Queen West in big-box fix

Fashion, Politics

Landlords turn away desperate smaller retailers, using a convenient tax rebate on vacant space to hold out for brand-name tenants

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Toronto’s indie retailers are dropping like flies. At least once a week for the last few months, an e-mail lands in my inbox with notice of another store closure.

Some shops, like Fashion Crimes, Klaxon Howl and Theodore 1922, have been lucky enough to set up again in more affordable locations. Others, like Magic Pony, Jacflash and Preloved have shuttered stores in favour of e-commerce. Others still, like GreenShag and Perry’s, have folded for good.

Affordable retail space is hard to come by, especially on gentrified strips like Queen West, where it’s now the norm for tenants to pay upwards of $10,000 a month for street-level retail space.

Such high rates are almost impossible for small retailers to pay, but some landlords aren’t angling for them – they’re waiting for the bigger guns with bigger wallets to swoop in. Queen West, which was once a hotbed of opportunity for hip indie retailers is quickly becoming the land of big-box stores and $10 dresses.

Are the CAFAs really all they’re cracked up to be?

Fashion

Award shows and competitions offer a trendy new way to nurture struggling local talent, but it’s big brands sucking up all the money and energy

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Toronto is a city of almost but not quite world-class things. Our fashion industry is no exception.

It’s not easy for a designer to make it here. For one, the market is small and the general public’s fashion consciousness light years behind that of New York City or European cities, especially when it comes to supporting local talent.

So we’re left with a flock of fledging artists whose operations look more Antiques Roadshow than Project Runway, and others who skip town altogether for the aforementioned fashion capitals.

But have we reached a point where designers can – and should – start “making it” back home? What does it take?

Fashion awards and competitions are the trendy answers du jour.

The Mercedes-Benz StartUp (MBSU) competition and last week’s Canadian Arts and Fashion Awards (CAFA) promise to spotlight emerging designers and offer national – perhaps international – platforms to show off their work.

As the name suggests, MBSU is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz, which ranks 16th on Forbes’ list of the world’s most valuable corporate brands. Net worth: $23.5 billion.

The MBSU competition awards winners with a spread in Fashion magazine, a free show at Toronto Fashion Week and access to a team of lawyers and financial consultants – but no hard cash, which is the problem.

“When you’re starting, you need money,” says 2012 winner Duy Nguyen. “I never pay to do Toronto Fashion Week anyway; I always get sponsored. So I didn’t really get anything.”

Just over a year after taking home that big prize, Nguyen tells me that he is quitting the fashion biz.

“I got offered a decent salary,” he says. “I’m tired. I’m not 20 years old any more and I only make minimum wage.”

Then there’s CAFA, which held its inaugural event two weeks ago, by all accounts an indisputable PR triumph.

The sold-out gala welcomed internationally celebrated Canadians like Coco Rocha and Dean and Dan Caten (Dsquared2), who were greeted on the red carpet by a sea of cameras.

But nurturing Canadian talent and strengthening our industry is not about the rare juggernauts like the Catens who’ve already found success outside our borders. It’s about the new class of homegrown designers who struggle to make a living wage.

CAFA pledges to support these designers in several ways.

For starters, CAFA will make a donation to OCAD’s Social Body Lab based on gala ticket sales. An after-party sponsored by mega beauty outfit Sephora promises proceeds “to be donated to the Toronto Fashion Incubator (TFI),” a non-profit dedicated to nurturing small businesses. CAFA also handed out an emerging talent award that comes with a $10,000 prize.

But the CAFA website and press materials fail to mention that a relatively small portion of proceeds actually go to OCAD and TFI. What might appear at first glance to be a non-profit venture is actually a for-profit corporation.

CAFA organizers could not confirm amounts donated to OCAD, saying that it would be worked out after the event.

The amount going to TFI  was up in the air, if not a bit of a mystery, for 10 days after the awards. The final figure came in at 30 per cent of net after-party proceeds, tickets for which went for $100 a pop. They won’t give me an exact dollar value, though, and it’s unclear whether that amount will include any part of the $40,000 dished out by the after-party’s presenting sponsor, Sephora.

Still, that adds up to chump change compared to the cash collected by CAFA from its various corporate sponsors for the evening, which included Rogers and the Mantella Corporation.

