The minute I saw that journalist and publicist, Julie Beun had used the words, “terrifyingly brief and disastrous, like drunk sex in an alley,” to describe an in-person interview with herself, I was immediately intrigued. From that initial email to the completion of this article, I have consistently found myself in awe of Julie. She truly is a force of nature, a hurricane of guts, biting wit, and confidence.
A former Carleton student who wrote for the Charlatan and CKCU FM’s now-defunct TransFM magazine, Julie called Ottawa her home until she turned 21, when she moved overseas for 12 years, because, “I felt I would suffocate in Ottawa.” However, she spoke fondly of her years at Carleton University where she remembers being, “surrounded by cool new friends as hungry as I was to fill our heads with new ideas.” Until then, she recalls feeling as if she, “never really fit in anywhere else. At university, I felt part of something amongst people like me.”
Despite her career choices later on in life, Julie did not study journalism at Carleton, proving that journalists truly are born, not made. As a student of Mass Communications with a minor in English, her electives were, “all over the place – art history, semantics, philosophy, poetry, truth and propaganda. I have always felt that the basis of great journalism is a well-rounded world view and liberal arts education, so that’s what I tried to get. Having said that, I’m still wondering why I took modern poetry. Yuck.” Although she once considered a career in law, she chose journalism because law school was too expensive and she felt she’d been born to write. “I’ve always been a writer and story teller from when I was a child, so getting paid to do both seemed like a natural fit.” Apparently the fit was perfect, because when asked to describe what being a journalist means to her, she responded, “It means ‘everything,’ in a word.”
“There is literally nothing else I’ve ever wanted to do or saw myself doing,” Nevertheless, she notes that the industry can easily burn people out. “I’ve seen friends leave the profession after years as a police or court reporter. Those positions are really exciting. I was a police reporter myself for years, but too much humanity is too much humanity.” Journalists are constantly exposed to humanity, raw and unedited; they see the great, and the terrible, usually in unequal measures. Perhaps the explosive nature of the industry is what draws people to it – they seek it out like animals seek out warmth. For Julie, finding her journalistic animal came in 1988, when she moved to Australia at 21 with a working holiday maker’s visa in her passport and $400 in her pocket.
“In Australia, journalism and politics are described a blowtorch to the underbelly—only the toughest stick with it. The Australian journalism industry is much grittier than in Canada,” she notes. “It’s really sink or swim and even when you’re swimming, there’ll be someone pushing you under to get ahead.” This competitive environment allowed her to flourish; she moved from being a junior reporter at a metropolitan daily to a national writer for a magazine within four years because of her drive and ambition. Though initially intimidated by the seemingly harsh practices that determined who sank or continued swimming, she soon learned to, “relish the battle as a writer for Fairfax Newspapers, the New Weekly, People magazine (Who Weekly in Australia), GoodHealth and Family Circle. “It’s always thrilling to be the only journo to get the exclusive on a breaking story. When it happened, it made me feel like a wolf howling at the moon, it was exciting.”
After spending a dozen years abroad, which Julie describes as having made her as Australian as she is Canadian, she returned to Ottawa with her young family. Did she return to the region because she saw it needed something? “I would never presume to suggest Ottawa needs anything from me or cares what I have to offer. But I felt ‘at home’ coming home, put it that way.” She soon found herself writing not only for magazines back home in Australia and New Zealand, but for Canadian Living, Homemaker and of course, the Ottawa Citizen and Style magazine. Currently, she is involved in several major projects, chief of which are as publicist for the Hydropothecary, the ‘Grey Goose vodka’ of medical marijuana companies, and as fashion director for RBC Bluesfest.
At the Hydropothecary, which got its license in early June, she says she relishes the people running the Gatineau-based company. “Adam Miron and Sebastien St-Louis are terrific guys to work with—the smartest men I know, to be honest.” As for the RBC Bluesfest fashion campaign, ‘I Love #RBCBluesfestFashion’, which launched on June 23, she said the gig came to her after meeting with Mark Monahan, the executive director of Bluesfest. Constantly seeking to add new elements to the RBC Bluesfest experience, he asked Julie to “build a fashion campaign like those at Coachella and Osheaga—something that would tease out the fashion threads from the overall festival blanket.” She says.
