From shelter to CEO: Brandi's story

Toronto Life - Brandi Leifso

I was 21 when I entered a women’s shelter. With nothing but a few dollars, I started a cosmetics brand. Today, my company is worth millions. This is my story.

was born in rural Ontario. The closest town was Elmwood, population approximately 250. When I was six months old, my parents split up, and my mother took me and my two sisters to live in a shelter in Walkerton. Soon afterward, we moved to Alberta, just outside of Edmonton, to be closer to her family. The years that followed were challenging and fractured, time split between my parents, step-parents and grandparents. They were all kind in their own ways, but by age 17, I was eager to find a life somewhere else. I had been working for a photographer who owned a modelling agency in Vancouver, and he liked my work ethic and had told me to call him if I ever needed a job. So I did. His agency needed an assistant immediately. I went home and told my mom I was moving. She didn’t try to stop me. I packed my meagre belongings into my silver Hyundai Accent—hot-pink flame decals running down the sides—and drove 12 hours west to Vancouver.

Through Craigslist, I found a dingy apartment with broken blinds in a subsidized housing complex in Surrey’s Whalley neighbourhood. I slowly worked my way up the agency’s ladder, and by the time I was 19, I was managing my own roster of models. I also finished my high school diploma through correspondence, studying at night and passing my exams after a few tries.

In 2010, a close friend introduced me to her cousin, a man in his 40s who had just moved back to Vancouver from New York, where he had run a series of successful businesses. He was intelligent, charismatic and passionate—unlike anyone I’d ever known—and we clicked immediately. We talked and laughed for hours. For our first trip together, he took me to Palm Springs and Las Vegas, spending thousands of dollars on hotels, food and entertainment. But for all the extravagance, what I was really attracted to was the way he saw me: as capable and smart. He was always encouraging me and telling me all the things I could do. I was swept away.

Five months into our relationship, I called him and got his voicemail. I texted, and when he didn’t reply, I knew something wasn’t right. I called his friends. I called his family. Nobody knew where he was. I didn’t know what to do. Over the following weeks, I received emails from him—rambling, incoherent messages that did little to explain why he’d left or where he’d gone. He would ask me if I would like to come and join him, but he wouldn’t say where he was. I pored over each message, searching for clues as to his whereabouts and the reasons why he’d left. I missed him, and I worried for his safety. I also worried about myself—scared that without him, I’d retreat to my old way of living, my old way of thinking. Finally, after five months away, he emailed to say that he was coming home. I picked him up at the airport, and we continued as if nothing had happened.

Soon, life returned to normal, and we moved into an apartment atop a mostly empty strip mall. It was a unique converted living space, and at first, I loved it. It didn’t register that we’d moved to a secluded part of town where I knew no one, and where we had no neighbours.

Sometimes, I would walk through the door and he’d have a gorgeous home-cooked meal ready. He liked to film our excursions together and then stitch the footage into a series of short videos. Often, he would take those reels and cut them up into small strips, which he’d hang around the apartment as mementos for me to find.

We took care of each other, so when I discovered he had a cocaine addiction, I felt concern, not anger. There were other signs of trouble, though. He would get mad if I left the house without telling him. At times he seemed consumed by paranoia. Once, in late 2011, I told him I was heading to the mall to buy him a Christmas present. Then, as I was wandering from store to store, I heard my name over the mall’s speaker system. He had called security and gotten them to page me to confirm that I was where I’d said I would be. I was worried, but I told myself that once he got his vices under control, things would get better.

They didn’t. When he got mad, he would throw things, often in my direction. Once he cooled off, he would apologize sincerely. When he felt me pulling away, he would write me heartfelt letters, pleading for me to stay, claiming he couldn’t get better without me. It worked. I felt it was my responsibility to help him, since he’d been such a pillar of strength and support for me. I cared for him and wanted him to get better, so I stayed.

I locked the door and with my hands shaking, listening for the sound of his returning car, frantically googled the closest women’s shelter

At the end of September, one of the models I managed, Maple Batalia, was shot and killed in a parking garage at Simon Fraser University by an abusive ex-boyfriend. Maple and I had discussed our boyfriends before, and I remembered the breezy, casual way we discussed their toxic behaviour—the menacing outbursts, the emotional manipulation. In a moment of clarity, I asked myself, How many chances will I have before I end up like Maple?

Four months later, in the midst of one of his outbursts, my boyfriend threw a metal tray in my direction, leaving a deep gash in the floor, then got in his car and sped off. I ran into our home office, jammed a chair under the doorknob, and—hands shaking, listening for the sound of his car—I googled nearby shelters. I called one, and the woman who answered gave me the address and told me not to share it with anyone—not friends, not family. She instructed me not to put the address into my GPS and to turn off location services on my phone. She said that if I thought he was following me, I should drive straight to the nearest police station.

To read the full story, check out Toronto Life's article 

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