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In 'First to Leave the Party', Salah Bachir's memoir transcends the glitz of celebrity encounters. Here's our interview with Bachir.

Salah Bachir’s Unveiling Journey: An interview with the Maestro of the Arts

In First to Leave the Party, Salah Bachir’s memoir transcends the glitz of celebrity encounters, offering a glimpse into a life woven with shared humanity. For Bachir, connections with icons like Paul Newman and Eartha Kitt emerge from shared charitable endeavors and meaningful interviews rather than star-struck moments. Resilience lessons gleaned from luminaries like Brando and Ella Fitzgerald inspire him, while curated anecdotes in collaboration with film critic Jami Bernard reveal a deliberate narrative selection. Beyond the red carpet, Bachir’s unique attire becomes a powerful tool for self-expression, serving as both armor against prejudice and a declaration of identity. His proximity to the film industry becomes a gateway to philanthropy, with strategic collaborations raising substantial funds for various causes. Bachir’s memoir is a testament to a life intricately connected with the stars but anchored in the profound tapestry of shared human experiences.

Mr. Bachir, your memoir has been described as both an autobiography and an anthology of celebrity encounters. What do you hope readers will take away about you as a person, not just as a celebrity magnet?

Thank you, but I am not sure I’m a celebrity magnet! First to Leave the Party is about, like the subtitle says, my life with ordinary people who just happen to be famous. We all have the same struggles and the same desires. What interested me was what they did with their celebrity. From Paul Newman’s foundation, which raised hundreds of millions of dollars for good causes, to Eartha Kitt’s activism in the civil rights movement and surviving being backlisted. In each case, we did not connect because of their celebrity or because of me fawning over them, which I took care to avoid. Some connections took root after working together on charitable fundraising galas. And some happened after interviews I did with them that went beyond whatever movie or whatever they were promoting at the time.

I also wanted to highlight entertainment legends and their contributions outside the realm of their performances. I wanted to show them as more than just stars or idols, to shine a light on how they fought against being dismissed for their weight, age, skin color, or sexual orientation.

In your book, First One to Leave the Party, you use celebrities as prisms to reflect your own experiences. How do these famous figures help you to better understand and articulate your own life journey? 

We all struggle with belonging and community. How do we fit in? What is our role? I saw them as towering figures — not only for what they did in cinema, but what they did with their lives. Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, and others who are dismissed as being “too fat,” or the great Ella Fitzgerald for being “too plain”. It was their resilience and strength that attracted me to them.

I also learned from them various life lessons. I learned about fundraising from Cesar Chavez. I was thunderstruck by how a simple gesture could help change the tide of public opinion, as when Doris Day publicly hugged her good friend Rock Hudson in 1985, at a time when people wouldn’t touch AIDS patients., and declaring after he died, on the Christian Broadcast Network, that he was in heaven now. A simple, amazing gesture that empowers everyone. Community. Acceptance. Love.

Many notable figures have crossed paths with you over the years. Why did you choose to include certain celebrities in your memoir, and were there any you purposely left out? 

I wrote the book with my friend Jami Bernard, an award-winning film critic, and together we settled on the celebrities who most influenced me. In some cases, it was just an anecdote. Of course, there are quite a few people we put aside for another day, but there are others, like Ella Fitzgerald, where we could have written an entire book just on her.

You’ve mentioned your unique style as a shield against homophobes. Can you dive deeper into how your attire has evolved over the years and how it became a powerful tool for self-expression?

Even in the boardroom and business meetings I would wear a suit with a strand of pearls or a brooch. I didn’t want people talking behind my back or judging me because of my sexual orientation; it was more like, let’s get that immediately out of the way. I also wanted people to know that the money that I helped raise may have been  for different causes, but it was being done by a proud gay man.

Your relationship with the film industry has granted you access to Hollywood’s elite. How has the film world influenced or shaped your philanthropy?

It gave me access and connections to work with people such as Norman Jewison and The Canadian Film Centre. Also, Mathilde Krim and Elizabeth Taylor, who inspired us to set up a Canadian version of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. We were also able to reach out to other artists — including James Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Van Johnson — to pay tribute to them, honor their lifetime achievements, with the home video industry bringing their old work to life for new audiences while we raised funds for several charities.

Not to mention how my proximity to the film industry enabled me to get Tony Bennett, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Patti LuPone, Ben Vereen, Alan Cumming, and Joan Rivers, among others, at a fraction of their usual rate to headline charitable events. Or getting volunteer emcees, such as Eugene Levy and John Candy.

You immigrated from Lebanon in the 1960s and subsequently became involved in various causes, from the arts to human rights. How do you feel your immigrant background shaped your passion for these causes?

I come from a small town where there was a great sense of community. People took care of each other, and that influenced me greatly. Being an immigrant also gave me more of worldview on human rights and the arts. My family encompasses Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as a couple of atheists and agnostics, which broadens my understanding of, as Susan Sontag put it, “the pain of others”.

You mention in your book that if it was only about you, it would be just 10 pages long. Why do you think you tend to minimize your personal history?

It was partly a joke — but really, I don’t like to talk a lot about myself. That may be a rare thing in the entertainment industry (laughs). I get embarrassed when people even read my Wikipedia page or my achievements out loud.

With the notable choice of including pronouns on your book cover, do you foresee or hope that this will be a trend that other authors or publishers adopt?

I couldn’t believe it hadn’t been done before. I’ve gotten a lot of email addressed to Ms. Salah Bachir. It’s both a courtesy to identify yourself and a way to help normalize pronouns. Every organization should encourage the use of gender pronouns. It’s empowering if we normalize it and take the onus off only certain people having to tell you how they identify.

Throughout your career, you’ve raised hundreds of millions for various causes. Could you discuss one or two particular projects that you are most proud of?

I’m very proud of the money we have raised for LGBTQ issues, including AIDS awareness and research, which includes the 519 Community Centre, a safe haven for advocacy, community, and support. Also, raising funds and awareness for accessible and inclusive healthcare.

Mr. Bachir, you’ve been compared to Cosimo de’ Medici for your role as an art patron. How do you view your place in the contemporary art world, and what drives you to support artists?

What a great complement to be compared to the Medici, I think. But I also think it’s a bit of hyperbole. I don’t really care about securing a place in the contemporary art world. What we care about is that we have been able to support ad enable artists to do great work. I love that we have been able to donate more than 1000 pieces to galleries, museums, hospitals, universities, and community centres so that other people can enjoy the art as much as we do. To create a legacy for the artist, and greater acceptance.

Salah, can you delve deeper into your early years in Canada, particularly your experience in ESL classes and how this led to your career path in the entertainment industry?

My brilliant ESL teacher Mr. Mackenzie suggested to all of us that the best way to pick up English phrases was to watch television — Bewitched and Batman, among others. What better advice to give a 10-year-old gay boy then to watch Bewitched, the gayest show on television! Agnes Moorhead as the witch Endora, with the most fabulous outfits and jewellery to make any drag queen proud. Paul Lynde as the quick-witted, double entendre spouting Uncle Arthur. Every family should have an Endora and an Uncle Arthur. Gay Maurice Evans as Sam’s warlock father and Alice Ghostly as Esmeralda. And then there’s Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, living a double life, trying to keep her true identity secret, with her alter ego sister Serena expressing her inner wild child. Watching that and Batman as much as I could did improve my English — but also helped strengthen my self-worth as a young gay boy.

Katharine Hepburn famously turned you down, albeit politely. Can you share more about that encounter, and are there other memorable instances where things didn’t go as planned with celebrities?

I had met Hepburn through Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and asked her if she would come to Toronto so I could give her an award. I thought she had said yes. I reached out later and formally invited her to come for a Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala in Toronto. Well, darling, here’s a woman who has won four Oscars and never showed up to receive any of them, so maybe I should have known better. At least she took the time to write me a lovely note on her letterhead, the nicest rejection letter ever. I can imagine her tapping it out herself on her Underwood typewriter.

Dear Salah Bachir:

I’m grateful to you for telling me that I have won an award. At the same time I have to say to you that I don’t go to these celebrations. I think you should give it to someone who would love to attend because I am unwilling to pay that price of fame. Thank you anyway.

Katharine Hepburn

How have your interactions with celebrities like Elizabeth Montgomery, who was pivotal in the gay rights movement, influenced your activism, particularly for LGBTQ+ rights?

I got in touch with Elizabeth Montgomery because I wanted to thank her for her influence on me growing up. Also, there’s a chapter called Harvey Milk Sets Me Free, about how his assassination enraged me to the point where I could no longer remain silent. After that, I became more vocal and active in human rights. In that same chapter, a couple of Chilean refugee friends talk to me about Paul Robeson, another towering figure who greatly inspired me.

There are many others — including Warhol, Keith Haring, Jane Fonda, Larry Monette, and Larry Kramer.

While many see you through the lens of your glamorous encounters, your memoir indicates a deeper quest for understanding human connections. What is the key message about human relationships that you hope readers will internalize?

it’s that never-ending story — treat others as you would like them to treat you, no matter how much power or fame you have. Take the time to listen and hear about what people are going through, and see if there’s a way you can help. Helping others is not always about money. Kindness is the more valuable coin of the realm. Be kind and, when you can, compliment and encourage. Whatever position you have in life, you can always support and empower people with the simplest words of love and kindness.

As someone deeply embedded in the arts, can you shed light on its evolving role in society, particularly in the realms of advocacy and activism?

Artists have always had a responsibility to lead and use their voice — whether it’s to end war and hunger, or protect the environment, or support human rights, or denounce racism, sexism, and homophobia. We need greater representation, diversity, and inclusion in film and television. Use your voice to stir your 300 million followers on social media.

The title “First to Leave the Party” gives a whimsical yet introspective vibe. Can you elaborate more on the choice of this title and what it signifies about your journey?

Long ago, I was the last to leave the party, or maybe I didn’t leave at all. Now, there is a joy to be able to leave while everyone is still sober, to not overstay one’s welcome. Leave at the height, while everything is still flourishing and your senses are in overdrive. I want people to think I didn’t get enough of them. I need to see them again. There are always other people and other parties I will want to explore. Besides, I have to get home and walk my dog!

Lastly, considering your incredible journey, from your humble beginnings in Lebanon to becoming a key figure in Canada’s arts and philanthropy scene, what do you foresee or wish for the next chapter of Salah Bachir’s life?

I’d like to continue to do what I’ve been doing. Bring along a younger crowd that inspires me with their activism, energy, and drive. And I’m still learning to say NO once in a while. 

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