Friday, December 21, 2007
Memories of 2007
This has been a tremendous year for Art of Life. We've had such amazing experiences and have had the extreme pleasure of meeting some really exceptional personalities. Some of my favourite moments include meeting Tom Ford at his store opening in New York City and him knowing who I was. Now that is a moment I will always remember. I learned alot during my exclusive interview with him at his beautiful home in London. Perhaps the most important thing I learned was that no matter what happens to you in life - especially when the best laid plans go awry, you have to believe that you will be okay. I remember thinking if someone like Tom Ford, who was at the top of his game when he was Creative Director for Gucci, could feel lost then it's okay when us regular people feel that way too. He has bounced back and is better than ever.

Ford did say that it feels like all the hard work in his life has prepared him for this moment where he has come into his own. I've had many people ask me what he's really like. All I can say is that the Tom Ford I met was funny, easygoing, and kind. I laughed alot while filming with him. Make no mistake he knows exactly when the camera is rolling and he performs accordingly. He's very much in control but he's also very accomodating. I had fun on that shoot.

Another great moment for me was meeting designer Carlos Miele in New York. This Brazilian designer who is known for his red carpet dresses touched me with his sincerity and passion for helping people less fortunate than him, especially those in his hometown of Sao Paolo. He teared up when talking about children who aren't getting the medical care they need or the women who can't feed their families. HIs foundation is one that helps these people directly.

He employs them to work in his factory and he uses their techniques and craft in his designs and on the dresses which have been worn by many celebrities. I remember thinking while we sat in his store in the meatpacking district in NYC that he's not doing this for any notoriety or fame. He genuinely feels and cares for his fellow Brazilians.

Art of Life also had the privilege of travelling to Cuba. Wow...what a fantastic experience that was for me. Amid the dilapidated facade of the buildings along the waterfront there is this richness of culture that permeates through the alleyways. No matter how poor the majority of Cubans are, there is this wealth of colour, food, music, and love that you can feel just walking through Havana. I met this wonderful grandmother. I believe she was in her 80s. She was at the home of the dance instructor I was scheduled to meet to learn some salsa. She had lost a lot including family members but she embraced us with such love and emotion that when we were filming the dancing we had to get her to dance with us and she was good! Really good. I will always remember her smile and how she would daydream as she sat by the window looking out onto the street. For me, that is what I will think when I think about Cuba.

There have been so many moments that are embedded in my mind. Moments that when I'm having a bad day I will think about and they will make me smile. Alot of those memories involve working with the Art of Life crew and what you all don't see and what is "behind the scenes".

One moment being travelling with our new producer Paula Sailes. We were waiting to depart Kuala Lumpur for Beijing after spending only 36 hours in KL to interview Motocross champion Casey Stoner. We were so tired that any little thing made us laugh. We were almost drunk with tiredness. I felt sorry for our cameraman James Stacey who had to put up with us gabbing away on the plane. We just didn't stop talking and laughing! And Paula has a very loud, infectious laugh. But that's the thing. See, Paula, James, and I are really friends and we love working together. When we travel we spend A LOT of time together. The only time we aren't together is when we're sleeping. We become family for each other. I couldn't ask for a nicer and more talented team. Each of us work together to bring out the best in each other. Sure we argue and we disagree but we respect the other's opinion and always come up with a compromise.

Antonia Mortensen, the associate producer extraordinaire makes sure we are where we're supposed to be. Her itinieraries are so detailed I am starting to feel lost without her. She's also brilliant at coming up with ideas for the show. Antonia is a godsend.

We all realize that we're extremely fortunate to do what we do, to have the experiences that make us ask "do we really get paid to do this?", and to meet the people who help make the show colourful, entertaining, yet informative. We have fun but we work VERY long days and most of it is quite stressful. That awareness of how lucky we are and that enjoyment certainly comes out in the show. At least I believe it does.

