Zoomers of the Year: From the Queen to Dolly Parton, Our Top 10 Picks
Queen Elizabeth II, 95, proved a shining example of aging with grace and dignity in 2021. Photo: Oli Scarff/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Choosing the top 10 Zoomers of the year — those men and women who exemplified the Zoomer mantra of aging with grace, positivity and vitality — is no small feat. To start, the list of contenders is a long one.
There are people like Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, 71, who was honoured with a portrait at Canada House in Los Angeles and won the Best Director Award for her film Funny Boy at the Canadian Screen Awards; Toronto Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia, 70, the subject of a new CBC documentary and whose supporters include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; President Joe Biden, 79, who was inaugurated as the oldest incoming U.S. president in history — and Senator Bernie Sanders, whose chilly, bundled up demeanour at said inauguration made the octogenarian the world’s most memeable man; Sarah Jessica Parker, 56, who clapped back against ageist and sexist criticism around the Sex and the City revival, And Just Like That…; actress Justine Bateman, 55, who published a book called Face: One Square Foot of Skin that challenges negative perceptions about the look and attractiveness of older women; Anna Wintour, 72, the famed Vogue editor-in-chief who is leading Condé Nast’s print publications into a new digital world; Gordon Lightfoot, 83, who reopened Toronto’s historic Massey Hall with a trio of concerts after more than three years of renovations; David Card, 65, the Canadian-born economist who shared the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics; Canuck golfer Mike Weir, who won his first PGA Champions Tour event at age 50; or golfer Phil Mickelson, who became the oldest golfer to win a major.
Then there are the less-famous but equally worthy candidates, like Vito Perillo, who was re-elected mayor of Tinton Falls, N.J., at age 97; Molly Sutkaitis, who earned her master’s degree in theology from the University of Toronto at age 88; Canio Polosa, 93, who set a Canadian record in his age group for running five kilometers in under 38 minutes; and 82-year-old La Verne Ford Wimberly of Oklahoma, who went viral after cheerfully dressing up in her Sunday best for virtual church every week during the pandemic, while raising the spirits of the congregation in the process.
Yes, the candidates are numerous and absolutely deserving. And as we tip our collective hats to those honourable mentions above, we present our list of the top 10 Zoomers of 2021 below.
1. The Queen — An Example of Aging with Grace and Dignity
Who else could lead this list but the 95-year-old monarch? At first glance, Her Majesty didn’t have a great 2021. Following the passing of Prince Philip, her beloved husband of almost 74 years, in April, the Queen suffered her own health scares that took her out of the public eye and prompted her to make observations like “None of us will live forever” and “None of us can slow the passage of time.”
Ominous? Sure. But the monarch came through the year like she always does — by setting an example for aging with grace and dignity. She also found time to mingle with dignitaries at Windsor Castle, attend the christenings of two of her great-grandchildren and host G7 leaders at a reception. She was even spotted tapping her foot to the music at the Trooping the Colour ceremony. All of which leads us into 2022, where her Platinum Jubilee will mark the monarch’s unprecedented 70th year on the British throne.
2. Rita Moreno — Still in the Spotlight at 90
By the time most Hollywood stars hit age 90, they’re resting comfortably in retirement. But Rita Moreno is not like most Hollywood stars.
The stage and screen legend helped redefine aging in Hollywood in 2021, appearing in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story film as a character named Valentina that was created specifically for her. Moreno, however, isn’t simply some nostalgia act. After winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Anita in the original West Side Story film 60 years ago, Moreno is once again garnering award-season buzz for her part in the remake.
And aside from West Side Story, Moreno was also the subject of the documentary Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It, which premiered in June, and performed in the PBS special Wicked in Concert in August.
3. William Shatner and Wally Funk — Boldly Going
Canuck actor William Shatner, 90, and pioneering female American aviator Wally Funk, 82, both made history this year, at various times holding the record as the oldest people to reach space.
Funk, who trained as an astronaut in the ’60s but was refused a chance to fly to space because she is a woman, achieved the feat in July aboard Jeff Bezos’ inaugural New Shepard rocket flight.
