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A New York state of mind

Victoria woman now calls the Big Apple home and has settled into a career in the theatre business

Karen Brelsford met us at the brunch hot spot Balthazar in Soho. It was comforting to see a familiar face from Victoria's theatre scene among the frenetic crowds of New York -- where I spent a week on a girls' holiday recently.

Brelsford, known for hilarious characters like Kitty of the Cougar Ladies in Victoria's Atomic Vaudeville cabaret, moved to the Big Apple four years ago to study acting. In the years since, she has discovered a talent and passion for costuming in one of the world's most fashionable cities.

"I sort of fell into this new career," explained Brelsford, 32. She was studying acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and got a job with the school's costuming department. "I'd done my own costumes for Atomic Vaudeville so it came quite naturally. I learned to sew, do alterations and eventually costumed my first show on my own."

Coincidentally, she had a great aunt who was also a costumer in New York. "I joke that it's genetic," she said.

Brelsford's costuming skills caught the eye of the Zephyer Rep Theater Company, which invited her to be one of its directors. "Now I'm working as a costumer, producer, director and publicist, and have been given the opportunity to work with Emmy Award winners Blake Bradford and Joan Darling. It's been an amazing experience," she said. She still works for the costume department of her theatre school and hopes to keep working multiple roles in the New York arts scene.

"It was kind of a quarter-life crisis that led me here and I want to make the most of it," she said.

Until moving to New York, Brelsford had spent most of her life in Victoria -- where she was born and raised. She was an avid athlete while attending Claremont high school. Tall and lean, she pursued basketball and modelling.

"When I look back at all the mall fashion shows and local modelling I did, it seems like a lot," said Brelsford, who has been represented by Barbara Coultish in Victoria since she was a teen. One of her claims to fame is appearing in Thrifty Foods advertisements for the meat department. "Yes, I was the beef girl," she laughed.

Brelsford chose to study the sciences when she attended the University of Victoria, earning a master's degree in geography, specializing in dendrochronology -- the dating of tree rings. She worked as a pathology technician for the Canadian Forest Service before changing course and moving to New York to study acting.

"I had been performing in Vaudeville and with other local improv groups when I asked myself, 'What do I really want to be doing?' "

The answer was pursuing the performing arts in New York. With the support of family and friends she followed her dream and now enjoys living in Harlem with friends, including fellow Victorian and actor Amy Bohaker and a dog.

As for working in the midst of a fashion capital, Brelsford said her wardrobe has become dressier and includes a lot more black. "I've definitely taken advantage of the amazing sample sales. It's one of the fun parts of being here."

New York's renowned sample sales aren't the city's only fashion goldmines, my friend and travelling companion Shona Boisvert and I discovered over the following few days.

After a gruelling scour of the packed, tattered racks at the designer discount mecca Century 21 and feeling like criminals in Chinatown's counterfeit purse and shoe strip, we decided to take advantage of the city's fabulous and underrated thrift stores and flea markets.

We walked into the Housing Works charity thrift shop on 23rd Street to find within minutes a Betsey Johnson top for $10, Karl Lagerfeld blazer for $60, Jean-Paul Gaulthier (for Target) dress for $20 and vintage Yves Saint Laurent shoes for $30. You've got to be early and quick to snap up the finds -- but there are plenty. There are about a dozen shops all over the city, and profits help New Yorkers living with AIDS and HIV.

Flea markets are another great spot to find super-cheap vintage and lightly used designer clothing, as well as locally made fashions. We browsed the GreenFlea market on the Upper West Side, where my friend was stopped by a local fashion blogger who wanted to feature her fantastic red strapless summer dress. Shona was proud to report she had picked up the dress a few days earlier for $20 at the Housing Works thrift store in Chelsea.

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- Sex and the City party at Sweet Nancy's. Tomorrow night, Sweet Nancy's at 618 Broughton St. will host a party to celebrate this week's première of the film Sex and the City 2. Drinks, outfits and games inspired by the film will be featured, as well as clothing discounts and giveaways. The party is from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, call: 250-995-2745

- Sexy and the City. I can attest that this is one of the city's most fun girls' nights out. BK Studios hosts a night of glamour, shopping, treats and photography at the Oswego Hotel. You'll have your makeup, hair and styling done by professionals while mingling, then have a private boudoir photo shoot. The $239 ticket includes a DVD of the photos; prints can be ordered later. Sexy and the City takes place Saturday, May 29 from 4 to 8 p.m. Call 250-381-4739 for more information.