Thank you all for your support this year. I love reading your comments! I wish you all the love and happiness in 2008. Stay tuned for alot more coming from us. M.
Posted By Monita: Friday, December 21, 2007
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Friday, November 09, 2007
24 Hours in Shanghai
It's been 20 years since I left Hong Kong for Canada. I never went back to the Far East until a few weeks ago.

Art of Life decided it was time to do a show out of China and a Fendi fashion show on the Great Wall was the perfect backdrop to what was to be a thrilling, eye-opening, and overwhelming experience.

When I lived in Hong Kong, I never took the time to travel to mainland China. Growing up, we had visions of a stark, strict nation where people lived in fear of the government.

We had images of residents of China looking over at Hong Kong with envy for living the life they felt they deserved. At the time, Hong Kong was flourishing and a jewel in the Asian crown. It was (and still is) a vibrant, exciting city with a buzzing economy and an energetic day and night life - a place that many described as "New York City on speed".

But the world's focus is now on China. With over a billion people, an open market economy and a favourable currency China is on the verge of superpower status. My visit to the socialist state opened my eyes to changes that I didn't even think about during my two decades in North America.

The purpose of my visit was to see how the luxury industry is growing in China. Not just how foreign brands are prospering in China but how the Chinese are making a name for themselves.

The fact of the matter is money is being made at record pace and in record amounts. Millionaires are growing in number and consequently tastes are becoming very sophisticated. There is the assumption that the Chinese consumer is very logo-centric. Not so.

In fact, Angelica Cheung, the editorial director of Vogue China told me that the Chinese shopper expects more and a logo is not enough. Seasons Place, a luxury shopping mall on Beijing's Financial Street houses top designer brands. What is, perhaps, more telling is that some products on the shelves are not available anywhere else in the world. Such is the importance being placed on China.

Attention is also on Chinese contemporary art and artists. In October, the auction house Sotheby's broke a record for the sale of a painting by a Chinese contemporary artist. The result is the demand for Chinese art is growing exponentially. The irony is, the Chinese themselves aren't interested in what the Western world would consider a successful piece. A lot of works sold in New York and London are seen by the Chinese as pieces with political undertones.

Pearl Lam, a well-known supporter of the Chinese art world told me the Chinese themselves are more interested in expressions of their deep and rich culture. What sells amongst the Chinese is art that reflects their five thousand year history, their spirituality, and their modernity.

Perhaps, what struck me most on my trip to China was how I felt just being there. I wasn't prepared to feel so overwhelmed by emotion - especially when I was in Shanghai. You see, this is where my mother is from. This is where she was born and grew up until she left while she was in her twenties.

She left in 1962 after the Cultural Revolution and never went back, but her heart remained. Walking the streets of Shanghai I kept wondering if these were the same streets my mom walked along some forty years ago. She wouldn't recognize the city now as so much has changed. There is so much growth but the energy of the city is, I'm sure, the same.

My mother grew up in an economically and culturally prosperous Shanghai. But all that came to a crashing to a halt when Communism took over. Still, for my dear mother, everywhere we've lived in the world is measured against Shanghai.

Her love of Chinese food and culture is apparent to this day and permeates our home and the way we live. We celebrate Chinese New Year, her Chinese food is better than any I've had at any restaurant, and when my mother and I communicate often do so in Cantonese.

So going to Shanghai was like a homecoming for me. I felt so comfortable there. I felt it was part of me, part of my past, part of my roots. I thought of my late grandfather arriving in Shanghai in the early 1900s alone, not knowing anyone and not speaking the language. I thought of him learning and working hard and becoming a successful, well-respected dairy farmer.

I wish he could see what Shanghai has become today and how much wealth there is. I'd also love my mother to see it. She wouldn't recognize it. But she'll feel that energy she knows so well. An energy, that is reaching the rest of the world.
Posted By Monita: Friday, November 09, 2007
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Friday, September 21, 2007
Gourmet food and fine wine
I'm not much of a drinker. I'll have the occasional glass of wine or a bit of vodka once in a long while but that's about it. I guess I never acquired a real thirst for it. Plus, I think I got all that out of my system when I was younger. So you'll imagine my confusion yet curiosity over why some drinks are so expensive, and even considered collectible.

