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High style for real life

Jeanne Beker's appearance at the Bay Centre drew crowds of fans of her television show
Television fashion show host Jeanne Beker chats with Shawn Ferrer, a Victoria teen with hopes of a career in fashion design. (Nov. 2, 2010)

Victoria loves fashion in its own quirky, defiant, sporadic, West Coast style. But it's a long way from the runways of Paris and New York or even the Bloor and Robson streets of Toronto and Vancouver.

So I was a bit surprised to find such a large, diverse turnout for Jeanne Beker's launch of her new clothing line, Edit, at the Bay downtown -- at noon on a weekday, no less. Nearly 200 women, and a few men, of all ages came to see Beker, Canada's most famous fashion reporter as the host of Fashion Television for the past 25 years.

"I wanted to come out and talk to women, have you try on the clothes and tell me what you think," Beker told the crowd. Edit is a collection of 25 pieces designed by Montreal firm the Corwick Group. Beker selected, or edited, the line into a range of basics and trend pieces with wide appeal. It includes a modestly cut little black dress, stretchy jeans and lots of black, red, grey and camel. The priciest piece is $195.

"As frivolous as fashion is, it plays an important part in all of our lives," Beker said. She has interviewed Marc Jacobs when he was an unknown long-haired kid, met Gianni Versace at his Miami palazzo, lunched with Naomi Campbell and was invited to Valentino's exclusive retirement party in Italy in 2007.

Beker insists her true joy is connecting with others, especially women. She fielded questions from the audience, including baby boomers wanting see themselves reflected in the fashion world.

"The fact that I'm 58, still fronting a fashion show says something," she said. There was once talk of teaming her with a younger co-host and even of replacing her. "But I held my ground. Let's face it. We get better as we get older. My frame of reference in this business is valued."

Teenagers lined up to ask Beker for advice and autographs. "I want to be a designer, so I really wanted to meet her," said Shawn Ferrer, 16. He's taking every textile class available at Claremont Secondary and working on his debut line.

Lanette Weisberger, 19, wanted to get Beker's autograph for her mom. "I grew up watching Fashion Television with my mom," she said.

I sat down with Beker over tea at Murchie's to talk about her line, life and why Fashion Television has endured for a quarter-century. "I want to demystify the fashion world for people. It seems so shiny and glamorous. But you really get a lot of the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of fashion," she said. "I think it's fun for viewers to see me chasing down Karl Lagerfeld in my heels, getting dissed or turned down. It's real."

She told me about one of her most prized items, a dress given to her by the famous designer in 1989.

"I was seven-and-a-half-months pregnant with my daughter and I went to interview Karl Lagerfeld," she said. She was told she had to wear Chanel for the interview and was sent to the designer's "vault" to pick something out. She was afraid nothing would fit but found a black-and-white dress with pearl buttons.

"He said, 'That looks fabulous on you. You must have it.' "

Beker never set out to be a fashion maven, let alone a reporter.

Her first love was theatre. She studied acting in Toronto and New York, landed a role on the CBC sitcom Toby in 1968 and even did a stint as Newfoundland's only professional mime in 1975.

"I wanted to be an artist, that's how I saw myself," she said. The arts didn't always pay the bills, so she made a foray into media, becoming the host of MuchMusic's predecessor, the New Music in 1978, and Fashion Television in 1985. She also hosted Canada's Next Top Model, filmed partly in Victoria. She has written several fashion books, is writing one about her life, and has been a regular contributor to Flare magazine and the Globe and Mail.

Beker's parents were Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Toronto.

Her father fulfilled his dream of becoming his own boss by opening a small slipper factory, and her mother worked at a textile factory for $12 a week.

"I was raised to be optimistic, through anything," she said. "My parents worked so hard. I grew up thinking I couldn't just have a good life, I had to have a fabulous life."

Beker has been through her share of tough times. She cites her husband leaving their family 12 years ago as one of the worst.

"It felt like us against the world," she said about her daughters, now grown. One is a musician and the other is a playwright.

She's also not immune to the pressures of the beauty industry, especially working in its trenches.

"I get offered to try stuff, but I say no to most of it," she said. She splurges on a weekly manicure and admits to trying Botox but "I'm not saying others should."

She recently lost 20 pounds on the Herbal Magic meal and supplement program.

When she finds something that works, she's very loyal. Beker has had the same hairdresser for 31 years, Gregory Parvatan at Rapunzel salon in Toronto. "He's been with me through everything," she said. Her signature sleek bangs and straight brown tresses have been her 'look' since "about six years old."

Beker stays grounded with retreats to her Ontario farmhouse and through the people she loves. In recent years this has included Victoria-raised stage actor Barry Flatman. The couple have known each other since the 1970s, but came together through mutual friends three years ago.

Flatman's mother Trudie, 89, came to see Beker at the Bay, wearing Edit and in her wheelchair, with a bouquet of flowers to congratulate Beker on her show's 25th anniversary. "She's such a gorgeous, stylish woman," Beker told the crowd. "I'm so inspired by the women in my life."

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Here's a video promoting the line: