Behind the smiles of Toronto's happiest people
The life-affirming, winter-surviving, frown-turning secrets of 10 of the city's most lighthearted personalities
THE THOUGHTFUL THROWBACK
As a writer, Claudia Dey understands that being happy isn’t necessarily about telling the best jokes or climbing the highest mountains. It’s about nurturing your gifts and being in the moment. Like, for instance, with her family, her fashion brand Horses Atelier or her new book, Heartbreaker.
Since Dey’s last novel, Stunt, she has first and foremost been a mother which, as she says, “occupied every available space.” But the creative wheels were turning in the background, and when it was time, she knew. Much of Heartbreaker rushed out over 10 days.
“There was something of a miracle to it,” says the graduate of North Toronto’s St. Clement’s School. “I don’t want to be too bombastic or romantic though. I then spent another two and a half years editing the book!”
Dey makes a point of steering clear of social media like it’s a “poison cloud,” when she’s writing. Whether artmaking or simply living, the same philosophy applies: be present. — Ron Johnson
Pro tip: Throw your phone in the lake.
“Spend time with people who make you feel good and smart and whole and loved,” she suggests. “Make them a meal. Light candles and stay at that table as long as you can together. I think happiness is in the small moments.”
THE HOST WITH THE MOST
In the five years since chef Matty Matheson fully embraced sobriety, his career trajectory has gone on a bull run worthy of cryptocurrency. With more than half a million Instagram followers, a bestselling cookbook, a Viceland TV show and an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, he seems to have the whole positivity thing figured out — but he’s not on cruise control.
For Matheson, happiness requires maintenance, like everything else in life. “The journey is tough. It’s forever,” he says. “If you’re not working the hardest you can on everything in life, you’re not going to get a lot out of it.”
Matheson stays grounded by being appreciative, he says, and resisting the urge to become a different person. He keeps life simple, hanging out with old friends and spending time at home the way he always has.
As he continues to work on keeping it real, he’s also building his empire. He recently opened a second location of Maker Pizza in North York, and he’s also got a new sit-down restaurant in the works. — Jon Sufrin
Pro tip: Put out good intentions.
“I pray that I can perform, that I can be the best version of me today, and I’m going to do whatever I need to do to that.”
THE KITCHEN PARTY QUEEN
Sitting down across the street from King Street’s Royal Alexandra Theatre where her career began, Cynthia Dale is feeling happy and very grateful. The iconic Canadian actress just finished work on a new season of Street Legal for CBC, which premieres in March. The TV show first launched her to stardom in the role of barrier-breaking lawyer Olivia Novak more than two decades ago. To say the least, Dale was pleased to hear the show was coming back.
“It took me a while to get my jaw off the floor,” says Dale. “Gifts like this don’t come along very often in life. I knew how much work it would be, but that was nothing compared to the overwhelming joy and emotional roller coaster that it was. I mean, holy moly, just take a second and be mindful of where you are.” Her idea of perfect happiness is simple: “Hanging out with my boy,” she says, without hesitation. He was born while Dale and husband Peter Mansbridge lived in Forest Hill, a time she fondly remembers. — RJ
Pro tip: Turn your kitchen into a party zone.
“The thing that instantly puts me in a good mood is a kitchen party with my closest girlfriends or even just alone! I do it often, and it's good for my heart and soul in every way.”
SOUTHERN GENTLEMEN OF TEXAS BBQ
Beach Hill Smokehouse has been a long time coming for co-owners Darien List and Terrence Hill, who come from opposite ends of America: List from Buffalo and Hill from Dallas. They first met at university in Louisiana, whereupon List travelled to Texas to taste first-hand what Hill and his family can do with BBQ. List knew he needed to bring this cuisine northward some day, and made a move with his wife back to her hometown of Toronto to scope out the smoker scene.
More than two decades later, Beach Hill Smokehouse opened in the east end of Toronto with Hill as pitmaster overseeing some of the best Texas-style BBQ this city has ever seen.
“I learned from my dad,” says Hill. “Texas style is very traditional southern cuisine. The meats are important, brisket is huge. Texas is cattle country.”
The city is a few years into a serious smoker crush, so there is no shortage of BBQ, but what makes Beach Hill special is these owners and that easy American hospitality.
“The way you see me and him, that’s pretty much how we are,” says Hill. “You see us at Metro or the gas station, this is who we are. It’s part of our upbringing.” — RJ
Pro tip: Love what you’re doing.
“You love what you do, you’re going to spread happiness to everyone else,” says List.
THE BODY IMAGE GURU
It’s important to note that Madison Schill is happy right now. But during her formative teen years, she wasn’t. Not for a long time.
Outward appearances may have suggested otherwise, given that Schill was a model appearing in fashion shows and magazines around the world while living in Paris. But her impossibly thin body and the pressure to maintain some other person’s off-kilter fantasy of female perfection was so great that it overwhelmed her. She quit to save herself. Schill returned home to Toronto to work on “redefining herself based on her intellect not outward appearances.” She wrote about her experiences and her passion for body positivity, started a website dedicated to transparency in the beauty industry, began mentoring young girls interested in modelling and recently finished a documentary project called Straight/Curves that redefines body image.
But what she really loves is people. “If I could, I would have a 30-minute conversation with everyone on the planet,” she says, from her office in Rosedale. “I think seeing other people’s points of view, what brings them joy is so amazing.” —RJ
Pro tip: Private dance parties.