On Art of Life, I've been fortunate to try what some – including myself - would consider expensive drinks. I found vintage Dom Perignon very smooth and just slightly sweet while Cristal was quite dry. At the House of Krug I found I enjoyed the Krug Clos Du Mesnil 1996 over their signature Grande Cuvee. With vodka, it was fascinating to see Ciroc make theirs with grapes and with cognac. Remy Martin's Louis XIII should never be poured into a short, wide brandy glass. Instead, a sommelier's glass is ideal to experience the entire aroma and flavor.

Forbes reported the most expensive champagne that can be bought off the shelf is Krug's Clos Du Mesnil 1995. It goes for at least $750 a bottle. Only 12,624 bottles were produced adding to the rarity and the price. Still, it is far cheaper than Louis Roederer Cristal 1990, a bottle of which sold at a London auction for $14, 730.

In the world of cognac, Remy Cointreau's Black Pearl will set you back about $10,000. Only 786 bottles were produced and each carafe is hand blown from special smoked glass by Baccarat. The Remy Martin Louis XIII is a mere $1400 a bottle.

So, why are they so expensive? Are they really worth it?

Remy Martin cellarmaster Vincent Gere told me that for him luxury is defined as rarity. He will never be able to enjoy the fruits of his labor, as the Remy Martin Louis XIII takes a century to make. It is aged in oak barrels and 100 years later the cognac is enjoyed by connoisseurs who will be able to taste the woodiness of the barrels and the subtle flavors of honey and plum. It's smooth because of the age and it's that dedication to perfecting the subtleties of flavors that adds to the richness of the drink. Those who do drink brandies and cognacs regularly will probably know the difference and the value of the various brands. But if something takes that long to make, there must be something special about it.

History and tradition also play a part in value. The House of Krug began six generations ago and to this day the grapes are still handpicked and a member of the Krug family is still in charge of making sure every bottle of their Grande Cuvee tastes consistent. Their craft is using the best that technology has to offer but only to enhance what tradition has taught them. In a time when we're always on the hunt for what's new, tradition is a rare commodity - and that also determines price. After all, if a business has lasted six generations, they must be doing something right. Right?

I have a friend who is an ardent wine collector for the simple reason that he enjoys drinking wine. If he finds a particular vineyard that produces a flavor he really enjoys he will buy a case. That's all it comes down to. If you enjoy something and can afford it why shouldn't you treat yourself? The more I work on Art of Life, the more I am learning about the finer things in life. I see the work that goes into making clothing, cars, cognacs, and champagnes.

Most of the time I do see the difference between those things that are made well and those that are cheaper. That said, I won't go about paying $200 for a t-shirt simply because it has a designer label, nor will I go about buying a $1000 bottle of champagne because it's what the rap stars are doing. If I see true value in something and I enjoy it then I will pay for it. Not to keep up some superficial image, but simply because I will enjoy it. After all, being able to enjoy your life the way you want is a luxury in itself, isn't it?
Posted By Monita: Friday, September 21, 2007
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Friday, August 24, 2007
The face of beauty

What makes a person look beautiful? Genetics? Clothing? Make-up? The beauty industry is a $200billion industry. The reason for its success and growth is simple. We're all looking for the next big thing, the one product that will make us look better, younger, brighter, and maybe even richer. Companies tap into that search and promise to deliver.

Aerin Lauder told me her grandmother (the beauty empress Estee Lauder) taught her that "every woman can be beautiful if (she) just (took) the time." Rebecca Korner of Korner Skincare shares the same thinking. Her grandmother also taught her that "there are no unattractive women, just women who don’t take the time to take care of themselves." There is something to be said about that.

