“You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness”….Brené Brown
The recently retired honorable Mr. Justice Harvey Brownstone of the Ontario Court of Justice, Canada’s first openly gay judge is currently celebrating his host-ship of one of the leading internet shows ”Harvey Brownstone Interviews”, as well as his integral best-selling book “Tug of War.” His sentence from constitutional convoy to anchor extraordinaire continues to be a dedicated quest into the untold truths of illuminated celebrities, authors, rockers, composers and icons.
Born in Paris, based in Toronto, Brownstone as a youth was kicked out of his house for coming out as gay. In an effort to regain his parents’ admiration, Harvey lived on welfare, shoplifted and used any means he could to finish school and become a kick-ass Canadian lawyer. After joining the research facility of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan and becoming head of the Family Law section, he then joined the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Toronto Mayor’s Committee on Community and Race Relations where he led the first subcommittee on Gay issues. In 1995 he was appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice. Harvey has learned that while courage cannot move mountains it can show us how to climb, and forge a path around them that we believe in.
During his judgeship, he received multiple awards and proclamations, including one from New York City senator Thomas Duane in recognition of his role in having officiated at hundreds of same-sex weddings, for New York citizens, who traveled to Toronto to get married before it was legal in the States. In 2022, Grammy nominated recording artist Harriet Schock wrote a heart-wrenching song tributing and inspired by Brownstone’s journey to gain parental acceptance called “I Am Yours.”
In between all of this, his best-selling book “Tug of War”, the first of its kind written by a sitting judge, afforded him an 80-city promotional tour. The royalties from this book went directly to the “Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada.” He also hosted a TV talk show called “Family Matters with Justice Harvey Brownstone”, which was the first talk show, ever hosted by a real sitting judge.
Harvey Brownstone once retired from the legal system, pursued his dream of hosting a celebrity talk show. He has thus far interviewed artists and celebrities, including Stefanie Powers, Robert Wagner, Melba Moore, Lucie Arnaz, Tony Orlando, and a unicorn marathon of others. He has even had a blend of coffee named in his honor by Breakfast at Dominque’s Coffee Company entitled “Harvey Brownstone Talk Show Blend.”
Harvey Brownstone is well on his way to becoming the Holy Grail of talk show hosts. Like a seductive alchemist, he finds a way to turn anguish into truth…..
What prompted you from being a judge to becoming a celebrity interviewer? How did that happen?
I always wanted to be a talk show host. When I was growing up, I was a talk show junkie. I watched Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin, Barbara Walters and Dick Cavett and all of these interviewers. I would sit there and think, “I could do better. I could ask better questions. They are not asking questions that go deep enough”. So, it has always been my passion. When I came out to my parents at 19 – now remember this was 1976 – I told my parents that I was gay and they acted very negatively. It made me very determined to do something that they would be proud of. I wanted to prove to them that they didn’t need to be ashamed of me. So, I gave up any hope of going into show business because there was no guarantee of success, and I would never impress them if I didn’t make it. I went to law school instead. I became an overachiever and decided to become a successful lawyer because I knew that would impress them. And it did. I went to law school. I was a lawyer at 23 years old, and never lost a trial. Then at the age of 38 I was appointed a judge.
Were they impressed?
Well yes, but it was never really quite good enough. When you become an overachiever, determined to get your parents’ love and approval, nothing is ever good enough. So being a star lawyer wasn’t good enough. I had to be a judge. So at 38 years old I got myself appointed to the Judiciary which in Canada is a big deal. Judges are not elected in Canada, you have to be appointed. And that is for life. Nobody had ever been appointed at the age of 38 and there had never been an openly gay judge appointed in Canada ever. So that finally made my parents proud of me. I would say that when I became a judge that really made them proud and we had a great reconciliation.
My dream of being a talk show host was really buried beneath my need to please my parents. But I always knew that as soon as I turned 65 and retired from the Judiciary, I would become a talk show host. I enjoyed being a judge don’t get me wrong, I was there 26 years. I had a very good career. I wrote a best-selling book. I had a TV show. But I always knew when I turned 65, I was going to finally launch a talk show. The one thing about the pandemic was Zoom. I had never heard of Zoom before the pandemic. The pandemic made Zoom very, very popular. So, I was actually able to start a talk show from my home in Canada interviewing stars in Hollywood without ever going there because of Zoom. It was actually feasible to do it.
