Little Boy Lost: John Bolaris Has Some Regrets
As he steps off a train at Penn Station a few days after our outing with Reina, Bolaris looks more like himself—sharply dressed in a Hugo Boss sport coat, crisp white shirt, and designer jeans with detail stitching along the inner thighs. He’s in Manhattan for a business meeting, and on the way couldn’t resist checking the weather on his iPad. (“We call this ‘troughing’ in the East,” he says, pointing at an indecipherable map. “That’s why late-day, there may be storms as the front becomes active.”) With job prospects slim, he’s taken to what he calls “Tweetcasting,” sending out weather alerts to his nearly 9,000 followers. At a friend’s lavish wedding on Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, Bolaris’s current girlfriend, 33-year-old South Jersey saleswoman Erica Smitheman, found him in a corner, tweeting about a tornado watch back home. “People count on me,” he says.
Bolaris quickly established a reputation for delivering more than forecasts. From his first day at Channel 10—then a CBS affiliate, before it switched to NBC—he was the center of controversy. His arrival in the summer of 1990 marked a sexing-up of the news and signaled the end of popular forecaster Herb Clarke’s career. As a result, Bolaris was initially cold-shouldered by colleagues; someone smeared dog shit on his car in the station parking lot. They warmed up once he began dating anchor Jane Robelot, a cheery South Carolina native who went to church on Sundays. Overnight, they became the city’s Posh and Becks. “That’s really what started the interest in me and the dating scene,” Bolaris says of his second career as gossip-column fodder. “We were the new sparks in town. Eventually it became too much—it was all about us and not the news.” Robelot rebounded with another co-worker, reporter Andrew Glassman, the stepson of Dallas actress Victoria Principal; it was Bolaris’s first public love triangle. One day Principal ran into Bolaris at the station and said her son wanted to move into weather. “He’s already got my girl,” Bolaris told her. “He’s not getting my job.”
Bolaris’s life became a real-life version of One Life to Live, a soap opera on and off the set. Chastised for wearing a turtleneck on-air, he did it again. An unapproved haircut (he briefly tried the unfortunate man-bangs look) caused a furor. Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz wasn’t hired with his bow tie and geek glasses intact; the station styled him that way to create the “anti-Bolaris,” a nerdy counterpoint to their weatherhunk. And Bolaris kept on dating: aspiring actresses, beauty queens, co-workers, interns, Center City scenesters, Jersey Shore hookups, and a few notable names—
fashion designer Nicole Miller; Bernie Parent’s daughter Kim.
Just as Sinatra had Ava and Mia, Bolaris had two great loves. The first was Julie Cohen, a tall, blond Merion native and TV/film producer based in Paris who was about 15 years his junior. Bolaris bought a ring, and the station wanted to film the proposal. When he called in, heartbroken, after Cohen turned him down to stay in France, he was told to report to work anyway. After the newscast, Bolaris took refuge at the house of Flyer Chris Therien, getting drunk and crashing on his couch.
While Bolaris struggled with the rejection, he invited his friend Lauren Hart, daughter of legendary Flyers announcer Gene Hart, to join him on a trip to Anguilla he’d planned to take with Cohen. Romance blossomed. They were another high-wattage couple, but their engagement didn’t stick. “She’s an unbelievable spirit,” Bolaris says. “Looking back, I can probably say it was more of a rebound. I felt secure with her. We never really went out. We’d stay in our house in Bryn Mawr. She wasn’t comfortable with the attention when we’d go out.”
In hindsight, it seems Hart had the right idea. The more attention Bolaris receives, the worse things usually get. “There’s a lot of jealousy around him,” says WMMR DJ and longtime friend Matt Cord. “Wherever he goes, he’s ‘John Bolaris.’ He’s got a target on his back.” At the Rock ’N Chair in Avalon, a stranger relieved himself on Bolaris’s sandals and said, “It’s raining.” At the Parx Casino in Bensalem, another prankster dislocated Bolaris’s finger with an intentionally nasty handshake. Trouble followed him closer to home as well: One night he was sent flying across a table at Denim; on another, he was in a scuffle at an Old City lounge. Bolaris didn’t plant those stories in the papers, but he never shied away from the press. “No one ever told me not to talk,” he says. “I think they were fine with it because the ratings were climbing.”
The gossip was a whisper compared to the Storm of the Century, the snowfall that Bolaris—and, to be fair, virtually every other forecaster—predicted would blanket the East Coast in March 2001. After a weekend of hype fueled by Bolaris’s news director, Steve Schwaid, the flakes never fell. A weather-frenzied public heaped blame on the forecaster. “I call it ‘The Great Disappointment,’” he says, noting that people still ask him about it. “It was professional hell.”
Bolaris left town a couple years later for New York, but the spotlight in the nation’s biggest television market didn’t shine as brightly as it had in Philadelphia. (His hanging with Eric Lindros and hooking up with one of the Real Housewives of New York City never made the Gotham papers.) After about a year of dating Tiffany McElroy, Bolaris proposed for the fourth time, and this time the fiancée was also expecting. Friends say they saw a change in him after Reina was born in 2004. The bachelor seemed ready to settle down, despite splitting from McElroy the next year. He returned to Center City in 2008 to work at Fox, and on the surface seemed like a different man—balancing work with being a dad, living east of Broad, away from the shine of Rittenhouse nightlife. Behind the scenes, though, it was more of the same—late nights, boozy outings in Avalon, dirty dancing with co-workers. The Peter Pan of local TV news couldn’t grow up.
Bolaris’s arrested development didn’t affect his job until March 2010, when he flew to South Beach for the weekend. When his usual South Beach wingman, CBS anchorman Chris Wragge, who’d married a Playboy Playmate of the Year and had also dated Alycia Lane, bailed, Bolaris pressed on alone, looking for a good time on a Friday night. It arrived in the form of Marina Turcina and Anna Kilimatova, two shapely blue-eyed brunettes claiming to be from Estonia who approached him at the bar at the fashionable Delano Hotel. He bought them wine, and after they all headed outside to the pool bar, one of them suggested something stronger. “Do shot,” she said in a heavy accent. They ordered something clear and sweet-tasting. It wasn’t the first time Bolaris got in trouble after opening his mouth, but it would end up being the worst.
What followed seems impossible, even by Bolaris standards. That’s the moment he thinks he was roofied, because the rest of the night is a blur. He’d later tell the FBI that he remembered someone helping him sign something three times. He says he woke up the next day in his hotel room with a strange painting of a woman’s face and without his Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses. He found a voicemail from the girls saying they had his shades and would gladly return them. He met them at the Delano pool bar again, had a glass of wine, and wound up at a phony bar—run by a ring of Eastern European con artists—and, he says, drugged again. Days later, when an American Express investigator told him he was on the hook for 12 charges totaling $43,712.25, it was like a second kick to the balls—first he’s conned, then his lender sides with the crooks. Bolaris agreed to help Miami police and the feds bust the crime ring. He wanted revenge, to replace his image as a pathetic victim with that of the hero who took down the bad guys. So Bolaris told his story. And that’s when everything really fell apart.