Influencers: 12 Canadian Women with talent and vision that knows no bounds
We spoke to 12 Canadian women who are making their marks not only across our country but also around the world. From the young photographer Petra Collins who despite only being 19 has gained international acclaim for her work, to Farah Mohamed, who at a young age fled her birth country to seek refuge in Canada, the ladies featured here have found success across many broad spectrums. Familiar face Caroline Issa is regularly spotted in our street style snaps and mentions here how she gave up a high paying job to instead fulfill her love of fashion by working in that industry instead. Whether it is in activism, writing, singing or art, these women have a strong passion for what they do and can inspire others to do the same. From all ages and all walks of life, these 12 Canadian women have talent and vision that knows no bounds.
“It was always a very East meets West set,” says 28-year-old DJ Shaydakiss—a.k.a. Shadi Assadi—of the childhood soundtrack that inspired her to hit the decks. Her parents migrated from Iran to Montreal in the late ’60s and their playlists consisted of classical Persian music alongside Motown hits by James Brown and the Temptations. The constant cultural mash-ups on the family stereo prompted her to join a high school band and, in the process, pick up on the art of matching beats. “I learned to play songs on the saxophone first,” she says of her ear’s education. “I would listen to the group instead of just reading the notes.”
While studying at Concordia, Assadi joined the ranks of the defining Quebecois dance scene and soon became part of the popular party collective Peer Pressure. Assadi’s crew—which included two of the city’s top international DJs, A-Rock and Hatchmatik—encouraged her to work on building her own signature sound (a mix of ’90s house, disco, tribal and hip-hop—“Whatever makes you move”). Her reputation for filling and killing a dancefloor reached the likes of Diplo, Chromeo, Azealia Banks and Kid Sister—all of whom Assadi has shared the stage with.
“I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t been pigeonholed as ‘the girl DJ’ in my community,” Assadi says. “Obviously I’m a girl and a DJ, and some have assumed that I wouldn’t be able to hold my own on the decks, but that usually goes away once I get up there and do my thing.”
With new remixes, original tracks and a European tour on the horizon, Assadi may be broadening her reach, but she maintains that Montreal provides her with an endless pool of ideas. “This city has always been an inspiration due to the eclectic mix of culture, language and people,” she says. “There’s a special energy that you can definitely pick up on as soon as you get here.” —Alex McGill
The Digital Darling
She doesn’t own a clothing label or edit a style bible, but 28-year-old Benni Leigh is behind one of the country’s biggest fashion followings. As lifestyle director of L.A.’s Maker Studios—an online network of 3,000-plus YouTube channels and more than 1.5 billion monthly views—Leigh has been able to garner more than 4 million of those views for a genre she calls “fashion comedy.” The ideal content for this Maker Lifestyle channel, called The Platform, expertly challenges the way the stylish set sees itself. “Our aim is to hold a mirror up to the fashion obsessed,” she says from her office in Los Angeles. The biggest feather in Leigh’s Burberry po’boy cap so far has been the video series Sh*t Fashion Girls Say—she works as supervisor and muse to the star, viral drag sensation P’Trique. This bearded, Jessica Simpson-beweaved fashion character doles out memorable zingers that are 100 per cent Leigh. Questions such as “Does this outfit need a red lip?” and phrases like “Mega-chic” come from real conversations Leigh has had.
“It’s a little embarrassing to admit,” she says, laughing. Fortunately, Leigh also gets to live with the fact that design icons from Stella McCartney to Nicola Formichetti have made guest appearances on various P’Trique videos. And P’Trique is featured on America’s Next Top Model’s new season.
Leigh’s family is a powerful motivation for her ambition. Her grandparents are the Google-worthy Canuck philanthropists James and Margaret Fleck. Her father is a pianist and sound engineer and her mother is a gallerist who owns the Elaine Fleck Gallery in Toronto.
