Paul Mason – The beard that broke the internet
Where does Fashion Santa go after the holidays? Up north, of course. Toronto male model Paul Mason brings his epic beard to Vaughan to talk fashion, fame and what’s next with City Life Magazine.
At half past the hour in Toronto’s hippest neighbourhood, bundled against the afternoon cold in a boyfriend coat, I make my way to the Drake Hotel to meet the man whose white beard broke the Internet over the holidays. Paul Mason, a.k.a. Fashion Santa, soon slips through his local hot spot’s double doors and politely extends a naked hand, his sparkling blue eyes atwinkle, his beard the colour of snow. We head over to the dimly lit dining area, where he slides onto a bar stool and orders a pint of beer.
I tilt my head toward a table full of fidgety, whispering young women behind us. It’s only a matter of time before someone interrupts us. “Sir, you did a really great job up at Yorkdale,” says a young man passing by, patting him on the back. Mason thanks him before acknowledging my raised eyebrows. “Funny, right?” I start to feel like I’m interviewing Bono.
From the start, the Toronto male model — who turns 52 in June — has me smiling, his infectious and warm personality winning me over. His classic handsome features don’t hurt the situation, either. “I’m wearing these socks in homage to my new character,” he says with a laugh, lifting up his pant leg to reveal funky black-and-red houndstooth socks tucked into his brogues. They were a gift from Yo Sox on Queen West, as is the red Apple watch on his wrist the tech giant threw his way. “That’s what’s happening now; I’m getting that every week,” he says of the constant freebies, the first of many signs of a celebrity in the making.
If you happened to be in a Netflix-induced coma over the holidays, Mason’s portrayal of a hip, stylish Santa smiling for selfies in support of SickKids at Yorkdale Shopping Centre made local and national news and sparked worldwide attention after going viral.
I’ve never met a guy quite like him … you can tell that there’s always some deep thoughts going on behind that fantastic look of his. What you see is definitely not what you get. There’s so much more
But longtime friend and American producer Neil Meron first recognized Mason’s star power when they met 10 years ago while he was in town shooting Chicago and Hairspray in Toronto. He was instantly struck by Mason’s silver hair and perceptiveness, outgoing yet introspective personality. “I’ve never met a guy quite like him,” Meron says. “You can tell that there’s always some deep thoughts going on behind that fantastic look of his. What you see is definitely not what you get. There’s so much more.”
Mason began growing out his beard a few years back while deeply grieving the loss of his mother, who he describes as his best friend and the person who’s taught him to face challenges head on. He had been living and working in New York City for 14 years before moving back to Toronto to be next to her in her final days. “When you’re watching someone you love so much deteriorate it takes a part of your spirit away,” says Mason, staring into the bottom of his tipped glass. But then magical things started happening. The very beard he grew as a tribute to his mother started tickling the fancy of the fashion world. Then it sparked the serendipitous Fashion Santa collaboration with the marketing team at Yorkdale. Mason felt like his life, his calling, was finally falling into place. “I believe my mother’s spirit is the driving force behind everything that’s happening. I feel compelled to do better now more than ever.”
The successful 2015 Fashion Santa campaign, which made a quiet debut the year prior, had babies to teenagers, mothers to seniors, lining up at the mall for a picture on the lap of a slim and modern-day Santa — even Canadian pop star Justin Bieber stopped by to strike a pose with Mason, who says he clocked in 88 hours of picture-taking madness over the Christmas holidays. Approximately 5,000 selfies with the YorkdaleFashionSanta hashtag were shared on social media sites, prompting Yorkdale to donate $10,000 to SickKids, says its marketing director, Lucia Connor. “I’m totally selfied out,” says Mason. “This movement has morphed into something that is so crazy. Some people were shaking, saying, ‘you changed the face of Christmas; you’ve done something for us.’ I thought, ‘wow, this is deep; this is something else.’”