According to information available on the CAFA website, sponsorships sold for the awards show itself ranged from $30,000 to $50,000 and $35,000 for the various awards categories.

If you add up the sponsors listed only, CAFA raised just under $300,000 on the night, not counting the sold-out tables that went for $10,000 and individual tickets for $650 each.

We contacted CAFA several times, but their team still can’t confirm how much money the event made. As for the $10,000 emerging talent award, it rings in at the cost of just one gala table and $25,000 less than what Swarovski paid to sponsor the award category.

Any amount of money donated to OCAD, TFI or a young designer is a great thing. No one’s turning down $10,000 or more exposure for Canadian talent.

But if we’re truly serious about taking Canada’s fashion industry to the next level, shouldn’t we be more critical about who actually benefits from these types of events?

As at Toronto Fashion Week with its overly branded tents, big corporations and event organizers seem to reap far more from these endeavours than young designers. We can’t do better?

I don’t purport to know all the answers, but if you ask Canada’s designers – a pretty good place to start – it’s clear they need more than what’s currently available.

Ten thousand dollars, while a nice round figure, actually doesn’t go very far.

Sunny Fong, who won 10 times that from season two of Project Runway Canada, says the money goes fast.

“Winning that prize was great, but when you break it down in terms of all the money you have to put toward shows, sampling and employees, it’s really nothing,” he says.

When I asked him how far he thought $10,000 would go for a young designer, he said it would likely help pay for the debts they’ve accumulated.

By way of comparison, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund in the U.S., a registered non-profit organization, awards $300,000 to an emerging designer and $100,000 to two runners-up each year.

Beyond cash, Canadian designers need to get their clothes into stores.

Says local designer Golnaz Ashtiani, “Business is the biggest problem for Canadian designers. We aren’t making enough sales.”

Ashtiani is a past winner of the TFI new labels competition. While the TFI prize has changed slightly over the years, it currently includes a $25,000 cash award, opportunities for mentorship, a spread in Flare magazine and free studio space at TFI headquarters – something designers find especially valuable since it creates a stable home base from where a business can grow.

TFI seems to have the best track record when it comes to designer competitions, likely due to its well-rounded prize package and the fact that it keeps the focus on young designers, not brands. But even TFI can only carry designers so far.

“Retailer support is missing right now,” says Sid Neigum, another former new labels winner and one of the nominees for CAFA’s emerging talent award.

When asked to describe their ideal prize, Neigum suggests a mentorship with somebody from an internationally successful fashion powerhouse like LVMH, the French multinational; Fong says designers, similar to talent in any other industry, need business managers; and Nguyen wants to see collaborations with retailers.

What’s clear from the excitement surrounding MBSU and CAFA is that Canadians are hungrier than ever for our fashion industry to succeed.

Corporations have capitalized on this energy with wild success, making it far too easy to get sucked into the glitz and glam of big, branded events with little thought as to what they actually mean for designers.

Is it so much to ask that the scales be a little more balanced?

*This post was originally published in NOW Magazine

Anything but temporary

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Hospitals, hotels, prisons: how the design of transient living spaces can change lives

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Hospitals, hotels, prisons: How do these transitory living spaces become second homes? I went on a mission to learn about their design, both theoretical and practical.

In fact, they don’t become homes – not really. They may use some home-like decor elements, but their goal is never to become permanent.

The Shangri-La and Beverley Hotels are designed as destinations, ultimate escapes where you can revel in luxury or voyeurism. Bridgepoint Hospital aims to get patients back out the door ASAP, while the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is creating an urban village to help clients more easily reintegrate into the community.

Both the Toronto South Detention Centre and Roy McMurtry Youth Centre are designed to prevent incidents that could extend inmates’ stays or see them become repeat guests.

Turns out planning temporary spaces is a delicate balancing act, perhaps one reason why progress in this area seems so sluggish. Hotels are slow to differentiate themselves from one another, while public institutions struggle to leave the 20th century behind in order to become more effective and humane.

As a result, tracing these places’ design journeys is at once both inspirational and maddening. It’s clear that transient spaces play a tremendously important role in our society, and design is key to their success or failure.

Calling Canadian retailers: Our young designers are waiting for you

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Emerging talent rules the runway at day two of Toronto Fashion Week

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It’s one thing to design with trends in mind, it’s another to have your collection look like it was inspired by a little more than a Women’s Wear Daily trend report – a problem that tends to plague Toronto Fashion Week. Just as I was about to fall into a trance-like state from garments with miniscule degrees of differentiation cycling the runway, three young designers changed the game.