I don't like wearing a lot of make up. I don't like to spend a lot of time primping. I even get antsy when I'm at a spa! Trust me folks, I'm working on those impatience issues. But perhaps that's the idea of these beauty and skincare companies. It's not necessarily just the product they're promising will deliver the glow but it's also about the time we should take just for ourselves. The five or 10 minutes to get ready for the day or to decompress after a long day should be just about us. It's tough when women have jobs, kids, families, etc. to focus on. We usually put ourselves last on the list. I know my mother was always that way. Her beauty regime was and still is very simple. She never takes more than five minutes to "put her face on." When I was little she was always running around after us, going off to work, and then coming home to make dinner and take care of the household. Today, even though us kids are out of the house, she still heads off to work but again, doesn't take more than five minutes to get ready.

We are all judged by the way we look. The thing is, who is doing the judging? We all know the photos of models in magazines aren't real. Computers can do wonders these days. Unfortunately computers can't tell a young girl reading those magazines that she is perfect just the way she is. As a woman who is on television my looks are always the first thing people notice, not my work - that comes after. But that's the way it is. It's the nature of this very visual business. It also means that it is very subjective. Bottom line, as long as I am happy with who I am and know that there is a fairly functional brain in my perceived-pretty head, then no one else's opinion matters (except for my boss' of course.)

We will always be judged for something. That's why it's so important that we don't judge ourselves and the people we care about ... especially about the way we look. There is no perfect face, perfect look to aspire to. The only perfection is the one you see in the mirror.

I guess somewhere along the way, we are taught that spending time on ourselves is actually selfish, that looks aren't everything. But here is one instance where being selfish is a good thing. See, if you are doing something that you feel makes you look good (whether it's putting on your make up, lathering on lotion, styling your hair,) chances are you will also feel good about yourself. Your self-esteem isn't found in a bottle but what's in the bottle may give it that extra boost.

There are times when I do think if I just had that perfect perfume, make up, hair, clothing that all will be right in my world. And that is often the marketing mantra of the big beauty companies. And while the occasional shopping spree does lift my spirit when necessary, I know it won't always solve my problems. But it's not necessarily about that is it? I say there is nothing wrong with a little retail therapy. I've always found that when I'm feeling low, I do a little primping. I take that extra time to make myself look and feel good. Maybe in my rushed day when I don't think about what I really need, that feeling is a reminder that I need to take care of me, if only for a few minutes. Trust me, a little gloss on a dull day always works wonders!

Posted By Monita: Friday, August 24, 2007
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Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Prelude to an Awakening
Life is funny. Not in a humorous way - although I have thought that a few times. It's funny in a 'you never know what's going to happen' way. The uber-aware may scoff at this thought with the 'well of course you're never going to know' attitude. But seriously, every time something happens and I'm caught off guard, I think, "How could I have not seen that coming?"

When major life events happen and we think about our next move, more often than not we come up blank. As much as we think we can plan our life, it often takes over and says 'check'. No-one is immune. Even wealth and fame cannot provide protection. However, what separates those who live their lives from those who merely exist is the search for and subsequent awareness of The Awakening.

It was designer Tom Ford who first told me about The Awakening. After more than a dozen years at Gucci, building it up from virtual bankruptcy to multi-billion dollar business, the decision to leave was a hard one. Differences of opinion and vision between Ford and Gucci's parent company, PPR meant something had to give and Ford made a dramatic exit.

The fashion world was stunned. Tom Ford was the man women wanted and men wanted to be. It wasn't just his talent that had made Gucci a desirable luxury brand, his ability to direct the timing of fashion is something he describes as a gift. The irony is, while he was able to dictate the timing of his industry, his work dictated the timing of his life. He expected to be at Gucci for much longer, but Life had other plans.

"I felt lost. Whenever you get to a point when you can't see your future, if you're someone like me who always has to have a plan, and always has to know where they are going, oh my god, if you can't see your future, you start thinking, well maybe I don't have one."

Talking to him, it's hard to ever imagine such a strong, confident man has ever felt lost. The dramatic gear change in Tom Ford's career was all over the fashion and business worlds. But when you strip it down to its bare bones, Tom Ford's own life changed. Sure he was in a comfortable position financially but for him, as it is for all of us at some point, it was about "what now?"

