He’s a political prince and the charity circuit’s reigning MC. She’s a social media juggernaut and a style adviser to Canada’s first lady. Together, they’re Toronto’s most polished power couple, and they’re reinventing the way we think about influence
It was a September evening in 2015 when Ben and Jessica and Justin and Sophie walked into Buca, the food snob–approved restaurant in Yorkville. It was a rare night off for the future PM, who was making one last campaign stop in Toronto before the election. For everyone else dining at Buca that night, it was a delightful slice of counterintuitive Canadiana—a Trudeau breaking bread (garlic bread knots, in fact) with a Mulroney. Really though, Ben and Justin have known each other for a long time—they went to the same grade school in Ottawa, and Ben was a guest at Justin and Sophie’s 2005 wedding. And besides, the most consequential part of the double date was an offhand conversation between Jessica and Sophie, who got to talking about the sartorial demands of being a political spouse. “If this happens,” Jessica asked her, “are you going to have an outfit to wear?”
When the time came, two months later, for Sophie to make her first official fashion statement as Canada’s unofficial first lady, she turned to Jessica, who works at the Bay as a public relations and marketing consultant, and has relationships with many smaller Canadian fashion labels through her work as a stylist. For the November swearing-in, they agreed, Sophie would need a great coat, since the day’s pomp includes a ceremonial stroll up the long drive to Rideau Hall. Jessica sent her several options. The winner was a white alpaca single-breasted trench-style coat by a little-known Canadian label called Sentaler, with signature ribbed sleeves and wide lapels on which Sophie pinned her poppy. Underneath she wore a dress by the Canadian designer Erdem that was also a Jessica Mulroney select.
The ensemble was a hit. While political watchers fawned over Justin’s gender-equal governing ethos—“Because it’s 2015”—the fashion world clamoured for the details of his wife’s wardrobe, which were revealed for the first time that evening on eTalk, the entertainment show that Ben has hosted for 15 years, along with the not-insignificant tidbit that Sophie had been styled by one Jessica Mulroney. In the marketing world, this kind of alley-oop is known as brand synergy—when two independent entities work together to achieve a result that is greater than the sum of their parts. In the case of Ben and Jess, it’s the formula for a modern power marriage: he is the established commodity and a freshly installed newsman, with a weighty last name and the connections that come with it. She is the savvy social media whiz, also from well-heeled stock (literally: her family is Browns shoes) and with a knack for relationship building—she is eminently likable—and a player in the world’s buzziest celebrity romance.
A couple of years ago, Jessica became great friends with Meghan Markle, the American actress who moved to Toronto after taking a starring role on the legal drama Suits. Just last summer, when Markle’s relationship with Prince Harry was still top secret, the gal pals spent a few days living la dolce vita on the Amalfi Coast (and because it was 2016, their getaway had its own hashtag: #MJxItaly). Since then, Jessica herself has become a semi-regular side character in the Daily Mail’s ceaseless coverage of all things Markle—most notably last March, when the gossipy tabloid invited readers to “Meet the look-alike, dress-alike stylist who is now inseparable from Harry’s girl.” When Markle made her official debut as Harry’s girlfriend at a Berkshire polo match in May, an event covered by Canadian and U.K. media like the second coming of Christ, she wore a delicate black bracelet with the word “Joy” in silver. The Canadian bauble had been designed exclusively for the Shoebox Project, a charity Jessica founded with her sisters-in-law to benefit women’s shelters, and was featured in People magazine a few days later.
After Sophie wore the Sentaler coat, sales for the label (which is also a favourite of Markle’s) skyrocketed. Jessica connected Sophie to Dean Davidson, a Toronto jeweller whose ring and earrings Sophie wore for the Trudeaus’ first trip to Washington a few months after the swearing-in. Both sold out almost immediately after. Another local designer, Ellie Mae, was featured in Vogue after Jessica selected her chic floral bomber jacket for Sophie on that same trip. Those are just a sampling of the dozens of Canadian designers and labels that have benefited from Jessica and Sophie’s close ties.