Travis Taddeo shook things up with his signature minimalist urban styles. Some fashion folks still don’t understand his appeal, but these are likely the same people who consider Joe Fresh the torchbearer of democracy in fashion.

Taddeo creates populist designs out of luxury materials, giving street wear a much deserved spotlight in an industry that often shrugs it off as inferior and sloppy. Baseball caps, leather shorts layered over sweats and socks paired with sandals gave off a cool couldn’t-care-less vibe. A series of quilted white pieces stole the show, while jersey dresses draped with airy silk chiffon made me feel lighter just to watch them float down the runway.

Melissa Nepton showed the first must-see collection of the week, managing to be both dramatic and relaxed all at once. Inspired by Japanese trends, Nepton gave light materials weight and volume with way-wide leg pants and fabulous ballooning skorts that – don’t worry – in no way resemble the tragic skorts of the 90s.

Standout optic prints mixed stripes, checks, and puzzle-like patterns to great effect and even the models’ hair made an impression, tied back and wrapped with electrical tape for a sharp dagger-like look.

Sid Neigum, a member of The Collective, closed out the night with a mature collection that, by his standards, lacked a bit of theatrical effect. I’m used to seeing more tiers of meaning in Neigum’s shows, but his outstanding skill was seen in the precision of his laser-cut dresses, architectural shapes and perfectly draped outerwear.

This is a designer who plans out everything, including the footwear. No ill-fitting sponsored shoes on Neigum’s runway. While other designers somehow forget to steam their clothes, he thinks to create hoof-like booties by layering sheets of leather over top of existing shoes.

Neigum is exactly the sort of talent big Canadian department stores (Holts, The Bay, I’m looking at you) need to throw dollars and marketing power behind. Our young designers are showing up big time – it’s just too bad the same can’t be said for our retailers.

*This post was originally published by NOW Magazine

Big brands, diversity woes and underweargate

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Innovation is missing in action at day one of Toronto Fashion Week

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Big tent, big lights, big brands. Walking into Toronto Fashion Week’s Tents at David Pecaut Square is like walking into a trade show where everything is exceedingly shiny but nothing is particularly new.

In addition to title sponsor MasterCard, there’s Peroni, Ciroc, Target, Mercedes-Benz, Barbie, NeoStrata, Air France, the Ritz-Carlton, Pandora, Maybelline, Rimowa, Sony and at least a few more big brands hawking their latest wares in the sea of promotional booths occupying the Fashion Environment.

Fashion Week is a week-long event that’s become more about being seen than seeing. Brands, both corporate and personal, rule the tents under the guise of boosting Canadian designers’ careers when there’s undeniable evidence that the whole scheme isn’t quite working.

Most of Canada’s best designers are absent, promising young talent pops up for a season or two before disappearing into the abyss and the best-attended shows resemble more high-society functions than great displays of homegrown talent.

It’s not that I’m against corporate sponsorship. Big money keeps The Tents from falling down and is required to throw an event of this magnitude. However, I do find it problematic when brands overshadow the week’s supposed raison d’être.

Why don’t more of these brands create retail partnerships with the designers they’re meant to be supporting? Or at least massage their promotional efforts to connect with the event at hand? Let’s see hardware heavyweight Beaufille make a limited-edition charm for Pandora, a Maybelline makeup collection inspired by a Canadian designer’s spring patterns or, hell, Barbie dolls donning miniature versions of the week’s best runway looks.

It feels commercially exploitative when there are clearly more and more big-name sponsors on the showroom floor each season but few noticeable advances for emerging (and often cash-strapped) Canadian designers or media who have to pay cover the event. Money appears to be streaming in, but Toronto is getting lost in the hustle.

One of the best things about Toronto Fashion Week is its partnership with The Collections, a designer management company that hosts a roster of the city’s most brilliant young talent. One of its shining stars, Beaufille (the label formerly known as Chloe Comme Parris), opened last night with an edgy yet feminine collection full of slip dresses, faded prints in earth tones and splendidly low V-necks. A guitarist and drummer played Breaking Bad-worthy rock as the sister duo’s signature hardware appeared in arm bands and clasps used to stitch skirts and pants together. It was the perfect spring collection for those who hate spring fashion.

