Prudence Emery’s life has taken her to the lofty world of celebrity, high society and show business, but it all started in a small coal and lumber town in the 1930s.
Emery, a Victoria resident and longtime film publicist and public relations officer, recently released her memoir, Nanaimo Girl. In the book she recalls her interactions with some of the biggest celebrities of the past 50 years and includes the stories that were the most “funny, unusual and sexy, in that order.”
“I felt quite happy and actually somewhat amazed that I’d done all that stuff,” Emery said. “Because as I say in the book, I had ‘sheer lack of direction’ which took me everywhere.”
After a mischievous youth that saw her go through two boarding schools before dropping out of UBC in her second year, Emery spent her early 20s travelling Europe and partying with artists and aristocrats before returning to Canada to try to find a job.
Her first experience working with celebrities came at Expo ‘67 in Montreal where she worked in visitors services and showed stars like Jack Benny, Liberace and Hugh Hefner around the pavilion.
After Expo she returned to London and through a family connection was offered a position as a press and public relations officer at the luxurious Savoy Hotel, an establishment frequented by the rich and famous. In her five years at the Savoy Emery crossed path with countless politicians and entertainers, such as Pierre Trudeau, Louis Armstrong and Noel Coward. She said she managed to fit into high society “with a lot of help from champagne.”
“The fact is you maintain a fair amount of distance, but at the same time if you have a certain kind of personality, I guess which I have, you seem to be able to get along with them,” she said.
After an introspective moment when she realized she was becoming numb to a life of luxury, Emery returned to Canada in 1973 to help launch the Toronto Zoo and later Roots and the Griffin Poetry Prize, before going into film publicity for the next 35 years.
During that time Emery worked on 120 productions around the world, including 10 films by Canadian director David Cronenberg. She held a nervous Nicolas Cage’s hand during an interview for a teen magazine, chaperoned Ben Kingsley on a whirlwind trip to the Cannes Film Festival and traded pants with Sophia Loren.
“I do feel very privileged to have been in the film industry in particular…” Emery said. “I look back and I think, ‘Holy cow, I was there on the Great Wall of China with Jeremy Irons.’ The time when you’re doing it, it just seems normal. Then you look back on it and you think, ‘Wow.’”
But whether she was on a film set or hobnobbing with VIPs, Emery never forgot where she came from. She said being brought up in a small town like Nanaimo was in the 1940s and ’50s “always sticks with you.”
“I used to drag the guys in the cars and I was a bit of a wild brat and no matter how you go through life, that always stays with you, that little bit of Nanaimo, with a bit of edge,” she said. “So every time I misbehave later in life, I blamed it on ‘Nanaimo Girl.’”