"It was really terrible. I think it came at a time in my life when I was possibly due a mid-life crisis anyway. I worked so hard all my life to get to a certain point and there's a wonderful quote about mid-life crisis that a mid life crisis is when you get to the top of the ladder only to find out that it's against the wrong wall...Even though I didn't want to leave Gucci at that time and it was quite traumatic for me, I tried to learn something from it. The thing I learnt was that I never ever in my life want to retire."

Ford told me that once he realized what he wanted to do he started mapping out his vision and his plans. Sheer determination is what led him to where he is now. But the one thing from our conversation that stands out for me is his belief that life at Gucci was a prelude to life now. There is something we can all learn from Tom Ford's experiences. It's a comforting thought that even someone as successful as Tom Ford can have tough times and feel lost but come out of it bigger and better. Most important for me was the notion that Gucci didn't ruin his career or, ultimately, his confidence.

But it's not easy. We all can't take time out to find ourselves. We have bills to pay and mouths to feed and are dependent on that paycheck.

Perhaps though to ease the sense of frustration and the loss of direction is the knowledge somewhere deep down inside that all will be well. I'm learning to have faith not only in Life but also in myself, that I too will have an Awakening when I need it.

I just hope I'll remember that when Life decides to have some fun at my expense.
Posted By Monita: Tuesday, July 31, 2007
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Tuesday, June 26, 2007
The five-star treatment
I'm not fussy. Nor am I particularly demanding. But when it comes to where I rest my head when I'm not at home, there are certain basics that I need before I can rest comfortably.

Hotels are a regular part of my living experience as my job takes me to various parts of the world. There are some hotels that make you feel so comfortable that you really don't want to leave. I had that experience while I was in India earlier this year. I spent two weeks in one hotel in New Delhi and it was fabulous. I've also had the opportunity to experience a so-called boutique hotel in Geneva, which was exquisite. Right on Lake Geneva, the welcome we got was warm and while the room was ultra-modern with dark, sleek furniture, I felt very comfortable.

Then there are the Bed and Breakfasts. I actually really enjoy them. For me, they are the closest to feeling at home. There was one that I stayed at while working in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. It was attached to a local pub. It was very basic but very clean and they had their own little touches that made it comfortable, like homemade cookies that were placed in the room for the guests so that after a long day we could relax with a nice cup of tea and cookies. I love that!

So for me, it's not about the bells and whistles, like designer taps and sheets and a butler on standby. For me, it's about attention to the details of cleanliness, simplicity, and a feeling of being comfortable enough to relax because even though it isn't your home, it shouldn't feel like a museum or on the other side of that, a backpackers' hostel (no offense to the backpackers out there).

It is difficult to please everyone. Legendary hotelier Sol Kerzner's motto is to "blow away the customer." For him, it's worth the expense to have fresh flowers in his hotels everyday along with the latest high tech gadgetry. Even with massive projects like the multi-thousand room Atlantis resort casino in the Bahamas with rates ranging from $500 to $5000 a night, it comes down to individual taste, purpose of your visit, and how you want to feel. But when you really look at it, it really comes down to one thing: comfort. There are those who are comfortable with all the excess that money can buy and those that are happy with simplicity.

Arrigo Cipriani of Harry's Bar and Cipriani restaurants told me that there is a difference between service and taking care of your customer. He believes that taking care of the customer without imposing on them is key to a successful business. He should know. His father, Giuseppe Cipriani believed that service is the most important value in one's life. Arrigo Cipriani told me that when his father still owned Hotel Cipriani in Venice what set them apart was the feeling his guests would have when they stayed there. Giuseppe Sr. told his son that when guests closed their eyes, they still could feel the room, the sheets, the mattress, and it was that feeling that stayed with them. It was he who began the Cipriani empire with the tiny 33 square meter Harry's Bar in Venice. Today there are more than a dozen restaurants globally. Giuseppe's grandson (who shares his name) is taking the family back into the hospitality arena by launching luxury-serviced apartments in New York and Miami. They are not cheap (up to $3 million for an apartment) but again, the Ciprianis say what you're paying for isn't just the bricks or the bed you lie in, it's about that feeling of being looked after.

