Monday 9 December 2019

'You've got to be pretty tough and not let people pull you down'

TV presenter Jeanne Beker tells Bairbre Power how she has fashioned a successful career over the changing decades

Jeanne Beker and Bairbre Power
Jeanne Beker and Bairbre Power
Jean with daughters Joey and Becky in 2001
Merrion Hotel in Dublin
Singer Bono speaks at the European People's Party (EPP) Elections Congress in Dublin...Singer Bono of U2 speaks at the European People's Party (EPP) Elections Congress in Dublin March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett (IRELAND - Tags: POLITICS ENTERTAINMENT)...I
Bairbre Power

Bairbre Power

For a woman who started off her career as a mime artist, Jeanne Beker certainly found her own voice in the cut-throat world of fashion and entertainment. A generation of women grew up watching the brown-haired Canadian reporting effusively on trends and from behind-the-scenes of haute couture shows for Fashion Television from 1985 to 2012.

"I'm Jeanne Beker," was the catchphrase on her show which became a Sunday afternoon television ritual in Ireland in the late 1980s, along with Vincent Hanley's MT-USA.

When the two of us meet at Dublin's Merrion Hotel, Jeanne is on "the longest holiday of my life – 10 days, I've never done this before".

However, it's not as if the intrepid 62-year-old is easing up on her workload – she currently designs both clothes and shoes. So when I ask who has the biggest ego in fashion, Jeanne shrieks in mock horror, her trademark wide smile breaking into a theatrical gasp.

"You want me to name names? I haven't retired from the business yet," she cautions, breaking into a laugh.

In her book, Finding Myself In Fashion, the newspaper columnist and television personality describes how the fashion world is "filled with some of the most outlandish egos imaginable".

Sitting on the Merrion Hotel's terrace before departing for Kerry on a break with Irish fashion designer Louise Kennedy and Louise's sister Caroline and their family, Jeanne expands on her theory that "ego is one of the things which drives people to greatness a lot of the time". It's something she admits to finding "compelling and intriguing."

Over four decades, this daughter of two Polish Holocaust survivors – her mother Bronia is 93 and currently living near Jeanne in Ontario – has gone from dreaming of a career in theatre to working on a radio station, presenting music and film programmes before going into fashion, print and TV.

As a rock reporter, Jeanne interviewed stars on smoky tour buses. She spoke with Bono and Adam Clayton in 1981 when U2 were still unknowns across the pond, and she defiantly pulled on her fur coat and walked out on Iggy Pop when he was "a jerk". The proceedings can be watched on YouTube.

"He was always coming onto me and one night in the early 80s, I was asked by my producer to meet Iggy for an interview," Jeanne says. "It was really late at night and I had been at my parents' place, so I wasn't dressed in the usual rock 'n' roll gear. He started giving me the hardest time. He was drinking and he was just rude.

"It was the first time, and the last time, in my life, that I said 'I'm out of here' in an interview.' I told the cameraman to stop rolling and I dropped the microphone. There's only so much abuse I can take and I've taken a lot in the trenches of both rock 'n' roll and fashion. Looking back at the video, I was proud at how the younger me handled Iggy Pop.''

Interview styles vary, but in the late 80s, when Jeanne spoke to Police guitarist, Andy Summers while perched on the edge of his bath, the clip turned into a music TV classic after the bubbles began to dissipate and the musician tried nervously to cover himself up.

Fast forward 20 years to another interview with Summers. Jeanne joked that this time, she might "get into the tub with him". Producers – and Summers – loved the idea, so Jeanne "sucked in" her gut and tried not to drop the mic, keeping it above the suds.

Switching gears, the broadcaster reveals how Timothy Leary, the psychologist /philosopher advised her to "get very friendly with your computer" when she met him at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

"He was witty and smart," Jeanne says. That was in the mid 80s and I didn't even own a computer." Now her BlackBerry goes everywhere with her.

As a girl growing up in Toronto, she had a poster of Paul McCartney over her bed. She remembers seeing him playing at Maple Leaf Gardens: "I was up in the nosebleed section and they were like little raisins at the stage. When I met him, Paul was so nice and down to earth."

During our lunch, Jeanne is initially tempted to try the Merrion's version of Caesar salad but, instead, opts for the Irish smoked salmon salad with a pomegranate.

We toast her impending Irish holiday with some Prosecco and she sips an Americano in the sunshine, before going around the corner to Louise Kennedy's salon so they can set off on their trip to Kerry.

For my part, I am too intent on questioning the fashion legend to actually bother with anything too fussy, so I order a simple asparagus salad and some fizzy water.

Later, we wander, like tourists, around the Irish cheese plate, enjoying the local artisan offerings. I close with a double espresso on ice – a drink I first encountered in South Carolina. It's like putting your finger in a socket box.

Mind you, Jeanne Beker doesn't need powering up like that – she is naturally ready for action. It must be all those years of chasing celebrities around the world with her cameraman.

"I guess to succeed, you've got to be pretty tough and not let people really pull you down," she says.

"You really have to have a suit of armour, but if it's too impenetrable, too tough, it will totally dehumanise you and you won't be very good at what you do."

The break-up in 1998 of her marriage to radio presenter Bob Magee (real name Denny O'Neill) – with whom she has two grown-up daughters, Bekky, a multi-disciplinary artist, and Joey, a singer/composer – hit Jeanne badly. She admits she thought she had it all – a supportive husband, kids, career, two homes – and when her relationship broke down she spiralled into a dark depression, it took her every ounce of courage and optimism to get over it.

Jeanne has her own clothing line, Edit, at the Hudson's Bay stores across Canada and her own affordable shoe range too. "I think globalisation has certainly changed the fashion industry, how it does business and how designers create," she says. "Creativity has been affected to a huge degree, and maybe for the better because it's great that we have this huge window on the world and can be inspired so readily.

"Boy, you really have to fight 80 times as hard to be original and to do something really new. It has changed fashion as we knew it and that's why I don't lament that I'm not out there, ploughing through the trenches the way I was."

Who, over the years, has made Jeanne cross? "P Diddy, Puff Daddy, I don't know what he is calling himself these days,'' she says, revealing the back story about how the pair had "a really wonderful working relationship " until he snubbed over 100 teenage fans who spent hours waiting to meet him at Jeanne's TV station, only to find out that he had returned to his hotel, with his assistant, explaining that he had to "brush his teeth".

Would she have liked to have met Coco Chanel? "Who doesn't want to meet a true original. She was just so influential, her legacy and what she means to women today, she is so emblematic of so much in terms of modernity, and the whole idea of a uniform for a woman. It's always a pleasure to meet any great person of style."

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