When I walk into Ellie Tesher’s office at The Toronto Star building, I feel I’ve entered a therapist’s lounge. I spot a blue couch to the left and picture individuals waiting their turn to spill their guts to the woman known to most readers simply as Ellie. I follow behind her slender 5’6″ frame into her personal office and eye the banner leaning against the back wall. On it is a photo of the freckle-faced advice columnist, her dark brown eyes and auburn hair illuminated. She’s flashing her sincere smile to the world, complimenting the advertising campaign slogan, “Good Advice, for a Change. Five days a week.”
My mind flashes back to fall 2002, when the Star launched its “Ellie” relationship advice column and the ad appeared on public buses. The paper issued a press release introducing the column, calling Tesher a “fresh, made-in-Canada successor” to Ann Landers, the most successful advice columnist to date – answering 2,000 letters daily and filling pages in 1,200 papers (including the Star). “I’m good at [giving advice]. And I’m not your mother. I’ll tell it like it is, but I’ll also tell you why,” Tesher told readers in her front-page introductory column, explaining why she was the right voice for the 21st century.
Now appearing six days a week, “Ellie” is syndicated in 31 newspapers across North America. Juggling one radio show, television appearances, an upcoming relationship book – in addition to the six columns a week that feature answers to three questions each time – I’m lucky Tesher finds the time for me. But I’m not here for guidance. I’ve come to discover why this new goddess of the advice scene thinks she can match Landers’s success in dispensing advice.
Following a stint at the Children’s Aid Society, Tesher studied toward her Master’s degree in sociology while raising her two children, Lisi and Stephen (both also writers). Then she began freelancing for various magazines and newspapers. Because she didn’t go to journalism school, she worked hard to learn the fine points of journalistic writing. “I used to read the paper three times a day, cover to cover, in an effort to learn how good stories are written,” she says. After joining the Star in 1977, she was promoted to many positions, including general reporter, features writer, and editor of the Sunday Star, Lifestyle, and Food Fashion and Home sections. “She’s really good at pioneering and getting things done,” says Star feature writer Catherine Dunphy.
Indeed, Tesher started a social justice issues column in 1995 to help publicize the plight of those most vulnerable, such as children, the elderly, the homeless, and the wrongfully convicted. “I learned very early that I was going to do my darndest to be good at what I was doing,” she says. “I sure was going to try to make a big splash and shed some light on things.” Five years later, she also added her touch to a relationship column under the pseudonym Lee D’Or for Metro (Metro later hired her daughter, Lisi Tesher, who writes under her real name).
When a contest ran for someone to replace Landers a number of years ago, Tesher, who read her column as a child, knew she could but didn’t feel the time was right since she lived in Canada. Yet when Landers passed away in 2002, she immediately seized the opportunity.
Apart from her career, it’s her personal life experiences that convinced others she was right for the role. “She’s really lived life and can provide that experience of what she’s tried and what worked and didn’t work,” says Star “Life” editor Mo Gannon.
Born in Toronto, Tesher matured for her age early on. With a mother that suffered from depression, she grew up somewhat isolated and quickly adopted the role of an outside observer. Her father, Philip W. Goldman, moved up the ranks of the pharmaceutical industry his entire life to his last position as president of Shoppers Drug Mart. Considered very wise, he advised hundreds of people, including the young.
Tesher has also known a few relationships herself. Despite having married a “nice, Jewish doctor” as her mother would have liked, she has divorced, become a single parent, gotten remarried, become a stepmother and, most recently, a grandmother.
She credits her entire life experience, including her divorce, as greatly preparing her for the column. “Anyone who goes through [divorce], if they don’t learn how to have better relationships the second time and how to help their children through it, is really doing themselves and anybody else a disservice,” she says, looking down in concentration.
In some ways, Tesher’s life mirrors that of Landers’s. In addition to having been divorced and sharing the same religion, they both have daughters who enjoy trying on their shoes. Lisi joins her mother Sunday nights on Newstalk 1010 CFRB’s popular six-month-old advice gig, the “Ask Ellie and Lisi Show.”
Landers’s original venue, the Chicago Sun-Times, picked up “Ellie” within two months of the column’s launch. Drawn to Tesher’s humour and contemporary voice, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Michael Cooke, was immediately convinced that “Ellie could conquer America.”
Tesher receives hundreds of letters weekly, mainly by email, from people across the continent, including a small percentage from as far away as Egypt and Australia. She’s one of the few advice columnists attracting a largely diverse population, including those in cross-cultural relationships and, the most difficult to target, men and the younger generation.
Readers turn to advice columnists because it’s a free, anonymous process. Friends may be too inexperienced, immature, or judgmental, or they may have their own agendas. Answers from parents might be considered conservative and old-fashioned.
Tesher lends an outsider’s ear and writes in an intimate, sincere, conversational manner, speaking directly to readers’ real hopes, frustrations, and fears. Speaking to how her mother operates, Lisi says, “You have to be able to take yourself out of the situation and drop everything and just become a blank canvas.”
At the same time, Tesher advances with the frank nature of today’s advice columnists. They’re the odd friends who aren’t afraid to whack you on the head when you need to snap back to reality. “Two months of her talking to the only man who was there to listen, and she needed your forgiveness? Be grateful she still finds something to love in you and get to marriage counselling with her,” Tesher ordered a man who never made time for his wife.
But despite the column’s success, it’s difficult to discern its usefulness. Like most advice columnists, Tesher edits questions for space requirements to fit the publication. She also writes her column three weeks in advance to ensure it always makes it into papers. So on top of having to compete for attention, this isn’t the proper outlet for those seeking immediate support, although Tesher admits she has provided immediate personal responses in serious cases, such as suicide, depression, and other pressing matters.
As a former social worker, Tesher is more qualified than most other advice columnists to guide on such concerns. But she still uses the help of her full-time editorial researcher in identifying resources and background information to inform her responses when needed. And when she wants a specialized opinion, she often consults with the expert contacts she’s made throughout her career, and sometimes quotes them.
Still Tesher thinks it’s “unrealistic” for readers to think she sits in her office armed with knowledge of every type imaginable, pointing to how people have several doctors for different needs. Like Landers, she says without a researcher, she would never be able to handle the massive mail, maintain the column, along with its daily syndication and her website.
Ultimately, advice columns speak directly to only a handful of people, most obviously the writer and those with similar concerns. For others, it’s mainly a form of entertainment. “It’s not a cure for cancer,” says Tesher. “I don’t have an overblown concept of my role in this world,” she adds, laughing.
Back at Tesher’s office, I ask her where she’d like to see her column go in the future. “Everywhere,” she replies, smiling assuredly.