It’s not an official relationship, mind you. The Prime Minister’s Office wants to be crystal clear that “Mrs. Trudeau does not employ a stylist.” Instead she has Jessica, who has sourced the vast majority of clothing, jewels and shoes that she has worn for the vast majority of her public appearances over the last two years. Before a big event, Sophie will reach out to Jessica, who will pull looks from across the country. If that sounds a lot like a stylist, the distinction probably has more to do with politics than fashion: the spouse of the PM is not an official position in Canada, and even if it were, it’s unlikely that taxpayers would take kindly to coughing up for her fashion needs. (Remember NannyGate?) And Jessica doesn’t get paid for her services, though of course, being the conduit to Canada’s most significant female political celebrity has huge currency when it comes to influence and brand power. For Jessica, it adds another layer of sheen to an already absurdly glossy existence.
If Norman Rockwell were painting images of idealized domesticity in the present day, they would look a lot like the Mulroneys on Instagram: perfect marriage, perfect family, perfect clothing, perfect teeth, and perfectly willing to put it all out there. Jessica’s feed is a tactful blend of high-fashion selfies and homespun family moments, sometimes both, as seen in a snap where Mom is sprawled out on her living room floor reading Spider-Man comics to her adorable twin boys. They’re in matching jammies; she’s in a red micro-suede top and skirt by the trendy Toronto-based label the Davis Project, and six-inch stilettos by Gianvito Rossi. Follow Ben and Jessica on social media and you can see their morning commutes, family meals, fabulous vacations, famous friends and ridiculously cute video clips—a family road trip where Dad belts out the theme from Beauty and the Beast while his three kids pretend it’s not happening in the back seat. Because even perfect parents can be soooooo embarrassing sometimes. The Mulroneys: they’re just like us. Or at least that’s the idea.
Jeanne Beker, who has known them for years, is surprised they haven’t signed on to a reality show deal, given the interest in their life and their willingness to share it. “It’s almost like the medium of television is evaporating,” Beker says. “It’s like they’re a reality show already without having the formal time slot.”
Ben Mulroney can’t remember a time when the camera wasn’t rolling. He was seven when his dad was elected leader of the Opposition and the family—Brian and Mila, plus Ben’s older sister, Caroline, and younger brother Mark—moved from Westmount in Montreal to Ottawa, where Nicolas, the youngest, was born in 1985. The Mulroney kids appeared at Expo 86 in Vancouver, the ’88 G7 Summit in Toronto and the ’88 Olympics in Calgary, and visited then-president George H. W. Bush in Maine in 1991; they walked the runway in a charity fashion show and entertained dignitaries—Gorbachev, Princess Di, Mandela—for whom Ben was sometimes called upon to play piano. Life wasn’t all perks. He was entering his teens when the entire country turned against his father. The ensuing jeering and bully tactics were brutal, but they provided a valuable lesson in rolling with the punches.
Ben’s career in entertainment began by accident. In the spring of 2000, a year before he finished law school, he attended a Conservative policy convention and a CBC Newsworld producer thought it would be cute to do a quick interview with a next-gen Mulroney. That interview caught the eye of senior programming executives at CTV, who liked Ben’s combo of easy wit, handsome face and familiar pedigree. Meetings were organized, offers extended, and by the following summer Ben had relocated to Toronto. eTalk, the daily entertainment news show that he has hosted since 2002, was developed as a platform for his talents. A year later, when the network launched Canadian Idol, he started hosting that, too. The tweens who shrieked from the front row at Idol tapings were enamoured, but for the broader viewing public, Ben’s family ties and radioactive fake tan made him a favourite punching bag. In 2004, the Globe and Mail began a “most irritating” Canadian on television poll, devised by the TV critic John Doyle as a jokey counterpoint to the CBC’s earnest Greatest Canadian series. Ben never dropped out of the ranking, periodically topping the list but eventually losing to the know-it-all Canadian Tire guy.
In late 2007, Ben’s grandfather fell ill, and Ben took a break so he could spend some time with him and the family in Montreal. While there, he made a move on his long-time crush Jessica Brownstein, a friend of his brother Mark’s whom he had met for the first time at a party more than a decade earlier, when she was 15 and he was 17. Ben thought she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Jessica, who also grew up in Westmount, is the great-granddaughter of Benjamin Brownstein, a Romanian immigrant who came to Montreal as a teenager and founded his first shoe store in 1940. Media reports tend to exaggerate her connection to what is now a 63-store footwear empire—the business was passed down from her great-grandfather to her great-uncle and is now run by his son, Michael Brownstein. Still, she grew up amid substantial wealth, and the family name carries clout. She had graduated from McGill with a degree in industrial relations. She worked for her father, Stephen, a clothing manufacturer, then launched a sleepwear and lingerie distribution company with her sister, Elizabeth, winning Canadian rights to brands La Perla and Cosabella.