Pink Tartan hit the runway next with its Edie Sedgwick-inspired collection. There was nothing particularly wrong with Kimberley Newport-Mimran’s streamlined sportswear and perfectly tailored trousers, other than that they felt like the same-old of fashion weeks past. She certainly knows the women she dresses, but the line could use some styling magic to spruce things up for the runway. Mod oversized florals, splashes of neon and graphic prints on jacquard knit dresses were among the highlights of the collection.

Drawing attention away from the clothes was the show’s lack of diversity. With the funds to hire just about any models she pleases, there’s no excuse for Newport-Mimran’s all-white lineup.

David Dixon closed out the night with a more diverse cast of models and a collection inspired by children’s book On The Day You Were Born. Intricate hand-beaded lace and laser-cut petals aimed to create an ultra-feminine look before they were ruined by what I call Underweargate. In one of the most strangely hideous styling decisions I’ve seen, Dixon sent models down the runway in sheer black skirts and pants with white full-bottom panties showing underneath.

To top it off, several of the pieces were poorly tailored. Dresses were too loose in the ribs and I’m still debating whether the opening model was holding up her strapless dress or just a truly terrible walker.

Either way, what should’ve been a delicate and beautiful collection was undermined by the details.

*This post was originally published by NOW Magazine

The Stars of ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color’ on the Fallout From ‘That Interview’ With The Daily Beast

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*This story was originally published in Toronto Standard

Everyone’s talking about Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux. Not only thanks to their stunning performances in ‘Blue Is the Warmest Color,’ which earned the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, but also because they’re two badass chicks who tell it like it is. The actresses spoke out against director Abdellatif Kechiche’s methods and the work conditions on set in a recent interview with The Daily Beast, saying they’d never work with him again. I sat down with Adèle and Léa  at TIFF to talk about the reaction to that interview, what happens when they see Abdellatif again, and, of course, the marathon lesbian sex scene that’s freaking out America.

I’ll start by saying that I read The Daily Beast interview and I thought it was just fantastic. What sort of feedback have you gotten since it was published?

L: Why did you think it was fantastic?

Well, because it was inspiring. So many females are exploited and poorly treated in the entertainment industry, but no one ever has the guts to speak out and tell the truth. Also, interviews are often just so boring these days. This was one of the best I’ve read in awhile.

L: Thank you for saying that, thank you (claps hands)! You’re the first person to say that!

What made you decide to do it? Was it spontaneous?

L: Yes! The thing is that it was spontaneous and what we said is true, but it we were also laughing about it. The thing is that when you read it on paper, it’s very violent. Well, it was very violent on the set. And now we want to talk more about our work.

A: Yes, we want to speak more about the movie because journalists make it bigger and bigger, and there’s consequences and everything. And now it’s not the point.

L: But it’s true that we said, like yeah, it was a very difficult shooting.

But I’m shocked to hear I’m the first person you’ve heard say they liked the interview. That’s crazy to me. Really?

L: It’s amazing because, you know, when we said that I felt that everyone was like (violently pounds hand into fist to mimic people coming down on them). Because we’re under pressure. They were like “No you don’t have to say that. Why’d you say that?! It’s bad for the film!”

A: People said that you cannot do that to someone who has taken you so high, after winning the Palme d’Or. you can’t say that. And we’re like, sorry, but we’re just saying the truth. But we never questioned his greatness, just his methods.

L: Yes, we say that he’s a great director, it’s just the technique. We suffered a lot on this film, but there’s a point where you’re doing your job. You’re an actress, he’s the director, and you want to work and you offer yourself to him. And I really believe in collaboration. But there were times where it wasn’t collaboration. And when you have someone who is manipulating, you’re like what am I doing? It touches you deeply. But that’s how it was, and we are very proud of the flim. Even if he has very tough manners, we think that he is a very talented director. We worked very hard on this film and, now, I really want to talk about my work.

A: I want to celebrate my work. I want to talk about the work and not the suffering part.

TIFF ’13: Locking It Down in Clubland

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Just don’t call them bouncers. During TIFF season, Uniq Lifestyle’s security team more resembles the secret service than your stereotypical meatheads

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A-list celebrities and their entourages. Champagne-guzzling guests emboldened by 4 a.m. extended licenses. Paparazzi who will do and say anything for the perfect photo. These are just some of the things Rob Nikiforuk, Director of Security for Uniq Lifestyle Entertainment(the guys who own the likes of Brant House, Cobra, and The Ballroom), has to juggle during film fest season. The job takes a lot more than just standing by a velvet rope and looking intimidating. Nikiforuk’s role more resembles that of a secret service agent–he plans travel routes, shuttles celebs through secret entrances, and is loath to name drop. “Just so you know, we don’t really like the term ‘bouncer.’ It’s outdated,” he tells me. After hearing about all the behind-the-scenes planning he does, I can’t really blame the guy. Read my interview with Nikiforuk to learn more about what exactly goes into making TIFF a safe and fun experience for celebs and partygoers alike… and what not to say when you’re trying to get into VIP.

TIFF ’13: Esther Garnick, Swag Master

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Esther Garnick’s no-celebs-allowed Essentials Lounge will gift $1600 worth of product to media this TIFF. Someone better tell Bieber this is what real swag looks like.

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Some call her the “Santa Claus of TIFF”– the patron saint of overworked, underpaid media during the season of film festivities. One person tried to sell me on “Garnick the Gifterian.” Whatever you call her, people really, really like Esther Garnick this time of year. She’s the Director of Publicity of her own boutique PR firm, EGPR, but – more pressingly, because we in the media like our free shit – she heads up the Essentials Lounge along with Senior Publicist Jessica Denomme.

The Essentials Lounge is a beautiful little thing that takes place the day before TIFF begins. Where other gifting lounges cater to celebrities (‘celebrities’ often being an optimistic genteelism for Canadian C-listers), this one cuts through the crap and places products right in the hands of the media. No celebs allowed– even if Drake or Brad Pitt e-mail tomorrow and want to come.

“Well, we’d let Drake work the lounge. That’s actually one of my dreams. He could hand out bags, but he wouldn’t be going home with one,” laughs Garnick.

Editor’s Notes: Toronto Fashion Week Needs Fewer Pretty Things, More Ideas

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Sabrina Maddeaux doesn’t buy David Dixon’s feminism; wonders if Sid Neigum has outgrown The Collections

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As a general rule, I hate pre-show videos at Fashion Week. Everyone leans forward in their seats to see them – inevitably resulting in almost no one being able to see them – and they tend to be dull, self-indulgent, and a little bit too long. David Dixon proved a surprising exception to the rule when he screened the BBC comedy sketch “Women: Know Your Limits!” It was entertaining, witty, and a whole lot sassy. It was the best part of his show.

Blaring empowerment anthems like “I Am Woman” and “Run the World (Girls)” mixed with clips of Hillary Clinton’s famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech from the 1995 UN Conference on Women made it clear that Dixon was going for a feminist theme, but what he ended up with was more ‘feminine.’

Sure, it was pretty. There were sparkly sleeves, big faux baubles, and appliqué flowers on gowns. It was also appropriate and ladylike. But haven’t women had enough of pretty and ladylike? For all the effort that went into mixing the soundtrack, the collection completely missed Dixon’s supposed point.

Give Me ALL TEH FEMINIST PAGEVIEWS!!

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Sabrina Maddeaux on the Oscars outrage and media’s commoditization of feminism

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The internet seemed a very angry place yesterday. People pissed at Seth MacFarlane. People pissed at The Onion. People disgusted by “We Saw Your Boobs.” People subsequently clicking Jezebel‘s “Cleavage, Sideboob and See-Through Dresses at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party” gallery to the tune of over 2 million pageviews (by far the top-read post on their site at the time this article was written). Anne Hathaway’s nipples got their own Twitter account while #LesNipperables trended (why hasn’t anyone yet pointed out that the offending bumps were actually the DARTS on her dress??). People outraged that 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis was jokingly called a cunt for her overeager antics. People then bitching about how much they hate that cunt Anne Hathaway for her overeager antics. All in the name of feminism.

Through it all, I didn’t read one piece that said anything new. Not one that struck me as clever or meaningful. They all hit the same five (or so) points then neatly tied themselves in a bow, ready for a chorus of supportive tweets and “You Go Grrl” comments. Pop culture critique, not meant to provoke or stimulate, but to preach to the choir and be rewarded with a mountain of clicks.

