Montreal businesswoman Joelle Adler was standing in the midst of a swank party she had thrown during the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004 when suddenly it seemed vacuous to her.
Surrounded by beautiful people downing martinis and canapés, the multimillionaire co-founder of premium denim-wear giant Diesel Canada Inc. remembers thinking, "This is a nice party, but it really doesn't have a lot of depth."
So the 48-year-old dynamo - who had recently lost her husband and business partner Lou Adler to cancer - vowed that any future festival shindig was going to have real purpose - and heart.
Fast-forward three years, and Adler now is the force behind one of TIFF's most coveted invites - the One X One charity event that this year once again will be hosted by Hollywood star Matt Damon and will feature guests such as singing superstars Wyclef Jean and Shakira, activist actor Richard Gere and British royal Sarah Ferguson.
Fans are hopeful that Damon's pals Brad Pitt and George Clooney - both in town to promote new films - will show up at One X One this Sunday night at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
But Adler refuses to speculate, saying she never knows who will appear until they hit the red carpet.
In a scant two years, Adler has managed to attract to One X One some of the biggest names in show biz (last year, Pitt showed up to help his Ocean's Eleven pal Damon during the auction portion of the program and raised $75,000 by dipping and kissing a well-heeled woman in the crowd).
But more important, her non-profit foundation has raised almost $5-million, which has been distributed among various international and homegrown charities focused on children.
A modest person who tends to shun publicity, Adler is not remotely star-struck. "I've been really fortunate in the last few years to meet a lot of really well-known people," she says.
"But the great beauty about it is everyone I've met so far has been genuinely down to earth. The most important thing to me - and to people like Matt, Wyclef and even Brad Pitt - is that it's all about the cause first.
"They've come to help us because they care. People shouldn't criticize celebrities who help out. I've learned there are two types of celebrity - one who gets involved philanthropically because they want exposure and the other, who is committed for life. I know when I meet the latter immediately. They just ring true."
One X One is firmly in Canada's philanthropic big leagues. Even Adler admits that she is amazed at how quickly it took off. She credits the event's success to the tireless efforts of hundreds of volunteers, as well as sheer luck.
As an example of the latter, she cites the unexpected appearance of Bono at One X One's inaugural event in 2005, held under a tent in Toronto's historic Distillery District. A publicist introduced her to Kate Hudson, who signed on to host the first One X One. That relationship led Adler to DATA, Bono's advocacy organization dedicated to eradicating extreme poverty and AIDS in Africa. DATA then helped Adler get in touch with Damon, who has travelled to Africa and is an advocate of getting clean water and wells built in impoverished African villages.
Every chance she gets, she plays down the celebrity aspect of the event, preferring to focus the attention on why she started One X One in the first place - to improve the quality of life for impoverished children both in Canada and around the globe, says Adler, president of Diesel, which has global sales of $2.2-billion.
Born in Marrakesh, Morocco, to an Air Force civilian administrator dad and stay-at-home mom, Adler studied commerce at Concordia University in Montreal. She never finished her degree, however, and landed her first marketing/advertising job in 1984 at the fashion house of Sergio Valente, which was leading the designer-denim craze in the early 1980s.
In 1987, she and her partner (and future husband) travelled to Italy to secure the Canadian rights to Diesel, whose worldwide volume in 1988 was $40-million (U.S.). Today, Diesel is the world's premium denim brand.
Adler says the germ of the idea to start the non-profit One X One foundation first hit her on Sept. 11, 2001 - the fateful day on which terrorists bombed the U.S., killing thousands, and she was told by doctors at the Montreal hospital caring for her husband that he would lose a leg because of his illness.
"Their attitude was, he's dying. We have such precious resources and we're not going to spend them on someone with no change [likely]. I'm on the phone telling my sister Lou's news, and at the same time, she's describing to me the buildings coming down. I had the most surreal feeling then that nothing mattered. That night in the hospital, I was watching TV and saw a documentary on Africa. And I realized my husband's life was exactly the same as those children in Africa - it was an economic decision that my husband's life and those children's lives had no value to anyone. That made me mad." Her husband died on Jan. 26, 2003, at the age of 55.
Barry Avrich, a One X One board member and integral force in the foundation's success, remembers the blisteringly cold day in March, 2005, that Adler stormed into his Echo Advertising offices with a scheme to throw a massive charity event during TIFF ... six months away.
"I told her she was crazy," says Avrich, who has directed biopics on Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, scribe Dominick Dunne and Toronto criminal lawyer Edward Greenspan.
"But deep down, I knew it was possible. So I jumped on board," adds Avrich, who will produce One X One's live show for CTV this Sunday. "The first year, we just put on the show and hoped for the best - not knowing if there would be another year or not. Now, into year three, it just keeps growing and growing. It's remarkable, really."
Last year's event raised more than $3.2-million.
"One X One is everything I'd hoped and prayed for," Adler says. "I truly believe its success is due to the fact that most people are basically good. When it comes right down to it, who wouldn't want to help?"
One X One's short but impressive history
The event kicks off in 2005 under a white tent at Toronto's Distillery Historic District. Hosted by Kate Hudson, it draws 450 people. Bono - in town touring with U2 - makes a surprise appearance, earning One X One the gold-star stamp of approval. The African Children's Choir brings the audience - including Bono's record producer Daniel Lanois - to tears.
In 2006, Matt Damon hosts the event for 550 people at The Carlu. Celebrities attending include Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz, Wyclef Jean and John Legend.
The 2007 One X One will be held Sunday night at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and broadcast live on CTV. About 500 are expected for dinner, and 1,500 for the show, including Wyclef Jean, Shakira, Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine and supermodel Petra Nemcova. G.M.