They won tennis championships, NBA finals, Oscars, and elections. They brought down cults, shook up late-night TV, and redefined beauty standards. One even powered a remote-control car with her brain. The women, girls, and non-binary people who comprise our 29 Powerhouses this year are nothing short of awe-inspiring (not to mention envy-inducing).
We're celebrating power in its many forms. No. 1 on the list is 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu, who wields it in the most literal sense, with a forehand that rocked the tennis world (and Serena Williams). Also bursting onto the world stage this year were Waves actor Taylor Russell (No. 10), Grammy nominee Jessie Reyez (No. 6), and drag star Brooke Lynn Hytes (No. 20). Some, like Hollywood stylist Karla Welch (No. 18), brandished their influence behind the scenes. Others used their power to fight back in the public eye: Jody Wilson-Raybould (No. 3) put Team Trudeau on notice, while Sarah Edmondson (No. 8) toppled the cult NXIVM.
This is Refinery29 Canada's second-annual Powerhouses ranking, and it's become one of my favourite projects to work on. Canadians tend to be a bit quiet when it comes to broadcasting our accomplishments, and, personally, I'm over the mild-mannered thing. At Refinery29 Canada, we're all for a little bragging. Besides, if we're not going to blow our own horns, why should anyone else?
1. Bianca Andreescu, Champion, Mississauga, ON
In one year, Bianca Andreescu has racked up more accolades than most athletes dream of. After starting 2019 as a relatively unknown pro, she’s now the number one tennis player in Canada (and number four in the world). She won the Rogers Cup, making her the first Canadian in 50 years to do so. Then, casually, in the finals of the U.S. Open, Andreescu did what every tennis player who grew up in the Williams sisters era dreams of: She beat the GOAT, Serena Williams, and became the first Canadian Grand Slam singles champion. Not a bad feat to fit in before your 20th birthday.
2. Lilly Singh, Late Night NKOTB, Los Angeles
Rocking sneakers and a bold pinstripe suit, Lilly Singh opened her first late-night talk show in a way Seth Meyers or the Jimmys never could: with a rap boasting, “I ain’t a white man.” The fact that Singh is the first openly queer non-white man to land a mainstream late-night show dominated headlines this year. (“The media has mentioned that I’m a bisexual woman of colour so often I’m thinking about changing my name to Bisexual Woman of Colour,” she quipped in her first monologue.) But the proud Scarborough native is a trailblazer not only because of her race or sexuality, but because she’s also the first viral content creator to crossover into network TV. At 30, and with a legion of followers behind her (14.9 million on YouTube), Singh came into her show with unprecedented youth and power she translated into a gender-balanced and diverse writers’ room. Her pledge to “throw some melanin up in your late night,” had its detractors (some justified) and the show has been met with lukewarm reviews, but A Little Late with Lilly Singh proved that late night is finally catching up to the times.
3. Jody Wilson-Raybould, Renegade, Vancouver
It was the scandal heard ’round the country, but the SNC-Lavalin affair wasn’t enough of a mishap for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Liberals to lose the election. It did, however, cost them a key player, one whom they used as a shining example of diversity in the party. Jody Wilson-Raybould, the B.C. MP hailed as “the woman who fought Justin Trudeau” by the BBC, was Canada's first Indigenous attorney general before she was demoted to minister of veteran affairs. Next, she was unceremoniously kicked out of the Liberal caucus for publicly revealing that Trudeau and his team had pressured her to be lenient on Quebec company SNC-Lavalin during its trial for corruption. Wilson-Raybould went toe-to-toe with the most powerful men in the country, stood her moral ground, and came out a winner. Literally. She ran as an independent in the recent federal election and retained her seat in Vancouver-Granville, making her the only party-free MP in the House of Commons.