Beautiful Little Fools

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Sabrina Maddeaux on the unbearable irony of Gatsby-inspired fashion

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There’s a memorable scene in The Great Gatsby when, at one of Gatsby’s famous parties, a guest dubbed “Owl Eyes” is shocked to discover the mansion’s library is full of real books. “Absolutely real– have pages and everything. I thought they’d be a nice durable cardboard,” he exclaims. “This fella’s a regular Belasco. It’s a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism! Knew when to stop, too– didn’t cut the pages. But what do you want? What do you expect?”

Although the books may be more “real” than simple cardboard props, Gatsby’s library is nothing more than a decorative attempt at association with real knowledge and taste. At best, it’s aspirational– more likely, it’s an empty-headed attempt at early personal branding. How little times have changed.

In advance of the summer 2013 release of another Great Gatsby remake, this time starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, and Carey Mulligan, the fashion world has predictably latched onto everything Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel has inspired fashion spreads, style guides, Henri Bendel’s holiday windows, and society shindigs that use precariously selective quotes from the book on their promo flyers. New York City’s Plaza Hotel unveiled a Great Gatsby Christmas tree, roped in 660 feet of garland and designed by Academy Award winner Catherine Martin. Holt Renfrew will show off “Love, Holts windows, inspired by the romance of The Gatsby era” just in time for Valentine’s Day. It’s safe to say the powers that be in high fashion and society have made a trend out ofGatsby.

If only they didn’t have it so embarrassingly wrong.

In Defense of Paulina Gretzky’s Flare Cover

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Sabrina Maddeaux: “I’m interested in the magazine for the first time in years”

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I once tried to hire an editor who was also interested in a position at Flare and I couldn’t understand why.

You’ll never be allowed to write anything real, I protested.

You’ll be so bored, I warned.

Do you really want to write about ‘195 party finds?’ I gawked.

Enter Flare‘s February 2013 cover featuring Paulina Gretzky, and I’m interested in the magazine for the first time in years. Why? Because they’ve taken a small step toward publishing content that actually relates to readers on a deeper level than some sort of reformation guide for “returnaholics.”

But not everyone is so impressed. On Tuesday, the Globe and Mail‘s Steve Ladurantaye delivered a rather scathing condemnation of the cover choice. “It doesn’t matter that the rest of the world has never been all that interested in the antics of the 24-year-old woman whose principal claim to fame is that her father was a really good hockey player. That’s not entirely fair — she’s probably just as well known for her provocative Instagram photos,” he wrote.

So, the Generation X male reporter can’t relate to Gretzky? Shocker. But that’s not the real question here. The question is whether Flare’s 20-something readers, a significant portion of their demographic, can relate to her story.

Some are upset Flare granted Gretzky a coveted cover for what they see as little more than having a famous father– but we fawn over celebs’ kids all the time, so I can’t believe this is the real source of outrage. If we really want to go there., the Canadian fashion and media landscape is so unabashedly incestuous (are there any famous Canadian offspring CTV hasn’t hired?) that it’s laughable to think Gretzky is the straw that broke the inbred camel’s back. Gretzky’s glam chops gracing February is the least of this industry’s problems.

Is Marilyn Monroe the New Jesus?

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Sabrina Maddeaux on the big business of dead celebrities

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Marilyn Monroe died for our sins. The sins of a manipulative Hollywood machine, a dehumanizing sex-obsessed culture, and, many would say, the sins of a president who couldn’t keep it in his pants.

But Marilyn Monroe is anything but dead. Her estate, in conjunction with clever brand managers and undying fans, have resurrected the pretty pop-culture princess from her pill-ridden deathbed and immortalized her as something more–an all-American deity who hangs, giggling and dress billowing, over a New York subway grate for all eternity. This may not be the real Marilyn Monroe, but it’s the Marilyn Monroe we believe in.

Our growing culture of celebrity worship is no secret. In a world where ‘traditional’ religions have fallen more and more out of touch, people are looking for something else, someone else to believe in. Celebrities, with their bigger-than-life personas, have stepped in to fill the void. Tabloids as the new Good Books, fan pages the new congregations, carefully crafted quotes the new gospel. Pre-pubescent fangirls wait outside concerts with signs that vow Bieber Forever! and Have my baby! as if praying for an immaculate conception of their very own.

