The Many Faces Of John Heald

Following is Ralph Grizzle’s 2005 interview with Heald: 

Carnival Cruise Lines’ John Heald may be regarded as the funniest cruise director at sea, but it was a serious event that launched his career of making people laugh. Born in Essex, England, the political science major worked as a marine insurance broker for Lloyd’s of London.

That changed one wintry night in 1986 when 24-year-old John boarded a commuter train after work: “I looked at all the long faces and thought, there’s got to be more to life than this.” He chucked his job, traveled to America, and signed on as a bar waiter for Carnival.

Managers promoted him to cruise director in 1990. “When God made me,” John jokes, “he said ‘I am going to make you ugly, but I’m going to give you a sense of humor, and you have to share it.’ I believe that was what I was supposed to do: Go out and make people laugh.” We caught up with John on the Carnival Liberty.

Q. You’re celebrating two decades with Carnival. What’s the voyage been like?
“Looking back, it’s been a fantastic 20 years. I get to stand on a stage with 2,000 people at a time laughing. And I met my wife on a cruise.” [John married Heidi Ten Brink in December 2004. A native of the Netherlands, she worked with John on Carnival ships.]

Q. Who were your major influences? 
My mom gave me my sense of humor. She laughs a lot, and makes a joke of everything. My father is a retired high school principal. I’ve been blessed with his caring and studiousness.

Q. You average four to five months working, then six to eight weeks off. What do you do during your time off?
“Go on a cruise for vacation. Not! [He laughs]. I like to do very little. I have gotten the travel bug out of me. In 20 years of traveling, I have seen the world. So I like to sit at home and read. I try to read at least three books a week. There are lots of good things about being on vacation and off the ship that you take for granted: buying a newspaper in the morning and deciding what time to get up. The most wonderful thing about vacation, though, is the phone. On the ship, my phone rings 150 times a day. You grow to hate that sound. When I first became cruise director, there was no communication with the office. You had to get off the ship to call. Now they can call my stateroom. And I spend time looking after my parents. After all, they looked after me all these years.”

Q. Does being “on stage” all the time get weary?
“There is fine line between my social life and my working life. The moment I step out the door I become the cruise director. I can’t have a bad day at work, even if I feel like going back to bed, It’s hardest when somebody stops me and says, ‘I’ve got a joke for you,’ and it’s the same joke someone told me three minutes ago. But I laugh like it’s the first time I ever heard it.”

Q. Are there many faces of John Heald?
“There has to be at least two or three. People must think I’m the same on and off. I couldn’t be. I don’t want to sound like the sad clown, but I like solitude, I like to sit in a chair, smoke a cigar and read a book. At the end of a seven-day cruise I can’t walk five feet without people stopping me and taking a photo. Imagine what it would be like to be really famous. Anybody in public eye would go nuts if they couldn’t just turn that face off and be themselves.”

Q. You have a large and growing fan club. Are you surprised? 
“It’s the weirdest thing. I think there are more than 10,000 past Carnival cruisers who are part of the fan club now. Nearly 200 of them were on the ship a few weeks ago. They all had T-shirts with my face emblazoned on them. A whole series of emotions rushes through your mind, like ‘Wow! That’s fantastic!’ or ‘Wow! That’s weird!’ It’s odd to see my face on a T-shirt, my big cheeks bulging on a big bust. I think people see it as their chance to get close to someone in the public eye. Either that or they appreciate the fact that I make them laugh and smile. I hope it’s the latter.”

Q. One of your vices is cigars, but you no longer drink alcohol?
“I stopped when I signed on to become a cruise director. Since then, I haven’t had any alcohol. If there is an emergency at 3 in the morning and I have to get on a microphone, I have to sound assured. There are 3,000 people waiting to hear what I tell them to do. I’m a massive tea drinker, though — seven or eight mugs a day with milk and sugar, English style.”

Q. Ships are getting increasingly larger year after year. What do think of the trend?
“Soon you won’t even need ports. You’ll walk to the back of the ship, and you’ll be on another continent — or in Jamaica.”

Q. You were fortunate to have followed your instincts when you were 24. Any regrets?
“None. To have found my way to what I am doing now was an incredible opportunity. I am very, very lucky.”

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