So, being a judge and being a talk show host, which to you is more challenging?
There’s no question that being a judge is more challenging because of the clientele and the issues you have to deal with, and the volume of cases we had on our docket every day. It never occurred to me that the fact that I was a judge was going to be so much help in being an interviewer. I realized very quickly that I do it in a very unique way. There are thousands of people doing interviews especially on the internet like YouTube. But I have a unique style and that’s what I never realized until I started the show. After 6 months we had a million viewers. We are now 2 years into it, and we have over 5 million viewers per month worldwide. We are televised in the UK, with 2.7 million viewers a week. All of that is because I was a judge. Because of the way I asked my questions, the research that I do is almost like they’re not really interviews at all. It’s more like an examination-in-chief.
When I look at other interview shows, including ones that I have been a guest on, I think to myself, Well they haven’t done their research”. As an interviewer I’m obsessed with meticulously researching my guests’ lives and careers. And I realized that’s why our shows are getting such a huge audience. It’s not just because we’ve got good guests. It’s because of the way that the interviews are conducted. And all of that really came from my experience in the courtroom. It’s so fascinating to me that I always wanted to be an interviewer. And I don’t know what kind of interviewer I would have been if I had not first been in a courtroom for 40 years. Understanding how to ask questions. Because as you know there is a methodology to it. There are just so few that do the job correctly. They either talk too much and make it about themselves. Or they haven’t done their research and don’t really know what interesting questions to ask. So, their interviews become very boilerplate and boring. And you can see it in the guest. For example, I’ve had Robert Wagner on my show. Other interviewers would ask questions like, “What was it like being married to Natalie Wood?” That’s just a ridiculous question. These are questions these people have answered thousands of times and they don’t want to answer it again. They are not going to give you any new information. So, I try to do it differently. For example, I had Loni Anderson on my show, I knew that everyone had already asked her about her marriage to Burt Reynolds. So, I wanted to talk about it but in a way that nobody else has. I did it this way. I said to her, “You know, when Sonny Bono died, Cher said that she wished she could have had one final conversation with him had she known he was going to die, just so she could tell him what he meant to her, and to thank him for being in her life. Did you ever feel that way after Burt Reynolds died?” Well, that opened up a whole conversation where she started talking about Burt Reynolds and revealing anecdotes and stories that she had never told anybody else. And it was because I asked the question in a different way.
When I watch other interview shows I see the difference with what I do. I put extra work into coming out with something different and original. There is no magic to it. It is hard work. So many podcast hosts ask me “how did you get these guests? How do you get this many viewers? You don’t advertise. You don’t have a budget. How do you do it?” I’m telling you it’s because you have to attract an audience by doing something that nobody else does. And I really do think that having been a judge made the difference.
I want to know about your book Tug of War. It’s a best-selling book. I want to know the premise of it and also why did you write it?
I was in family court for about 12 years when it suddenly dawned on me that by the time we family Court judges see these couples in front of us fighting over custody, visitation and child support it’s actually too late. They have geared themselves up for World War III. Most of them come without a lawyer. Which is something the public doesn’t realize. Most people when they’re breaking up don’t have money to hire a lawyer. People watch Judge Judy. Judge Judy was hugely popular, and she gave people the impression that you don’t need a lawyer – that you can just go and tell your story. People used to come to court and say “Why would I get a lawyer? It’s my story. I don’t need to pay somebody to tell my story”. So, I wrote the book because people were coming to court with no idea of what to expect. Or what the court was going to expect from them. They were making messes of the court cases and of their lives. I realized that if I could get this information out to people before they come to court, before they decide to launch a court case that is likely going to destroy any chance of them ever being civil with each other again, then I should do it.
So, I started to write this book Tug of War. It gave the public the truth about what really goes on in Family Court and why family court is so bad for families and why litigation is so bad for children. People should not expect a total stranger that doesn’t know them and doesn’t know their children to make big decisions about where their children are going to live and how often they’re going to see them. That’s what the book’s about. It’s not really about financial stuff. Because frankly, if people are stupid enough to fight over money and go to court and pay lawyers to fight over money, the lawyers will end up making more money than they will.