Living, breathing celebrities are one thing. But the real power — and the real money — lies with the dead. A new crop of Hollywood power players is making its fortune buying up, managing, and selling the names and likenesses of deceased celebs. Forbes even publishes an annual “Top-Earning Dead Celebrities” list. Monroe was seventh in 2012, but stands to move up the rankings with a new gig as the face of Chanel No. 5 and, locally, a new chain ofMarilyn Monroeâ„¢ Cafés–the first of which opened in Oakville earlier this month.

A press release describes the new café as “not a shrine,” but “a place Marilyn would be comfortable in.” It seems an experiment in turning blind worship into a more holistic experience, a communion of sorts. Patrons can break the same bread (in the form of a French Flaked Croissant) that might’ve been Monroe’s last breakfast. Instead of a collection basket, there’s the opportunity to purchase “a wide array of merchandise” on the way out.

Toronto native Jamie Salter, CEO and chairman of Authentic Brands Group LLC, owns Marilyn Monroe’s estate and has been dubbed a “dead-celebrity dealmaker” by reporters. But he’s not the only Canadian making dead celebs his niche. Mississauga-based Jesse Decostaspecializes in rebranding, managing, and licensing the likes of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G.

Dead celebrities make great clients because they’re frozen in time; they can’t publicly shame themselves, grow older and irrelevant, or quit the biz to start a family. “When we’re dealing with celebrities who aren’t alive anymore, we can take some more risk because they’re not looking to move into a different area of their career, like say, from music to film,” says Decosta. “We’re working with an existing brand and carving our own path.”

He won’t answer when I ask if, from a brand management standpoint, it’s better for his celebrity clients to die young, at the height of their careers. But it must be. Keeping a celebrity in the spotlight, continuing to market a young beautiful face, is easier than turning back the clock on one who has lived to lose their sex appeal and be replaced by a new generation of starlets.

Untimely death is the stuff myths are made of. And in the cult of celebrity, as in religion, myth is the real almighty power. The historical Jesus ain’t got nothing on the mythical Christ– and suicidal, lonely, manipulated Norma Jean can’t lay a finger on glamorous sexpot Marilyn. Possible paranoid schizophrenia and broken hearts be damned when crème brulee lattes and expensive perfume that Monroe famously told a reporter was the only thing she wore to bed (but not dead in bed, that wouldn’t be marketable) are poised to make untold amounts of money.

“We typically test ideas with our audiences. So one of the first things we do is take over audience management through social media… they tell us in real time if they hate something or if they love something,” says Decosta.

A crowd-sourced faith community is a tempting alternative in an evermore democratized world, where religious institutions obsessed with controlling the masses struggle to thrive. Dead celebrities as modern-day messiahs; big business controlling the strings.

Salter told Bloomberg Business Week that to properly market a dead celeb, “Everything we do must have authentic DNA.” The quote eerily reminds me of Brandon Cronenberg’sAntiviral when [SPOILER ALERT] clinics continue to harvest the DNA of superstar Hannah Geist, organs kept alive by a machine, long after her death for biological communion by fans. Except, while Hannah’s fans pay for diseases and imperfections rooted in her humanity, we pay for sweet masking agents that cover up stars’ true identities and turn them into whatever we want them to be. It’s tough to decide which is more disturbing.

In both cases, it’s about devotion, profit, and prolonging the life and influence of celebrity. Fifteen minutes be damned, how does eternity sound?

*This post was originally published in Toronto Standard

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Sext?

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Sabrina Maddeaux: “I don’t know how many people have seen my tits”

sext

It was my freshman year of college in the U.S., I was 18, and dating a boy who played on one of the school’s more successful athletic teams. In “season” he was more often than not away from campus to compete against other schools. On one of these trips, I sent him an e-mail containing several less-than-clothed photos.

I don’t know how many people have seen my tits. And, chances are, neither do you. Not really, anyway. I think, these days, if you send ‘dirty photos’ to someone, you have to assume someone else is going to see them. Someone shows a friend, someone loses a phone, someone gets hacked, someone decides they’re the interweb’s self-made Hugh Hefner… there are just too many variables for anyone to expect real privacy when it comes to private photos of private parts.