“I really encourage it,” she says. “It sounds weird, but it’s science!”
Image: Katherine Holland
THE CROSSFIT QUEEN
Sangita Patel’s positive attitude is infectious. The ET Canada reporter, HGTV Home to Win host and Covergirl’s Simply Ageless spokesperson says it’s the unpredictability of her career that excites her and keeps her positive.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next day,” she says, but her life wasn’t always so adventurous.
Patel’s first career was as an engineer. She indulged in her passion for journalism by volunteering at night until she took the leap into broadcasting and decided to live her dream. But happiness extends beyond the work day, and for Patel, focusing on her family and her fitness rounds out the equation.
“I had my second child and I felt like I was going into a depression. I was not happy. I didn’t know who I was, my identity was all confused. Was I Sangita or was I a mom?” she says.
She remembers going to a CrossFit gym and learning about weight training. “From that point on, fitness has become a routine for me,” says Patel.
Another part of her routine is limiting phone use. Extra time is spent playing silly games with her two daughters or watching Ozark with her husband. — Nikki Gill
Pro Tip: Smile.
“There is something about smiling that changes your attitude.”
THE FEARLESS FUNNY MAN
If your name is an acronym that stands for People Having A Terrific Time Always, it’s no surprise that you are kinda fun. Toronto’s PHATT al was once a rapper and part of the music group Len. (“Steal My Sunshine,” anyone?) PHATT al’s interest in rap dated back to his days at Central Tech in the Annex, but after basking in La-La-Land for a spell to pursue a rap career, he returned home to Toronto. He worked for years with Juno-nominated band God Made Me Funky, and one auspicious day he walked into Second City. Now, after landing a role in the touring company, he is hard at work on his first mainstage show, premiering this March.
It’s a testament to his philosophy that if you jump in with both feet when opportunities present themselves, the universe will provide.
“If I trust in myself and go for it, I don’t really look at failure as a bad thing,” he says. “Real failure is not having the trust in myself to go and do something.” — RJ
Pro tip: Tap into your childhood memories.
“I watch things that brought me joy in the past. I love comic books. I like to watch animated series. I’m still that kid. I can still have that fun. Go watch those cartoons!”
In some ways, Hannah Alper is like any other teenager. She likes dogs, hanging out and is not a fan of mathematics. She just happens to also want to change the world. When she was just nine years old, the Thornhill native decided to start a blog about her life and some of the changes she wanted to see — Callmehannah.ca.
That was just the beginning. Over the last half-dozen years, the pint-sized preacher of positivity has expanded her impact exponentially by speaking at events in numerous countries as well as in local schools and publishing the book Momentus, a collection of inspiring interviews with luminaries such as Malala Yousafzai and Lilly Singh.
On Feb. 11, Alper is organizing the event Food T.O., partnering with different companies and the community to spend the day handing out meals to those experiencing homelessness in Toronto. It’s just one example of a philosophy she dubs kind-raising. “There is more than one way to make the world better, and one way is simply by being kind and compassionate,” says Alper. — RJ
Pro tip: Random acts of kindness work.
“Do something for someone else. Being kind always makes you happy, whether it’s holding the door open for someone or writing a thank you note to your teacher.”
THE MINDFUL MUSICIAN
Justin Nozuka has always had something special. The Richmond Hill native, who put out his fourth album, Run To Waters, last year, started singing along to the radio at a young age and just never stopped.
He was nominated for a Best New Artist Juno Award following the release of his debut album. The follow-up hit number one on the U.S. Heatseekers album charts, and Nozuka seemed destined for pop stardom. Instead, he opted for the path less travelled, took four years and produced a deeply personal work that belied his young age. He’s like that.
For his new album, he decided to rock out.
“I was feeling the urge to pick things up a little bit,” says Nozuka, who worked with producer Chris Bond for the new album, a producer best known for working with British singer-songwriter Ben Howard.
Nozuka has toured extensively in Europe, where he has always enjoyed a strong following. To keep happy, he relies on having deep connections with friends and family as well as having a purpose to his work. — RJ
Pro tip: Meditation.
“One of the most profound things that I’ve practiced. I’ve found it to be extremely helpful to quiet my mind.”
THE 6IX MOM
Andrea Bolley, also known as the 6ix Mom, is an artist who has taken the Toronto society and nightlife scene by storm thanks to her legendary dance moves and non-stop energy.
It’s no wonder she’s often on the Instagram stories of notable DJs, socialites, club-goers and celebs with her handle #the6mom. She radiates pure joy and happiness.
In fact, it’s her infamous “dance like no one’s watching” moves that got Drake’s attention, and the two became fast friends. So what does she think of all the attention?
“It’s quite a compliment,” she says. “It’s great by myself, but you need people around, too, at this age.”
So what makes Bolley happy? “Getting up every day because the alternative is.… It’s like Woody Allen said, ‘I know I’m going to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’”
She lives in her Queen West studio and feels most at home in Yorkville and the Annex. “All the museums are there, the ROM, Gardiner. There’s art, music, shopping, eating. It’s a great area, a hub for me. I love dancing at Amber, One and Bar Reyna. And for years, at Bemelmans,” she says. — Jen Kirsch
Pro tip: Be yourself.
“That’s it. Don’t listen to anyone else. It’s the hardest thing to be yourself. There’s so much pressure to conform and create this perfect image. Keep your honesty and integrity.”