Ben and Jessica’s first date was sushi followed by a stop at a karaoke bar, where Ben performed Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Jessica watched with her hands over her eyes, but she was charmed. They became regulars on red carpets in both Montreal and Toronto, their boldface names popping up frequently in the society pages. Over the course of a nine-month courtship, there were a lot of flights—Jessica would join Ben on the Idol tour for a few days, or they would hole up in her apartment in Montreal. They would often go to the popular Westmount diner Chez Nick, where Ben would order a bacon cheeseburger and black cherry cola, and Jessica would get a salad. As kids, both had gone there with their families, a sentimental detail that made it the perfect place for Ben to propose. Which he did, nine months after that first date, with the diamond ring that his mom helped him pick out. He got down on one knee and said he hoped one day they would bring their own family to this special place. She said yes and ran through the snow to her parents’ house to share the good news.
The wedding was a swishy, three-day event in Montreal, capped off with a reception for 350. A cluster of reporters and photographers gathered outside St. Patrick’s Basilica to catch the newlyweds on their trip from church to limo. Asked how he was feeling, Ben gave a one-word answer—“Fantastic”—saving the scoop for an exclusive eTalk sit-down the following day.
Bright, bubbly and as camera-ready as any Real Housewife, Jessica had no problem breaking into Toronto’s rarefied society circles. The year after their wedding, the Mulroneys were the honorary co-chairs of the annual Innovators’ Ball, a black-tie fundraiser for the Science Centre. They made Hello! Canada’s list of best-dressed duos. When Jessica’s preternaturally fit frame started to fill out around the middle, she became the subject of a celebrity bump watch. The twins—Brian (named for Grandpa) and John (named for Grandpa’s brother, who died a few hours after birth)—were born in August 2010, and the happy family received well wishes from Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz on a special eTalk broadcast. “Jessica is radiant and in great health and spirits. I am the happiest man alive,” Ben declared in a press release. Six months later, Hello! got the exclusive—a glossy, 10-page photo spread plus an interview. When Isabel Veronica (Ivy for short) was born two years later, there was another Hello! spread, plus a partnership with Pampers, which had the famous mom and dad sharing stories and photos from the front lines of parenthood. “Ben and Jessica were almost like Instagram before Instagram,” says the society writer Shinan Govani. “There was always a kind of public-private synergy to their lives.”
Jessica’s experience running a lingerie distribution company caught the attention of Bonnie Brooks, the CEO of Hudson’s Bay at the time. The Bay would be launching the Canadian location of Kleinfeld, the bridal boutique made famous on the TV show Say Yes to the Dress, and Brooks contacted Jessica to discuss the possibility of an in-store intimates boutique where brides-to-be could pick up wedding night lingerie. Jessica wanted to play a bigger role at Kleinfeld, and Brooks hired her to work in the marketing department. Soon after, she began making regular appearances on Breakfast Television and CityLine, originally talking about wedding trends but soon becoming an all-purpose lifestyle expert, discussing back-to-school wardrobe options and how to get your kids to eat healthy foods. When the yogurt company Danone was launching its Danette line of desserts, Jessica became a brand partner, promoting the product via social media and on TV. She and Ben even hosted a group of bloggers for dinner in their home (#danettefordessert). The grocery chain Metro approached Ben about a brand partnership, but they ended up signing Jessica. The Mulroney Meal Plan, a video series chronicling Jessica’s efforts to make healthy and easy recipes for her family, launched in April 2015.