4. Catherine O’Hara, Icon, Toronto
A few years back, it would have felt safe to assume that 65-year-old Canadian comedy legend Catherine O’Hara’s career-defining performances were in the rearview: Her work in the Christopher Guest movies, the time she left her son home (alone!) for the holidays. But that was before Moira Rose — the delightfully madcap matriarch whose vocabulary would make a thesaurus blush and whose wardrobe is now on display at the Smithsonian. O’Hara’s performance has been essential to Schitt’s Creek’s global success — earning her first-ever Emmy nomination for a lead role and a September 2019 Vanity Fair headline that read, “Can Schitt’s Creek’s Moira Rose Please Host the Emmys?” Memo to the TV gods: There’s always next year.
5. Lesley Hampton, Runway Revolutionary, Toronto
In recent years, fashion weeks around the world have been plagued by questions of relevance and knocked for one-note representation and non-inclusive casting. With her fall/winter 2019 Toronto Fashion Week show, Lesley Hampton, 25, sent a figurative middle finger to those industry standards by casting all Indigenous models of different body types. Hampton’s TFW show paid homage to her roots (she is Temagami First Nation, born in St. John’s, NL, but spent her childhood in Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and abroad) while also featuring unique, stunning, and wearable designs. In September, Hampton’s follow-up spring/summer 2020 show was another knockout collection and reiterated her commitment to inclusivity and body diversity. By injecting a refreshing dose of real representation and activism into her fashion, Hampton has emerged as one of Canada’s most exciting designers.
6. Jessie Reyez, R&B Rebel, Brampton, ON
In the age of YouTube, TikTok, and reality singing shows, overnight success is the norm. The light-speed trajectory of these new artists could render the slow-burn rise a thing of the past. Enter: Jessie Reyez. The Canadian-Colombian soul singer (who refuses to limit herself to just one genre) got her big break in 2016 when her hit, “Figures,” dropped on Apple’s Beats1 radio. Cut to 2019, and Reyez, who was the Apple Up Next feature artist in November, is finally gearing up to release her first full-length studio album. This year, she dropped the critically acclaimed emotional track “Far Away,” which tackles the U.S.’s immigration crisis, and a much talked-about cover of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Oh yeah, she also got nominated for her first Grammy for her EP, Being Human in Public. Speaking on her accolades this year, Reyez told Refinery29, “It means more work and less sleep, but it also means I am closer to my goals.”
7. Haviah Mighty, Hip-Hop Heavyweight, Brampton, ON
When the world thinks of Canadian hip-hop, one name is likely to come to mind. Haviah Mighty is ready to change that. This year, the Brampton-born rapper went from winner of the 2018/2019 Allan Slaight Juno Master Class (the country’s foremost artist development program, which includes industry mentorship and a trip to the Junos) to becoming the first hip-hop artist ever to win the Polaris Prize and the $50,000 that comes with it. Her deft, deviant lyrics about navigating the world as a dark-skinned Black feminist also made her one of XXL’s 15 Toronto Rappers You Should Know. Mighty is not only proving that Canadian women in hip-hop exist, but that T.O. rap has a lot more to offer than just that dude from Degrassi.
8. Sarah Edmondson, Cult Whistleblower, Vancouver
In June, a New York court found Keith Raniere guilty of sex trafficking and a bunch of other charges relating to his role as the founder and leader of NXIVM. You’ve probably heard of the alleged sex cult that turned well-intentioned women (including some celebrities) into sex slaves and was shuttered following an FBI investigation last year. What you may not know is that the bust may never have happened without Vancouver actor-turned-cult-member-turned-whistleblower Sarah Edmondson. After 12 years as one of the group’s most influential leaders, Edmondson, 42, escaped after she learned the truth about Raniere (but not before she was branded with a cauterizing iron). Her decision to tell her story — first to the cops and then to the New York Times — was instrumental in bringing down Raniere and other senior NXIVM members. She’ll appear in HBO’s documentary The Vow next year.
9. Catherine McKenna, Nobody's Barbie, Ottawa
“Climate Barbie” was the derogatory nickname given to former Environment and Climate Minister Catherine McKenna for no other reason than she had the audacity to do her job and also have blond hair. Gasp! She was also the subject of numerous violent threats, sworn at in front of her kids, and had her office vandalized, with the word “cunt” spray-painted over her face, days after winning her seat in the federal election. At the time, McKenna tweeted, “This isn't going to chase me out — it's going to make me work even harder.” McKenna has been smack dab in the middle of the culture clash over the environment in Canada and the target of hate from climate-change deniers and misogynists. After October’s election, McKenna was shuffled to minister of infrastructure and communities and is still getting backlash for existing as a woman in politics — the latest for posting an emotional video while clearing out her campaign office. But, as McKenna told Refinery29 earlier this year, “You can’t let haters get you down.”
