Just Watch Her
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau projects the same relentless optimism as the prime minister, launching herself into crowds, sharing personal stories and occasionally — to her critics’ delight — bursting into song.
“Being real is not a strategy,” she says. But her approach has made her the indispensable other half of the Trudeau charm offensive.
From Chatelaine, APRIL 2016
Read at Chatelaine.com
SOPHIE GREGOIRE TRUDEAU is running late. I’m waiting at our scheduled meeting spot, an unfussy neighbourhood restaurant on an unfancy commercial strip in Ottawa, almost 100 days after her husband, Justin Trudeau, became prime minister and the Liberal Party was elected with an unanticipated majority. I suspect the location, with craft beer on tap and locally sourced beef burgers on the menu, is a bit of political set design, meant to show me that Grégoire Trudeau is a regular person, not a lady who lunches. Once she arrives, though, with hugs for the staff, it’s clear she picked the place because she’s a regular. It’s close to her home, a cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, and to the public school (yes, public, not private) where her children Xavier, 8, and Ella-Grace, 7, are students.
She was late to our meeting, she explains, because she had to put her youngest child, two-year-old Hadrien, down for a nap. “I still feed him,” she says, with a frown that is half pleased and half embarrassed. “I know he’s my last one; it’s a little hard to give it up.” And so my meeting with the prime minister’s wife begins with a brief conversation about breastfeeding.
On another day, in another restaurant with another profile subject, this might have felt awkward. But Grégoire Trudeau, 40, projects the same regal, disarming warmth as her husband — so much so, you sometimes have to wonder how they managed to find each other. They both launch themselves into crowds and pose eagerly for photogenic selfies. They even talk alike, favouring sunny ways and sweeping platitudes that most people would deem too mortifyingly corny to say. Grégoire Trudeau describes the long election campaign as an “unbelievable opportunity to create more justice in the world” and the past three months as a “beautiful blooming.” But she can also be blunt. When I ask what it’s like to have attention paid to how she dresses and what she says, she corrects me: “You’re talking about two separate things: clothes and speech.” She is pleased to showcase Canadian designers, she says. (Though there’s a fine line between being a booster and a billboard: The $7,000 brooch she borrowed from Birks to meet the Queen did raise some eyebrows.) She adds, “What I’m doing now — getting out and talking to Canadians — is a natural extension of the work I was doing before I met my husband. I want to use the platform I’m blessed to have been given.”
As the spouse of the prime minister — who is head of government, not head of state — Grégoire Trudeau has no official role, salary, staff or title (and she is not partial to “the prime minister’s wife”). She has neither the ceremonial clout of the governor general’s spouse nor the clearly defined job description of an American First Lady, who employs a team and is expected to pursue an agenda. “If a prime minister’s wife wants to play a public role,” says Canadian historian and author Charlotte Gray, “she really has to invent it.” Her predecessors mostly kept a low profile. But for her, that’s a virtual impossibility; profile comes with the Trudeau name.
Her mother-in-law, Margaret Trudeau, who married Pierre when she was just 22, was a rare Canadian political wife who was actually a celebrity. This was partly by her own design (partying with the Stones!) and partly a creation of paparazzi who revelled in her erratic behaviour (later attributed to undiagnosed bipolar disorder). She once likened becoming the wife of a prime minister to having “a glass panel… gently lowered into place around me, like a patient in a mental hospital who is no longer considered able to make decisions and who cannot be exposed to a harsh light.”
Grégoire Trudeau, by contrast, is the picture of blissed-out calm, all light and grace. Everything about her is understated, from her skinny jeans and Aritzia blouse (“a Canadian company,” she notes when I ask) to her handlers — an assistant and a communications person who seat themselves nearby with a stack of work — and a dark SUV with a member of her security detail parked out front.
