On the third day of the United Nations General Assembly, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed a packed crowd of youth inside The Theater at Madison Square Garden for WE Day U.N. Before he took the stage to express his support for the initiative, which aims to inspire children worldwide — his mother and former first lady of Canada and current mental illness advocate Margaret Trudeau had a few words of her own to share.
As the crowd roared for young Disney actress Skai Jackson onstage, WWD sat down with Trudeau after her short speech to learn more about her advocacy work, thoughts on the media and reminisce about her Studio 54 days.
“How happy was I to be on the stage in New York?” the effervescent 69-year-old exclaimed from backstage. “It’s extraordinary to catch the energy. Because that’s what children have, extraordinary energy that we have to tap into. WE does,” she continued. “What’s nice about [WE] is it’s neither political nor religious. It just covers kindness, and gets people to think about being better.”
What challenges does WE face with achieving its messaging?
Margaret Trudeau: For me, because I’m a mental health advocate, I want everyone to be the healthiest they can be. It’s so simple, to maintain mental health you have to have a good night’s sleep, you have to have purpose and get out there and work and be part of [something]. And you have to play outside and feel nature and be balanced. Have a whole life. And I think that’s the secret of my son, and it was of his father, and I’ve had to learn it with my bipolar [disorder]. Finding the balance in life is the key to success. Don’t feel badly when you take off work to go for a run, to go for a walk; don’t feel badly to take time to play with your children, to be part of their lives. Work is important, but you can’t work at your best unless you’re a whole person. WE really gathers us all together with so many people who have had challenges that many will face, but many won’t. We need to know that everyone has a right to their voice, to their happiness and to their ability to contribute.
Have you found that people have become more accepting [of mental illness?]
M.T.: Absolutely. When you say mental illness, it just conjures up in your mind a little bit of confusion, fear and you don’t want to even think about it. But why not think about your brain health and make yourself as healthy in your brain and in your mind, so that if you do have a mental disorder come on, you’ll be able to fight it? And you’ll be able to get out of it. It’s a part of the new way in thinking in mental health. Preventative is just as important as dealing with it. But the most important thing to understand is that you can’t get better all by yourself. Because in mental illness you’re [using] wrong thinking, you have what they call impaired insight. So you need to turn it over to someone to help you get clarity, get balance. And if you need to go on pharmaceuticals, while we all dread them, the science will bring us back to reality and then we can work on our beautiful minds and make sure we have a positive, good 0utlook.
So much of mental illness is it removes your self-esteem and self-confidence so that you don’t think you can be part of [something] because you don’t fit in, so you isolate, which makes everything so much worse. If you can pull back and fix the things that bother you immediately and monitor your feelings, monitor your emotions, and listen to yourself when you talk and relate to others, [you can] see how your words can affect and how your actions so much affect everybody. When you’re mentally ill sometimes you’re so self-involved that you forget how much you’re hurting all the people around you who love you so much, because you don’t understand that you’ve got to get help. Anyway, that’s my story.
What are your thoughts about social media’s contribution to isolation?
M.T.: I don’t understand it, because it’s not human. It’s flat. It’s one-dimensional. It just says words on paper. You have to phone someone and hear their laughter and hear the pain in their voice and you know how you can help them. All of this pretending that everything is perfect all the time, no, that’s not the way it is. To say, “Oh I have 263 friends.” I, at the end of my lifetime, want five beautiful friendships in my life, real [friends] who I can count on, I can call anytime, I know they’re there, they can call anytime, they know I’m there. On Facebook, how many people are there for you? It’s something to think about, about the extreme mental health issues that are going to come out of being so connected to virtual reality rather than being part of what is right now.
I’m a great believer in living in the now. I think we in the mental health community know that this is one of the things that we’re going to really be dealing with more than we ever have in the past, feelings of isolation and not fitting in and not being relevant. And not being really loved, because you’re liked for how you wear your makeup or how you have your hair, or all the silly things you do. You’re not loved as another human with the kindness we need to get through. We all have to help each other.
As someone who has been very much in the media’s eye, how did you divorce yourself from letting that affect you?
M.T.: I had to divorce my husband, the prime minister. I found it terribly overwhelming. I’m a person who has her feet on the ground, I am mother now, I’m a grandmother. But then all the criticism and all the watching, nothing like it is today.
Do you feel like the media’s treatment of public figures has gotten worse?
