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L-R: Tod's New York dealer Stefan Stux as Lord Steyne and fashion designer Jacqueline Appel as Miss Amelia Sedley.
Two paintings from the exhibition Vanity Fair, a portrait series of quasi-celebrity Torontonians, each titled after characters in W. M. Thackeray's classic Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero (1847-8).

Tempest in a slop basin

Joanne Tod's latest exhibition Vanity Fair
is a portrait series of high falutin Torontonians.
Just how dangerous are the soft spots of her victims?

Gossip Column By Shinan Govani

On a day as hot as a skillet on a stove in hell, Joanne Tod ushers me into her westend home, fixes me up with a cool drink, and then takes me down to the basement where she has Leah McLaren stashed away. Not that Leah McLaren. She's in London, off doing laps in an across-the-pond Globe and Mail gig that involves maximizing her exposure by dissecting the vagaries of the English male libido. This is Leah the Painting, a life-size portrait that Tod has just completed.

I creep up to the girl columnist in oil and find the likeness astonishing. There is the blonder-than-blond mane staring out at me as though Leah's one of the lost Hilton sisters. The forehead seems a bit longitudinally loopy, but the smile--halfway between a sneer and a Crest Whitestrips ad--is spot-on. She's princess-ly, like she's something out of Suzy's column in W magazine, but also menacing, with just the right dollop of Tonya Harding on ice.

[Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren as] Miss Rebecca Sharp (2002) detail, by Joanne Tod.

"I lured her to meet me at the top of the Park Hyatt," Tod begins to relate. "We had a nice drink, and then I took a picture. I took her there because I wanted the slightly tawdry background." Leah the Painting is the centrepiece of a new exhibition that Tod, one of Canada's greats, is showing this month at Sable-Castelli Gallery. It's called Vanity Fair and what it is, essentially, are various portraits of Torontonians, many of them well known, whom Tod has decided to cast as characters from the William Thackeray book of the same name. It's a 19th century novel that she's always admired and Ms. McLaren, Tod explains, is her Rebecca Sharp, the book's social-climbing, scheme-hatching, ambition-pregnant sometime-heroine.

Works for me. I quite like Leah, primarily because she's so cunning, or at least projects such cunningness. And, really, what's not to like about that? This is the woman who at the opening night party of the Film Festival last year had the gumption to walk up to actress Molly Parker and caution her to avoid talking to me because I was from the competing newspaper and that I "wrote very bad things." At least, that's what a well-placed spy told me and, to be honest, this made me love Leah more than ever. (I didn't go into journalism because I'm allergic to conflict. I love and relish the sport and the staginess of it all. And if this scenario was less Dangerous Liaisons and more Cruel Intentions, the Sarah Michelle Gellar teen knock-off of the original, so be it.)

Anyhow, about the show: the exhibition is a delectable dessert tray of various Toronto notables, many of whom Tod knows and is quite fond of. Still, the way this painterly sociologist describes it, "she's praising with faint damns."

Among the characters, there's a suitably owlish Michael Snow ("a dear old friend"), a serene-looking Sasha, the Eye sex columnist ("she can't take a bad photo"), and super swan-necked Jacqueline Appel, granddaughter of Bluma ("she's the one in the book who gets her heart broken.") Richard Currie, chairman of the board at Bell Canada Ltd., is there in all his tuxedoed splendour, a picture Tod managed to get at the Art Gallery of Ontario's 100th anniversary bash. (She approached him and said, "You look like a million ... uh, I mean, a billion bucks." He snickered appropriately.)

It's an unapologetically Toronto-centric display, and Tod's attempt perhaps at mythologizing some of the characters that make this town turn. And while some of the images are clearly meant to parody and point out peoples' flaws, I'm convinced the subjects themselves won't notice. Anytime someone takes the time to do a portrait of someone, the idea itself is so ego-fondling that one is always prepared to just self-edit those parts out.

Indeed, when Tod confessed that I was to be one of the subjects in her show, I was instantly flattered and made to blush. This, you see, is the power of the portrait artist: the subjects always think they're being made love to when, in fact, sometimes they're just being screwed.

The exhibition opens Sept. 14 at Sable-Castelli Gallery, 33 Hazelton Ave., and runs until Oct. 12, 2002.

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