The First Lady of Style: Jeanne Beker Talks Fashion and Her Unstoppable Work Ethic

Jeanne Beker

Photo: Bryan Adams

Canada’s homegrown fashion icon Jeanne Beker’s new memoir, clothing line and ongoing television presence ensure she’s never just trendy but always a woman in style.

The first time I meet Jeanne Beker is on a January evening in Paris during the couture collections. I’m invited by another Canadian journalist to join them for dinner at Marco Polo, a small Italian bistro in Saint-Germaine-des-Prés. Beker is as warm and welcoming as a sister or a best girlfriend — more on that later.

But the first time I saw Jeanne Beker was in the early 1980s, when she visited my high school — wearing leopard print — for some contest we’d won. Back then, she was merely a local celebrity known for her work on CHUM radio and the NewMusic. This was pre-FashionTelevision (FT), pre-newspaper columns, pre-five books and two clothing lines — in other words, pre-Brand Beker.

It is January again, four years after that dinner in Paris — only this time there is no couture glamour. Instead, I’m in FT headquarters on Queen Street West in Toronto. The original CHUM Citytv building that is now home to CTV (which bought CHUM in 2007) and was the launch pad for her career-making in-the-glamour-trenches brand of journalism. Beker’s windowless office is tucked in at the side of eTalk’s studio. The building is staffed by a new generation of urban hipsters vying for their career in show business. So it’s fitting that Beker, 59 — the doyenne of fashion and entertainment television — has a prime seat to watch the action unfold and to oversee the “kids.”

Jeanne Beker
Photo: Bryan Adams


As she had in Paris, Beker exudes a warmth and approachability alongside the “hardest working woman in show business” ethic that has served as inspiration for countless women spanning generations — she’s thronged by teenagers during her frequent appearances at events. And when I told my best friend, a 43-year-old mother of two who is suffering divorce pangs that I was interviewing Beker, she asked me to tell her what an inspiration she has been. And my friend isn’t even in the media or fashion industry. I sit down opposite Beker and note the poster hanging on the wall of her and co-host John (JD) Roberts during the NewMusic heyday. There are several portraits of Beker throughout the small space. They offer up her story in pictures, but I’m here for words and, just as she was over pasta, she is open and chatty.

She has lots to talk about. This month her latest memoir, Finding Myself in Fashion, will be published, picking up where her 2001 memoir, Jeanne Unbottled: Adventures in High Style, left off a decade ago at the end of her 12-year marriage to Denny O’Neil (DJ Bob Magee who is currently on the radio station Vinyl 95.3). As always, Beker promises the book is juicy. “My mother always says, ‘You talk too much. They don’t need to know everything!’ ” she explains then laughs. “But oh boy, wait until she reads this next book. It’s very candid.”

In addition to her memoir, she has written her third advice book for young women, Strutting It!: The Grit Behind the Glamour, which joins The Big Night Out (2005) and Passion for Fashion: Careers in Style (2008) on the bookshelves of budding fashionistas everywhere.

Jeanne Beker
Photo: Bryan Adams


In addition to the writing and television work, Beker has also been busy with Edit, a clothing line launched at the Bay last fall. This is her second foray into clothing, having had a label with Eaton and Sears that didn’t take off as she’d hoped. She describes Edit as essential pieces. “I like to think of it as a no-brainer wardrobe,” she explains. “I’m in a privileged position of seeing what’s coming down the runway and what makes sense for having to go from morning to night and not having a lot of time to fuss. What are the key pieces that have a fashion forward feel but aren’t totally trendy to the point that you can’t go back to them?” In keeping with her desire to help others, a portion of the proceeds goes to the charity, Dress for Success, which provides low-income women with professional attire, a network of support and career development tools.

Her desire to share her most intimate moments is one of the reasons for Beker’s longevity and our continued fascination with her — that sisterly style that makes her so approachable. “The glamorous life, the fashion shows and the travel are things in which I could participate all the time and have at times,” says Penny Fiksel, her best friend since Grade 7. “But the heart of all of the benefits is how much more interesting and exciting the world seems when you’re with Jeanne.”

Testing Beker’s knowledge of what works for a career girl, I took a trip to the Bay and tried on several of the Edit pieces. The quality and fit were exactly as she described, and I could easily see the little black dress finding a home in my closet.

With Beker so omnipresent, we feel like we know her. Indeed, her back story is pretty much public property by now, but to recap: she began her career at 16 on the CBC, studied theatre in New York and mime in Paris. She then moved to Newfoundland as a CBC reporter and was the only mime in town before ending up in Toronto as a radio host. Then came her stint as co-host on NewMusic in 1978, which she eventually parlayed into the hosting gig at FT in 1985. FT is now broadcast in more than 130 countries. Currently, she’s also the producer of the show and the FashionTelevisionChannel as well as an author, columnist and designer, not to mention mother of two and devoted daughter. To an outside eye, her life seems overwhelming — almost impossible.

People often want to know how she does it all. “Sometimes going out, getting on a plane, writing, whatever it is, is just the last thing you want to do, but you’ve got to keep going,” Beker says, shaking her head as though she doesn’t quite know herself. “If you don’t put yourself out there, no one is going to come get you.” She adds her high energy level is probably genetic because her 90-year-old mother is the same and continues to keep active despite suffering from Parkinson’s.

Jeanne Beker
Photo: Bryan Adams


Was she always such a ball of energy? “Jeanne was a  strong person, and she did not take any nonsense, not even from teachers,” Fiksel recalls. “One teacher called her a ‘nobody’ and he never heard the likes of her speaking out for herself. Some of the kids mocked her defiance, but they were just jealous of her courage and her self-confidence.”

