What Happened to MTV VJ Quddus?

The former ‘TRL’ host tells VICE why he walked away from the intoxicating pull of the spotlight, and the lessons he's learned since.

Jul 7 2021, 6:25pm
What Happened to...? is an investigation into the whereabouts of former icons.

Quddus isn't entirely sure he wants to do this interview. In the 15 years since he left MTV and the rush of regularly going live in a Times Square studio filled with screaming teenagers, the former Total Request Live host has only opened up a handful of times, mostly to inspirational podcasts. But the now 40-year-old has things to discuss, and he's decided to take a chance.

“I had these moments where I'd walk to the window at TRL and I’d look down and see all the fans on the street,” he told VICE during a recent video interview. “I often thought, I wonder how their lives are. I wonder how I could support them in a more meaningful way than to just deliver this interview with Eminem today or whatever.”

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Basically, he said, “TRL felt like a party most of the time. I just had that feeling of being at a party and wanting to have a way deeper conversation.”

Ottawa beginnings

Quddus’ white, Canadian mother met his Black, Haitian father while on a trip to Haiti to help build schools. His dad, a local dentist, volunteered to pick her up from the airport, and they eloped six months later. After moving back to Canada together, they welcomed Benjamin Quddus Philippe in 1980. “Quddus” was a nod to a prominent figure in the Baha’i faith, which his mom practiced at the time, though Quddus was ultimately raised Catholic. 

Growing up in Ottawa, he said, was mostly “great,” barring one harrowing incident where he witnessed one of his friends get stabbed by another student with a machete in what he believes was a racially-motivated attack. “That was the exception,” he noted.

Despite his long-limbed stature and early passion for basketball, Quddus didn’t exactly excel at the sport and eventually realized that his most valuable contribution was making no-skips warmup playlists for the team. "The love for music was huge for me. In a lot of ways, it kind of saved me," he said. "I was not altogether sure of myself as a kid." After high school, he enrolled at The University of Ottawa, studying philosophy, while modeling and DJing on the side. But he’d grown up watching MuchMusic, Canada's version of MTV, and always thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool to host a show?”

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The opportunity came in 2000, when MuchMusic launched a nationwide search to find a new VJ. At the behest of his friends, he auditioned and made it to the finals. He didn’t win, but that exposure led to a gig hosting another show on the network called Vox, which led to a friend's aunt who happened to work at what was then the William Morris Agency in LA agreeing to watch his demo reel as a favor. Soon, he had a meeting with MTV, a network he had never really watched because it didn’t air in Canada.

“As I was walking into MTV, it became very clear that it was a whole different level than I had ever played on,” he said. “I felt imposter syndrome in every cell of my body.”

Joining TRL

MTV hadn't been in the market for a new host, but they created a position for Quddus in 2001, adding him to a roster of  VJs that were rapidly becoming celebrities in their own right. After initial stints hosting at the beach house in Key West and doing a man-on-the-street segment for The Mandy Moore Show, Quddus was thrust into the big leagues: Total Request Live.

The music video countdown show had been going since 1998, and by the turn of the century, it had become the network's flagship program—and provided crucial exposure to artists ranging from the Backstreet Boys to Avril Lavigne to Missy Elliott, who stopped by to promote their latest releases. This was a looser era, one in which stars freely dissed each other on air, showed up to interviews inebriated, and did other things today's tightly wound PR machines would rather squash than encourage.

Early on, veteran host Carson Daly, fresh off of high-profile breakups with Jennifer Love Hewitt and Tara Reid, imparted a sage nugget of advice to Quddus at a club:  “Have fun, be yourself, and don’t date girls in the industry.”

Quddus didn't need to be told twice. While he said some others at MTV were happy to date artists they met through their roles at the network, he steered clear, “partly because of that comment, and partly because I saw how the game was played on some level,” he said, adding, “I remember a conversation with a publicist at MTV, and she was like, ‘If you dated someone famous, that would be really great for your career right now.’ I remember feeling kind of repulsed at the idea that I would strive to date someone specifically to get more famous. It made me gag a little, honestly.”

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Not that celebrities didn't try: While on a trip to Belize with Destiny's Child for a 2005 segment, he said, “I started to get the feeling that Beyoncé and Kelly were trying to set me up with Michelle.”

Behind the scenes

When interview assignments were doled out each day to the roster of VJs, Quddus said he and La La Anthony were usually given the rap and hip hop artists, while white hosts like Damien Fahey and Hilarie Burton were often selected for the rock and pop acts.

“I remember one day we just felt so tired of the stereotypical assignments,” he said. “Telling our producers, ‘Hey, can we switch it up a little bit? Like, can I interview Madonna, while Damien interviews 50 Cent?’” 

Quddus noted that—despite the diversity of on-air talent and artists featured on the show—”all of the executive producers at TRL were white men” during his time there, and he encountered occasional “microaggressions” from colleagues. 

“I was the quintessential light-skinned pretty boy, right? So, I wore my hair curly in a certain way,” he said. "One day, I decided I was going to pick it out with an afro comb, like Questlove does. I was feeling good, and I was walking down the hall getting ready for TRL. One of the executive producers of the show pulls me aside and he says, ‘Hey, That’s a new look. Do you think that’s a little too Black for our show for you?’ I didn’t know what to say back. I was shocked.”

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While, if a similar incident happened now, Quddus said he would “definitely challenge it,” at the time he decided to let it go.

“A lot of people of color, when we get into that position, it's a different ballgame for us. At the time, honestly, I was just happy to be there. And I didn't want to rock the boat,” he said. “I hadn’t even really thought about it again until this past year, when I got to see what everybody got to see [George Floyd’s death and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality] and realized that there is a domino effect.” 