Leigh’s own rise started in the public relations department of Sony Music Canada (supporting artists such as Sara Bareilles and Chaka Khan), but by 24 she was living in New York running her own PR company, before getting hired by Maker. “I constantly follow opportunities where I know I’m at the forefront of something exciting,” she says. When asked about upcoming launches at Maker, she says everything is still in hush-hush mode. However, in the words of P’Trique, Leigh does insist that her next chapter will be #totesamaze.—Alexandra Breen
Art is in Julia Dault’s blood. It’s in her family tree and part of her best childhood memories. “Every Saturday morning, we’d paint together on the living room floor,” Toronto-born Dault says of her pre-teen days with an art-critic father and art-teacher mother. “And we had tons of friends like [painter] Julie Voyce and [installation artist] Don Jean-Louis who’d come over for dinner.” Now 34, Dault is making a name for herself on the international gallery circuit. Her exhibits—many of which contain a mix of painting and sculpture—have been shown in prestigious spaces ranging from New York’s New Museum to London’s White Cube gallery.
Following in her father’s footsteps, Dault got her start in the art world as chief visual arts critic for the National Post. From there she headed to New York to study fine art at Parsons The New School for Design (“It was important for me to do it on my own, to discover the art world for myself”). She’s now an assistant » professor of contemporary art at Parsons, but you’ll most often find her in her Brooklyn studio, working her magic.
Dault started out as a painter, using unconventional materials like gold pleather or spandex as her canvas, but recently it’s her larger-than-life sculptures that have had publications such as Artforum and The New York Times covering her every move. These new works require her to scour salvage yards for materials like Formica and Plexiglas, then manipulate them into cylinder-shaped sculptures by hand. Dault’s artistic calling card is that the date and time she created the piece becomes part of its title.
Aside from her current exhibit in Korea this month (as part of the Ninth Gwangju Biennale), Dault has three solo shows slated for 2013 in Zurich, Toronto and L.A. For all her jetsetting, she is happiest reading a good book—her latest obsession is British author Diana Athill—grabbing a bite with her art-critic husband, Brian Sholis, or heading into her sunlit studio, where she’ll spend up to nine hours a day in blissful solitude.
“Even though I’m in charge, there’s always an element of surprise,” she says of her creative process. “Ultimately, there’s always this spontaneity—or rediscovery—that’s really intriguing.” —Shawna Cohen
Farah Mohamed was all but born into social consciousness when, at the age of two, the Ugandan government forced her South Asian family to flee the country. “My mother and father made sure we understood that we came to Canada as refugees and we had to give back,” says the 42-year-old. While other children were watching cartoons, Mohamed and her sister were encouraged to read newspapers, discuss politics and kick-start their volunteerism at a local nursing home.
She’s carried these lessons through to adulthood. After working as the director of communications for Anne McLellan (then minister of health, justice and deputy prime minister), Mohamed became vice-president of public affairs for the Victorian Order of Nurses. Those jobs led her to the Belinda Stronach Foundation, where she developed the G(irls)20 Summit—a not-for-profit organization of which she is now the president and CEO. The project brings together women aged 18 to 20 from every G20 country and gives them a way to become politically and economically engaged. “I loved what I did in politics,” says Mohamed, “but what I do now speaks to my passion: empowering young women globally.”
When talking about the domino effect of her recent efforts, she becomes animated. For example, an Indonesian candidate walked away from a summit and created a mobile library on a bus in order to conquer illiteracy in the slums of her country. “That’s incredible,” says Mohamed. “A young woman comes to a summit, gets informed, goes home and changes the lives of others.”
Mohamed’s next project is putting together summits in Russia, Australia and Turkey. As well, “I hope [to] pull together five years of G(irls)20 delegates and showcase the difference they’ve made in their communities,” she says. “That’s one of my goals.” Earning a law degree after retirement is another. It’s part of a master plan to eventually return to Uganda and do some good for the country she fled as a toddler. “Remember where you came from,” says Mohamed. “That is what my parents have taught me.” —A.B.
