Nick Cannon On Grief, Depression, His Eight Kids and the Joy of Masked Singer

Dylan Coulter

AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, Nick Cannon has been a pretty good daytime talk-show host. Admittedly, it’s not a genre of television that I typically watch these days, outside of the occasional clips from Kelly Clarkson’s show that make it to my social-media feeds. Growing up, my mom watched the big ones—Phil Donahue, Sally Jessy Raphael, and the queen, Oprah Winfrey. As a teen, I gravitated, like so many other teens of the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the raunchy and violent escapades of Jerry Springer. The most recent daytime show I watched with any regularity was Steve Harvey, because my granny loves her some Steve Harvey.

Cannon’s show has been very much in the mold of shows that emerged after Ellen DeGeneres became one of the biggest names in daytime talk—far from the raunch of Springer but definitely not provocative like Donahue. The current brand is about joy and uplift, with a dash of sentimentality, all being presented by an upbeat and occasionally self-deprecating host who wants to ensure that everyone, audience and guest alike, has a little fun.

At the taping I attended in March, the 41-year-old Cannon handled all of these responsibilities like a pro, which isn’t surprising given that he has been in the entertainment industry for nearly 25 years. He moved through every segment with an easy giddiness. He and celebrity chef Carla Hall cooked some healthy soul-food dishes and made fun of Cannon’s lack of ability in the kitchen. He looked truly astonished at a woman who had gone viral on TikTok for deadlifting an insane amount of weight. He provided the requisite nonthreatening flirtation while sitting down with guest Kristin Chenoweth to discuss her new book and pet adoption, and the pair got up to do an improvised “hip-hopera” interpretation of Romeo and Juliet.

Along the way, he found time to make fun of himself for having eight children by five different women, as well as show off his musical talents by playing a bit of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky” before taping the final segment. It was sometimes corny, sometimes endearing, sometimes genuinely funny, and whatever it was at any given moment, the audience—some of whom danced and shouted, “I love you, Nick!”—seemed to have a good time. “When people give you energy, it fuels you,” he would say to me later. “It’s when you do something on a low frequency that you can do one thing a day and it exhausts you. But if you do something that you love that keeps you on a high frequency, that adrenaline keeps you rocking.” I can attest, he kept it rocking.

As fate would have it, I was interviewing Cannon in an office upstairs from his Harlem studio when it was reported that his show was being canceled after six months. Cannon will be fine, careerwise. He has a nationally syndicated radio show, he created and hosts the variety show Wild ’n Out on VH1, he hosts the wildly popular Fox show The Masked Singer, and, of course, he needs to be present for all his children. While Cannon’s work made him famous, his marriage in 2008 to Mariah Carey (and their divorce in 2016) launched him into a different level of the Twittersphere that tracks the highest highs and the lowest lows. You probably saw Cannon’s name in your feeds over the past six months when he shared news of the death of Zen, his five-month-old son with model Alyssa Scott, from a brain tumor on December 5. Then on January 31, Cannon shared that he was becoming a father for the eighth time, with model Brie Tiesi. A week or so later his friend Kevin Hart sent him a vending machine full of condoms.

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It’s a lot. A lot, a lot. But life is all about growth for Nick Cannon. It sort of has to be. He’s been a celebrity his entire adult life (he was born in 1980, landed the Nickelodeon show All That in 1998) and had millions of witnesses to the process of him becoming a man. On Twitter, on his shows, and on the radio, he talks candidly about his struggles with grief, depression, and accountability—journeys all of us share. “I’ve lived my life in the public eye in a way where it’s very authentic,” he says. “I kind of put it all out there. All my emotions, all my understanding or the lack thereof, as vulnerable as I could be—I’m just like, look, I’m trying to figure it out.”

Even today, with the news of his talk show’s cancellation. It must sting to have a platform where you can shine (quite literally—at the taping, Cannon wore the sparkliest loafers, made up to look like an American flag) and fulfill your goal of making people happy yanked away. “Everybody stumbles,” he tells me. “I haven’t seen anybody do it perfect. I take those stumbles as lessons learned and how to keep pushing along so you don’t stop. The only real failure is when you stop.”


BUT FIRST HE had to figure out his way into the industry. Cannon was born in San Diego to teenage parents who split up when he was young. He describes his teenage years as similar to those of Tre, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character in Boyz N the Hood: “When you get in trouble, you gotta go live with your dad.” He wouldn’t say exactly what kind of trouble but noted that it was “southern California, the ’90s, everything, you know, gangbanging and drug dealing .” His mother sent him to live with his father, a minister, in North Carolina. And it was in the church where he found a passion for performing. “Being a son of a minister, somebody who was already in public speaking, I just kind of took after those vibes,” he says. “I probably ain’t gonna be no preacher, cause I do too much singing. But you know, I’ll be able to at least engage in that same way to hopefully make as many people smile as possible.”