Energetic is one word for Beker; tenacious and brave are two more. Fiksel recounts how when Jeanne went to Paris to study mime, the school had not accepted her into their classes. “She went anyway, got to Paris, went to the school and knocked on the door,” she says. “They did not turn her away. I think there is a sense in her that makes her look at obstacles as tests. She does not like to fail.”

In a business where first impressions are everything, Beker makes an impact. “It’s the sort of impression a tornado makes on you as it lifts your house off its foundations,” says John Roberts, who is now the Fox News Channel senior national correspondent. “She was just a whirlwind of energy that clearly wanted to conquer the world. And to her credit, she did! The amazing thing about Jeanne was — you heard her long before you caught sight of her. She was always working out new ideas in this ebullient voice that carried through the hallways. It let you know well in advance that by the time she entered the room, you’d better have your game on.”

The Beker Brand — call it the everywoman aspirational — is founded on all of the above. Ask her to define it, and she stretches out her arms and smiles. “You’re looking at it,” then adds more sincerely, “Hopefully, it’s a very real person who’s managed to keep her feet on the ground. A person who has an incredible passion for living, who’s independent, who’s comfortable in their own skin. Someone who has a great zest for life and is determined to try and have it all, even though you can’t have it all at once but I think I’ve done a reasonable job.”

It’s tough to argue with any of that but if for a moment you think she’s achieved all that she’s wanted, you’d be wrong. “I was determined to have this fabulous career and I’m still working on that!” she says. “I was adamant about having independence. That took me a long time — not necessarily financial independence but not depending on someone else for my happiness or fulfilment. I feel like I’m really getting there, which is a big one for me.”

Jeanne Beker
Jeanne Beker on the April 2011 cover of Zoomer magazine. Photo: Bryan Adams


To call Beker a seasoned pro and an experienced woman is, of course, an understatement. She has remained relevant to pop culture and fashion by keeping up with and embracing change, including technology. In 1995, she launched @fashion, the first fashion website, and she maintains an active presence on both Twitter and Facebook. Keeping in touch with young designers is also how she stays in touch with her audience. And the fashion industry recognizes what she’s done for it.

“She’s the trailblazer of fashion journalism. She burned the book after she wrote it. No one else has come close,” says Robert Ott, chair of the school of fashion, Ryerson University. Beker is on the program’s advisory board. “She’s a fighter for young people who are driven and have passion,” Ott says. “I can literally say that the students she has worked with think she’s God. They are awestruck.” And Beker delivers more than advice; she’s a long-time supporter of Canadian fashion designers, from established labels such as Wayne Clark and Lida Baday, both of which she often wears for international events, to newer names like Montreal designer Denis Gagnon, whose dress she was thrilled to wear for our cover shot.

Accolades and fans aside, one of the challenges for women in the media can be coping with aging in a business that doesn’t always value substance over style. Female actors often bemoan the loss of parts for older women. Newscasters have been fired for not being “pretty” enough once they reach a certain age. But Beker has avoided such issues. “I’ve never really been the classic raving beauty,” admits Beker. “I never aspired to look like a cheerleader. Moses [Zoomer‘s founder, who created Citytv and hired her for the shows] used to say, ‘Make sure people either love you or hate you.’ If you don’t stir passion in people who cares? I never want to be mediocre or down the middle.”

Beker can be polarizing, and this has given her some tough moments. “I remember how hurt she was when Iggy Pop went off on her for wearing a fur coat to an interview she did with him. He thought she was being pretentious and ripped a strip off of her,” recalls Roberts. “What he didn’t realize was that was just Jeanne being Jeanne. Pretentious would be the last word I would use to describe her. And if Iggy knew how much she admired and respected what he does, he never would have gone off on her.”

Jeanne Beker
Photo: Bryan Adams


In an episode of FT, the designer Betsey Johnson notes that she’s known Beker for more than 25 years, adding, “Our work has outlived our men.” Both women chuckle knowingly. I ask Beker to elaborate. “I said to myself a long time ago when I was consciously cultivating my career, ‘This is one thing that will never cheat on me,’” she says. “I’m in control of this. Does it keep you warm at night? I don’t know! The kind of happiness it gives you is like a big huge hot water bottle. It can be lonely at times but it really is without doubt the thing that’s kept me going. I don’t think about what will happen when I retire. I think about how I will be able to mould this into something I can ride for the next 20 years.”

Also keeping her going are her two daughters. Bekky, 23, is a playwright, director, puppeteer and artist who just got married. Joey, 21, is a musician and artist. “My girls are such an important, rich, rich part of my life. The best part,” she says softly. Now that both have moved out, Beker is officially an empty nester. She considered downsizing but loves her home too much — it was the house she kept after her divorce — to give it up. She also has an 1842 stone farmhouse in Northumberland, a county east of Toronto, for weekend getaways.

She has also found love again with the actor Barry Flatman. The couple has been together for three years. But she points out that despite her current happiness, she’s not sure about marriage. “The older you get it gets harder to share. You start to savour your independence,” she explains.

Our time is over, and as we say goodbye, I mention my friend, explaining her tough divorce and how Beker inspired her. She nods sympathetically, “Tell her to hang in there. She will get through it and triumph.” I pass along her words to my friend who tears up. “If Jeanne says it will get better, then I believe her.” Call it the Beker effect.

 A version of this article appeared in the April 2011 issue.