In Conversation With Jeanne Beker

“We were living in this beautiful country where anything was possible, and dreams really could come true if you worked hard enough,” says Jeanne Beker.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Beker speaks so passionately about Canada. After all, the former host of Fashion Television (a stint that lasted a staggering twenty-seven years) built a career on celebrating and promoting the works of Canadian designers; in many ways, Beker helped to usher our fashion industry south of the forty-ninth parallel and onto the international stage. In doing so she has become an icon herself, and her work has expanded to the wearing of many (no doubt tastefully chosen) hats: entrepreneur, designer, writer, media personality, activist, and mother.

In recognition of her expansive body of work, Beker was recently honored with a star on Canada’s Walk Of Fame. “I was just sitting at my desk in my home office,” she says of learning the news. “I think I gave out a bit of a scream.”

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Beker about this recognition, and it’s a fascinating thing to hear her talk about Canada. Not only did she build a career on championing her country and serving as something of an unofficial spokesperson, but she also grew up with a unique window into an outsider’s perspective; Beker’s late parents were Holocaust survivors who chose to put down roots in Canada in the aftermath of WWII. Bronia and Josio Beker, originally from a traditional shtetl in eastern Poland, escaped from a Jewish ghetto and spent the remainder of the war in hiding. After the liberation they settled in Toronto, where Beker was born.

Speaking at a press conference that announced the latest Canada’s Walk Of Fame inductees (which also included Corey Hart, Deepa Mehta, Jason Priestly, Darryl Sittler, and Al Waxman), Beker acknowledged the constant inspiration of her parents as they forged a new life in the wake of unimaginable loss. Later, in our interview, she speaks about them so beautifully that I have to struggle to not get emotional.

“Their fearlessness, their tenacity, their ability to dream, and to really believe in their dreams and believe in themselves, despite the horrors that happened to them – the fact that they could rise [above] and rebuild their shattered lives from scratch – that was a huge source of inspiration for me,” Beker says.

As a young girl, Beker was keenly aware of family unity, and recognized the importance of keeping in touch and the need to reach out, to tell stories and to communicate with each other. “I think that had a lot to do with the type of career path that I chose,” she reflects. “It’s funny; I think on certain levels what I ended up doing and being involved in is kind of a frivolous arena, the arena of fashion. But on another level, I think fashion is very much about people. And fashion is very much about communication. Fashion is very much about empowerment and not being victimized, at its best. It’s about taking control of the way you want to present yourself to the world. It’s funny that somehow the life lessons I’ve learned from my parents – I’ve applied them to the fashion world.”

It would seem that Beker’s knack for writing is a gift passed on from her parents, too. In fact, they wrote a book called Joy Runs Deeper, a set of memoirs penned roughly thirty-five years ago. Beker’s mother had written her own memoirs in English; her father (who, sadly, never got to finish his) wrote his longhand in Yiddish. These were then collected and translated by the Azrieli Foundation, a Montreal-based organization dedicated to collecting and sharing the stories of Holocaust survivors and publishing them around the world – free of charge.

“It’s so important that we keep these stories alive,” says Beker.

She herself wrote the forward to her parents’ memoirs.

And so, we wondered, how has Beker’s unique relationship with nationality and identity shaped her views on this country? National identity has lately been a hot topic of conversation in Canada, particularly over the course of the past few weeks; from Canada’s impressive showing at the summer Olympics in Rio to a heart-wrenching final concert from the Tragically Hip (an event which, according to preliminary audience figures, was watched by 11.7 million people – in other words, about a third of the population), there’s an intangible sense of pride in the air. Before these events, of course, there was the election of Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister, and a great deal of speculation revolved around whether his term in office would continue much of the legacy started by his father, Pierre Elliott, and the latter’s focus on national identity and Canadian pride.

Beker, however, thinks that this burgeoning Canadiana can be traced back even further. “For me, personally, it started when we hosted the Vancouver Olympics,” she says. “That really struck a chord with me, the immense amount of pride. And increasingly, in the following months and years, Canadians are looking at ourselves a lot more intently, with a lot more interest, as the rest of the world is.”

Beker also firmly believes that there are great artists in this country who are championing that national identity – Drake, the unofficial spokesman of Toronto, is of course at the top of her list.

However, the international spotlight has its downfalls, and Beker does worry about the future of fashion in that respect. “A lot of American retailers are coming here; are they really going to swallow up what little we have to call our own? Are they really going to be supporting the Canadian brands that need to be supported? That remains to be seen.”

On the other hand, she points to our great fashion emissaries who, despite making a base elsewhere, are still thought of as Canadian within the industry; Erdem, for instance, and Tanya Heath, who have found their respective niches in the UK and Paris. “And then labels like Lulu Lemon…and Roots is still going strong and keeps expanding its international business all the time. Joe Fresh created quite a stir when that business first started in the States.” The result, she says, is that the world is sitting up and taking note.

“It’s really an exciting time to be a Canadian,” says Beker. “This country just has so much to offer.”

As for what’s next for Beker, she is cautiously tight-lipped but hints at a big project in the works. “I’m not allowed to talk about it yet,” she teases, “but it’s very exciting!” She confesses that it’s something of a “dream project” and will be coming to fruition very soon.

We’re excited to see what hat she’ll don next.

 

Meghan Greeley
Meghan Greeley is an actor and writer originally from Newfoundland. She has performed in films that have screened at festivals around the world, including Cannes, Karlovy Vary, the Utah Indie Film Festival, the Montreal World Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival. As a writer, her works have been published in The Stockholm Review, Metatron, Riddlefence, Nelson Publications, and the Breakwater Book of Contemporary Newfoundland Drama. She is a winner of the Magnetic North Theatre Festival’s Playwriting Contest and first place winner of the Sparks Literary Festival’s Poetry Competition. She currently resides in Toronto.