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At 16, Cannon decided the life he was living wasn’t the one he wanted and fully committed himself to pursuing a career in entertainment. He got a spot doing stand-up as part of Jamie Foxx’s Laffapalooza in Atlanta, a tape of which made its way to the world’s biggest movie star at the time, Will Smith, who demanded a meeting with Cannon. Smith became a mentor and helped him secure his first starring role in a film, 2002’s Drumline. From there, Cannon would go on to release an eponymous rap album in 2003, star in Love Don’t Cost a Thing alongside Christina Milian that same year, and start Wild ’n Out on MTV in 2005. He may not have been a household name in the way that phrase is typically deployed, but if you were young and Black around this time, as I was, you knew about Nick Cannon. You probably thought Drumline should have been a bigger hit. You maybe had a crush on Nick Cannon. You perhaps felt you could beat Nick Cannon in a rap battle. He was goofy, relatable, charming, and he seemed to have all the makings of a big star, if he could find the right thing.

Then in 2008 he married Mariah Carey. In saying that it was shocking, I don’t mean for it to sound as if I’m also saying there’s no way Mariah freakin’ Carey could have been into Nick Cannon. No, I mean that there’s famous and then there are global pop stars, and you never really think of the merely famous as being in the same orbit as global pop stars. It was a pairing that caught many people off guard, but they made it work, until their divorce was finalized.

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Cannon has some regrets regarding their relationship, which he explored in his song “Alone,” released on Valentine’s Day 2022. Speaking on his show, he said, “I had probably the greatest situation. I had my dream girl, and I messed it up. The song was not really about trying to get her back. It was taking ownership of what I did as a man and owning my flaws and expressing it through song.”

It was with Carey that Cannon had his first two children: Moroccan and Monroe, twins born in 2011. Golden Sagon was born in 2017, the first of his children with Brittany Bell; the second was Powerful Queen, born in December 2020. He had another set of twins—born June 14, 2021, and named Zion Mixolydian and Zillion Heir—this time with DJ Abby De La Rosa. On June 23, 2021, Zen S. Cannon was born.

Zen was diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer when he was two months old. After talking to his doctors, Cannon and Scott decided to focus on giving Zen the most comfortable life in the time he had. They spent Zen’s final day together at the beach. Cannon has said explaining to his other children what happened was “intense,” but those conversations also helped him “deal with it.” Two months later, he said on a podcast that he walks “around with a backpack full of guilt” because he didn’t spend more time with Zen and that working hard makes dealing with the guilt easier because he feels like he’s providing for others.

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In January, Cannon announced that his eighth child was on the way. He has said in the past that none of his children were “accidents,” which provides a glimpse into his parenting outlook: Whether your kids are strictly “planned” is irrelevant when they’re, as you see it, a part of a bigger plan. What he did say when we spoke was: “I love my children. I love the people that I’m involved with. People even often ask, ‘Are you gonna have more, you gonna stop?’ I’m like, those are questions that I don’t, I don’t really even sit around and think about. I’m just walking in my purpose and trying to be the best father and best provider I could possibly be.”

Part of that process involves sharing his feelings with other dads. “Kevin Hart’s my best friend, and he’s the one I’m always talking to,” says Cannon. “We talk about fatherhood quite a bit. We were on Real Husbands of Hollywood and put ourselves into fictitious scenarios. Robin Thicke is an awesome dad. Even Ken Jeong. We talk about fatherhood, the silliness of it all.”

Fatherhood is something he takes immense pride in. “Contrary to popular belief, I’m probably engaged throughout my children’s day, more often than the average adult can be,” he says, since he doesn’t work a traditional nine-to-five job and has flexibility to set his own hours and still be a high-level earner. “If I’m not physically in the same city with my kids, I’m talking to them before they go to school via FaceTime and stuff. And then when I am [in the same city, I’m] driving my kids to school, like making sure I pick ’em up. All of those things, making sure [I’m there for] all extracurricular activities. I’m involved in everything from coaching to having guitar lessons with my daughter every week.” The image of Nick Cannon coaching Little League baseball is something I still can’t get out of my head. It’s precious and unexpected.

But why unexpected? For a number of reasons, but I suppose it’s my bias when it comes to men who have fathered this many children—I simply don’t believe, until proven otherwise, that they have any interest in being present, loving fathers. Not that having fewer children—or being in a monogamous state-recognized marriage or any of the other traditional markers of “good” fatherhood—makes one more inclined to be present. Cannon is approaching fatherhood and family in an unorthodox way; he was raised in an unorthodox way. Unorthodox does not mean unloved.

