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The surprise of Montreal's mayoral race has been the rise of a young, glamorous Oxford graduate who, against all odds, has become the second most popular candidate, according to the latest polling.

Mélanie Joly, a 34-year-old lawyer, will not become Montreal's first female mayor on Nov. 3 – the crown will almost certainly go to former Liberal Denis Coderre, who leads by 17 points. But Ms. Joly is already credited with an unexpectedly successful campaign, considering the way it started. A total unknown to the general public, she was running against a popular veteran politician (Mr. Coderre), a "green" party leader who has been making his mark at city hall for eight years (Richard Bergeron) and a respected economist with the backing of Montreal's business community (Marcel Côté).

At first, "Mélanie who?" was dismissed as one of a dozen minor hopefuls. She wasn't even invited to join the three major contenders for the first public debates of the campaign. But everything changed when the polls began to show her campaign gathering steam.

Beauty and youth certainly had a huge part in Ms. Joly's ascent, but there's substance behind the looks. She worked as a corporate lawyer before heading a public-relations firm. She came across as assertive on television, with well-rehearsed clips. When Mr. Coderre accused her of lacking experience, she quipped: "I wouldn't want to have your experience."

Such confidence masks the fact that she doesn't know that much about the city. Quizzed about the cost of an hour's parking in downtown Montreal, she said $9 – three times more than the actual cost. She also failed to identify three major Quebec businesses with headquarters in Montreal. And although she claims to represent "change," she hasn't brought many original ideas to the campaign, except an interesting proposal for a rapid-transit bus system and a "nightlife charter" to balance the needs of residents with those of restaurant and bar proprietors.

Ms. Joly belongs to Montreal's golden youth: well-off parents, good looks, cosmopolitan education, fluent knowledge of both languages and networks of influential friends – in her case, ranging from former premier Lucien Bouchard, whom she calls her "mentor," to two of Pierre Elliott Trudeau's sons. She actually worked for Justin Trudeau's leadership campaign, which led some to believe that she was using the municipal campaign to gain visibility for an eventual federal Liberal candidacy. But if she gets a good enough score on Nov. 3, she might decide to make a career in city politics.

How things have changed, since the days when those rare women who ventured into politics were either mature, maternal figures or confirmed single women who presumably led austere lives! Forty years ago, a woman had to leave her sexual persona at the door if she wanted to be taken seriously. While politics was an aphrodisiac for men, it made women less attractive.

Now, look at Christy Clark, Alison Redford and Danielle Smith, the West's most prominent politicians – three attractive, rather young women. And there are countless other examples.

The businesswoman's traditionally dour image has been similarly shattered, with a generation of stylish business leaders who get up at 6 a.m. to go to the gym.

Beauty and fitness are increasingly winning attributes for male politicians, but for women, the change is much more fundamental – it puts an end to the era when women couldn't be brainy and desirable, powerful and sexy. Now, at last, they are accepted as whole human beings – mind and body.