The Fashion Insider
Like so many behind the fashion scenes, Caroline Issa became a familiar face a few years ago when the influence of street-style blogs exploded. The 35-year-old Montreal-raised, London-based fashion director of Tank Magazine and editor-in-chief of Because is a street-snapper favourite for her elegant yet playful sense of style—she’ll throw on a boxy red sweater with a shredded tartan kilt and animal-print stilettos and make it all seem totally nonchalant. It’s the kind of look that requires real confidence and it’s drawn opportunities to her. She modelled briefly in Montreal before leaving to study business at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and had “no fashion magazine experience whatsoever” when, at 25, she met the owner of Tank through friends and “gave up a really well-paying job to become a fashion entrepreneur.” Today, she has a hand in all aspects of the magazines’ production—including approving a rack of clothes before a shoot. “No day is similar, which is good for my personality,” she says. She also works with luxury clients on marketing and branding projects. “I think it’s incredibly important for the people in the industry to understand that you do have to sell a dress and a handbag in order to keep creating these beautiful things.” Issa is committed to nurturing up-and-coming designers, particularly London-based ones. She’s a fan of Ohne Titel’s graphic knits, Mary Katrantzou’s digital prints and anything by Tom Ford. “If I could just get a little more prep time, I would sort of be the Tom Ford woman.” She also wears “tons and tons and tons” of J.Crew, which is just as well; she models in the brand’s fall campaign. She keeps an eye on the collections of Canadians Calla Haynes and Jeremy Laing, though it’s another hometown name that has her excited this fall. “The next time I’m in Canada, I’m definitely going to Roots to buy a varsity jacket,” she says. “I’m having a hankering for my Canadian heritage brands.” —Rani Sheen
The Avant Gardist
Most thirtysomethings hosting an intimate get-together might serve wine, put out a cheese tray, set the iPod on shuffle. Not Karen Azoulay. At the Toronto-born, Brooklyn-based visual and performance artist’s last party, she slathered her friends with heavy makeup and thick layers of mud until their eyes and mouths were sealed shut. Though you can’t quite make out their faces, these are the women featured in Azoulay’s recent photographic series, “Sculpture After the Apocalypse,” which shows cracked, statue-like heads peeking out from beautiful greige rubble. “One friend was still finding residue of makeup in her ear a month after the shoot,” Azoulay, 35, says with a laugh. She creates a whole scene around her subjects—for example, she’ll construct a rocky landscape by mixing plaster with chopped-up licorice and tea leaves—then uses special effects to alter the mood.
Her large-scale installations and live performances are just as layered, as are her videos made from still images. The Astronomer’s Mime is a three-minute video that recreates the night sky with a series of birthday and Sabbath candles. Azoulay had friends and fellow artists hand-stitch toilet paper into Elizabethan ruffs, worn by the hands holding the candles. “My inspiration comes from the natural world and mythology,” she says. “I’m attracted to imagery that is mysterious but that also has an element of humour.”
Azoulay’s life has also been informed by fashion. From 2005 to 2008, she was part of a team that created visuals for Bergdorf Goodman’s windows in New York. In 2008, she collaborated with Canadian fashion designer Jeremy Laing on a collection of printed pieces, and last month she married menswear designer George McCracken. These days, Azoulay is trying her hand at something new—a book called Down With Liberty, released this month. “It’s a collection of images of the Statue of Liberty in an apocalyptic landscape,” she explains. If it sounds rather dark, you can rest assured Azoulay will infuse just the right amount of whimsy; it’s her trademark, after all. —S.C.
It wasn’t looking good for Esi Edugyan. Her second novel, Half-Blood Blues, was making the rounds and publishers weren’t biting. The book, about a mixed-race jazz crew down and out in 1940s Nazi-occupied Paris, landed an initial publisher in the U.K. but it took months to find an interested press on home turf. “As a Canadian writer, you always want to be read in your home country,” Edugyan says. She persevered and the novel was eventually picked up, though there were more challenges ahead. “I got this email from my editor, saying, ‘Don’t be alarmed but everybody here has been laid off,’” says Edugyan, “I thought, ‘Really?’ And finally I pulled the book.” Eventually, she found a home for Half-Blood Blues and the rest is history.
The novel received ebullient reviews, both for its jazz-inflected prose and for Edugyan’s storytelling, and went on to earn nominations for the U.K.’s Orange and Man Booker prizes and a place on the shortlist for our own Governor General’s award. Oh, and it won the $50,000 Scotiabank Giller prize.
If that weren’t enough good news for one year, Edugyan, 34, and her husband Steven Price, also a writer, welcomed their first child. “Basically, everything all at once,” she says. “All good, but all at once.”