10. Taylor Russell, Scene Stealer, Vancouver
For the first half of heart-wrenching family drama Waves, Taylor Russell’s Emily seems like a secondary character, the sister to the lead, or an inconsequential sidekick there to prop up her brother, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). By the film’s third act, Emily has emerged as the film’s beating heart, and Russell — through a painstaking and beautifully subdued performance — has provided the audience with a much-needed reprieve from the trauma of the previous gut-wrenching minutes. The role is a star-making turn (and her biggest to date after sci-fi shows Falling Skies and Lost in Space, and small parts in Before I Fall and Escape Room) that’s making Hollywood take notice. Russell just won an IFP Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor and is nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, two early indications the 25-year-old's name could be on all the big ballots come awards season.
11. Celine Dion, Comeback Queen, Everywhere
Celine Dion’s heart really will go on. Sorry, we had to. After a six-year hiatus from new music (she took time to care for and then grieve her late husband, René Angélil, and to do a Vegas residency), Dion came back as strong as her signature double chest-bump with Courage, her first No. 1 album in 17 years, her first major beauty deal at age 51, and fresh fashion choices, which have the world taking notice of our Canadian queen of all the feelings more than ever before. Thanks to the vision of super stylist Law Roach (the mastermind behind Zendaya’s endless LEWKS), Dion's wardrobe now brings high shoulders, feather miniskirts, structured blazers, and SO MUCH DRAMA — at a level only Dion can deliver. The world was Dion’s runway in 2019, and she slayed.
12. Brittni Donaldson, Hoop Dreamer, Toronto
She’s not the first female NBA coach, but at 26, Brittni Donaldson is the youngest — and the only one who was part of the 2019 Team Raptors victory. (For proof of her overall boss-dom, peep the snap of Donaldson on the Raps’ parade bus puffing on a stogie.) After joining the team’s front office in the data-crunching department in 2017, Donaldson made the switch to assistant coach this fall. Her swoosh moment came last February when the team acquired Marc Gasol at trade deadline. The regular coaching staff was on the road, so Donaldson — who played college ball in the U.S. — was tapped to run the new superstar through his warm-up. And while it would have been normal to experience nerves in the presence of a seven-foot Spanish superstar — the only one sweating on the court that day was Gasol. Raps president Masai Ujiri watched from his office, and the rest is history. For now. Ujiri has said the time is coming when the NBA will hire its first female head coach. Might we make a suggestion…
13. Margaret Atwood, OG Bestseller/Oracle, Toronto
At 80 years young, Margaret Atwood is not done scaring the shit out of us with her eerily too-real dystopian depiction of a world in which women are used as reproductive slaves. The Testaments, Atwood’s follow-up to the 1985 seminal novel The Handmaid’s Tale (which, of course, is now an Emmy Award–winning TV series), co-won the 2019 Booker Prize for Fiction and broke all the Canadian book sales records, like, ever. Professionally, Atwood had a rock-star year while personally, she lost husband Graeme Gibson to his longtime battle with dementia. (A documentary about their last year together was released in November.) Through the highs and the lows of the year, Atwood maintained her dry sense of humour and delivered one of our favourite drags of 2019, in response to Kylie Jenner’s tone-deaf Handmaid’s Tale party: “I had to look up who [she] was.” Never change, Atwood.
14. Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, NDP Rising Star, Iqaluit
It’s hardly a secret that women and young people are underrepresented in politics. After this year's election, just 29% of Canadian MPs are women. Mumilaaq Qaqqaq is one of them. She’s the first NDP MP for Nunavut since 1980, and at 26, the youngest MP for the territory. While she’s been criticized for her age and her experience, she sees both an advantage, since two-thirds of Nunavut’s residents are under 35. During her campaign, she called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for not taking more action on critical issues facing the north, including housing shortages, exorbitant food prices, climate change, and the climbing cost of living. On her agenda now: addressing Nunavut’s suicide crisis (at 11 times the national rate, it’s the highest in the country), the territory’s lack of health services, and a lagging education system.