Both Ben and Jessica work with Cimoroni and Company, a Toronto-based management consulting agency that helps celebrities leverage their personal brands. Ben’s ability to do that is somewhat restricted by his status as a Bell Media employee, though in 2015 he was one of the faces of Tiffany men’s watches, and last year he did a 15-second video spot for Air Transat. And he is an essential piece of his wife’s public image—you don’t get the Mulroney Meal Plan without the Mulroney. With more than 15 years of broadcasting under his belt, Ben is easily one of the most recognizable faces in the country. Now in his 40s, he is the city’s most in-demand MC and a hero of the charity circuit. For the last three years he has been the national ambassador of Cystic Fibrosis Canada, and last year, he and Jessica served as co-chairs of the Telus Brain Project, a fundraiser for cerebral health. On the work front, he is co-anchor of Your Morning, CTV’s update of Canada AM, which launched last summer. It’s an infotainment program that covers a mix of local and international news, politics, and pop culture along with plenty of fluffy lifestyle fare. When Bell Media announced the new show and the new team—Ben and his co-anchors Anne-Marie Mediwake and Lindsey Deluce—there was griping from viewers who interpreted Ben’s appointment as evidence that the new show would push sizzle over substance. In fact, like all morning shows, Your Morning aims for a balance of hard and soft, an ideal fit for a man who is fond of saying that he “majored in dinner party conversation” or that he “knows a little bit about a lot of things.” Randy Lennox, president of Bell Media, says Ben’s range is a major asset. “There are news folk who aren’t conversant in sports and entertainment, and vice-versa. Ben can go from one to 10 and back again.” (To appreciate his point, imagine Peter Mansbridge debating Beyoncé’s Grammy snub or whipping up a soufflé).
For Ben, the new role was a chance to prove he is more than just a well-bred pocket square with a degree in “Who are you wearing?” So far, he’s done a good job. On a typical show he might offer his thoughts on parliamentary reform or the refugee crisis. He gets excited about urban planning (wind him up on road tolls and you won’t hear the end of it). And, of course, our country’s political leaders are a pet topic. Ben pushed his producers to line up interviews with every single candidate in the Conservative leadership race. When Kevin O’Leary confirmed his candidacy on Your Morning, Ben threw shade on his French skills, quipping that bilingualism is more than just tossing out a few French expressions on Twitter. Plus, Mulroney’s establishment ties have been helpful in booking guests like Bruce Heyman, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Canada, a friend. For the premiere of Your Morning, Ben was instrumental in landing the biggest fish in the political pond—his pal Justin, who hadn’t appeared on any of the other morning shows. Ben questioned the PM on the inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women, racially biased policing, economic policy and pot legalization, as well as parenting and summer playlists. To wrap up, he presented his guest with a Your Morning T-shirt (so that he doesn’t get “caught in yet another awkward topless selfie situation”—haha). Trudeau responded with a crack about how the shirt had to be blue: “You didn’t have it in red, did you? Leave it to Ben, leave it to Ben.”
If the Mulroneys did have that reality show, ratings would have spiked last February, when Ben went on Twitter to lash out at people who were criticizing his dad for singing for Donald Trump at a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago. Or in March, when Jessica posted a photo of Markle playing with Ivy at the Mulroney home. Mostly, though, it’s low-drama, big smiles and killer outfits. For a designer, being featured on Jessica’s Instagram feed can mean significant—if not quite Sophie-level—sales, since she tags her photos with the relevant purchasing info. Jessica has built up an audience of more than 70,000 followers, which is more than any comparable local figure, though really there is nobody who quite compares. Social media has its fair share of Toronto socialites, yummy mummies and stylists, but Jessica achieves the rare trifecta. “There is nobody above Jessica for the perfect mom, perfect family lifestyle brand in Canada,” says one prominent Toronto brand rep. A lot of people I spoke with described her as “Toronto’s Gwyneth Paltrow.”
Jessica continues to work at Kleinfeld, a job that led to a contract with Sunwing, where she is the airline’s destination wedding expert, often travelling with brides and posting photos and video content from paradise. Last year, she signed on as an ambassador for Adidas’s Here to Create campaign, a gig that had her posting multiple gym selfies, outfitted in the brand’s signature triple stripes. This type of marketing reflects a new reality where brands don’t just want to be endorsed by famous people (a pop star holding up a bottle of Pepsi on TV)—they want to be integrated into the fabulous lifestyles those people project on social media. Jessica, though, is not the kind of influencer who goes for quick fee-per-post cash grabs to promote a product in her feed. As a marketing strategist, she works with the companies that employ her to create content that consumers will engage with. As a social media celebrity, she is the thing that makes content so compelling. Jessica makes distinctions between her official work, her fashion passion projects and her not-so-private life on Instagram. Really though, it’s all part of the same package, as seen on a CityLine segment she put together last fall titled, “The Sophie Effect: Fashions Inspired by Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.”
