When Mona Halem was growing up in Aurora, Ont., she studied mathematics and computer science and planned on a career at IBM as a programmer.
She never made it to IBM.
Instead, Ms. Halem became Lady Luck, and she now organizes exclusive VIP parties around Toronto packed with celebrities such as basketball stars Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Steve Nash, movie star Matt Damon and singer Mary J. Blige.
Her reputation as a party host for professional athletes has become so widespread that her company was featured in The Wall Street Journal this week under the headline Why Pro Athletes Love Toronto.
"I don't look at them as clients or customers," Ms. Halem said yesterday. "I look at them as family or friends."
She caters mainly to basketball, football and baseball players - "I don't know anyone who plays hockey" - and she knows all the big shots.
Kobe Bryant? "Yeah, I know him. I know his wife."
Mr. Bosh? "I've known Bosh since his rookie year. One of the first events he came to was my birthday party."
Vince Carter? "Yup."
When asked to name the biggest basketball star she doesn't know, Ms. Halem paused and replied: "I pretty much know everyone."
Ms. Halem's website refers to her as "Princess Mona" and it's loaded with pictures from past parties, many featuring star athletes dancing with gorgeous women. One Toronto Raptor said Ms. Halem was "notorious" throughout the sports world for inviting attractive guests and feting every team that comes to town.
"Mona is the Rachel Uchitel of Toronto," said an executive who works with two of the city's professional sports teams, referring to the New York club hostess who has been linked to golf superstar Tiger Woods.
The executive, who asked not to be identified because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said Ms. Halem is known for "throwing these incredible VIP parties that set up the athletes with access to anything they desire. She's the hostess with the mostest."
Other sports executives who have dealt with Ms. Halem used words such as "charming but pushy" to describe her style. One executive close to the Toronto Blue Jays said: "Her goal is to be everybody's best friend, but she's not exactly the kind of friend the athletes need."
Veterans of Lady Luck Entertainment bashes say these evenings have a New York urban feel, with a dose of Las Vegas thrown in.
"There's a ghetto vibe to these parties, in the music and the clothes," said one executive who has been to several parties. "She understands the whole concept of full VIP service that these athletes expect."
The star treatment sees the athletes enjoy top-drawer service - bottles of vodka are served up in ice buckets, bartenders mix special drinks - at tables that are kept comfortably private behind velvet ropes and intimidating bouncers.
Nightspots that cater to this crowd include Muzik, a 41,000-square-foot space that opened in September on the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, near Toronto's nightclub district.
Lady Luck "has put together some great parties," said Charles Khabouth, founder of INK, a Toronto company that owns many of the venues that host Ms. Halem's parties. "And she always makes sure that there are a lot of good-looking people around when these players show up."
Mr. Khabouth praised Ms. Halem for developing a smart niche market by relying on a network of contacts. "This business is all about knowing people, hustling a little bit, getting people together and putting on a good vibe, a good party. And Mona has been around for a while."
Ms. Halem insists she provides superstars with a fun, hassle-free environment, not a place to pick up women.
"It's not about that at all," she said. "It's just basically whether you're a player or a businesswoman or businessman or student or whoever you are, you are going to enjoy it because of the atmosphere, the music, the friendly environment, the service."
When asked if she is running an escort service, Ms. Halem replied: "Wow, no, definitely not! There are four or five other top promoter and event co-ordinators in the city and they are all men and none of them get asked that question."
Ms. Halem fell into the party business after graduating from Toronto's York University in 2001. She'd always enjoyed clubbing around Toronto and had a knack for knowing the coolest places. "Everyone would always ask me where to go out," she recalled.
One of her friends joined IBM and Ms. Halem received a job offer as well. But she kept putting it off. "I just decided that, part-time, I would try and throw my own little parties because I knew so many people," she said.
One of her connections was basketball player Jalen Rose, whom she'd met at a Toronto event while studying at York. He encouraged her to host parties, as did another NBA player, Morris Peterson.
She created Lady Luck Entertainment, spotting the name on a T-shirt, and cashed in on her Egyptian roots by designing a logo that featured "The Eye of Horus, an ancient Egyptian symbol of protection and power."
At first she organized small gatherings mainly for friends and family, but she quickly became known for putting on the hippest gigs.
She's now a full-time operator, organizing two major events per month for up to 400 party goers.
She also hosts smaller gatherings every Tuesday at a downtown club and puts together events for companies such as Citibank.
At 31, Ms. Halem said she is slowing down, but hopes to keep growing her business.
"I'm getting older and I can't be in a club environment too much longer," she said. "But people, no matter how old they are, they want to go and enjoy themselves, or have a drink, or listen to good music, or be around a good clientele. That's what I find."
Playing in their own courts
Who knew Toronto's party scene was so ballin'?
Professional athletes love letting loose when they come to town for games, with Ontario's capital luring in the most diverse pack of pros lately.
National Basketball Association players have taken a shine to the city's clubs and bars, hosting a New Year's Eve bash at popular club Gossip this year and making appearances in various urban hot spots.
But don't worry, hockey fans - they won't be infiltrating the ice kings' hangouts in Toronto. NBA players are more likely to lounge at Lobby Night Club, a swish place on Bloor (LeBron James was spotted there last week). You'll see them hanging at Ultra and Tattoo Rock Parlour on Queen Street West, too. The swanky Brant House and Spice Route Asian Bistro and Bar on King Street West have been popular NBA party spots in recent years.
Toronto puck fans will find their National Hockey League heroes at Morton's at the Park Hyatt Hotel on Avenue Road. Sports fans can bet on spying celebrity players spill out of The Brass Rail, one of Toronto's best-known strip clubs. (Alex Rodriguez was snapped by paparazzi in 2007 leaving the club with a woman - not his wife - on his arm.)
That's not to say other Canadian cities haven't been invited to the party.
Athletes are known to get their fill of booze and romance at Republic and Pop Opera in Vancouver. In Calgary, Cowboys was the long-time destination for visiting players (and Prince Harry) before it closed last January. But Joey Tomato's in Eau Claire soon stepped up to its place.
Intimate and Italian Fratelli's woos athletes in Ottawa; players also flock to O'Connors, Cheshire Cat Pub and Capone's.
And in Montreal, sports stars strut their stuff at slick restaurant/bars like Buonanotte, Cavalli and night clubs such as Radio Lounge and Santos.
Sarah Boesveld and staff