Photography by George Pimentel
Hair and Makeup by John Sheeny
Styled by Christal Williams
Passion, compassion and a sense of community: Far beyond the glamorous trappings of her socialite status and jet-setting lifestyle, these are the qualities that define Joan Kelley Walker. A farmer’s daughter who was born and raised in Wilcox, Sask., Joan’s humble beginnings belie her luminous glow as one of Toronto’s most stylish and buzz-worthy gals about town. And her relentless drive to give back and stand for something meaningful in a culture often preoccupied with artifice and appearance has earned Joan the reputation as a philanthropist with heart.
Married to retired Magna automotive executive Don Walker since 2000, the model, producer, writer and TV personality was catapulted to national attention as one of The Real Housewives of Toronto in 2017. While starring in a reality series of that nature may never have been on her bucket list, Joan sees the experience as a feather in her fashionable cap, and something that really did pay off. “Some people look at me and say, “You seem like the last person who would do a show like that,” she shares. “I’d done a lot of other television but I had never done reality television. I thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ And I have to say it was really challenging and difficult at times, but it did provide really interesting opportunities. And my brand came out of that. Me being the philanthropy editor for Living Luxe came out of that. And now I think I’m shining a light on a lot of charitable organizations and I wouldn’t be able to do that at this level, if it weren’t for that show.”
Joan’s accessible clothing line with Walmart, which lasted five seasons and had all of the proceeds going toward the Breakfast Club of Canada, along with her role as this magazine’s philanthropy editor, are two endeavours she’s especially proud of. Her past work with the United Way’s Women’s Leadership Council and being a spokesperson ambassador for World Vision for the past two decades are another couple of impressive accomplishments that illuminate her robust resumé. She’s worked tirelessly for all her platforms from the start. But the seeds for success are usually planted early on, and Joan traces her personal evolution back to growing up in a super small prairie town. “We were part of a community — everyone knew each other, everyone came together and supported each other. I think that’s where I learned the art of just being kind,” she reflects. “Whether or not you really have a lot in common with people, you just learned to look at the goodness in people. So I think hard work and being kind is the platform that started everything off for me. That was the good base of my entire upbringing.”
The ability to dream usually figures greatly in anyone’s career trajectory. And the young Joan certainly did her share of dreaming big, though it wasn’t something she was particularly encouraged to do. “I don’t think people were saying, “Here, you can do this… go, go!” I think there was resistance because they had concerns for me: I was a young girl out on my own, with all these big ideas of what I wanted to do,” Joan explains. “But there wasn’t a lot of guidance. And that’s nobody’s fault. It was just because nobody ever told me that I could go to university and study art or drama, or theatre, or television production or anything like that. And that was clearly the vein that was calling me.” Joan, a multitasker by nature, had a dogged determination to somehow pursue what she felt was her calling and also attend university. “I started doing whatever I could in the business to just learn on my own. So it was kind of the school of hard knocks of how you do this is not the right way to do it. But it certainly worked well for me. I managed to get myself on set. I was a coffee girl. I was a runner, I was an assistant,” she recalls. “I realized I could do hair and makeup. And then I would be on set and just pick people’s brains. I would say, “What are you doing? What is a clapper loader or what’s a grip?” I learned all the way through and I just kind of carved my own way.”
Joan says she never said “no” to anything. She worked myriad show biz gigs, from being a model and doing infomercials, commercials and voiceovers to traffic and weather reporting on the radio and TV hosting duties on a program called “Red Carpet Diary.” She loved both the work and the limelight. And despite the precarious juggling act, she always managed to land on her feet. Meeting her husband at a party in 1996 was a huge turning point for her. The savvy businessman inspired her to work more efficiently and to shift her focus a bit. They married in 2000 and she reduced her workload, becoming a mother of two sons, Cole and Dillan (now 21 and 19) and two step-kids, all the while dabbling in the business she so loved.
Another huge turning point that came along in Joan’s life was the opportunity to become a “Real Housewife” of Toronto. “It was originally supposed to be Housewives of Muskoka, and I think I was the first person who they signed. But it shifted to Toronto, and there was all this stuff going on, and we weren’t allowed to talk to any-body or tell anybody,” she says. “You have to sign this massive contract. So all of that was quite intimidating. Then I found out there were a couple of women who I knew that were on the show, so then I felt much safer and the three of us really bonded together.”
Once the series was over, Joan had the contacts and the clout to team up with Walmart for her clothing line and combine fashion and philanthropy — two appealing arenas she feels she was meant for. Her work merging the two continues: This fall, she’s launching the “Give Back Collective” with her sister-in-law Ivana Walker, a Canadian accessories designer. The two are curating an array of local designer products that are being marketed online, with proceeds going to various charities. “So if you’re a shopper, and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I want to support local and I want to support charity and I want to shop…’ here’s a website, where all the profits are going into the collective and then we give it to the charities that we’ve already vetted, that we have a relationship with. We will be taking on more designers and we will be taking on more of the charities.” Designers Steven Sabados, Lesley Hampton and George Sully are already on board and Joan will be featuring some workout and beachwear designs of her own.
I’m not sure exactly who said, “I am a strong woman because a strong woman raised me,” but it’s a sentiment many women can relate to, and Joan is one of them. Her 88-year-old mother, who suffered a stroke in January 2019, has been an amazing inspiration, and Joan regularly and lovingly features visits with her mom on her Instagram feed. “My mom was also a small-town girl,” she says. “And she put herself through high school by way of correspondence. She was a powerhouse. Then she went to nursing school and was the valedictorian. She loved nursing and had this real sparkle and real love of every single experience that she could have.” When Joan’s mom was in her early twenties, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. “An-other thing I admire my mom for is the way that she has lived with MS,” says Joan. “It didn’t control her. She didn’t identify with it. And if you asked her, ‘How are you?’ She’d say, ‘I’m fine. How are you?’ She would never let it win. She’s just a very dynamic lady and such a loving mother. People on Instagram say, ‘Oh you’re so good to your mom.’ Well of course I am. It’s a gift to have this time with her.”
Spending precious time at her magnificent Muskoka digs is also something Joan doesn’t take for granted. She describes the place as “magical, with a beautiful energy.” She and her husband purchased the large country home in 2002 and Joan has taken great joy in decorating it with various antiques. The Muskoka lifestyle also provides a welcome respite from their busy urban existence in Toronto and King City, Ont., where they also have beautiful homes. Joan takes none of these blessings lightly: She’s adamant that her philanthropic activities are both a priority and a responsibility. “One of my favourite icons is Princess Diana,” she smiles. “And her famous quote was, ‘With privilege comes great responsibility.’ I take that seriously. And I feel it in my heart. I think every action of kindness has a ripple effect. So you do what you can, how you can, when you can.”
Since authenticity figures prominently in Joan’s life, travelling to Africa to see what work is being done with the funds raised through World Vision has been of vital importance. “That’s a privilege because most people just donate and trust that work is being done. But this way, I see it for myself — I meet the people, I see how it changes lives. Then I can come back and talk about it,” she enthuses. “And that’s where the real value is.” Evidently, it’s connecting with people and the storytelling aspect of her work that Joan enjoys most, and she’s thrilled to know how much her efforts are appreciated. “It’s very humbling to think that people see me in that way — that I’m actually doing good and making a change. It’s one thing to just write a cheque. There’s certainly a lot of value in that. But to cause the ripple effect, you have to talk heart-to-heart to people about causes that matter and different experiences that people have.” With all her philanthropic outreaches, Joan has the chance to do just that. “It’s all about kindness and compassion and hard work,” she muses. “This is what makes the world go around.”