Dini Petty: Fabulous at 59

Don’t bother making assumptions about Dini Petty. She’ll turn every one of them upside down. For instance, considering her reputation as a high-profile TV personality and Toronto socialite, you’d expect her to live in a Rosedale mansion. Well, she used to, but now she makes her home in a secluded log house in the woods a long drive northwest of the city. Another incongruity: she’s passionate about healthy living and has hosted three seasons of Global TV’s Heart & Stroke Health Show, and yet she’s been smoking on and off (currently off) for 44 years. She says women certainly don’t need marriage to be fulfilled – but she’s been married four times and says there’s a fifth offer “on the table.” She talks to women’s groups about the importance of loving yourself as you are, but she’s had a facelift and won’t rule out another.

And here’s perhaps the most glaring contradiction of all. This seemingly fearless woman who has skydived, piloted helicopters and built herself a remarkable career in the media admits to suffering with a nearly lifelong struggle with abysmally low self-esteem.

Facing her 60th birthday next January, Petty has finally come a place in her life where she can accept herself as she is, with all of her public successes and private failures. She uses the same matter-of-fact tone when discussing both. Without a trace of shame, she says, “I’ve failed at marriages, I’ve lost money, made unwise investments, been tricked, lied to and cheated.” Then, without a trace of conceit, she’ll come out with, “I’m happy with the way I’m aging. I look fabulous.” And you can’t argue with her.

In many ways, Petty has never been better. After a three-decade radio and television career that included positions as news anchor on Toronto’s Citytv and talk-show host on CTV’s long-running The Dini Petty Show, she shows no interest in retiring. “I don’t know what I’d do with myself,” she says. “I’d go insane.” As she pulls a couple of chairs over to her central floor-to-ceiling fieldstone fireplace, puts Ella Fitzgerald on the stereo and pours out glasses of a red Australian shiraz, she recounts her current projects. She’s putting together a one-woman show, The Moth, the Flame and the Lemming, based on true comical – and at turns, dark – stories from her own life. She hopes to tour it nationally, starting in western Canada.

Petty is also the host of Weekends With Dini, a radio show produced by TRI Strategic Entertainment in co-operation with 50Plus magazine. (Check local radio listings for date and time or visit www.tristrategic.com/dini.html.)

New directions
She’s working on a collection of her own poetry. She’s also creating a sequel to her children’s book, The Queen, the Bear and the Bumblebee (Whitecap Books, 2000), a fable written in verse about the importance of being true to yourself – a recurring theme for Petty. In the story, the Queen and the Bear each make a wish to change an unwanted characteristic and encourage the Bumblebee to do the same – like getting rid of his stinger – but he decides to keep it and ends up thwarting the evil villain to save the day. The book begat an award-winning children’s recording in the style of Peter and the Wolf, in which Petty reads her poem to original music and songs by some of Canada’s finest classical composers and singers, including renowned counter-tenor Daniel Taylor.

Then there was her day job. Until recently, she was executive vice-president of OPUS Canada Holdings, a ground-handling company contracted by airlines including BWIA, El Al and KLM to marshal planes and load baggage and cargo. Not only had she been working daily to woo investors to save the fledgling company from bankruptcy (she doesn’t own any part of it), she’s in a relationship with its chairman and CEO, Colin Tubb. British-born, white-haired and soft-spoken, Tubb lives with Petty in her log home and would love to marry her – “if she’ll have me,” he says. Out of Tubb’s earshot, Petty reacts to the word marriage with assorted gagging sounds. She says, “I’m a 59-year-old woman. What the heck do I need to get married for?” Like the Bumblebee, Petty hasn’t given up her stinger.

Dini Petty was born near the end of the war into a working-class, alcoholic, physically abusive family. “If there were awards for dysfunctional families, mine would have been in the finals for the bronze,” she says dryly. Not the gold because the strict discipline was tempered with a moral code honesty, a sense of humanity and a strong work ethic. Petty’s father, a photographer and animator, was a highly disciplined, highly critical perfectionist who taught firstborn Dini that anything was within her grasp if she worked hard enough. But she also grew up feeling she could always do better. “No matter what I did, I felt it wasn’t good enough.”