A week later, Mason meets me at the elegant XXI Chophouse in Kleinburg for his photo shoot with City Life Magazine. He emerges from the back seat of his ride in a sharp black overcoat, one hand clasped onto a black leather bag and freshly pressed white dress shirt, the other his iPhone, which buzzes constantly with emails and messages. After settling into the contemporary restaurant with striking, rustic touches, the Silver Fox slips into a custom-made, slim-fit grey tuxedo and black tie, his beard still full and the colour of snow. The camera before him flashes and, like a big cat closing in on its prey, his face instantly transforms into mesmerizing intensity — his cheekbones like chiselled ice, his piercing eyes narrowing with laser precision. The room is his.
Mason has racked up an impressive 30 years in the industry as a model for high-end U.S. department stores and top brands around the world, appearing on catwalks and magazines and a spread for Dolce & Gabbana shot by American fashion photographer Steven Meisel. “When I grew the beard it was like I had become my own man,” he says. “Prior to that I was still searching or still playing that pleasing game. I was doing a lot of catalogue work and that killed me. I was making great money but I had to look like a catalogue guy and internally I’m not a catalogue man, I’m not a conservative guy. I’m an individual.” Before he took over the responsibilities of jolly old St. Nick, Mason was best known locally as an ambassador for TOM* (Toronto Men’s Fashion Week), which has a charitable initiative that raises funds for kids with disabilities, and can be seen in his recent campaign for Montauk Sofa that debuted at IDS (Interior Design Show). “Clearly he’s a good-looking guy but what makes him truly great is his heart,” says TOM* executive director Jeff Rustia. Mason, Rustia adds, is the only male model that receives a loud applause every time he walks the TOM* runway.
Mason also softly mentors and inspires a handful of fledgling models with plans to perhaps officially open his own agency one day. “My life changed drastically after I met him,” says Richmond Hill native Michael Lanni, 29, who worked at a grocery store before being scouted by Mason nine years ago at, coincidentally, Yorkdale Shopping Centre. “A month after meeting Paul I was in Montreal shooting a campaign. His belief in me has made me realize that I can be one of the top models. If someone who has shot the campaign for D&G believes in me so much, then why shouldn’t I believe in myself?”
Before the shoot wraps up, it’s apparent that Mason is still riding the adrenaline rush of his recent success. He’s as happy as an elf in a toy shop, giddy with excitement about what’s coming next, a true believer in the idea that what you put into the universe you’ll get back. At the same time he’s pragmatic, the long years of work he’s put into climbing to the top keeping him grounded. “Fame is fickle; it comes and goes. Once you’re there, how do you keep it?” he muses.
Not one to lose momentum, Mason is multi-tasking on several big ideas and prospective partnerships following the Fashion Santa media frenzy. Plus: London and Paris fashion weeks are just around the corner. His mind is a constant whir; he’s never not thinking of his next move, and how it can benefit others. “I have a plan that would blow your head off. A major collaboration with someone, but I can’t tell you,” he teases. What he can say for now is that he hopes to reprise the role of Fashion Santa and put the character’s hype to good use by creating a foundation and “Fashion Santa Ball” that would raise money for children-focused charities. His proclivity for generosity undoubtedly traces back to his early days as a student of social work at Ryerson University before being scouted by a modelling agency and taking off for his very first shoot in Tokyo.
“I’m just fearless and I have no idea where it came from. I think I look at what people are doing in the world and I think, ‘we’re so capable as individuals … why couldn’t it be us? Why can’t it be us? Why can’t the kid from Mississauga (where I grew up) be in magazines? I’m determined; I don’t listen to the chatter. I put my blinders on and I go straight.”
WHY AGE IS JUST A NUMBER
“It’s important for me to keep a healthy body, mind and spirit. When you start to let go of those things that’s when I think the age thing starts to kick in.”
ON HIS PASSION PROJECTS
“I love architecture and design. When I was younger I was a jeweller and used to sell at the AGO. I now have an idea for a lamp that I want to get copywritten and trademarked.”
“Men are so inspired to be on point with fashion. It elevates your mood. There’s an expression about when you’re feeling very blue: put on a really good, tailored suit and it’ll bring you up. A suit is like modern-day armour for men.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY FARZAM HOSSEINDOUST
STYLING BY MICHELLE PAIANO; MAKEUP BY SAMANTHA PICKLES / JUDY INC.