My concern was people who were fighting over custody of their children and putting their children in the middle of a tug of war. That was the heartbreaking thing. Parents were creating this toxicity, because once you’re fighting in court over custody, the hostility between the parties escalates. The adversarial nature of a court case is very, very, harmful to children.
I felt it was time for a judge to tell people that you should be only going to Family Court as a last resort. There are cases that you should go like if you’re a victim of domestic violence or if you ex is mentally ill or won’t negotiate with you at all or if you need a restraining because you’re not safe. The vast majority of couples who break up do not need to go to court. [eliminate the word people]. They need to be able to deal with all of the emotions we go through when we break up in a way to be able to deal with their ex that’s business like. You have to love your children more than you hate each other. You can be an ex-husband or an ex-wife but you’re never going to be an ex-mother or ex-father so you’ve got to find a way to communicate and cooperate with your ex-partner. And that’s what the book is about.
I never expected the book to become a best-seller. It was on the National bestseller list for 13 weeks. Because I was doing all these interviews for the book, a producer contacted me and said, “You know what – you’re really good. You’re a good communicator. We should give you a talk show.” I agreed much to the concern of the Chief Justice. I brought on Experts. Experts that would never have come on television except that it was a judge asking them. Child psychologists, mediators, people that could really educate the public about separation and divorce and child development. I had teachers come on talking about what it’s like for kids that have parents in the middle of a big fight. What happens to these kids at school, to their concentration and all of that. We were on for two seasons, but I had to be careful to maintain my neutrality and not compromise my position as a judge, because I knew I was under the microscope within the judiciary, and I didn’t want to lose my job. So I couldn’t express personal opinions about issues over which I might have to adjudicate, in order to protect myself. And after two seasons the network came to me and said, “We want more Harvey. We want less Judge Brownstone and we want more Harvey.”
I was afraid to let my own personality come out. Because there were a lot of daggers out for me. There was a tremendous amount of professional jealousy. There were many judges that thought it was unseemly for a judge to go on television. Writing a book is one thing, but going on TV is quite another. I told the network that they would have to wait until I was retired. After two seasons I left, because I couldn’t safely demonstrate more of my own personality and opinions in the way they wanted. Being a judge requires your public persona to be like pablum: no flavor, no texture. But I always promised myself that one day when I retired, I would start up a talk show. But at that point I really wanted to do the Hollywood thing with the Stars. I didn’t really want to talk about the justice system. I have had a few lawyers on the show. There is a documentary on Netflix called Making a Murderer. It’s a very popular show. There is a lawyer on that show that is a big star. Her name is Kathleen Zellner. She agreed to come on my show because I was a judge. So, I have interviewed lawyers a few times, but the show really is not about family law or criminal law or law at all. It’s about pop culture and Hollywood.
What do you look for in an interview?
My first priority is to try to get a great legend. A star that is no longer working so they have time. And who I feel has never been properly interviewed. My second priority is I try to showcase authors who have written really great books that I don’t think got the promotion they should have had.
If you could have me ask you any question on the planet what would it be? And how would you answer it?
I think I would want you to ask me what I think is the key to finding personal fulfillment in life. Because I think that is ultimately the most important thing. My answer would be I really believe that the number one most important quality in a person’s character is self-esteem. With self-esteem, resilience.
I really believe when I look at the people that I considered to have been successful in life, whether it be in Show Business or life. And let’s face it most interviewers want to be interviewers because we’re trying to figure out what makes these people tick. I have come to the conclusion that self-esteem, the development of self-esteem, confidence, having faith and pursuing your dreams is number one. Aligned with that is resilience. To be able to handle rejection and disappointment and betrayals by people. You have to be resilient in life. You have to have what I call emotional teflon. People used to ask me how do you handle being a judge? You are hearing these horrible stories and dealing with the most toxic situations. How do you deal with all of that? And I used to say I have developed emotional teflon. It just bounces off me. I don’t let it sink in. I don’t soak it up like a sponge. Some people are lucky to have parents that instill self-esteem and that’s because the parents honor their children’s blueprint.