When the animation business went into a slump and the family went bankrupt, her mother, a red-haired Scottish beauty and one of Canada’s first talent agents, slowly sank into alcoholism but always maintained a generosity of spirit. At one point, the family took in a homeless youth who grew up to be an artist (around her neck, Petty always wears a pendant of a blue heron that he carved for her from a whale’s tooth). Petty’s mother had what the family called “the gift” – an apparently psychic ability to foretell the future. When Dini was 13 and the family was planning to drive from Toronto to Galt (now Cambridge) to visit her grandparents, her mother said, “We’re not going. There’s going to be an accident at Clappison’s Corners, and there’ll be four cars and we’re the fourth car.” They didn’t go. Sure enough, there was a collision later that day involving three cars, and there was a fatality. Until she was an adult, Petty thought all mothers were like that.

Never a serious scholar, Petty managed to get herself repeatedly kicked out of high school for talking. At 17, she forged her mother’s signature on a permission form for skydiving lessons and revelled in her first thrilling jumps. At 18, she married a fellow skydiver. Three weeks after the wedding, she found a letter from the groom’s ex-girlfriend, saying, “The baby’s really sick. I need your help.” Petty says, “She’d had his baby three months before, and everyone knew but guess who? His bride. I became completely frigid with the man and went to a shrink who said, ‘You haven’t forgiven him.’ I said, ‘Forgive him? It’s unforgivable!’” The marriage didn’t survive.

A few years later, she happened to be having lunch in a restaurant near some executives from Toronto radio station CKEY, who were looking for someone to pilot their traffic heli- copter. One of them, who knew her socially, said to his colleagues, “There’s Dini Petty. She’s crazy enough to jump out of airplanes. Maybe she’s crazy enough to fly a helicopter!” She was. Before long, she was reporting on traffic from her trademark pink Hughes 300 whirlybird, becoming the first woman in aviation history to do simultaneous piloting and reporting. She even wore a pink jumpsuit.

Her career soared, outshining that of her second husband, who worked in advertising. “He could not deal with the fact that I had become ‘Dini Petty in the Pink Helicopter,’ a public figure,” she says. One day, when she was to receive an award from Big Brothers for taking kids for free helicopter rides, she says her husband stormed into the gathering, which included Toronto’s mayor, and interrupted the proceedings to yell at her, “You only came here to get laid! You’re nothing but a whore!” She quietly took his arm and left before getting her award. Having grown up with rants and “scenes,” she says, “all this stuff, though humiliating, seemed pretty normal to me.”

“… did I mention she’s pretty cute?”
Not surprisingly, that marriage didn’t last. But before too long, she married for the third time and had a daughter, Samantha, whom she ended up raising as a single mother with no child support. She also began her transition from radio reporting to television when Moses Znaimer, co-founder of Citytv, hired her to do news reporting and anchoring. “I always found her to be direct, straightforward, forthright, which was so appealing in a business that has its fair share of crazies,” Znaimer says. “She was a woman trying to do it all, so she was a perfect model for our viewers. She was open, inquisitive, reliable – and did I mention she’s pretty cute?” 

While Petty had excellent live-in nannies, some who stayed for several years, life as a busy, high-profile single mother had its challenges. She came home once to find Samantha banging her empty bottle against the side of the television, which was showing a taped program featuring her mother, and calling, “Milk, Mummy, milk!” Samantha, now 32 and working in West Hollywood as an audio engineer and screenplay developer, says, “My mother was always busy, but the benefits were awesome. She took me everywhere from the streets of Nairobi to Coco Chanel’s apartment in Paris. A lot of people don’t know that she’s an excellent artist, a very decent songwriter, and she plays guitar – not well, mind you.”