Over the past three months, the couple have sparked a new outbreak of Trudeaumania, which is expressed across Canada both as adulation and loathing. Internationally, it’s pure love. They’ve hung out with the Queen and will be guests at a state dinner with the Obamas in March. The global media has trumpeted their cosmopolitan charm and good looks, as well as Trudeau’s progressive, ambitious agenda. He has been profiled in the New York Times Magazine and will soon appear on 60 Minutes. Vogue featured a photo of the prime minister and his wife locked in a steamy embrace. Grégoire Trudeau, a yoga-loving earth mama who can also rock a form-fitting Oscar de la Renta dress, has been mentioned alongside Michelle Obama and Kate Middleton as a style icon.
As Gray describes her, Grégoire Trudeau is both “glamorously Instagram-ready and totally unpretentious.” As she herself acknowledges, “I’m an extrovert — a social being. It would be difficult to be in this position, I think, if I wasn’t like that.” She knows she is perpetually on display, scrutinized by social media as well as her husband’s fans and detractors alike. Still, when asked for the biggest surprise of these first 100 days, she replies, “The negative things that can be said — I thought they would affect me more. They don’t. I mean, I’m not immune, trust me. But I know who I am and what I have to give.”
So she remains, as always, staunchly uninhibited. On election night, as Trudeau thanked his supporters, Grégoire Trudeau stood in the audience, hands pressed over her heart, gazing up at him. The look — joyous, adoring, passionate — was so naked, it was almost uncomfortable to witness. Journalist Shannon Proudfoot joked on Twitter: “If I ever closed my eyes and gestured beatifically at my husband the way Sophie did, he would back away, assuming I was about to murder him.” Somehow, Grégoire Trudeau owns it.
WHETHER being toasted by Richard Nixon as a four-month-old or opining on Return of the Jedi at 11 or delivering his “Je t’aime, Papa” eulogy after Pierre’s death in 2000, Justin Trudeau has lived his whole life in public. His joys, like his lavish 2005 wedding, and his sorrows, like his parents’ divorce and brother Michel’s death, were covered as news events. His mother has written four confessional books on her unhappy marriages and her struggles with mental illness, and he covered some of that terrain in his own 2014 memoir, Common Ground. Given all this exposure, many people would be inclined to retreat in self-preservation, but Trudeau is impressively unguarded. Author (and Pierre Trudeau biographer) Richard Gwyn has said that Justin Trudeau “is exceptional at street politics, because he genuinely likes people. He in turn is impossible not to like.”
The only child of a stockbroker and a nurse, Grégoire Trudeau grew up in the same affluent Montreal circle as her husband. She shares his candour and is a believer in the therapeutic value of talking. After suffering from bulimia in her teens and 20s, she became a spokesperson for the disease, and she credits her openness about her struggles for helping her to heal. She worked as a correspondent for CTV’s eTalk and embarked on a career as a public speaker on issues like women’s health and girls’ education, partnering with organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, Me to We (Free the Children) and Chez Doris, a women’s shelter in Montreal. But her profile catapulted during her courtship with Trudeau; their first date, which culminated in his profession of love and mutual happy tears, has taken on the gloss of an epic romance from its repeated tellings.
The couple are frequently photographed staring dreamily into one another’s eyes and nuzzling noses or roughhousing with their children; on Halloween, the brood went trick-or-treating in homemade Star Wars costumes. This lovey-dovey display, unheard of in Canadian politics — quick, try to recall one detail about Stephen and Laureen Harper’s first date — has been extraordinarily effective. Even Trudeau’s decision to enter politics sounds as romantic as a knight’s quest when Grégoire Trudeau explains it: “I saw in the man I love a humble certitude and a path of service.”
This humility and candidness seem, in part, extensions of the Trudeau political brand of transparency and accessibility. Watching the couple operate, it’s difficult to determine how much of their personal exposure is also savvy politicking. Does knowing the effect of one’s smile make that smile any less genuine? When I ask Grégoire Trudeau if there’s a strategy behind her family’s charm offensive, she counters, “Being real is not a strategy. The way we are in the world is real.” Her childhood friend Christine Julien, a Montreal dentist who was maid of honour at her wedding, says Grégoire Trudeau is “the same person now as she’s always been: authentic, kind, generous. But I worry a little for her with all the attention because I love her so much and don’t want her to be hurt.”
