Catherine Nugent: Life Of Purpose
A woman of considerable style and grace, Catherine Nugent has been using her good fortune, empathy and skills to raise millions of dollars as one of Canada’s leading philanthropists.
The blessing of being born of privilege is really only meaningful if you do something meaningful with your good fortune. Catherine Nugent, one of Canada’s most respected and admired philanthropists, has spent a life of purpose, doing just that.
She is an international force who moves in the world’s most exclusive social circles, yet her primary focus for more than 40 years has been to give back to causes and organizations that have had the benefit of her considerable fundraising talents. A global citizen who has lived for decades in Brazil and France, she has turned her philanthropy into an art form. “I speak four languages fluently, but I can shop and dine in six,” she says with a smile.
Born into a wealthy and prominent Brazilian family, Nugent moved 18 times in her youth because, as she recalls, her mother “liked setting up new houses.” The almost-constant moving also exposed her to new places, people, things and experiences, and she would use the things she observed and learned later in life while always carrying the spirit of her birthplace with her. That spirit held her in good stead when her parents sent her to Netherwood, a boarding school in Rothesay, outside of St. John, New Brunswick.
“I went from Copacabana Beach in Brazil and the warmth and sunlight to the Maritimes because my parents wanted me to be a proper young lady,” says Nugent in a recent interview with Dolce. “I loved the Maritimes and I loved the people. It was a difficult adjustment, but we became good friends, the Maritimes and I — I learned independence and strength and what I was capable of.”
After some time at Mount Allison University, she longed to return to life in a big city. As her goal at that time was to become an interpreter at the United Nations, she moved to Toronto to begin her studies at York University, which offered an international program in language studies.
Unlike the cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse behemoth it has since become, Toronto in the 1970s was a provincial dowager seeking greatness — a pair of brown shoes in search of a formal affair.
“I had come from this colourful life in Brazil, of parties and carnivals, and Toronto was seriously boring,” recalls Nugent of her early days in the city. “So I started to give parties and it was hard, as Torontonians were not warm, welcoming people. I was young and I had a hard time.”
She married David Nugent, whose company, Riviera Concepts, manufactured and distributed such bestselling fragrances as Alfred Sung, Bob Mackie and Nina Ricci. But it was when she met Anna Maria de Souza, a fellow native of Brazil, who connected Nugent to the Canadian Opera Company’s Women’s Committee, that she began to gain access and introductions to many of Toronto’s business and social elite, and this sparked Nugent’s passion for philanthropy.
“I like to give parties and why not give them when the result is also helping groups and causes?” she says. “I think people like to get dressed up, see their friends and attend big parties. And we’re seeing that again after COVID.”
De Souza had recently started the Brazilian Ball, and now, in its very early days, Nugent began to work on the event together with her. The two women realized that to stand out they’d have to dig deep into the weeds to rethink and reinvent philanthropy. These two Brazilian dynamos completely reshaped Toronto’s fundraising scene by bringing the colour, music and spirit of a hot and alluring Brazil to a cold and conservative city in February.
“We started in the basement of a restaurant in Yorkville and we were all volunteers trying to get everything donated,” says Nugent. “I actually made some of the decorations myself in my own basement.”
The Ball grew to the point where it was the biggest and most highly anticipated annual fundraising event in the city. Everyone wanted to see what Nugent and de Souza, along with Cathie Bratty, Carole Grafstein, and other members of the so-called “Glitter Girls” could stage every year: eye-popping costumes, incredible music, over-the-top décor and samba dancers reflecting and capturing the pulse and pride of Brazil. Many a CEO was plucked from their chair to join conga lines well into the early hours, only to return to their seat covered in body makeup.
The purpose of fundraising is to raise funds, of course, and in that regard the Brazilian Ball was without peer. Over its 46-year run, the Ball raised an estimated $60 million for hospitals, educational institutions and cultural organizations in Canada and Brazil. Much of that is due to the creative out-of-the-box thinking that Nugent and others in a position to make a difference have brought to the art of fundraising.
“I’m a people mixer — I love to mix people up,” says Nugent. “I also raised money for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the University of Toronto, Bridgepoint Health and all the hospitals, almost every institution in the city,” she recalls. “But listening to the Brazil national anthem at the Brazilian Ball is probably my proudest moment as it’s in my soul.”
“My Mind Is Always Working About How Do I Make Somebody Else’s Life Better”
Nugent’s personal philosophy is revealed when she is asked to describe what la dolce vita means to her. “It’s living the dream, enjoying your life to the fullest, happiness and taking pleasure from your environment, the people you’re with, your family and taking pleasure from within in order to spread it around,” she says. “And my mind is always working — about how do I make somebody else’s life better? What can I do to make a difference? That’s my aim in life.”
As evidenced by her philanthropy, her giving, her friendships and her life of purpose, Catherine Nugent has perfect aim.
CATHERINE’S FAVOURITE RESTAURANTS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
• La Grenouille
• Cipriani in the Sherry-Netherland
• Au Moulin à Vent (known just as Chez Henri)
• Café Voltaire
• Le Stresa
• Club 55
• Moulin de Mougins
• Da Ivo
Rio de Janeiro
• Cipriani – Copacabana Palace
• Café Boulud
• Roof of the Hassler Roma
Interview by Estelle Zentil