By Cassandra Szklarski The Canadian Press
TORONTO — Amid the flurry of pre-wedding excitement for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s nuptials, an unexpected coronation has taken place that of Toronto tastemaker Jessica Mulroney.
The Montreal-bred socialite and brand strategist has been a frequent mention in a swath of international gossip stories musing on every breathless detail of the royal union.
Mulroney’s been widely dubbed Markle’s secret wedding planner, is considered “one of the most influential women in fashion” by ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and is the favourite to be Markle’s matron of honour, according to various royal watchers including U.K. tabloid The Sun and Vanity Fair.
It’s been a dramatic ascendance for the quasi-celebrity, also known for her marriage to TV personality Ben Mulroney, the son of a former prime minister.
“She’s really put herself out there,” says fashion journalist Jeanne Beker, who credits Mulroney with crafting a broad image that includes homemaker, style guru and brand influencer. “She obviously is very eager to be in the game.”
Those plugged into the style scene already know Mulroney as a fashion fan and prolific Instagrammer who projects a fairy tale life. Her account is rife with cute photos of her daughter and twin boys, often at their meticulously appointed home.
The varied snaps have also detailed a years-long friendship with Markle herself, before the romance with Prince Harry took off and sparked a media firestorm. They’ve since been removed from Mulroney’s page, and Markle deleted her Instagram account after they announced the engagement, but the images survive online.
British royalty expert Katie Nicholl says the two become tight after Markle moved to Toronto to shoot her seven-season run on the Bravo/USA Network series “Suits,” bonding over a shared love of fitness, travel and fashion.
“Jessica has been very important to Meghan, she’s been very important behind the scenes in the run-up to the royal wedding,” says Nicholl, author of the biography “Harry: Life, Loss and Love.”
“Apparently she flew over for one of the early fittings of the dress. She’s probably one of just two, or maybe even three, people who know who is designing Meghan’s dress so she’s holding a state secret close to her heart at the moment. And she’s on the phone to Meghan all the time; she is the unofficial wedding planner.”
Nicholl’s book traces a close bond that made Mulroney among the few friends entrusted with knowledge of Markle’s budding romance with the people’s prince.
So much so that when the paparazzi caught wind of their Toronto love affair, she says Prince Harry and Markle took refuge in the Mulroneys’ home, where Ben apparently regaled the spare heir with childhood memories of meeting the late Princess Diana when Brian Mulroney was prime minister.
By all accounts, Jessica Mulroney would certainly be well-positioned to offer wedding tips.
The style maven is a marketing consultant for the Toronto outpost of Kleinfeld Bridal, the New York-based designer boutique made famous by “Say Yes to the Dress,” and appears regularly on City TV’s “Cityline” to outline style trends.
She’s also a contributing editor at “Wedding Vacations” magazine from the travel company Sunwing, where she’s styled celebrity spreads including vow renewal ceremonies for HGTV Canada stars Sarah and Bryan Baeumler and “Cityline” host Tracy Moore and her husband Lio Perron.
When it comes to Markle, Mulroney is credited with injecting serious CanCon into several of her key looks, including the engagement announcement in which the California actress was photographed in a white wool wrap coat by the Toronto fashion brand Line the Label and earrings by Canadian jeweller Birks.
Beker describes Mulroney as a champion of homegrown talent, especially emerging designers. She guesses Mulroney was instrumental in advising Sophie Gregoire Trudeau to wear Canadian brands at various public events, helping to further position her friend as a style icon.
Still, Beker notes that Mulroney has shunned any description of herself as a stylist, especially when it comes to the already-stylish Gregoire Trudeau. Beker describes Mulroney as a fashion “strategist” and expects that’s the role she’s playing now for Markle.
And while Mulroney has undoubtedly benefited from a privileged background, that advantage only goes so far.
“You know the Mulroney name helped everybody. Obviously, it’s an attention-grabber (and) it opens the door. But then you’ve got to walk through it and you’ve got to prove that you’ve got your area of expertise,” says Beker, who wouldn’t be surprised if Mulroney’s daughter Ivy is a flower girl at the wedding.
Mulroney’s fashion sense is also backed by a storied lineage ‚Äî she was born Jessica Brownstein in Montreal, a descendant of shoe magnate Morton Brownstein of the Browns Shoes empire.
In a magazine profile back in 2011, she told Maclean’s magazine that she cut her teeth at a clothing manufacturing company run by her father Stephen Brownstein, developing an eye for quality fashion: “He trained us well to know what to look for.”
Beker says Mulroney forged her entrepreneurial skills with her sister Elizabeth when they partnered to bring the high-end Italian lingerie brands La Perla and Cosabella to Canada.
From there, she segued into the bridal market after meeting with Bonnie Brooks, former CEO of The Bay. Beker says they met to talk about helming an intimates corner at Kleinfeld. Instead, Mulroney was made the face of HBC’s new bridal business.
Then there’s Mulroney’s charity work, which includes the Shoebox Project, founded in 2011 by Jessica and sisters-in-law Caroline Mulroney Lapham, and Katy and Vanessa Mulroney. She and Ben are also co-chairs of The Brain Project, which raises funds for brain health research and education.
Marketing strategists say Mulroney could parlay her newfound attention into an even bigger brand after the wedding on May 19.
“It wouldn’t be unusual for a career to really be launched in a big way after an event like this,” says Jonathan Davids of the marketing company Influicity, which tracks online social media engagement and connects brands with influencers.
“You leverage it by continuously putting content out there, hopefully sparking some conversation around you and leveraging the mainstream media as well. But you also don’t want to be overkill and kind of be everywhere all the time. It’s a fine balance.”
Still, the power of Mulroney’s ties to Markle has a short shelf life, says Davids. He says a spike in social media interest can plummet in as little as six to 12 months after a high-profile event.
That’s why now is the time to act if Mulroney is keen to establish her own identity and build a long-standing brand.
“You’d want to be working with a PR person right now to be putting together a strategy to say: ‘OK, a day after the wedding here are the three things we’re going to do, here’s what we’re gong to announce, here are the shows you’re going to be on and here’s what you’re gong to be talking about,’” says Davids.
“’And it’s going to have very little to do with Meghan Markle.’”