“Multi-pronged, immersive and interactive, a campaign that will tie in social media, music and fashion.” Every day, a ‘Style Squad’ will post photos on Instagram and Twitter of the “best dressed music lovers”. Festival goers can also post their selfies on Instagram and Twitter, tagging @ottawabluesfest and #RBCBluesfestFashion for a chance to win one of ten festival tees during the festival itself. But that’s just the start. There’ll be RBC Bluesfest Fashion tents where you can get a free glitter tattoo, free scent samples and free makeup touch ups. “Klava Zykova, Burberry’s head makeup artist at Nordstrom has developed two really cool, sexy festival looks,” she remarked. There’s also an entire RBC Bluesfest Collection, created under the Kania label by Ottawa designer Stacey Bafi-Yeboa and assistant designer, Arfie Lalani. The collection will be available for sale online, before the Bayshore festival ticket outlet and at the festival. “Stacey has been like a sister to me for years. She’s smart, savvy and completely talented, so she was a natural choice to bring on board,” she says. In the VIP Big Chill Lounge, hairdressers from Shear Heaven will also have an onsite salon and barber. The final component of the campaign includes videos. “With Alexander Vlad and Christopher Eades from Captivate Creative, we’ve recorded some cool short videos on what to wear and makeup, which we’ll be releasing soon on Bluesfest’s Youtube channel,” she added. When not managing to keep all that chugging along, Julie will be backstage, interviewing some of the performers. “Those videos will be ready to be posted within an hour [of the interview], as we’ll have a backstage editing suite. Festival goers can also see the behind the scenes action on @ottawabluesfest’s Instagram, with the hashtag, #FollowMeBackstage.”
It’s amazing to think that along with these two projects, Julie Beun still finds time to work at her own media company, J.Beun Media. The company has been operating unofficially for several years, but it was officially started a year ago. The company’s homepage states that there are always two stories – the one people tell and the one they should be telling. “The story I tell is about being a writer, a publicist and conduit for other people to tell their stories,” she remarks, “I guess the one I should be telling is the one friends keep urging me to put into a book. I’ve had a pretty full life so far and there are a lot of hilarious, awful, wicked, heartbreaking tales in that life to date. I hope it settles down one day.”
As for why she made the leap from straight journalism to PR gigs with a slice of freelancing on the side, she notes that, “[the] industry is going through a huge shift because of the digital age and it’s much, much harder to earn a living because there’s no freelance budget and newsrooms are like media deserts these days. Thankfully, there are still incredible editors and writers still hanging in there.” She realized that a year after she had strayed from her freelance only diet that, “I had to commit or live in denial that I had gone over to the ‘dark side’ as we call PR. But they have better cookies here!”
While the freelance industry may devoid of cookies, Julie maintains it still has its perks. “Freelancing is both really, really hard and really, really liberating.”
In terms of what lessons she has learned after 28 years in the industry, she had one word: overachieve. “By ‘overachieve’, I mean, beat your deadline. Get that extra tertiary. Follow your gut on whether or not your story is ready to go to the editor.” There was a definite note of exasperation when she wrote, “it really annoys me to see the entitlement in some young journalists, and bloggers ever more so. Just because you have a keyboard and an opinion doesn’t mean you’re a journalist or going to be hired.” I think that’s part of what makes Julie such a compelling human being, she takes absolutely nothing for granted, and she appears to embrace each challenge she meets with every ounce of herself. It takes expertise and true spirit to convey your personality over email as Julie did, so that this article could be written. She characterizes her own writing style as immersive. Her aim is for her readers to feel as if, “they are literally right at my elbow as I’m experiencing the interview or event. At People magazine, where I was the news editor, we had a rule called “show, don’t tell”. That means you reflect the environment, the person, the whole thing through details.”