Then, in October, the Canadian Star Trek legend got a taste of outer space for real when he flew aboard one of Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket ships, touching down in Texas and offering an emotional interview outside the rocket, punctuated by the declaration: “It was unbelievable.”
With the flight, Shatner, at 90, took the mantle of oldest person ever in space, while Funk remains the oldest woman ever in space.
4. Dolly Parton — The Vaccine Queen
Last year, country queen Dolly Parton, 75, donated US$1 million to Vanderbilt University Medical Center to help fund Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine — a financial boost that one of the scientists involved called “critical” in an interview with the New York Times.
This year, Parton enjoyed the fruits of her donation, receiving the vaccine she helped fund, while making it possible for millions of others to do the same.
She posted a video on Twitter in March, saying, “I’m finally going to get my vaccine, I’m so excited. I’ve been waiting a while. I’m old enough to get it, and I’m smart enough to get it. So I’m very happy that I’m going to get my Moderna shot today and I wanted to tell everybody that you should get out there and do it, too.”
To help encourage others to get the vaccine, she reworked her classic tune “Jolene” to fit the occasion: “Vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, vaccine, I’m begging of you please don’t hesitate.”
Then, in July, Parton recreated her famous 1978 Playboy calendar in honour of her husband, Carl Dean’s, 79th birthday.
In a video posted to Parton’s Twitter account, the singer — dressed in black Playboy bunny ears, corset and long gloves with pink cuffs and collar and a silver bow tie — explained that “I was trying to think of something to do to make him happy. He still thinks I’m a hot chick after 57 years and I’m not gonna try to talk him out of that.”
5. David Suzuki — The Indefatigable Eco-Warrior
Like beer, maple syrup and hockey, David Suzuki is a quintessential component of the Canadian fabric. As host of the CBC science documentary series The Nature of Things for 42 years — not to mention his other programs before that, including the TV series Suzuki on Science and the radio show Quirks & Quarks — he has dedicated more than half of his life to educating Canadians through media.
This year Suzuki turned 85 and, while the David Suzuki Foundation threw him a public birthday party and the Canadian Screen Awards bestowed upon him their Lifetime Achievement Award, the eco-warrior refused to rest on his laurels.
After launching a new podcast last year, Suzuki continued to use his platform to educate about environmentalism and climate change, while hosting The Nature of Things and even letting Zoomer in on plans for a theatrical production about his life.
He also told Zoomer about the importance of using the wisdom and experience of elders in our communities.
“I feel, as an elder, I’ve lived a whole life, I’ve had a lot of experiences and it’s my job now as an elder to sift through my experiences for those nuggets of lessons that are worth passing on to young people,” he says. “And I just urge elders to do this. Don’t just sit away and kind of vegetate until you die. You’ve got a job to do. But I think we have to provide them the venue.”
6. Dionne Warwick — Social Media Superstar
As if Dionne Warwick didn’t have enough accolades to her name, the Grammy-winning music legend earned another this year: the Queen of Twitter.
Warwick, 81, is a multi-gen favourite on Twitter for her candid, funny and unvarnished observations about everything from celebrity to food. And this year, the octogenarian outdid herself and earned the crown as the Queen of Twitter, thanks to various viral tweets.
Examples include an October tweet in which she posted a video pitching herself as a brand ambassador and influencer, saying, “If these youngsters can secure brand deals, so can I. Nobody asked for this, but here is my audition tape for @Oreo, @Popeyes, @BushsBeans and @Hellmanns.”
Later that month, she retweeted the announcement of Facebook changing its name to Meta with the caption “What?” followed by “I still call it ‘Book Face.’”
But perhaps the tweet that solidified her rule over Twitter came in November, when she stuck up for Taylor Swift after Swift performed a 10-minute version of her song “All Too Well” on Saturday Night Live. The song, which is rumoured to be about Swift’s past relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, references a red scarf that belonged to Swift that the unnamed man in the song kept.
“If that young man has Taylor’s scarf he should return it,” Warwick tweeted. “It does not belong to you. Box it up and I will pay the cost of postage, Jake.”
