John Bolaris is in a bit of a pickle, as John Bolaris often is. He wants to talk, he really does. But talking always seems to get him in trouble, and right now, he’s in deeper than he’s ever been. That’s not a surprise. What is a surprise is when Philadelphia’s favorite weatherman, usually the sunny optimist, gravely intones, “This is the scariest time of my life. I’m in an abyss.”
It’s pouring rain on South Street, and I’m standing with an umbrella in one hand, phone to my ear in the other, Bolaris’s voice cutting through the torrent. He’d texted me that he needed just a minute to chat; after 20, he’s still going. His voice is so familiar, the perky narrator of countless forecasts since his first broadcast here 22 years ago, and for a moment I lose track of what he’s saying. This is John Bolaris, with all that suggests. As a teenager, I once saw him stroll into a movie-rental joint with a stunning blonde, easily a few inches taller than his five-foot-nine frame. Roughly 20 years later, Bolaris is still dating leggy blondes, and is still an object of fascination, though more for the storms in his personal life than for any he’s predicted through the dim glow of television.
Tales about Bolaris have always been ribald, stuff Chaucer would revel in—getting tossed across tables, getting pissed on, getting laid at a rate that would make Wilt Chamberlain applaud, leaving a trail of broken hearts in his wake. Forecasters make mistakes every week; Bolaris’s has its own name—the “Storm of the Century.” After a few relatively uneventful years, the biggest Bolaris story of all hit in the spring of 2011: In the course of one lost weekend in Miami, he says, he was drugged twice by a pair of sexy Eastern Bloc con artists and charged 43 grand for a few bottles of booze and a cheap painting. What came next was unthinkable, a chain of events that grew like a lab experiment in a sci-fi thriller—begun with noble intentions but run amok, and ending in cinematic destruction.
Today, the Bolaris story is a tragedy. For the first time in his life, he’s jobless, fired from Fox in the aftermath of his South Beach misadventure. He’s a 55-year-old single dad who wakes up in the middle of the night in a sweat, worried about how he’ll pay for college for his now-eight-year-old daughter. He’s become a punch line, a mocking Twitter hashtag, a meme for unthinkable naïveté (“Roofie me once, shame on you … ”).
It’s easy to view Bolaris as a caricature. After all, he’s a guy who tells us whether it will snow tomorrow. For that, he’s made more money—he topped half a million a year at Fox—and had more sex than most of us will see in a lifetime. What’s harder to look at is how he’s sunk this low, and to recognize two essential truths: Philadelphia needs him on television. And what’s holding him back is the same thing that made him a star. It’s not a news director, or the media, or the haters, of which there are many. It’s John Bolaris himself.
“Hey buddy! That’s my cab!”
Today, every day seems to be one of those days for Bolaris. A few months ago, he would have been dressed in a Hugo Boss suit at Fox at this hour, reading charts and checking one of four models—of the computer, not bikini, variety—that he relies on to analyze high-pressure systems and sea-breeze fronts. Now that he’s unemployed, Bolaris is workout-casual in shorts and a t-shirt; only his Prada glasses suggest he hasn’t given up altogether. The plan is to pick up his daughter, Reina Sofia, from second grade across town and have plenty of time for homework and “chillaxing” (Reina’s word, now her dad’s) before a school recital tonight. A simple task, he thought, until he saw his Mercedes SUV had a flat. Now he’s frantic to find a taxi outside his apartment at the St. James, just off Washington Square. The young dude trying to cut in front of him doesn’t stand a chance.
“I’m usually not going to argue with a guy over a cab,” a victorious Bolaris says from the backseat a minute later. “But we’re talking about my girl here.”
There was a time when talk of Bolaris’s “girl” meant the newest babe he’d picked up at work. Now much of his conversation—in
person and on Twitter, where he posts multiple times a day—is about “being the best dad.” He’s on speaking terms with Reina’s mother, former NBC 10 reporter (and his ex-fiancée) Tiffany McElroy, whom he credits for giving him more time with his daughter than she’s required to. Moments before we pick up Reina from school, I ask if he’s prepped her about the strange guy with Daddy who’ll be taking notes. “Nah,” he says. “She’s great with people.”
Bolaris’s forecast couldn’t have been more accurate. As soon as we start walking east on Walnut, his wide-eyed daughter has plenty to tell me. She’s the proud owner of three African tree frogs: Sharky, Mr. Speckles, and Pat. Her hermit crab died and was given a proper ocean funeral. One of her second-grade classmates claims to have a butterfly dog, which has immediately raised her skepticism. “I looked it up in the animal encyclopedia,” she says, her long curly locks bopping around her Hello Kitty backpack. “It’s not true.” A nearby McDonald’s inspires disgust. “Do you know how they make that? I’m not loving it,” she says, playing off the burger chain’s slogan. “You know what I am loving? Whole Foods. My favorite is smoked salmon.”
Bolaris laughs. He seems almost as puzzled as I am that he’s responsible for such a precocious child, a little girl looking up to a man whose track record with women is spotty at best—married once, almost married three more times, and always ending up alone. Later, he’ll tweet, “My daughter is more mature than me.”
When he was a kid, Bolaris was as fascinated by weather as Reina is by animals. Atop the shed in the backyard of his childhood home in Bohemia, Long Island, was a weathervane. He’d drag his younger sister, Paula, to the roof, where he’d watch the sky, a child in the front row of nature’s movie screen. “We always knew what to get him for his birthday,” Paula says. “A barometer, a weather alert radio. He’d draw weather maps—not for school, just on his own. When everyone was running home from a storm, he was on his bike heading toward it.”
His path from storm-chaser to TV weatherman was Forrest Gumpian in its improbability. After community college and meteorological school, Bolaris spent three years with the Air National Guard, briefing pilots on weather conditions. His first on-air gig was at a Long Island cable station, where he quickly caught the eye of a CBS exec; at age 29, and with just a single week of television experience under his belt, Bolaris was named the weekend weather anchor for WCBS in New York. A few months later, he talked himself onto a C-130 bound for Hurricane Hugo. His live dispatches from the storm’s eye landed him on the national news with Dan Rather. “I was living the dream,” he says.
But his personal life was crumbling. His father had died a few years earlier; then, in 1988, five days before Bolaris was to marry New York model Pamela Duswalt, his mother suffered a fatal heart attack. Bolaris and his sister now say Duswalt insisted the nuptials go on. (Attempts to reach Duswalt were unsuccessful.) The wedding had a somber tone, as guests offered congratulations and condolences. “I don’t remember the honeymoon,” Bolaris says. “I was still in shock.”
Two years later, he accepted a job at the network’s affiliate in Bala Cynwyd. “The CBS president said, ‘You need to revitalize the station,’” Bolaris recalls. “‘Do your thing, become a star there.’” It seemed the perfect opportunity to raise his profile—until on the day of his local television debut, his wife announced that she was leaving him and staying in New York. Without his parents or his marriage, Bolaris was adrift. “It was like a whirlwind,” he says. His new career in Philadelphia began in complete chaos, much as it seems to have ended.