one smooth canadian and her thrill of a lifetime
Wherever Shannon Tweed goes, there is a moment in which all action stops and everyone turns to look. On this cold October evening, that moment comes when she passes the maître de's station in the 1000-foot high Top of Toronto restaurant. Conversations pause and waiters slow their paces, balancing their dishes more carefully, afraid that something somewhere has gone wrong. The piano music softens in the background. Ice cubes chime in half-full glasses. Accustomed to being the focus of attention, this conspicuous woman smiles at the upturned eyes and follows a small, attentive waiter to a table at the window. She is nearly six feet tall. She is blonde. She is startling to see in person; it is as though someone had breathed color into a striking statue of a young woman.
The waiter holds her chair for her. When she is seated, the two of them are eye to eye. He hurries off to bring her a vodka and pineapple juice. Gradually, conversations resume, restaurant sounds gain volume; the moment of her appearance has passed. Still, as long as she stays, there will be darting looks of appreciation and longing from tables within sight of her.
"It's a lovely city, isn't it?" she says. She trails a fingertip against the window, touching Toronto's reflected light in the glass. "It's both bigger and cleaner than the American cities.
"I grew up on a mink farm in Newfoundland. It was very, very quiet," she says, beginning an unpolished thumbnail sketch of her life.
She frets with her hands for a second.
"I'm really not that used to having to talk about myself. Generally, I smile for the camera and that's that. Anyway, my daddy made the food and I fed the mink -- that's plural. We used to drive down to the harbor to get a load of fish, then mix it with vitamins and liver and various animals' meat. The mink loved it -- maybe I could ask for a side order."
The waiter overhears as he trundles a cart past the table. He stops and offers to bring a side order of anything mademoiselle wants. She laughs and tells him the chef probably doesn't have the recipe.
She lowers her eyes, examining her deep-red polished fingernails, and continues.
"My parents separated when I was 13. My father and a friend went out one night to test-drive a new car. The driver of the car was drunk. They had an accident on a gravel road. The driver died and they found my father in a tree 24 hours later. He was unconscious in the hospital for almost a year. My mother couldn't keep up the mink farm herself, so she had to take her seven children and go home to Saskatchewan.
"They never got back together. My father recovered after a long time, and even put the farm back together. He had to learn how to walk again and talk again, and when he died of a heart attack last March, he had bred 20 mink into 1000. I always stayed in touch with him, and I miss him.
"I finished growing up in a little town in Saskatchewan. Then after high school, I went to Ottawa to become a lowly cocktail waitress and make bundles of money. I got to be Miss Ottawa, third runner-up for Miss Canada in 1978 -- I won the talent competition in that pageant as a singer. I was quite well-known in Ottawa after that, so I opened my own bar, called Shannon's. It went fine for a year, but it was just too much work. Tending bar was great fun, though.
"People had mentioned modeling to me before. They'd come up to say, 'You should model, you should model!' So I went to an agency in Ottawa and they said, 'You should model.' I worked in Montreal for a while, then came to live in Toronto, which is the best place to be in Canada. I got into high-fashion modeling here. But I really had always wanted to be a Playmate. Every girl's fantasy is to be the most beautiful, desired woman in the world, at least for a month. That's what I hoped someday I could be.
"There was a television program starting up here in town called Thrill of a Lifetime. What they needed were real-life people to tell what they had always wanted to do or be. A schoolteacher had always wanted to be a clown in the circus, and he got to do that in Montreal. A traveling salesman was just dying to get out of his car and do the morning traffic report from a helicopter. He got to do that. Then there was Shannon Tweed, who always wanted to be a Playmate in Playboy. And here she is. Isn't that wild? This show got in touch with the magazine in Chicago, we did some filming for the show and test shooting for the gatefold there, and now this month is my thrill of a lifetime.
"It probably would have been easier -- and maybe more appropriate -- for me to be a circus clown. But it certainly wouldn't have been as exciting."
When her meal comes -- a salad -- she eats delicately, the way a farm girl who has been careful to memorize the manners of the city eats.
Asked what she'll do with the rest of her lifetime, she folds her hands in her lap and hesitates, and when she speaks again, her voice is soft. She places a finger against her temple.
"There's an actress in here. It's very hard to make it -- to become famous -- fashion modeling. Maybe it's even harder in acting. But the camera rolling just excites me, excites me to no end.
"I'm a little way into my acting classes now, and it's a process of digging down deep inside. Not like modeling. Some of the other students don't like models. They think we should go smile into a mriror and keep quiet. It's nerve-racking sometimes.
"But I want to act more than anything else. I've done a few commercials, but no big speaking parts yet. I could do it. And it's a good time for it -- in the movies, they tell me, the glamor girl and the happy ending are coming back.
"So that's the way I'd like to go from here. I know the odds are a hundred to one against, but I don't want to give it up until I've tried."
Later, when the meal is over and dessert refused, Shannon takes a last sip of her drink and gets ready to leave.
"Being a Playmate is wonderful. It will introduce me to a lot of people I wouldn't have had a chance to meet in everyday life. Even if some of them view me only as a sexual object, I'll be glad to have met them. Maybe they'll see me again in the movies. I'm hoping for some nice fantasy stories and happy endings.
"I'm afraid I'll make another scene on the way out," she smiles. "I think I'm just too tall."
All eyes embrace her again when she stands. One young dark-suited businessman in particular seems entranced. He never looks away as she smooths her dress, passes the maître de again, says good night and steps into the elevator out of sight.
Photography by Richard Fegley