“I’ve seen where people believe a traditional household works, and [yet] there’s a lot of toxicity in that setting,” he says. “It’s not about what society deems is right. It’s like, what makes it right for you? What brings your happiness? What allows you to have joy and how you define family? We all define family in so many different ways.”

I couldn’t agree with Cannon more. There are no set rules for family or happiness. Cannon has built a family—a large, sprawling, nontraditional family—that he loves and that loves him. “I think I was blessed to be able to have an upbringing that allowed me to see so many different aspects and witness love in so many different capacities,” he says. It’s a beautiful way to look at and experience life. It feels like a place you can get to only when you’re committed to critical self-examination.

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“I love therapy,” Cannon says at some point during our chat, and it hits me that things really have changed when two Black men born in the 1980s are sitting across from each other discussing their love of therapy. And therapy is a major part of Cannon’s life and evolution, something he takes seriously, especially with respect to being a father. He is examining himself and his ideas in order to show up better for his children. Or as he puts it:

“There’s a paradigm shift that’s happening in the universe . . . . There’s a lot of emotion that needs to be dealt with, there’s a lot of trauma and pain, and all of these things, challenging ideas that come with masculinity, that are being brought to the surface. A lot of it happens when you become a father, because now you’re responsible for other people’s lives. So before, you may have had some ideas or some thought processes that got you through life, but now you have to pass that on to your offspring. . . . Maybe what my parents instilled in me, or the ideas that society had 30 years ago, don’t apply today.”


THIS IS ALSO true of celebrity. There were rules on how to be famous that don’t apply today. It used to require an aloofness, a detachment from the public, and a secretive nature about everything private. Those aren’t the rules now. In the age of social media, people crave connection and access to the stars of film and television (or the stars created by social media, which is its own thing). Fans want to be let in. Cannon isn’t shy about giving them what they want.

When I suggest to him that he would be treated differently if he were a woman with eight kids by five different men, he dismisses the idea and offers as rebuttal that the reason he finds wide acceptance is that he leans into who he is. I disagree, but it is undeniable that Cannon lives his life out loud in a fashion befitting the modern celebrity. He lets people into it all: his children’s lives, his relationships to their mothers, and even the process of grieving. Modern celebrity requires a level of vulnerability that perhaps not everyone is comfortable with displaying.

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Cannon is fine with it. He’s not only an open book; he’s open to learning in public. In the summer of 2020, he invited Professor Griff, a former member of Public Enemy, on his podcast, Cannon’s Class, with the objective of speaking about the national unrest that resulted from the murder of George Floyd. The conversation unfortunately turned to familiar territory for Griff, who has a history of making anti-Semitic comments. Griff said that Black people were the “true Hebrews,” and Cannon supported this assertion by adding, “When we are the same people who they want to be. That’s our birthright. We are the true Hebrews.” He also told Griff, “You’re speaking facts,” when Griff defended his decades-old comments about Jewish people being wicked.

The exchange set off a firestorm on social media, and Cannon was fired by ViacomCBS. While initially he balked at the description of his comments as anti-Semitic, he later apologized. On his podcast, he hosted a conversation with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, who had raised objections to Professor Griff some 30 years ago, about Black-Jewish relations. Cannon’s public reckoning with the harm he caused with his remarks did seem to come from an earnest place of wanting to understand and make amends. “I built so many more amazing relationships [as a result of this incident], learned a lot of lessons. I learned so much as a man through that process about people.” He even invokes a lesson he teaches his kids. “For example, if you’re outside throwing rocks and someone gets hit with a rock, you don’t say, ‘Oh, I didn’t mean to hit you with the rock.’ The first thing you do is apologize that you hurt someone. Then you talk about why you were throwing rocks. Then you deal with the issue.”

Accountability is a buzzword these days, losing meaning with every usage. But what Nick Cannon is attempting is to show a version of accountability that comes through growth. His process—from hanging in the streets as a teen, to television, to movies, to marriage, to divorce, to fatherhood—is partly about taking that excitement he has for making others happy and turning it inward. It’s as simple as the old adage says: The best way to love someone is to first love yourself.

But there’s no set path to achieving that self-love. It winds through many different valleys and peaks, all of which Cannon has experienced. He may not have a daytime talk show any longer, but he has perspective: Nick Cannon loves his children, provides for his children, and spends quality time with his children. He is working on himself, on becoming the best man he can be for everyone in his life, but above all for himself. He isn’t dwelling too much on what it is to stumble or fail or face setbacks, because for him “every loss makes every win so much greater.”

This story appears in the May-June 22 issue of Men’s Health.