The Doc Martens did not stand a fighting chance against the Diors. That was the conclusion Dan Levy reached as he shopped for combat boots in Toronto last weekend. Clothes too. A tailored jacket from Belgian favourite Raf Simons caught his attention, but he didn't want to be impulsive.
This was no ordinary trip to Holt Renfrew. On Thursday, the quirky co-host of MTV's The Hills: The After Show will flyfrom his Hogtown hometo Los Angeles for the season finale on Dec. 10. Translation: The most exposure he has faced to date. A red-carpet ensemble (high-end footwear included) is only half the battle.
Where the Canadian audience of the half-hour program typically numbers 5.5 million, Mr. Levy faces the reality that up to 98 million homes will be watching him across North America.
He must be nervous. "Oh, God, yeah. I get nerves doing every show," he says on Tuesday from a basement den at MTV's Canadian headquarters, formerly the Masonic Temple. "We just don't know the scope of what it will be." After the After Show, Mr. Levy's personal storyline could be described as "To be continued ... "
Here's one scenario: If the audience south of the border responds in the same "Awww, he's so cute and funny and hip!" way that has come to define Mr. Levy's personality since he first appeared on the network's Canadian launch in early 2005, he will probably receive multiple offers to make the Hollywood Hills his permanent home. Will that mean one of Toronto's most identifiable native sons will say goodbye to the city that raised and educated him?
The question comes thanks to The Hills (a spinoff of an earlier reality-TV "docu-soap" called Laguna Beach), which chronicles the lives of four fetching young Californian women who play themselves within a framework that is decidedly filmic. Drama over ex-boyfriends and jobs - if interning at Teen Vogue can be called that - gets interspersed with snapshots of their padded lifestyle (trainers, velvet-rope hot spots) and a whole lot of humdrum filler (they're not the most articulate twentysomethings).
Meanwhile, the comparatively astute After Show, produced by Mississauga native Garrett Wintrip, and co-hosted by girl-next-door Jessi Cruickshank, is what happens when the semiotics of pop culture get watered down to Gatorade in a martini glass.
The back-to-back shows are a fresh TV breakthrough, even though Mr. Levy rightly admits, "We're not moving mountains." Plus, they are addictive. People who could care less about the antics of Lauren, Heidi, Audrina and Whitney tune in to find out what Mr. Levy has to say about them.
That's why people will follow him. The question is, where will he be? "If I'm going to stay in Canada, it's such a small industry that you almost need to create your own way. Only because the ceiling is so low," he says. "But in this industry, you can't get an ego and expect things to happen. At the end of the day, I'm from Canada and so there will never be a time when I'm suddenly not Canadian."
Like his famous father (as in, Eugene), the 24-year-old is in no rush to leave. In large part because Mr. Levy the elder and his wife, Deborah Divine, raised their family in Toronto, Gen-Y Mr. Levy says he was able to bypass the bratty entitlement that comes with growing up in Bel-Air and its posh environs.
At the age when most kids get their G1 licence, Mr. Levy got his first part-time job at Gap Kids on Bloor Street. There was also the stint at All the Best Fine Foods, one of the gourmet shops located south of the Summerhill liquor store. "The bakery [part] not the cheese part - I couldn't stand the smell," he says. Although he now realizes that perhaps he liked the muffins a little too much.
"It's amazing how as soon as you stop eating so much of that stuff, the gut goes," says Mr. Levy, who works out with a trainer at Totum Fitness on Yonge Street and boasts the narrow-yet-toned physique du jour.
Yet jockdom was never his strong suit. One highlight from his high-school days at North Toronto Collegiate Institute was the student-run production of Clue. As one of the kids in command, Mr. Levy found a prop company that provided furniture for eight rooms and all set decorations.
Instead of buying T-shirts during university, he made them. He and a pal created a line called De Nous à Toi (From Us to You) in which "romantic messages" were silk-screened onto tees. One had an outline of an anatomically correct heart with a message - in Times New Roman typeface - that read, "I hurt here."
First at York University and then at Ryerson, he took film production, which did not pan out. "I'm not a group guy in those situations," Mr. Levy says. "I realized more and more that I wanted to be in front of the camera, not behind it." It was during this period that he spent a summer in London, now his home away from home. "It's like New York, but in Europe," he says.