To solidify her royal social media status, various brands responded to Warwick’s tweet, offering to help her fulfil her goal. UPS tweeted, “This one’s on us, Dionne. We’ll mail back your things (but we would never let you walk home alone) @taylorswift13 ❤️.” While Champion shoes added, “hey auntie, @dionnewarwick. we don’t make scarves, but if that young man doesn’t return it, we have no choice but to make a custom one.”
On top of her social media success, a documentary about her life, career and activism — Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over — received a special presentation at the Toronto International Film Festival. Warwick was also awarded a TIFF Special Tribute Award at the fest.
7. Sister André — COVID Survivor at Age 117
It was a banner year for the world’s oldest people.
In April, Kane Tanaka, 118 and the world’s oldest person, became the only person to live during both the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 and the flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars.
Meanwhile, in June, Emilio Flores Márquez became the world’s oldest man at age 112 and told Guinness World Records that his longevity is owed to living a life full of love and free of anger (Márquez died in August, four days after turning 113.)
But perhaps the most surprising super-centenarian story came in February, when retired French nun Sister André contracted COVID ahead of her 117th birthday. The virus, however, didn’t know what it was in for. Sister André is Europe’s oldest person — as well as the second-oldest person in the world — and someone who’s lived through two world wars and the 1918 flu pandemic. And while she’s blind and uses a wheelchair, Zoomer reported that “in her retirement home, where she’s lived since 2009, she’s known for her sociable personality and love of music.”
Thankfully, Sister André beat COVID-19 in time for her 117th birthday. And not only did she offer an inspirational example of strength and resilience, her nursing home’s spokesperson, David Tavella, noted that she was also a model of selflessness.
“She wanted to know, for example, if the meal and bed times were going to change,” he told French publication Var-Matin. “She showed no fear of the illness. In fact, she was more worried about the other residents.”
8. Hazel McCallion — “Hurricane Hazel” Turns 100
Beloved former Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion celebrated her centenary this year with tributes and well-wishes from people across the country. Local students gathered outside her home on her birthday — which is also Valentine’s Day — to mark the occasion, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other politicos celebrated her at a virtual birthday party.
As well, in October, an interactive exhibit celebrating her life, Hazel: 100 Years of Memories, opened at Erin Mills Town Centre in her home city.
But even at 100, McCallion continues to live up to her “Hurricane” moniker and refuses to slow down.
“It is a determination,” she told Zoomer ahead of the opening of the exhibit, “to do as much as you can for the short time you are on this Earth.”
9. Jean Smart — Crafting an Award-Winning Second Act
Vanity Fair dubbed it the “Smartaissance” — the second act success of actress Jean Smart. The 69-year-old actress enjoyed early career stardom in both comedy and drama — including starring on the hit sitcom Designing Women.
The “Smartaissance,” however, began in 2019, when she earned laurels (and awards) for her work in the HBO series Watchmen. And this year, she starred in two hit HBO shows, Mare of Eastwood and Hacks — the latter of which earned her a 2021 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. The Emmy win put Smart in rarified air in Hollywood, joining another TV legend, Betty White, as the only two people to ever win an Emmy in every comedy acting category — Outstanding Lead, Outstanding Supporting and Outstanding Guest in a Comedy Series — for performances on three different TV series.
Smart’s success was made all the more poignant by the fact that her husband, Richard Gilliland, died shortly before shooting wrapped on Hacks.
“For me personally, I’ve had some of the most incredible opportunities in my career in the last several years and I don’t take any of it for granted whatsoever,” she told the Television Critics Association earlier this year. “I’m very appreciative of the opportunities that have been offered to me.”
10. Edward Rogers III — The Real Life Succession Winner
This year saw a real-life, high-profile Canadian family feud play out in court as Edward Rogers III won a legal battle over his mother and two sisters for control of Rogers Communications Inc. Some likened it to the hit HBO series Succession. The judge in the court battle called it “a Shakespearean drama.”
However you want to label it, the 52-year-old silenced his detractors … at least for now.
What the future holds for both Rogers the man and Rogers the company is uncertain. But what is certain is that Edward Rogers III did what no one on Succession has so far been able to do — step out of the shadow of his media mogul father and firmly take total control of the family media dynasty.