the interview.

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I thanked him for taking the time to chat and got up from the chair, but asked, “really, when it does happen, I want to be part of the team.” He said, “I’m still figuring it out, but we are making up a list of people who have reached out to help. We’ll add you to the list.” After typing up the transcript and invoice the next day, I set out for another bike courier shift.

The day that the article was published was a full day of cycling around Toronto, dropping off deliveries. The job entailed a lot of waiting around at restaurants for orders to be filled, so normally to pass the time I scrolled through Twitter on my phone. it blew up. By the evening dinner rush, the Toronto Star posted an article about the article. That led to my phone blinking with more notifications from friends saying they read it, or that they had posted it with mentions. My mom posted the article of the article to her Facebook page to flex on her cousins. It just kept going.

Jagmeet Singh in GQ became the Canadian media news story of the week. That was my plan in the first place, but it spread way more easily than I thought. Canadians really do love it when Americans pay attention to them. While still on the fence about running, Jagmeet got the national profile pundits had earlier thought he lacked. Mom kept taking pictures of the TV on CP24 that kept showing screencaps from the article on their cycle. The Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, and National Post began running more profiles and analysis and every political show was talking about him after the article went viral. They kept mentioning GQ alongside Jagmeet Singh for the next couple of weeks.

The interview also went global. It was copied in GQ India (I did not get a cheque for that) and later on the article received honourable mentions and excerpts in the Washington Post, New York Times, Al Jazeera, and BBC. As events would have it, it was scrolled through later on by Hollywood celebrities and other famous figures. Still a year later, I came across it again when he was interviewed on Tout le monde en parle.

As the news cycled through with my article as the story, I kept dropping off food throughout the winter. Still trying to pay the bills, trying not to get doored by a car or slip on black ice. Still waiting for a real job.