You have to know who you are and what you are good at. What makes you special and make you stand out. For me I knew that I was a performer. I knew that I might not be the brightest lawyer, but I knew I could win over a jury. I have a theatrical personality. I know how to win people over. I know how to use likability as a job skill. And it helps you develop self-esteem. I tell you this because I was very, very, badly bullied as a kid. I was one of those kids that at 6 years old they would call me a faggot. I didn’t even understand what it was. I knew I was different, but I didn’t know how. I really had a very tough childhood. I was beaten up all the time and just getting into the school building was an ordeal and then to get home after. I realize that there are coping mechanisms that you develop. I also learned that success is the best revenge. Even in law school. When I was in law school in the seventies, I was out of the closet. Because my parents had kicked me out, I didn’t have any reason to stay in the closet. If the only people I ever cared about didn’t want me anymore, I didn’t care what anybody else thought. I was at the top of my class. I went to the dean and told him my parents had kicked me out and I had no money, and the dean of the University was very nice to me and he gave me a scholarship provided I got straight A’s.
If you can get straight A’s through school we will pay your tuition and your books he told me. I’m telling you all this because in my last year of law school right before I graduated, I was at the top of the class, Straight A’s, and one of my professors said to me, “you know Harvey, it’s a shame you’re such a good student because you’re never going to get a job. You’re gay. You should have kept quiet about it. You’re not going to fit in. You shouldn’t have told anybody. There are probably other gay people in this class, but they didn’t tell anybody.”
Well, 12 years later I was a judge. They invited me back to the law school because now I was a golden boy. Youngest judge in Canada. First openly gay judge. They brought me back to the law school to give me some big award and who is there but that professor. I asked him if he remembered that conversation and he said he definitely did. He apologized and told me, “there you are on top of the profession and I’m still here trying to impress 21-year-olds.” I’ll never forget that line he gave me. I realized the best revenge is success. After I became a lawyer, I went into Criminal law. I tried to get into that big corporate world because I thought that’s where all the money was, but I wasn’t getting hired. I think it was because I was gay. So, I started to go into criminal law where I became very successful. Juries liked me. Judges like me. I had the flair. I managed to get witnesses to talk.
I was doing well until I represented this guy that committed sexual assault on a woman and he was acquitted. He gets released from jail and that night I got a call in the middle of the night that he’s been arrested, and he’s done it again. He needed me to come to court the next day and get him out on bail. I was beside myself. I couldn’t believe I just got him out and now he’s done it again. So, I go to court the next morning and he’s in custody and the courthouse has a place for the lawyers to talk to the clients. I start giving this guy shit. I said what’s the matter with you I just got you off, how the hell could you do this again and get yourself arrested? I come out from the interview and this very big lawyer is there and he tells me Harvey, you’re not cut out for this business you should find something else to do. I said what are you talking about I have never lost a trial. He said it was in talking to my client. When I heard you giving your client shit… don’t you understand, you want them to get arrested? We want them to get charged. That’s how you make your living. It was like one of those aha moments. Holy shit this guy is right. So, I thought okay if I don’t feel comfortable defending criminals, I’m going to try to get a job as a prosecutor, what you call “district attorney” in the States. I figured, well, if I don’t want to defend criminals, then I can prosecute them, because it’s still Criminal law. I got myself an interview and a second interview and now I’m with the head of the whole Toronto region. Now remember I was very good criminal lawyer, I did very well and the guy says to me, you are gay aren’t you? I said yeah. And he said well, we can’t hire you. We deal with the police. This is a very Macho office. You are not going to fit in. I like you but everybody is going to be uncomfortable. I was devastated because I realized that, if I didn’t want to do defence work, and if I couldn’t get a job as a prosecutor, then obviously I was not going to be able to do criminal law.
That is when I switched to family law. And I became the director of Child Support enforcement. From there I got appointed to the bench. In 1995 they made me a judge. And who is there at my swearing-in ceremony representing the prosecution office? That same guy. He’s looking at me and I’m looking at him. I’m sure he remembered the conversation so after the ceremony he comes up to me and says I want you to know how sorry I am. It was a different time. I told him you did me a big favor because I left criminal law and went to family law and my career skyrocketed.
The official website for Harvey Brownstone interviews may be found at https://www.harveybrownstoneinterviews.com
Photo Credits: Harvey Brownstone