Former MTV News correspondent SuChin Pak recently spoke out about a racist incident during her contemporaneous time at the network, in which she said she overheard a white male colleague “tell a room full of people that I looked like a ‘me sucky sucky love you long time’ whore,” Pak posted on Instagram. “I was young, afraid as usual to cause a fuss or be seen as difficult or too ‘sensitive.’” 

And Hilarie Burton said she was praised for not making a scene when other inappropriate behavior occurred during her time at MTV. In her 2020 memoir, Burton detailed how the network responded when Ben Affleck groped her breast during a 2003 TRL segment, and she laughed it off on air. “One of MTV’s top brass called me and said, ‘You handled that so well,’” she wrote. “I didn’t realize that I was being groomed—trained to be a good girl and a good sport, someone who would put up with much worse behavior.” 

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While Quddus stressed that incidents like the hair comment were “few and far between” for him and that overall he had a “great experience” at TRL, he’s “so glad that we're getting to this point in the culture where Hilarie can share like that. And SuChin can share like that. And I'm sharing like this. This is a way more honest conversation.”

“Of course, they fall off the pedestal”

As an endless parade of pop stars, rappers, boy bands, punk groups, plus the occasional cast of The O.C. or Blue Crush, filed through the TRL studio, Quddus developed a rapport with many of them. He was the first to push for Kanye West to be featured on the show, and he was close with Britney Spears, who requested he hang out with her on her Onyx Hotel tour to cover her 2004 Showtime concert special from Miami. 

“I was so in awe of the impact she was having. At that point, everything seemed absolutely harmonious. She felt empowered, and she was enjoying herself,” he said of Spears. “Of course, looking back, the fact that some of her management team [was her] family and all of the blurred lines, I can see where that could be absolutely, fundamentally unhealthy. And, obviously, it’s become a nightmare for her.” 

While he cited the detrimental effects he saw occur when young stars like Lindsay Lohan had their parents serve as their managers, he also feels the media was and is culpable. “There’s a lot of layers. Media often props people up in a way that no one can live up to,” he said. “We continuously put unrealistic expectations on people and then, of course, they fall off the pedestal.”

In a recent TEDx talk titled “Confessions of a Recovering Influencer,” Quddus detailed how uncomfortable he felt pushing artists like Kanye West and Usher to comment on personal topics or headlines they didn't want to address. And in a 2020 Instagram post, he wrote that he felt “partly responsible” for enabling West and Donald Trump's political ambitions. (During The Apprentice days, Trump appeared on TRL to promote the series.)

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“When I think about the entire ecosystem of what we do in the media, we are constantly edifying and popularizing people who may or may not have great values and great leadership ability,” he said. “I can't help but think, I brought Kanye onto TRL for the first time. I was the one who facilitated him getting that platform.”

Leaving MTV behind

After almost six years of hosting TRL, Quddus was finding it harder and harder to be fulfilled in the role. The music landscape was shifting, and the relevance of the show was slowly dimming. He loved connecting with artists and fans, but resented that the interactions were always fleeting and relatively superficial. 

Plus, he’d done his dream interview with Stevie Wonder and, as he said, “Where do you go after you interview everybody? I could die happy.” He left MTV in 2006 to work in artist management for the now defunct MySpace Records, then hosted Nickelodeon's Dance On Sunset series and ABC’s short-lived singing competition show Duets, as well as served as a correspondent for The Insider.

Around 2012, he began to get more involved in philanthropic endeavors, returning to his dad’s native Haiti to distribute solar generated lights and later working with Generosity.org to build wells to help alleviate the water crisis there.

He moved to LA, then moved back to New York. He got married. And then, following a devastating incident in which his dog was killed by another dog in front of him, he suffered a months-long bout of insomnia. One morning he went downstairs at 3 a.m. to smoke some indica weed to cope and, likely due to his extreme lack of sleep, fell flat on his face. He looks at that now as “a radical wake up call” that led him to end his marriage and reevaluate his life.

A new chapter

Based in Boulder, Colorado since last year, Quddus, or “Q,” feels at peace miles away from the entertainment scene he built his earlier career around. “You know that show with Kristen Bell, The Good Place?” he said. “It feels like that. It's like utopia here.” 

He found love again during the pandemic with a nutritionist, and he plans to remain in Colorado for the next phase of his life. His social media bios label him a “TV host,” “media coach,” and “truth seeker.” His tweets contain messages like “Replace the need to prove something with the need to live your purpose,” “God’s plan is always bigger than our mind can see,” and “Folks out here chasing after followers but need to focus on making friends.”

“I don’t want to be reductive about how fame can feel like a drug and anybody who steps away from it essentially is then in rehab,” he said. “But, in some ways, there is a parallel. And I felt like I needed to almost go cold turkey in order to really honor this new passion of mine.”

His goal now is to find a way to “build a community” through media, rather than just amass clout. There’s a podcast in the works, and last year he started a group for Black men called the Kings Council. They've been meeting every other week over Zoom to check in, challenge, and uplift each other, and he has plans to expand it further. 

“There's so much over the years that’s happened in America to make us feel not welcome and not really at home here,” he said. “We get to remind each other that we are actually from royalty. When we look at the history of where we come from, we’re kings and queens, and over time and  exploitation, we've forgotten that in a lot of ways.”

A few years ago, Quddus was talking to Chris Rock about how he should position himself in the world, and the comedian offered up this one liner: “If Oprah and Ryan Seacrest had a love child, the kid would end up being like Quddus.”

Now, in addition to media coaching, Quddus sees his way forward in the entertainment industry as more akin to that Oprah side, using his interviews to go beyond the superficial, teach, and explore mindfulness. Above all, he said, “I want to leave the world better than I found it.”


Tagged:

MTV, trl, carson daly, What Happened To?, mtv vjs, hillarie burton

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