He began working there as an intern at ICM, a worldwide talent agency, fielding calls from the likes of Anthony Hopkins, only to be thrown into an assistant position, complete with his own The Devil Wears Prada moments. For instance, he had to wrangle his boss's four dogs - a Great Dane, a "sprightly puppy" and two in between - onto a sofa for a photo shoot.
Mr. Levy has even interned for Canadian Idol.
"They were good stepping stones and all character building," he says diplomatically. More candidly, he adds that his upward trajectory no longer means getting paid a stipend of $300 every two weeks.
For the After Show he typically wears skinny jeans and Converse topped by a shirt and tie with a pullover or cardigan. Lately, the self-professed "goof-head" has taken to wearing a cashmere tuque. Thick-rimmed glasses are a signature (his current pair is from funky College Street boutique Rapp Optical). He's a big fan of Phillip Lim, a New York designer who, like Mr. Levy, strikes a balance between intellectual and accessible.
Mr. Levy says that if he could work in any other industry, it would be fashion (he will occasionally sketch clothing ideas, which he then takes to local costume designer Tania Batanu-Chuick). He does occasional style segments for MTV and this past Fashion Week, he and Ms. Cruickshank walked the runway for the Bustle show.
Ideally, he would love the opportunity to offer style advice to his existing audience and this may not be so farfetched, especially given that MTV and CHUM (home of Fashion Television) are both owned by CTV.
Print is another option that Mr. Levy often considers, although he is so charismatic on screen that no writing gig could capture his idiosyncratic half-smile, which is equal parts awkward and sexy. Or the thick and animated eyebrows (care of Dad) that have been well trained to provide comic relief whenever his witty repartee - and there's lots of it - needs a boost.
Mr. Levy certainly has not wanted to trade on the family name. "For the longest time, it was not something I would necessarily promote," he says, steering clear of the n-word (nepotism). "In some ways, it makes me want to work harder." He speaks proudly of Mr. SCTV: "There's a quiet sophistication and humility to everything he does. He's a classy man when it comes to his humour," he says, explaining that the roles he takes are never meant to make fun of other people. "He puts himself in endearing situations that create a warm fuzzy glow."
As for whether his father has offered words of encouragement, Mr. Levy answers, "It's not the things he's said but the things he's done with his career that have influenced me in how I hope to handle myself and the choices I make."
The format of The Hills: The After Show is informal and engaging; think The View, but cooler. It helps that Mr. Levy considers Ms. Cruickshank, 24, like a sister (his 21-year-old sister, Sarah, appeared on the program once via webcam from Halifax, where she is studying theatre). For each episode (and the show is now in its third season), they invite four bubbly and stylish friends to offer their pointed opinions; among the standouts is Esther Garnick, who Mr. Levy agrees is "sharp as a nail." Ainsley Kerr and Yael Latner have been photographed out on the Toronto scene. The neon-hued cocktails they sip are Gatorade; they were alcoholic until, as Mr. Levy says, "a few too many people got loose-lipped."
For all of the partying at Le Deux and Area nightclubs that consumes The Hills' characters' lives in L.A., Mr. Levy takes a more subdued approach in his Toronto life. "Great restaurants are far more exciting than a crazy night out," he says, citing The Swan, Torito and Terroni as his top three. "The best experiences are about ordering your wine and your meal and catching up with friends and by the time you leave, that's your night," he says. Brunch is a weekend standby, often at the Rebel House, which is blocks away from the flat he shares with a friend.
Most of his friends are in the industry, whether from MTV, eTalk or just working in related gigs. "When you spend so much time with people, they become your extended family," he says. Declared one of Toronto's 30 most eligible bachelors last spring in another publication, Mr. Levy says his status is unchanged.
When the After Show ends (no word yet whether there will be a fourth season of The Hills), Mr. Levy will dive right back into regularly hosting MTV Live, which airs nightly at 6, and the numerous projects that he wants to bring to life.
"The minute you think about where you're going next," he says over a chai latte after buying the boots, "that's when you lose perspective." Yes, there may be gold in them hills, but Mr. Levy is living in the moment. So he returned and bought the jacket.