There are many in hospitality that will say that the core of their business is service. And while that sounds elementary, not everyone has perfected it. For me, service isn't about constant attention to me; it's about the attention to the details whether I'm at a 5 star hotel or at a little B&B in a small coastal town. For me, the mark of a truly great stay is just knowing that those that own and work at these places care for and take care of their establishment. That is a true measure of how much they will care for and take care of me.

Am I asking for too much?
Posted By Monita: Tuesday, June 26, 2007
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Friday, May 25, 2007
Soaring to new heights
It took roughly 10 minutes. Not long enough to really have a full experience but short enough to say I've done it. I'm talking about flying in a helicopter. This may come as a surprise to you but in all my dozen years as a reporter I've never really come across a time when I had to be on one. This "first" of mine happened when I went to Brittany in France to do a story on investing in private islands. We got to the airport and flew the short distance to Ile de Fort Bloque. It was fun, exciting, and had that feel of importance. My guide to the private island exclaimed it was utterly incomprehensible that I had never flown in a helicopter before. Truth is, I had never really thought about it before. What it did make me think, though, because of my job as host of Art of Life, I've had some pretty amazing experiences that I hope when I'm 85 I'd be able to tell my grandkids what their grandma got up to when she was young.

Last year I hopped on a World War II Spitfire. I was doing a story on how the luxury watch company IWC lures celebrity clientele (such as Boris Becker) and spokespeople to support their wares. It was a weekend in the English countryside and part of the theatrics involved flying in this classic fighter aircraft. The pilot of this two-seater plane was determined to show me what his baby could do. And he did. The turns, the dips, and the climbs left me feeling green and I'm convinced my internal balance has been off since then. Nevertheless, I still get looks of envy from airplane and history buffs whenever I bring up my little jaunt in this classic piece of aviation.

Imagine learning how to drive like a Formula 1 driver. Yep, F1 driver David Coulthard offered Art of Life his expertise on how to drive like a race car driver. Exciting right? Not for me. Why? Well folks, manual transmission, standard, stick-shift, whatever you call it, I don't know how to drive it. That's right, yours truly can only drive an automatic transmission car. Which means most sports cars are off-limits to me. So while I almost had that opportunity it had to be deferred to a colleague. Determined not to forego a hair-raising experience such as driving like a speed demon I learned how to drive the Ferrari 612 Scaglietti instead. It may not be the same (and David Coulthard wasn't my teacher) but it was a snazzy sports car to me and the folks at Ferrari were very patient with me. Fitted with a six-speed mechanical gearbox as well as the Formula 1-style paddle shifts meant even I could drive this smooth-mobile without having to worry about my inability to coordinate the clutch with the gear-shift. The sheer speed, noise of the engine roaring, and knowing my brother -- who is a sports car fanatic -- is envious and in awe are reasons enough for this experience to be a memorable one for me. FYI, I have tried learning how to drive a stick-shift, but alas it didn't stick.

These are just a few experiences that I've been fortunate enough to enjoy. Going through my list I can check off my first flight in a private jet, my first sip of Cristal Champagne (which if I'm honest, I really didn't like), my first stay on a yacht courtesy of designer Alberta Ferretti who took us along the coast of Italy. I can also tick off reporting from the Oscars, trying on diamonds worth millions of dollars on a yacht in Monaco during the Grand Prix (while the loud race took place just outside), jet-skiing on a frozen lake in northwestern Canada, and of course I can't forget playing elephant polo in Rajasthan, India.

While all these experiences have been work-related they are experiences I probably wouldn't come across in my every day life. It certainly makes me thankful. I'm looking forward to many, many more memorable moments.
Posted By Monita: Friday, May 25, 2007
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CNN anchor Monita Rajpal blogs about her experiences filming the "Art of Life" show.

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