“This is a girl who can really connect the dots quickly and leverage her relationships to make things work,” says Nancy Modrcin, marketing VP at Metro grocery stores. “We hired her to be a face of the brand, but she has really become more of a content partner, a producer.” Modrcin says Jessica will often come up with promotional ideas, like the recent #5at5 videos, in which she makes five-ingredient meals that take just five minutes of prep. In one video, she and Ben make pork sliders in their kitchen. It’s cute and fun—even more so in the goofy outtakes that Jessica posted to Instagram—and most importantly, it does what it’s supposed to do: get engagement. Metro videos featuring Jessica get an average of 16 times more traffic than the chain’s other food prep content. The famous surname and the celebrity connection are bonuses, but according to Modrcin, they’re not what makes Jessica so effective. “Jessica represents that working mom who’s just trying to balance her busy workload with raising three young kids. We recognized pretty quickly that she would be really relatable to our core customers,” she says.
Of course, the notion of Jessica as relatable is pretty absurd—unless the typical Metro mom reads comics to her kids in sky-high heels and formalwear, is married to TV royalty and is one degree removed from an actual prince. Rather, Ben and Jessica represent an existence we wish we had, that maybe we could have if we could just make our way to the grocery store and stock up on pork slider ingredients, and figure out which photo filter makes it look like the sun is always shining.
Last winter, I visited Ben and Jessica at their home in Moore Park, on one of those days that make you think spring is right around the corner. Ben answered the door wearing a hunky dad off-duty uniform of slim-fit chinos and a faded tee. Jessica was right behind him, sporting a similarly laid-back look of jeans, sneakers and the type of heavy-rimmed glasses fashion girls have co-opted from band geeks in recent years. The house, she said, was still a work in progress (they moved in last fall), though it didn’t look that way—immaculate and airy with furniture that looked chic but actually comfortable, and a kitchen that still had the faintest whiff of the waffles Ben had made for breakfast. They’re clearly not pretentious art people: on one wall is an abstract painting by Mila Mulroney; on another, shelves are lined with adorable family photos and framed political cartoons, as well as a few cards from Valentine’s Day, which was just days before my visit. Their busy schedules prevented Ben and Jessica from celebrating together on the actual day. They were planning to rectify that later in the evening with date night at a sushi restaurant they’ve both been wanting to try. They like to joke about how they are less plugged into the restaurant scene since having kids.
We sat in their living room, sipped delicious homemade sangria and chatted about her career (how people have a hard time understanding it) and Ben’s upcoming Oscar red carpet coverage (how he still gets excited about it) and their kids (how they do a lot of cute kid things that are always cutest of all to adoring parents). When I mention that their life can look idyllic on social media, Jessica says it’s just snapshots: “With social media, people assume your life is perfect from pictures, but there are so many challenges. We don’t sleep a lot, we hope to god that we’re doing this parenting thing right, and we’re constantly asking ourselves whether all of this work is worth it. We’re very lucky, but it’s definitely not perfection.”
Fair enough, but what I witnessed seemed like something awfully close. At one point, Ben excused himself to step outside just to breathe in the beautiful day, and I wondered, not for the first time: Are these people for real? The sangria kept flowing, and by the time I left, they’d opted to cancel the sushi plan and stay in.
Later that evening, I was killing time on Instagram and came upon a picture of Ben and Jessica, one she had posted shortly after my visit. In it, the husband and wife are snuggled up on a couch, in casual weekend mode, looking very much as they had when I left them. The image was captioned: “We finally got a Valentine’s Day moment. It’s not all done up, but still perfect.” And it was perfect—adorable, undeniable, hold-my-phone-while-I-die-of-envy-level perfection. But it wasn’t real. I recognized the snap, which had been taken several weeks earlier on New Year’s Eve at a friend’s place in Florida and posted on Facebook. When I went back to find it a few days later, the photo had been taken down. I can tell you that in it, Jessica was wearing Adidas.
An earlier version of this story identified the wrong Buca location as the site of Ben and Jessica’s double date with Justin and Sophie. It has since been updated.