The first high-profile person I ever met was Cesar Chavez, an encounter that affected my whole life.
He was a civil rights activist, the co-founder of the United Farm Workers, and he was visiting Toronto in 1973 when I was 17 to urge Canadians to boycott California lettuce and grapes. I spent all day outside the local grocery store raising money to donate to his cause. I only collected $100, but my dad—a union man—gave me an extra $50.
That night, I approached Chavez with my $150 and apologized for raising so little. He told me that $150 was more than they had that morning, and it could feed two families for a week. It’s the equivalent of $700 today.
That moment marked how I have raised money throughout my life. It was a lesson that I’ve kept with me in all my fundraising efforts, telling those who donate how their money is spent and how their donations directly benefit people.
I am a producer, activist and philanthropist, but most of all, I am a volunteer. I started as an entrepreneur in the home video business and have published some of the best-read magazines in the country for the past 42 years, including Famous, Cineplex, and Star Cineplex magazines.
For my entire life I have wanted to do good by other people. During my early childhood in Lebanon, if somebody who came to the house was hungry, my mom and my grandparents would sit them down and feed them. They made sure our visitors went away with whatever they were baking or was in the pantry.
They always gave them little pillowcases full of goodies, homemade jams, or sauces. It instilled in me a sense of altruism, and the lesson that whatever you can do in any way has the ability to help make someone else feel better.
In 1980, my brother George started the first home video store in Canada. We had worked at a student newspaper in university, and after a short-lived attempt at archaeology, I dug into journalism instead. We published the first video magazine in Canada, called Videomania.
Later we started Premiere, which was all about movies, but never overly critical. Everybody has different views; we told you what was coming out, who’s in it and what was good about it, from our point of view. It was a hit with a lot of readers.
In 1989, I was sent to an area of Rexdale, where I grew up, to interview Matthew Broderick, who was hot off of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But when I arrived, I happened to run into Marlon Brando. I mean, what are the chances?
We started talking and he asked me where to get good Lebanese food in Toronto. “At my mom’s house,” I said.
My parents’ home was just five minutes from where he had been filming, and we ended up having a barbecue there. My mom made my favorite dishes, but of course she didn’t get out the good china—she never did for anybody, and anyway, she didn’t even know who Brando was!
Brando wasn’t the only celebrity who would taste my mother’s dishes. Ella Fitzgerald had performed in Lebanon in 1971, and when she performed at Toronto’s Imperial Room, she asked the same question—where could she get good Lebanese food.
I had met Ella through a mutual acquaintance—the publicist, impresario, and all-around colorful character Gino Empry, who helped manage her in Canada. But I didn’t know that Ella was Ella Fitzgerald back then.
She played two sets a night in this beautiful old cabaret room, to 400 or 500 people, but wouldn’t want to eat before performing. For a whole week, I would take her these little Tupperware dishes of food made by my mom.
At one point, after my dad died and my family and I moved into the same apartment building, we had a group of people over for dinner. Mom was more interested in Kim Cattrall than in meeting Salman Rushdie.
I wanted to serve a few vegetarian Indian dishes, but Mom came over with a huge pot of traditional Lebanese food, which you just could not serve at a party, but that meal became Salman’s favorite thing to eat.
By 1991, Princess Diana was coming to little old Toronto. National treasure June Callwood, patron saint of many charities and founder of one of the country’s most prominent AIDS hospices, Casey House, had heard rumors of a planned Canada visit by Princess Di and was therefore going to phone the prime minister’s office to turn the screws.
I have been active in the gay community for 50 years, and had fought with June when she aligned the AIDS hospice with the city’s largest Catholic hospital. I told her I knew that the local cardinal, Gerald Emmett Carter, upheld the church’s homophobic values. But June replied that every hospital in town had turned her down.
“The cardinal may be a homophobe, but not the doctors and nurses,” she said. I thought she was out of her mind.
But, at the announcement a few months later that Diana would come to Casey House, I sent June the biggest flower arrangement I could afford.
I went there that day, but I didn’t dare try to say hello. Instead, I watched from far across the street. I did my best impression of Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas, teary-eyed, with her face pressed against that wrought-iron fence.
While I’m not a royalist, one must acknowledge the profound impact Diana had at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Gloveless, she asked to shake hands with an HIV-positive man at a time when many believed, incorrectly, that you could “catch” the disease just through proximity.
While I didn’t speak with Princess Diana, I did spend an afternoon sitting next to Princess Margaret at a luncheon.
It was 1988 and the Variety Club was marking the Countess of Snowdon’s opening of a new aquatic wing at Variety Village. I was on the board and one of their top fundraisers.
Maybe they chose me to sit next to her because we were equally rebellious. I didn’t think it was a big deal. You can call yourself a duchess or you can call yourself blue cheese; I don’t believe in royalty, period. I respect everybody.
Margaret, however, broke the mold. I was wrong about her. I saw that she simply had to do what “The Firm” told her to do, yet she managed to do it her way, in her own inimitable style, and that was what made dining with her that day such a pleasure.
We had lovely conversations about different things. She thought the food—cold salmon atop salad greens, dressing on the side, white rolls and boiled asparagus—was the same old food she got everywhere else, and wanted to go outside and have a cigarette.
At no point did it seem like she was required to be there. She appeared to be really into it, and was having fun. The facility featured a huge pool for disabled children, and Margaret was incredible with the young people she met that day. Despite being rushed around at each moment, she took the time to speak to the children, even giving the flowers she received to a young woman in a wheelchair.
I don’t think my rebellious streak has changed much. Whether it be ignoring meticulous grammatical rules when learning English as a third language, or being active in AIDS marches, I’ve always thought rules were made to be broken, in a way.
I think celebrities respected me because I knew that whatever their profession was, was just that. It wasn’t who they were. For me, the important thing was what they did with their fame. How do you use your celebrity to try and change things?
For example, in my eyes, Doris Day was one of the most misunderstood stars of her time. She was a box-office star, but I wanted to meet her because of my affection for all the things she’s done.
The “Doris Day Show” had an openly gay couple on it. She hugged Rock Hudson when he had AIDS, and went on the Christian Broadcast Network after he died to say that if there was a heaven, he would be in it—which is amazing.
We held these tributes to lifetime achievements in the video industry, which meant I met many celebrities when they were at the end of their careers, often when they were being dismissed by then, from Ginger Rogers to Jimmy Stewart.
In my memoir, First to Leave the Party—which examines my unconventional life through the lens of the encounters I have had with extraordinary people over the years—I wanted to shine a light on these individuals, many of whom have been misunderstood or even forgotten.
I wanted to be balanced. I believe people sometimes are built up to a point where you forget they’re real, and you don’t concentrate on what they’re doing with their lives and how they’re changing things for the better. It becomes a type of worship.
Whereas I think that everybody is important, and therefore, no one is really very important. I have never fawned over celebrity or acted in a different way if a celebrity suddenly endorses something.
If I could share an overarching message, it would be to think about how you treat people. Consider how important relationships are and behave in the right way. How it’s empowering to respect boundaries and have your own.
And to anyone queer out there, we’ve been here before. It gets better.
Never lose hope.
Salah Bachir is a Canadian business executive and philanthropist. His upcoming memoir First To Leave The Party; My Life with Ordinary People Who Happen to be Famous will be released October 17 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Newsweek’s My Turn associate editor, Monica Greep.
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