Perhaps because she grew up with Ghanaian parents under Calgary’s big skies, or perhaps because of her many international fellowships, Edugyan’s fascinations evince an insatiable curiosity. Though she won’t reveal the specifics of her future projects, she’d like to write another novel, some non-fiction, a short-story collection—in her words, “probably everything.” One thing is clear: no one can stand in her way. —Emily M. Wheeler
It’s not often you hear someone describe her role in a hotly anticipated film as “exactly what I needed.” But that’s how actress, dancer and playwright Anita Majumdar felt about joining director Deepa Mehta’s cinematic rendering of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children as protagonist Saleem’s self-serving aunt, Emerald.
It was 2010 and the Port Moody, B.C., native was coming off an appearance in Rice Boy at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. In the throes of post-production blues, Majumdar lost a cousin to cancer. Despite her successes—transforming a class project, Fish Eyes, into a one-woman cross-country cult favourite, and starring in the CBC drama Murder Unveiled—she began to question her career path. Around this time, Mehta, who had seen The Misfit, a play Majumdar wrote and performed seven roles for in 2008, called to say: “I think you would make a great Emerald.”
“Emerald has this sense of entitlement that is completely unapologetic,” Majumdar says at a restaurant in Toronto, her home base. “It’s so hard to get rid of her because she’s just so charming.” Likewise, Mehta was charmed by Majumdar. “Anita’s sense of humour in her performance in The Misfit made me want to work with her,” says Mehta in the lead-up to Midnight’s Children’s debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. “It doesn’t hurt that she’s drop-dead gorgeous.”
With a Canadian theatrical release slated for Oct. 26, Majumdar can “ping pong,” as she puts it, back into theatre. Works in progress include Boys With Cars and Same, Same, but Different. The latter hits up the taboo topic of “shadeism” within the South Asian community. She describes this as “the desire for fair skin and why we want it so damn much.” The topic had come up with fashion insiders following a Midnight’s Children shoot in Mumbai for Vogue India. “We went for drinks with the photographer and one of the makeup artists. They were both talking about, ‘What is it with making everyone white?’” says Majumdar. “I have no problem with being a woman of colour. I’m proud of it—it’s everywhere in my work. But let me be the woman I am as opposed to the one you think I am.” —Jacquelyn Francis
Leanne Shapton is convinced that quitters get a bad rap. In fact, the 39-year-old author/illustrator/artist thinks quitting can be quite a liberating experience. “Leaving a career is scary,” she says via phone from her Brooklyn home, “but it can sometimes force you to break new ground.” After a decade of trying to do just that as an art director on magazines and newspapers such as the National Post and Saturday Night, Shapton left her home in Toronto to live and work in New York, where she carved out a career writing for Elle magazine and doing illustration work for movie titles and book covers. She made one of the hardest decisions of her life in 2009 when she resigned from a plum art director position at The New York Times. “I needed to leave and, in a sense, reject the template of working on deadline,” she says. The change helped her concentrate on her on-the-shelf passions: writing, reading, making art and co-founding a publishing house called J&L Books with photographer Jason Fulford.
“Sometimes you just have to give yourself over to the big unknown,” she says. “The trade-off is usually something just as big. I quit the Times even though I led a full life while I was there. I just ended up creating another life that was just as full, if not fuller.”
The latest product of Shapton’s chutzpah is a book called Swimming Studies. It serves as an autobiographical account of her abandoned career as a teen champion breaststroker (she made it to Olympic trials twice) and an obsessive collector of swimsuits (it chronicles photos of her most stylish racing gear).
Four illustrated books predate Swimming Studies, including the long-titled tome Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry, which is currently under option to be adapted into a film starring Natalie Portman and Brad Pitt, via Pitt’s production company. But Shapton feels Swimming Studies exposes her creative process. “Being a swimmer informed so much of what I do now and how I do it,” she explains. “I work on my own. I’m still not really a team player and swimming is an individual sport. It has that loner quality that I like.” —Elio Iannacci
“I had always said to my television agent, ‘My slate is full—unless Mad Men calls,’” says Calgary-raised screenwriter Semi Chellas. “It was kind of a joke we had. If Mad Men called, I’d drop everything.” While visiting L.A. last year from her home in Toronto, the punchline of that joke was delivered when her agent received just that call. “Within three days I was working on the show.”