15. Gigi Gorgeous, YouTuber Extraordinaire/Owner Of 8,000 Lip Glosses, Los Angeles
When Canadian YouTuber and transgender activist Gigi Gorgeous, 27, debuted her long-awaited genderless makeup line with Ispy last month, she told Refinery29 she “made the collection for myself now, but also for my 16-year-old self.” That self was Gregory Lazzarato, who became beloved Toronto-based beauty vlogger Gregory Gorgeous, who became Gigi Gorgeous, a transition she documented for her now 2.9-million subscribers and as the subject of a moving 2017 Barbara Kopple-directed documentary, This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous. If the past has been about the journey, 2019 was about celebration: She released her memoir He Said, She Said: Lessons, Stories, and Mistakes from My Transgender Journey, was the Grand Marshal of Toronto Pride, and married Nats Getty (yes, of those Gettys).
16. S.K. Ali, Literary Game-Changer, Toronto
If you ask S.K. Ali, she owes her start to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, a Twitter campaign that called out a lack of not-white narratives in YA fiction. After that, as the 47-year-old tells it, editors were clamouring to read her manuscript, which — for the record — would have been clamour-worthy with or without a hashtag. A Muslim-Canadian former teacher who grew up feeling under-represented in the books she loved, Ali is on a mission to write her community into history. Her novels are issue-driven (tackling the ways that young people experience Islamophobia) and compulsively readable. Entertainment Weekly called her latest, Love from A to Z, the “swoon-worthy” summer read you can’t (and, might we add, shouldn’t) resist.
17. Domee Shi, Oscar Winner, Toronto
“To all the nerdy girls who hide behind your sketchbooks, don’t be afraid to tell your stories.” That’s what 30-year-old Canadian storyboard animator Domee Shi said from the Oscar acceptance podium after scoring the movie world’s highest honour for her short film, Bao. Shi — who built her reputation at Pixar working on The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 — was developing Bao as a personal passion project when she was invited to pitch it to her bosses. They loved the story of a Chinese-Canadian mother who's experiencing empty-nest syndrome when her dumpling springs to life. And so did Academy voters. The big win means more eyes on exceptional work that showcases Canada’s talent and diversity. And a bright future for a certain nerdy girl who is currently developing an as-yet top-secret feature film for Pixar.
18. Karla Welch, Image Maker, Los Angeles
For a while there, the red carpet was a blur of uninspired mermaid gowns. Then Karla Welch came along. Hailing from Powell River, B.C., the L.A.-based stylist to Tracee Ellis Ross, Ruth Negga, Busy Philipps, and Sarah Paulson (to name a few) made awards-show dressing fun again, concocting slightly quirky, always original looks that reflect her clients’ individual style rather than burying it under tulle. (She’s also credited for Justin Bieber’s transformation from popped-collar teenybopper to “full Hunter S. Thompson,” and dressed him for his wedding this year.) For Welch, who also designs a line of basics called x karla, fashion is as much a political statement as it is a personal one. This year, the 45-year-old collaborated with Dockers on its first genderless collection and teamed up with Levi’s to support gun reform. "I'm in my job because I love fashion. I am who I am because I'm a political human being,” she told the CBC. And, for anyone who’s wondered, “what would Karla do?” while getting dressed in the a.m., you’re in luck: She just launched her own styling app, Wishi.
19. Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Eco Activist, Vancouver
Melina Laboucan-Massimo came to work in 2019. The David Suzuki Foundation fellow spent the majority of the year filming the climate change and renewable energry documentary TV series, Power To The People, which airs on APTN in January. That’s in addition to speaking at conferences around the globe, including at the United Nations (nbd), taking home an Eco Hero Award from the Planet in Focus Enivronmental Film Festival, and running Sacred Earth Solar, her organization that builds solar installations in First Nations communities across Canada. It’s all in a year’s work for the 38-year-old, who has been an activist for as long as she can remember: “I was born into a tar sands–impacted community so I come from a community that has inherited these climate change issues,” Laboucan-Massimo, who is Lubicon Cree and grew up in northern Alberta, told Refinery29. “My first protest was when I was seven and we were blockading the road to our homeland.”
