Now 70, she’s inviting the attention that once tormented her. The mother of Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and the former wife of his late father, Pierre, she’s taking her soul-
baring, one-woman show to Montreal this week for its Canadian premiere.
In “Certain Woman of an Age,” Trudeau discusses her marriages and divorces, personal tragedy — the death of son Michel — and her subsequent diagnosis with bipolar disorder and advocacy for mental health.
But is it the right moment to tell all? The show debuts less than three months before Canada’s federal election, as her son, whose Liberal Party trails in some opinion polls, fights for his political life.
Did she consider postponing, or toning down the act? She laughs.
“Are you kidding me?” she said in a phone interview from Montreal. “I’m so proud of Justin being the prime minister. But I’ve been there, done that. I don’t think anybody who is in his office would dare to call Mama Margaret and tell her what she can or cannot do.”
Justin Trudeau has seen the show, in Chicago, where it debuted in May. Margaret addressed her mental health head-on.
“You may have heard whispers about me: ‘Margaret is crazy,’ ” she told the crowd, according to the Chicago Tribune. “It’s okay. You don’t have to whisper.”
The prime minister “thought her performance was great,” said Eleanore Catenaro, his spokeswoman.
Pollster Shachi Kurl said it would be “dangerous” for Justin Trudeau’s rivals to try to exploit his mother’s show for political gain, given how Canadian society’s views around mental health and the private lives of public officials have evolved.
“It would be difficult for me to see any political party or any politician who thinks they can successfully make this part of a negative focus,” said Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute in Vancouver.
“In Canada, you’re hard pressed to find an example of delving into a candidate’s personal or family life in a way that is not connected to policy or potential conflict of interest or something that is relevant to that role and be successful at it.”
“Certain Woman of an Age” has been well reviewed. The Chicago Tribune called it “gripping, charming and intensely courageous.” The conservative National Post , often critical of her son, praised Trudeau for “making moments of a lifetime of celebrity relatable to many in the crowd.” Maclean’s magazine said the audience “seemed to thoroughly enjoy” itself.
Now comes the three-night run that started Thursday at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal, where Trudeau lives.
“As a young woman, I really wanted to be a stage actress,” she said. “But not playing me.”
She was approached about doing an autobiographical show a year and a half ago.
“While my life has looked so glamorous and fun, and I can name-drop all kinds of people who have been on my path along the way, essentially, it’s a play about facing your own fears and overcoming the stigma of mental illness,” she said.
“I’m kind of a bit of a dire warning.”
In Canada, to be the partner of the prime minister is to assume a staid and somewhat ambiguous role. Unlike first ladies in the United States, they do not have official titles, formal responsibilities or large staffs. Many fly under the radar.
“Maggie,” as the media called her, was an exception.
The daughter of a cabinet minister, she was 19 when she first met Pierre Elliott Trudeau — 29 years her senior — while vacationing in Tahiti with her parents. She admired his “perfectly toned” legs, she wrote in “Changing My Mind,” her 2010 memoir. But her first thought was “that he was old, with old skin and old toes.”
Margaret went on to university in her native British Columbia. Pierre became prime minister in 1968.
Their marriage in 1971 catapulted her into the headlines. He was 51; she was 22. Their relationship had been kept secret; the surprise wedding of the bachelor prime minister and the free-
spirited west coast flower child captured the public imagination.
Within four years, they had three children: Justin, Alexandre and Michel.
With the birth of Alexandre, she plunged into postpartum depression. But even before that, she was beginning to feel like a bird in a gilded cage. Pierre, she wrote in her 2010 memoir, wanted her “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.” She wanted to be more than “a rose on his lapel.”
Her every move was scrutinized. She drew criticism for singing at a state dinner in Venezuela. She wore a mid-calf dress to the White House — when all the other women there were in floor-length gowns — and was bashed for insulting the American public.
In 1977, Trudeau spent her sixth wedding anniversary partying with the Rolling Stones in Toronto, fueling speculation about the state of her marriage. She and Pierre separated that May and divorced in 1984.
In the intervening years, she went to New York, where she took acting classes and pursued a photography career with Richard Avedon. Her escapades, including purported romances with Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal and Rolling Stone Ron Wood, were splashed all over the papers.
She married Fried Kemper, a real estate developer, in 1984 and had two more children.
Then tragedy struck. In 1998, Michel was killed in an avalanche while skiing in British Columbia. She divorced Kemper. And in 2000, Pierre died.
“You’re sad when you lose a child,” she said. “The grieving process is so hard.”
Her family staged an intervention, and a psychiatrist diagnosed her with bipolar disorder — an illness she says was responsible for the episodes that captivated the media.
Over the winter, she went through old boxes that she had not opened since Michel’s death to find photos for the show.
“The pain is okay now,” she said. “It’s not overwhelming to me.”
Today she delights in her nine grandchildren. She dislikes the negative tone of politics, and warned that she might have to “scold” her son’s Liberals if they eschew “sunny ways” on the campaign trail for nastier rhetoric.
When President Trump attacked her son last year as “very dishonest and weak,” she was unmoved.
“I saw a jealous, petulant little boy who was mad because Justin seemed to have the qualities that really attracted a lot of people,” she said. “One of them was kindness, and I don’t think this man put kindness in front of anything ever.”
Still, she said, the prime minister and the president “have a good relationship.”
“They may not now that I’ve said this.”