The trouble with putting herself out so boldly is that the criticism becomes very personal too. Grégoire Trudeau’s faith that her audience knows her and her intentions can be a blind spot, and it’s been responsible for a few early missteps. Consider her impulsive decision at a Martin Luther King Day celebration to sing a song she wrote for her daughter about an experience of personal hardship. A sketch on This Hour Has 22 Minutes portrayed her as an out-of-touch rich white lady comparing herself to one of the world’s most revered civil rights heroes.
Similarly, after it was reported that the Trudeaus paid two occasional nannies from the public purse, critics charged them from all angles: Not only should the family be footing the bill, but at between $11 and $20 an hour, they weren’t paying the nannies enough. And besides, shouldn’t Grégoire Trudeau be taking care of the kids herself?
She tries not to let the attacks trouble her: “Worrying about it doesn’t serve you as an individual, nor does it serve the country.” Grégoire Trudeau goes on to say that she hasn’t been muzzled or given a script. “The team will tell you that I’m not being told what to say. But I also don’t think they have anything to worry about — except maybe a musical note here and there.”
To protect herself and her family, she avoids social media and tries to stay above the fray. “You would be naive to suggest that politics isn’t complicated or isn’t a game,” she says, “but you don’t create change through cynicism.” She is mindful to tell her children not to get used to the trappings of their current life. “I say, ‘People aren’t always going to be clapping and cheering for you everywhere you go.’” It’s a lesson she is also learning for herself.
JOURNALIST John Powers wrote in Vogue that the Trudeau family “looks like an advertisement for the future.” Both the family and Trudeau’s vision of Canada lean heavily toward sincerity and optimism. That’s not only a sharp rebuke to the Conservatives’ aloof and authoritarian approach, it’s a divergence from much of the Western world at the moment. While most of Europe fearfully sandbags its borders, Canada has become a model nation in accepting refugees. As American conservatives mock Hillary Clinton’s “shrillness,” vilify immigrants and vow to defund Planned Parenthood, Trudeau has appointed an ethnically diverse cabinet with gender parity and has made support for a woman’s right to choose a requirement for his caucus members.
When I ask Grégoire Trudeau how she has influenced her husband on issues of women’s rights and equality, she leans across the table, pulls up her sleeves and shows me her forearms. “Look, goosebumps!” she says. On their first date, she told him she had recently become a public advocate for women’s health and self-esteem. That’s when he told her that he was a feminist too. If he hadn’t been, she says, that would have been a deal breaker. “I’m not the politician,” she says. “I’m not making strategic policy decisions. But we share the core values that underlie his vision for Canada.”
During their time on a national stage, most political wives must negotiate a delicate balance. Too dutiful, and you’re letting down the sisterhood (see: Hillary baking cookies). Too outspoken, and you’re a scold (see: Hillary pursuing health care reform). Too ambitious, and you’re a string-pulling Lady Macbeth (pretty much just see Hillary). But the prime minister’s emotive, collaborative (dare I say more female) leadership style allows Grégoire Trudeau to sidestep the typical booby traps. She doesn’t need to testify to her husband’s devotion to his family or his feminist bona fides; he can do that all by himself.
So far, she has carried out her role with ease and confidence and, like her husband, understands that giving herself to people — trotting out her kids, shaking hands with citizens and smiling for the cameras — is part of the deal.
“Being 40 and having three kids puts lots of things in perspective and helps me stay grounded,” Grégoire Trudeau says. “The pictures and dresses and official functions — that’s my job, but it’s not my whole life. I feel close to people, and their reality and my reality are not that different.” Of course, that’s preposterous: Her life does not remotely resemble mine, or that of anyone else I know. But it’s hard to argue with her conviction.