M.T.: Oh my goodness, yes. Particularly for what you call the celebrities, who are watched every minute, because every picture of them is worth money, big money. So you can’t even go out without your makeup on to buy a bottle of…how? You’re in prison. You’re not allowed to live your life because you’re being watched. And not only watched, but judged. And that’s hurtful, we shouldn’t judge each other. Who are we to do that? And it’s also bullying as well, it’s a real form of bullying when they’re harassing you, harassing you, making you react, finally. Well I would just tell them in bad language what to do with themselves, and there’s the story. That’s the story, that I am an outraged angry person and yet they’ve taken a good half hour to break me down by pushing, pushing to get me to say those words. But it’s human, everybody would say that, like, why are you in my face?
Do you think the media has changed how it covers women who are in the public sphere?
M.T.: I think that it’s evolving and progressing, because it’s what we are interested in. In media what you have to respond to in order to be relevant is what people want to hear, want to know about…You want to inform and hear about real women, beautiful people who are doing real things and making a difference in their lives and their children’s lives and in the community, country, world. You want to look at the change makers and be so encouraging. Because you can take a beautiful spirit and just destroy it without even thinking about what you’re doing in the media. So that person no longer has the spark or light or gift to give, because they’ve been so hurt by being judged and criticized.
I found that very, very difficult for me, a mother, and a young mother with my little boys to think that people had a right to judge me or my husband or children. My husband, yes, because he was a politician that’s fair game, that’s fair game. We can say anything we want apparently about our politicians. It should be their policies. My son Justin [Trudeau] who’s now the prime minister of course of our country, when he ran his campaign in 2015, they did not use one attack ad. Not one negative thing they said against their opponents or anyone, except criticizing their policies, their platforms, the things they wanted to do for us, and that’s the area that should be. Not attacking their appearance, themselves. That’s wrong.
Do you think he gets less criticism because he’s a man?
M.T.: I almost think — and I don’t know whether I’m right about this — but I almost think that women are harder on women than men are. Men tend to love us and let us be. And women — I had four sisters, so I know it — we pick at each other, whether it’s because that horrible idea that by putting someone else down, we’ve raised up. By putting someone else down you’ve shown that you don’t have as good a soul or heart as you could have. We need to be kind. Period.
There were attack ads in our campaign from the other side, from the opposition, and it to me just seemed bullying. And I work in mental health and I was giving a speech, so I was asked a question from the audience, did I think the attack ads against my son were a form of bullying? And I said of course they are. That is what bullying is, to reduce somebody negatively in order to make yourself look better and more positive. And I said I don’t know who I should go complain about this to, because I am a proactive mother, whether I should go to the governor general, who’s the head of our country, or to the Queen, who’s the real head and report that my son’s being bullied. I love the queen, I love our queen. I know what she’d say. She’s a very good woman, she’d not brook violence or bullying. We want everyone to give the best they can.
Is the media in Canada more fair to women than in America?
M.T.: Oh yes. You know, we don’t even have paparazzi in Canada. We have what’s still called photo journalists, who are there at the right time and the right place to record history, not to make history and make it happen for the big all-important dollar. I hate all of that world.
How do you feel about how the media has been treaying and covering Melania Trump?
M.T.: I don’t know how she’s being treated and covered, because I haven’t seen too much about her. She’s a lovely woman and she’s brave. What people don’t understand about what we are in politics — the wives and families or the spouses — is that we’re sacrificing. We’re giving up our privacy, which is the number-one wonderful thing in life [to have]. We give up our privacy, and we’re in service. And that’s misunderstood. I think, well, if she’s willing to serve, she wants to and she will find her role. I thought — and she probably feels the same thing — I thought our prime ministerial residence was the crown jewel of our penitentiary system because you’re in prison, with everyone around you watching and serving. My heart goes out to her, and she’s raising a beautiful child and she should be honored and respected and loved. No matter what we think of her husband she’s her own person and she’s not him, he’s him and she’s she and she will shine.
Did you have any idea that Studio 54 would become such an iconic cultural moment?
M.T. I did. I don’t know why, but I have had an extraordinary life — not all perfect, because I have had terrible tragedy in my life, too. I have been part of what is, what the big trends are, what’s happening. Studio 54, we were talking about it last night with one of my friends in New York who we used to go down to the Studio [with]. We’d go to fancy parties, galas, fund-raisers in lovely dresses, and we’d just go down to the Studio and rock for an hour. It was our workout, it was our feeling of being part of something fun and free, and no rules, no restraint. At my apartment…we call it Studio 54 North. But I don’t have a disco ball or feathers coming out of the ceiling. I do like to dance. I keep dancing. Dancing is my favorite thing to keep myself going.