Finally, Belinda Stronach is unscripted.
When she was in the federal government, first as a Tory MP and then as a Liberal, after she famously walked across the floor and was rewarded with a position as Minister of Human Resources in Paul Martin's government, she often gave interviews that had the ring of a memo note.
As an executive, trained in her father's automotive parts company, Magna International, there was a polished, practised air about her that gave her an inscrutable, creaseless exterior - the Belinda Botox factor, as I once called it.
It was through her high-profile men - ex-husbands Don Walker, co-chief executive of Magna, and Johann Olav Koss, Norwegian speed-skating legend, and ex-boyfriends Peter MacKay, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time, and Tie Domi, the hockey star - that people often felt they got a glimpse of who she really was. Which may partly explain the fascination with her dating life.
But now she sits across from me, chatting about her daily yoga routine and a recent skiing accident in which she tore ligaments in her knee and needed surgery, as if she's catching up with a friend over tea.
In the spring of 2007, Ms. Stronach was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 40. As a cancer survivor, she will host a fundraising event for Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto on May 20 to support the creation of a comprehensive Breast Cancer Research Centre that will be the largest in the country. It's due to open next year. Featuring a concert by Sheryl Crow, also a breast-cancer survivor, the event aims to raise $300,000 toward the centre's $27-million goal.
It is called Live to Tell, and Ms. Stronach clearly takes its imperative seriously.
"I do remember a moment where I was standing in the shower, thinking: 'Shit. I'm one lucky person because I have a second chance here in many ways.' No one wants to have a mastectomy. It is not easy to lose a breast. But I constantly thought, 'Okay, you know the really good part here is I don't have invasive cancer. Yes, losing a breast is difficult [but]I just have to be logical about it and go through it and make the best possible decision I can.' "
Her pep talk in the shower came in the early summer of 2007. She was lucky the cancer had not spread to her lymph nodes, but after having two lumps removed from her breast she was told she would need another lumpectomy and radiation, or a mastectomy. She opted for the latter. Some of her cancer treatment took place at Sunnybrook. For the mastectomy and breast reconstruction, she travelled to California and paid for the procedure from her own pocket. (Ms. Stronach has also donated $1-million and pledged to raise another million for the creation of an academic chair in breast-cancer reconstructive surgery at the University of Toronto.
Her experience of the disease has changed her, she says. That much is obvious just by looking at her.
She exudes a palpable sense of calm. Always fit, she is leaner than she was before her bout with cancer, thanks in part to the vegan diet she now follows. It's as if she'd reduced herself to what's essential, in body and spirit and attitude. Dressed in jeans and a long, thick sweater, she doesn't look as if she is trying to be anyone other than herself.
"The tough part is how much of yourself do you want to reveal and what's appropriate," she says when asked how she handled the disease as a public person. "And you have to determine your own comfort level. The choice to keep my nipple, for example. There's nothing to be ashamed about being open. It's part of life, part of the human body. It should be discussed if it could lead to better choices for women.
"My mother was with me," she says of the day she found out she had ductal carcinoma in situ, a common form of breast cancer in the milk ducts. Asked if it was hard to tell her father, she says: "No, I just told him. ... Telling my kids was the toughest part."
Her two children, Frank and Nikki, now 17 and 15, were "at an age where they could understand things, so you try to be honest with them, but also to reassure them that you feel strong in the decisions that you are taking. ... You have to stay strong and show your kids that you can handle things. If they see you being strong, then they will get strength from that."
All her friends and everyone in her family, including her ex-husbands, were supportive. "You put small feelings aside and rise to the occasion and support the people who need it. From a support standpoint, I was very lucky."
Her paternal grandmother had breast cancer and died of lung cancer in her mid-fifties.
"I was negligent. I didn't pay attention to my family history," she says. Ms. Stronach discovered the lump in her breast, and after a clear mammogram, which initially made her feel relieved, she insisted on further investigation.
The disease has given her permission to focus on herself and her health, she explains.
"You're always looking after everyone else and everyone else's needs - your kids, your career and all the demands and obligations on you .... I don't feel intuitively that I got [cancer]because I was stressed. I just ran my body a little too hard. I'm more sensitive to that now. If I'm tired, if I need rest, I will go and get rest and get to bed early as opposed to fighting through it and going on adrenalin."
Routinely screened every six months for signs of the cancer's return, she puts her health and well-being first, along with her family's, followed by her work at Magna and her philanthropic initiatives with the Belinda Stronach Foundation.
Her silent partnership in Gene Simmons' Simmons Records, announced last year, does not take much of her time, she says.
"It is a bit odd," she acknowledges about the partnership between an auto-parts heiress and a rock star known for his cartoonish make-up and outlandish behaviour. "But he's a great guy. He has his public persona - his Kiss persona - but he's a businessman at heart and a very compassionate individual."
She doesn't rule out a return to politics in her future. "I think it's a noble calling. I haven't closed the door. I'm 42 now, and I'll be an empty nester in a few years." When her term as MP officially ended in October last year, "it was a sad moment because it was a great experience," she says.
Her cancer "added a lot of depth and value to my life. It's been a very rich experience," she explains.
For a woman who has always seemed above the rest, fuelled by a sense of entitlement to do whatever she pleases - enter politics, switch parties, then quit public life - her brush with mortality has somehow made her more real.
Ms. Stronach has found her common touch.