Of Mad Men’s astounding 17 Emmy nominations this year, two of them were for episodes Chellas co-wrote with the show’s creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner. (Chellas is already an award-winner—she earned three Geminis for The Eleventh Hour, which she created.) A big Mad Men fan, she describes sitting down to work on those scripts as “a surreal experience.” And what scripts they are. “Far Away Places” contained Roger Sterling’s hilarious LSD trip, but the most talked about episode of the season was “The Other Woman”—even star Jon Hamm singled it out as his favourite. In it, Chellas and Weiner created a chronological sleight of hand with a make-or-break moment for the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency.
A potential client promises the Jaguar advertising account is theirs if bombshell office manager Joan Harris spends a night with him. Creative director Don Draper is opposed, in the belief that his pitch should be enough to win the account. To convey that Joan and Don both believe that winning the account rests solely on their shoulders, the writers played with the order in which viewers saw events unfold. The resulting scenes had many of us rewinding our PVRs. “We didn’t know if it would work and I remember Matt was very skeptical,” says Chellas. “We were willing to let it be a bit of a brainteaser as long as the emotional story worked.” Clearly the Emmy nomination committee thought it worked.
Despite her promise to her agent, Chellas hasn’t dropped everything for Mad Men: She recently adapted the best-selling memoir My Stroke of Insight, which Ron Howard is attached to direct (there are rumours Jodie Foster will star). But she will be making her mark again on the show—she and the other writers are already underway on season six. Now happily settled in L.A. with her young family, Chellas reflects that the past year has been “the craziest year of my life.” At print time we don’t know if her mantel has sprouted another statuette, but with the streak she’s on, we don’t doubt it. —Siofan Davies
Anointed by Tavi Gevinson as one of online magazine Rookie’s photographers of choice, Petra Collins documents what it feels like for girls of a certain age, casting a romantic light on those often-achy years. In 19-year-old Collins’ world, adolescence isn’t about screw-ups; it’s about fantastical self-discovery, which she showcases in her grainy, off-kilter analog photos of friends and youthful models in various free-spirited states. It’s an idea that is shared not only by Gevinson, but by the magazine’s leagues of fans, who showed up en masse to meet the duo at the many pit stops on their recent summer road trip.
Part Cherie Currie, part Cindy Sherman and barely out of high school in Toronto, Collins’ signature mussed-up shag, multi-layered gypsy ensembles and floral headpieces are as omnipresent in her photos as they are on her tiny frame. Self-taught, aside from a few elementary classes (“My photography teacher didn’t really like me!”), Collins represents a generation of DIYers capturing the attention of not only their peers, but of the big leagues as well. Italian Vogue, Purple Fashion Magazine and Vice magazine have all commissioned Collins’ work.
In addition to her post-hippie subjects, Collins photographs and glamorizes legs-spread Lolitas. And while that kind of sexification often belongs in the headlines alongside names like Terry Richardson, what’s different about Collins’ brand of sexuality is that it is expressed through distinctly self-empowered female eyes. She is most interested in putting forward a stronger point of view when it comes to young women’s desires. “[We] have a sexuality too,” she says. One of Collins’ favourite subjects is Gevinson herself. “I think [Tavi] can really make a difference,” says Collins. “She’s definitely going to be a cultural icon.” Looks like she may have company. —Randi Bergman
The Prima Donna
Listening to soprano Simone Osborne describe her final costume change in a past production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff is like hearing someone talk about an out-of-body experience.
“I was playing the role of Nanetta and in the last act, I came out in this over-the-top, 40-pound, jewel-encrusted gown,” says the 26-year-old Vancouverite. “The whole thing felt like layers of heaven. The costume transformed me completely because it was so luxurious. In the scene, I was hearkening to all the fairies of the night and I wore a mask that was a foot and a half off my head. It was divine.” This lavish moment is something Osborne has been trying to replicate ever since she joined the ranks of the Canadian Opera Company in 2008 as an ensemble performer. “I walked in there as a young student,” she says, “and I left as an artist.”
Now, the singer, who has a three-octave range, is preparing for two of the biggest performances of her life. In December, she will be belting out Verdi’s arias in Zurich’s famous 10,000-seat auditorium, Hallenstadion. Another thrilling event on Osborne’s iCal is a January performance at Carnegie Hall in New York, where she became one of the youngest winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in 2008. “It is so surreal. This will be such a full-circle moment for me,” she says, noting that her Carnegie repertoire will be from Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées. “I just haven’t decided what I’m going to wear yet. It’s like another work-in-progress.” –E.I.