This piece originally appeared in Issue 743/744 of HELLO! Canada magazine.
Clad in a black silk robe, Sasha Exeter sits relaxed at her kitchen island while the sunlight pours into her contemporary condo in Toronto's west end, the picture of grace under fire. It's not just the sun that bathes the room in warmth – it's Sasha's personality.
The former tennis star's mix of authenticity, vulnerability and humour is apparent as soon as you meet her. It also pops off the screen of her popular Instagram account and eponymous fitness and lifestyle website.
As Mommy's hair and makeup team gets to work, three-year-old Maxwell ("Maxie"), arrayed in her finest Elsa Disney princess gown, lends her tiny, helpful hands to Sasha's stylist, who's unpacking the jewelry for the photo shoot. The little girl's poise, which mirrors her mom's, is a true reflection of love and trust.
"It's really important for me to instil strength and confidence in her. It's never too early," Sasha says lovingly. "But a lot of it is leading by example."
Setting such an example includes being honest and open about her struggles, rather than presenting a perpetually glossy exterior, Sasha, a former global brand marketer turned content creator, lays it all on the line on Instagram: from her miscarriage and difficult breakup with Maxie's father to her battle with kidney disease and, more recently, her frightening experiences with racism and cyberbullying.
This rawness and realness, coupled with her beauty and strength, has secured her partnerships with brands such as Joe Fresh, Dove and Activia. As well, Sasha has a TV show and podcast in the works with Canadian entertainment company eOne.
"We shouldn't be defined by our age," she observes of her on-air life beginning at 40 – a milestone she marked in May. "We can start anything at any time!"
Here, the athlete, brand storyteller and single mom welcomes HELLO! Canada into her home to chat about her fascinating career, her excitement about producing her own show and her hopes for Maxie.
HELLO! Canada: Thank you, Sasha, for welcoming us to your home! How has the pandemic affected you, personally and professionally?
Sasha Exeter: I don't want to sound cliché, but it's made me realize what's important and who's important. It's strengthened some of my friendships and it's definitely strengthened my family dynamics with my parents [Festus and Felecia Exeter] – and Maxwell's dad, too. [He and I] are really trying to focus on Maxwell now that her cognitive skills have changed dramatically. We've come together as a family again, which is really beautiful.
For work, well, everything has changed! The beginning of Black Lives Matter made me really look at the companies that I partner with. It was a reckoning, if you will, to see who's an ally and who's [paying lip service]. I also wanted to make sure I partnered with brands that were completely aligned with what I wanted for my future and my goals. If I didn't, it just doesn't make sense.
Fitness is a huge part of your life. Maxie is only three, but does she have the same affinity for sport?
She's the most active three-year-old I think I've ever met! But that's to be expected: her dad is an athlete, too. She loves to join in on my yoga flows! Our nanny is amazing; she's been teaching her deep breathing and meditation techniques for a year-and-a-half. She's got the wellness thing down more than most adults.
Do you see parallels between your relationship with your mom, Felecia, and how you parent Maxie?
I have become my mother, 100 per cent! Our closeness reminds me a lot of my relationship with my mom, the way we talk to each other and the moments and rituals we share. Maxie's only three, but she's been begging to do the Christmas tree. Our ritual is getting dressed up to decorate the tree as we listen to good tunes. It just reminds me of when I was a kid, with my mom.
What important lessons are you instilling in Maxie as you raise her?
I don't know what happened to her during COVID, but she's literally like a sponge. She's soaking up the good – and the bad. Let's be realistic. A big thing for us is letting her know her internal beauty.
This was something that became cognizant when I got pregnant with her and I kept hearing people say things like, "Mixed-race babies are the prettiest!" It was weird and shocking that people were still fetishizing mixed-race children.
She's my daughter, so of course I think she's adorable – but she's so much more than that. She's super witty, intelligent and incredibly strong – literally. These are the things that we tell her. We make a conscious decision to not tell her how cute she is. I want her to be confident and I want her to be strong and it took me 39-and-a-half years to get to a place where I truly feel comfortable in my skin.
Your place is beautiful. What sparked your decision to redecorate?
We talk a lot about how rough this year has been – it's been brutal – but there have been silver linings. When I was designing the Ela bag [in collaboration with the Canadian handbag brand], I wanted to incorporate a way to uplift the BIPOC community by using their artwork for the packaging. We put out a call to action – my followers are super-engaged and gave us amazing suggestions. Through that exercise, I discovered Benny Bing. He didn't get chosen for the project, but I ended up buying three beautiful paintings for my home. They were critical pieces because everything else in the home was purchased based on the concept and the colours of his works of art.
We hear you're in the early stages of developing a TV show. That's exciting! How did it come about?
I'd been searching for a way to leverage my influence off that one-by-one square [Instagram], and the culmination of everything that happened this year has given me this pathway. I'm not sure how much I can say right now, but what I can say is it's along the lines of helping kids lift up and rise to the occasion, meet their experiences and just be successful, both athletically and academically.
You've shared your experiences of online bullying this year. Tell us about that.
This is a new thing for me. The [social media] following I had until this summer was a very tight-knit community. So when my following changed, it was the first time I'd really encountered bullying.
At first, I had an overwhelming desire to respond to everybody, to defend myself, which is exhausting, and I let it get to me. It's very easy for people to say, "Don't pay attention to that," but when your job revolves around social media, your eyes aren't going to be able to skip over the negative comments.
I've become pretty good at just scanning, though, and if the comment is long, I can pretty much guarantee it's not going to be positive. So I just pass it by. And if I feel it's too overwhelming and I'm getting the urge to look, I just put my phone down!
How do you see your future as an influencer?
I think my time as a content creator will come to an end... soon. I'll never stop doing it completely because one of the things I really enjoy about my job is telling stories and sharing my own personal experiences. selfishly, it's really cathartic for me. It makes me feel really good inside sharing something and being vulnerable.
But I want to use my influence in other ways now. I think that there's a lot of work to be done still and I want to be part of that story and that change.