Yet despite so many women — and men — hovering one ill-fated tap of a touch screen away from what we’re religiously (oh yes, pun intended) told will spell Disaster with a capital “D,” we find ourselves fit to scold and slut-shame those unfortunate few whose intimate transactions somehow turn material for public fodder. It will ruin your career! They exclaim. What will your parents say? They gasp. (Funny, though, how no one ever implies that Todd Akin wasn’t raised right, or that his lack of basic scientific knowledge will bring ruin and shame upon his poor family).

It’s a pretty shitty fact, but a fact nonetheless, that this type of shaming is exponentially worse when it’s a female whose sexuality has been ‘outed.’ I say outed, because the female sex drive is meant to stay in the closet where we don’t have come to terms with the fact that a woman can be professional and horny, a loyal patriot and mistress. Men can run companies and countries, and be playboys on the side– but society can only handle women who fit into one category. To accept three-dimensional women more would be too threatening, too much.

Then, when a tragedy like Amanda Todd’s occurs, everyone weeps and wishes that this young girl had known it would get better. This one “mistake” was no need to throw her life away.

Fast forward to stories like Angela Gaines’ in the Examiner that preaches, “This tragic tale unfolds with an error in judgment made by a 12 year old… I’m sure she never fathomed what could happen to her as a result of that unforgettable few seconds of her life, but now we all know.” And then, “In an attempt to feel accepted by someone, she hooked up with a boy who set out to mistreat and use her.” (Because Amanda could not have genuinely liked this boy, could not have wanted to have sex for pleasure’s sake… she’s been categorized as a victim eternal, and that she must remain).

Jezebel’s Hugo Schwyzer gets it so right when he writes that ”Gaines’ piece is itself ‘one sad example’ of the way in which Todd’s suicide has been appropriated in the service of victim-blaming slut-shaming repackaged as concern for vulnerable teens.”

He closes the piece with a plea: “Someday in the not-too-distant future, a powerful woman —- a Jobs-like figure -— will come forward… She’ll share what it was like to send that picture out, and what it was like when it was spread all over school. And she’ll talk about how as painful as it was, it didn’t ruin her life.”

Well, I may not exactly be a “Jobs-like figure,” but I do consider myself a powerful woman– one who was President of my university’s Student Government Association, accepted into law schools the likes of Boston College and Notre Dame, and, now, the Managing Editor of an award-winning publication. And I will share my story.

I’ll pick it up again when, a few weeks later, a friend tipped me off that some guys on the team were passing around the photos amongst themselves. When I confronted my boyfriend, he claimed that one of his teammates had borrowed his laptop, happened to stumble upon the e-mail, and proceeded to forward it to a few friends. My guess as to whether that’s really the true sequence of events is as good as yours.

I was embarrassed, terrified, pissed as hell, and knew that I wasn’t going to roll over and let this get the best of me. It took all the courage I had to march into the Student Life department, tell several male administrators over the age of 50 what had happened, and demand that action be taken. I was lucky — not only did they log into these boys’ school-owned e-mail addresses and wipe them clean, they also encouraged me to bring the matter to the Athletic department and press charges with the police. Not once did they blame me.

But I didn’t want to press charges; I just wanted the photos gone forever and for the guys to admit their wrongdoing and apologize.  I was taken to meet with their coach to figure out a solution. This is where things took a quick nosedive. He told me that he wouldn’t so much as ask his players to apologize and that, should I choose to take matters further with the school or police, he “would be forced to explain to all the media outlets” exactly why his players were in trouble and include my name. He said that he “bet my parents didn’t know about this” and that they would surely find out if it leaked to the press. I basically politely agreed with him and left the office quietly.

I never got my apology. But, you know what? That doesn’t bother me in the slightest anymore. The guys involved weren’t trying to be malicious, they were simply, as college boys do, thinking with their dicks.  That fear, that humiliation, I felt has long since dissipated into nothingness.

But what still literally turns my face red with rage and regret is not telling that coach to go fuck himself for essentially trying to blackmail me with the “make one mistake and it will run your life” and “what will your parents say” strains of slut and victim-shaming. In incidents like these, even when the photos are long gone, the stenches of misogyny and oppression remain.

The problem isn’t the photos. The photos on their own are, well, just photos. The real problem that torments more teen girls and grown women than we could ever know is society’s complete and utter inability to deal with the most natural thing in the world: women’s sexuality.

*This post was originally published in Toronto Standard