20. Brooke Lynn Hytes, Queen of Qweens, Toronto
Technically, our girl placed second in season 11 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, but from the moment she walked into the werk room in that sequined Mountie uniform, Hytes — the first Canadian to compete on the series — kind of won. She won again every time she high-kicked, body-slammed, and sexy ballerina-ed her way to victory in those lip-synch battles. Okay, yes, there was that one failed Celine Dion impersonation. (Maybe it’s best not to impersonate a Canadian icon when you are about to become one yourself.) As one of the most recognized queens on the planet, Hytes, 33, has helped to dispel ignorance and bring drag into the mainstream. Catch her next year as a judge on Drag Race Canada. Gentleman start your engines. But the best woman has already won.
21. Naomi Klein, Author/Climate Warrior, New Jersey
Behind almost every headline-grabbing female climate activist in 2019 was… the same Canadian woman. Jane Fonda’s weekly arrest ritual on the steps of Capitol Hill? Turns out the 81-year-old actor and activist was inspired to action after reading her advanced copy of Naomi Klein’s latest, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for the Green New Deal (an instant NYT bestseller). Last summer, Klein produced Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ viral video, “A Message From the Future,” about the Green New Deal (the proposed framework was at least partly inspired by Klein’s 2015 Leap Manifesto). And in September, she sat down to interview teenage climate sensation Greta Thunberg, whose radical approach to the climate crisis is straight out of the Naomi Klein playbook. For decades, the Montreal-born public intellectual — currently serving as the inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair at Rutgers University — has been lobbying for climate action and a cutback on consumerism. Now finally people are paying attention.
22. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Netflix’s Next Big Thing, Mississauga, ON
While her classmates were gearing up for their high-school graduation, Tamil-Canadian Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was landing the coveted lead role in Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling’s new coming-of-age Netflix comedy series, which is inspired by the comedian’s teen years. The 17-year-old was hand-picked out of 15,000 people from an open social media casting call posted by Kaling, whom the young actor now calls her “fairy godmother.” The show will give viewers a rare chance to watch the life of a South Asian teen play out onscreen — something Ramakrishnan says she’s never seen. "I'm a firm believer that if you don't see what you want in the media or in the world in general, you should go out there and be that change and take up that space," Ramakrishnan told CBS News earlier this year. The last thing Ramakrishnan did before leaving her hometown of Mississauga, ON, for Hollywood to “be the change”? She starred in her high-school production of Chicago.
23. Maayan Ziv, App Developer, Toronto
In 2014, Toronto-based master’s student Maayan Ziv and some friends were out celebrating the start of the school year and decided to go to a restaurant. Fun, right? Except that Ziv, who was born with muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, had no way to find out whether or not the spot was accessible. (It wasn’t.) So, she made an app for that. Five years later, AccessNow — which allows people to search and give feedback on the accessibility of public spaces and transit — is now available in 35 countries. There’s more where that came from, thanks to a $2.7 million grant from the federal government this year. “Accessibility is a mindset,” said the 29-year-old Ziv, who’s also a fashion photographer, when accepting the Emerging Leader Award from the inclusivity-promoting non-profit Public Policy Forum this year. “And it’s a mindset that when we truly recognize its power, can lead to inclusion.”
24. Aurora James, Shoemaker To The Stars, Brooklyn, NY
Long before sustainability was trendy, Toronto’s Aurora James was living and breathing it. The modelling agent launched her ethical and eco-friendly luxury footwear line in 2014 after backpacking through Africa and later connecting with artisans in South Africa. Today, the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award winner works with artists in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Morocco to handcraft Brother Vellies, her line of feminine but unfussy footwear. Along the way, James, 35, who is based in Brooklyn and now makes men’s shoes as well as purses, has attracted scores of fashion and celebrity fans, including Beyoncé. The latest? Nicki Minaj, for whom James designed a custom pair of Swarovski-crystal heels for the Met Gala this year, a few short weeks before the designer took home the International Canadian Designer Award at the Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards.