When Petty married for the fourth time and became pregnant again at 35, Citytv’s Znaimer – who lives by the motto Nothing goes to waste – suggested the station film her amniocentesis, labour and a radical idea in 1980, the birth. This very public pregnancy raised ratings and made Petty a star. While a few viewers denounced it as “disgusting,” thousands of fans blew out the Citytv switchboard the day Nick was born. He received hundreds of cards and gifts, and the documentary was widely used as an educational tool.

When Nick was finally allowed to see his own birth on film, he wasn’t thrilled. But at 17, when he and his mother were playing pool on the solid oak table that dominates her front room, he looked at her and said, “Mom, I want to thank you for being an excellent role model.” Today, at 23, he explains: “She didn’t come from a lot of money or opportunity. She’s entirely self-made, she’s totally ethical there’s no persona, no façade.”

But there was something Petty wasn’t willing to share with her viewers. In 1989, CTV hired her to host The Dini Petty Show, which began a successful 10-season run that broke Canadian audience records. She lived the life of a celebrity socialite, complete with diamonds and mink. And she was miserable. “I was living with this cheap guy, cheap of spirit  in a $2 million house in Rosedale,” she recalls. “And one day I was standing on the back porch as the housekeeper cleaned the house and the pool guy worked in the pool and the gardener tended to the garden and I was having a cup of coffee in the sunlight, and I heard myself say, ‘I’m so unhappy.’ And the next words that came out of my mouth were, ‘Shut up! Do you know how many women would kill to be here?’”

She had repressed her misery as long as she could. Then, finally, in her search for answers, she studied with personal coach Sandra Harding, with whom she later co-authored the book A Self-Directed Journey: The Recipe. When Harding first met Petty,  she found “a tormented soul with low self-esteem who had given up on her dreams,” Harding writes. Petty agrees with the assessment, adding that when she was  living with this critical, judgmental, wealthy man it was like she was wearing a pair of golden handcuffs. “Until then, I had never been able to figure out why I couldn’t have a successful relationship. And I learned the hard way that you attract people who treat you the same way you treat yourself.”

Treating herself with kindness
Once she began learning to treat herself with the same kindness that she treated others, which she calls the hardest lesson she’d ever learned in her life, she dumped the guy and moved herself into the Royal York Hotel for almost a year. She says, “All my life, I would look in the mirror and go, ‘My nose is too tiny, my hips are too flabby, my arms are too big.’ It didn’t matter that I’d won an award, flown a helicopter, hosted a national TV show. But one night at 2 o’clock in the morning, for the first time I saw in the mirror a woman who I thought was beautiful inside and out. I was so proud of everything she’d done in her life.” The more she nurtured herself, the better her relationships and the higher her TV ratings.

Since her national talk show went off the air in 2000, Petty has become more involved in her local community. When a neighbour turned 50, Petty appeared on her doorstep with 50 gladioli. When her 81-year-old handyman comes over to chop a fallen tree into firewood, she invites him in for a glass of wine and asks him about his knee surgery. She chats with a local minister about pileated woodpeckers, scarlet trilliums and the deer she recently hit with her Jaguar  which was agonizing for Petty, an animal lover, but that’s life in the country.

She’s also focusing more on her health. Despite 25 years of success with alternative medicines, Petty found menopause to be a huge challenge, with sleepless nights, continual hot flashes, sheet-soaking night sweats, low libido and vaginal dryness. HRT worked beautifully, but with its increased risks of stroke and breast cancer, she knew she had to wean herself off. She couldn’t find a supplement that worked until, through a medical herbalist, she discovered a plant-based formula called Nutrafem, which she’s been taking for a year and which she now swears by. The hot flashes are gone, she has only an occasional mild night sweat and she sleeps well. She adds frankly, “My libido is great and my dryness gone. Amen!”

As she looks out over her private pond, Petty assesses her life so far. “My career? Extraordinary. Exceptional. My relationship with my kids? High 90s. My relationships with my circle of friends? High 90s. Marriages?” She pauses, then says, “We gotta give this girl a D here. Yeah, there’s a lot I would change if I could, but I don’t believe in having any regrets.”

She refills the wineglasses and lifts hers in a toast. “To your health and happiness,” she says, then adds pointedly, “And mine.”