Over the years, Julie has interviewed a motley crew of characters from celebrities like Hugh Jackman, to murderers, artists and authors, like the late Mordecai Richler. She has likely seen it all, or at least more of the world than many people will ever know exists. Yet, she continues to pursue people and their stories, because, “just being able to hear their stories, much less have them entrust me with their telling is pure magic for me.” Writing is not simply a career for her, she actually responded to the question, “What drives you to keep writing?” with ‘Why do you keep breathing?’ “I can’t not write. It’s how I think, how I remember stuff, how I learn.”
Even so, she says it’s tough to watch what’s happening to her beloved industry, but jokes that she tells new journalists to, “find a trade that pays and do this as a hobby. Haha,” she said, adding that she’s, “only sort of kidding.”
“Listen, the thing about where we’re at in journalism is that the kids trying to break in are talented and smart and informed…and they think that $200 for a 1000 word feature is a huge payday. Eight or ten years ago, when newspapers and magazines still had solid advertising revenue, a 1000 word feature paid $600 for newspapers and $1000 for magazines. And it was tough back then to pay the mortgage.” Concerned for the future of both the industry that has become her home and the people that are trying to join its swiftly changing ranks, she observed, “I have no idea how [new journalists will] survive, yet we need them to be as passionate and engaged in their industry as us senior journalists are. Maybe they will come up with a solution, because what media owners are trying right now isn’t working.”
Yet she has hope and encouragement for this next generation of journalists. “Believe in yourself and people will believe in you,” she says.
She loves to connect with other people in her field and outside of it, especially women whom she refers to as, ‘super-connectors’ as opposed to networkers. “Men exchange business cards and say ‘let’s do business’. Women tend to be more collaborative and say, ‘I think I know someone who can help you. Let me put you in touch.’ ” Not that she has been unscathed by the more negative side of gender divide. “One thing I don’t miss about Australia is the sex bias in the newsroom. I hit the glass ceiling so often, I swear I got a concussion. I’m not sure it’s all that different these days. I hope so.”
Although she does not actively consider herself a role model, noting that the term sounds “kind of conceited,” Julie has mentored many young women. “I particularly love working with young black women in journalism. The ones I’ve mentored are fierce and smart and driven and they listen. They’re kind of terrifying! Lol. But I love them. They’ll take over the world, just watch.”
With everything she is involved in, it can be easy to get lost in the idea that is Julie Beun; but like everyone else, stress gets to her too. When that happens, she hits the gym, hangs out with her partner, Joe, and her teenaged kids, who “are the funniest people I know.” When she finds herself with time to indulge in a good book or some music, she often selects, not from her own works, although she has written two books in the past three years, but from Canadian novelists, such as Yann Martel, Esi Edugyan and Lawrence Hill. “I love Denise Chong, too,” she adds. Having been immersed in the music scene from university, she has eclectic tastes, citing everything from hip hop and R&B to opera, pop and indie punk. “My iPad is loaded up with A$AP Rocky, Joey Bada$$, J.Cole, Kanye. I love, love, love WZRD. That’s my son’s doing. I listen to a lot of indie stuff, some sweet pop stuff – everything from Slim Cessna’s Auto Club to Lana Del Rey. One of my closest friends is [internationally acclaimed Canadian soprano] Maesha Brueggergosman, so I’ve seen more opera in many cities than I ever thought possible.”
Having travelled the world and lived in two countries, Julie was hesitant to put a label on what being Canadian means to her. “Who knows? I belong to two countries, so I’m small ‘p’ patriotic and love them equally.” She overcame her initial tentativeness to conclude that “I guess to me, having a Canadian passport means freedom and respect overseas and security, inclusion and dignity at home. That’s not everyone’s experience, mind you.”
As the interview questions came to an end and I asked about the future, she responded in what I have come to identify as typical Julie Beun style, “I’d like to win around $5 million. And finish my novel. In that order.”