25. Luna Ferguson, Trans Trailblazer, Vancouver
In a world that celebrates sameness, Luna Ferguson is fighting back. The 37-year-old author, filmmaker, and transgender activist made history last year after winning an epic human-rights battle to become the first person in Ontario (they were born in Brantford) to receive a non-binary birth certificate. Another huge victory for Ferguson? This year, they released their memoir, Me, Myself, They: Life Beyond The Binary Chronicles, a stirring, gutting read about self-acceptance and empowerment. “It is never too late to feel connected with who we are, to be who we are, to be who you are,” Ferguson writes. It’s a lesson we can all learn from.
26. Jessi Cruickshank, The Cool Mom, Los Angeles
Millennials of a certain age were first introduced to Jessi Cruickshank as the quick-witted, self-deprecating MTV VJ who rose to national fame when she co-hosted The Hills: After Show with Schitt’s Creek star and co-creator Dan Levy. Cruickshank, 37, graduated from grilling Speidi about mood crystals and what they did to Lauren Conrad (they know what they did!) to landing one of the most coveted sit-downs of 2019: a one-on-one with Justin Trudeau, post blackface scandal. The PM appeared on the season 2 premiere of Cruickshank’s Facebook Watch show, New Mom Who Dis? (she has twin boys), for an interview that included an uncomfortable reenactment of his kiss with Melania Trump to rare moment of sincerity when Trudeau had to explain his racist past to six-year-old twin Black girls. “I think Trudeau and his team probably underestimated me,” Cruickshank told Refinery29 about the surprisingly candid conversation.
27. Cobie Smulders, Ass-Kicking Actor, Los Angeles
Fair to say that hopes weren’t particularly high for ABC’s new fall series Stumptown, a one-hour crime thriller starring How I Met Your Mother alum Cobie Smulders. Because honestly, another crime procedural? And the lead character is named Dex, as in — wait for it — Dexedrine. But then a funny thing happened — the concept totally works, earning swoons from the critics (even the snobby ones) and headlines along the lines of “Drop What You’re Doing and Watch Stumptown” and “Cobie Smulders Is The Grungy Bisexual P.I. That TV Has Been Waiting For.” Smulders, who is an executive producer, has also been waiting for a star-making role to launch her out of half-decade post-HIMYM career purgatory. That moment has arrived. (RIP Robin Sparkles.)
28. Ananya Chadha, Teen Genius, Toronto
Geneticist/artificial-intelligence developer/blockchain engineer. Multi-hyphenate careers are the new norm, but Ananya Chadha’s is on another level — and she’s only 17. The Toronto high-school student’s extracurriculars involve creating a brain-controlled prosthetic arm and working as a machine learning developer at IBM. Chadha, whose interest in technology was sparked at the Ontario Science Centre’s summer camp, won this year’s Impossible Science Student Challenge hosted by Engineering.com by using electrical activity generated by her brain to maneuver a remote-controlled car. As if that wasn’t already impressive, she’s the youngest brain-computer interface developer in the world and was named one of Canada’s top developers under 30 by BetaKit... just another hyphen to add to the list.
29. Winnie Harlow, Model Mogul, New York
It was a year of firsts for Toronto native Winnie Harlow. The 25-year-old has come a long way since her days on America’s Next Top Model, becoming Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Rookie, the first model with vitiligo to appear in the issue. “There are certain milestones in a model’s career that just make you feel like you have truly succeeded when they happen, and making my SI Swim debut is one of those huge moments,” she told People Magazine. Harlow was also the first KKW Beauty collaborator outside the Kardashian fam, dropped a collection with Steve Madden, and signed with L.A.-based talent agency CAA, which represents some of Hollywood’s biggest names (Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and Viola Davis among them). Safe to say that Winnie Harlow has indeed succeeded.