Creating Awareness

Award-winning Producer Stephen Paniccia
Talks About Toxic Beauty

Story by Karen Tinsley
Photography Courtesy of White Pine Pictures

A Windsor boy who grew up on Rankin Avenue, Stephen Paniccia, graduated from Assumption High and then majored in business at the University of Windsor. So how did he land in the world of film and television—and become such a success? We sat down with him to find out.  

Award-winning documentary producer Stephen Paniccia.

WL: First of all, congratulations on your recent International Emmy nomination for the whistle-blowing documentary, Toxic Beauty. Tell us a bit about the film.

SP: Thank you! Toxic Beauty is a documentary that follows the class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson and the personal stories of women fighting for justice in a race against time against ovarian cancer. In 1982, a world-renowned epidemiologist linked Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder to this deadly disease. Since the 1960’s, Johnson & Johnson knew the risks but did nothing. In 2004, a UK scientist found parabens—a chemical preservative in many cosmetics—in breast tissue. In 2018, a National Institute of Health study linked breast cancer to personal care product use.

In Canada, regulations are under scrutiny, while in the United States the cosmetic and personal care industries self-regulate. The industry claims we have nothing to worry about. We had exclusive access to scientists, lawyers, advocates, regulators, politicians, a
dynamic whistle blower, survivors and women who have lost their lives.

Woven throughout the film is a human experiment. We document as Boston University medical student Mymy Nguyen measures her chemical body burden from more than 27 products; scientists monitor her shocking results. 

In the end, the film meets the companies and people who offer solutions and hope for safer, toxic-free cosmetics. 

WL: I understand that the director, Phyllis Ellis, was one of the women who discovered she was at risk.

SP: Yes. Phyllis was an Olympic athlete, and over 15 years of training and competing, used Johnson & Johnson baby powder several times a day. Her intention was to tell this story to identify the danger that toxic chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products poses to all of us. These chemicals are linked to hormonal disruption in baby boys, developmental delays, low sperm count in men, infertility, cancer, diabetes, obesity and skin disease.

WL: The film was widely recognized in North America—two Canadian Screen Awards, a 2019 Hot Docs Official Selection, and numerous Canada and U.S. film festival selections. And of course, nominated for an International Emmy. But as a producer with Canadian film production company White Pine Pictures, you’re no stranger to award-winning documentaries: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire comes to mind.

SP: Yes, White Pine Pictures has quite an impressive pedigree—in both documentary films and television. Our film, television and interactive productions have earned more than 42 international awards. We supply documentary programs to all Canadian broadcasters, the BBC, PBS and many others. Shake Hands with the Devil was what we call our breakout documentary. It was honoured at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival with the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentaries and won a 2007 Emmy for Best Documentary. Two of our productions—A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman and Genius Within: The Life of Glenn Gould were Oscar-shortlisted. Many of our films premier at the world-renowned Toronto International Film Festival. 

White Pine produced three seasons of The Border, a CBC television award winner—now seen in more than 30 countries and versioned into 20 languages. Cracked, another award-winning drama about a seasoned police officer affected by PTSD, who heads up the Psych Crimes and Crisis Unit, aired for two seasons across Canada and is now airing in the States and Europe.

WL: This is quite the impressive pedigree. To what do you attribute the success of White Pine Pictures? 

SP: It’s in large part due to our visionary leader, Peter Raymont. Under his leadership, we are committed to engaging audiences—across genres and platforms with stories that
matter. We take great pride in working with the best creative talent and respected international partners. Plus, we’re all passionate perfectionists!

WL: So, we really want to know: how did a business major land in the world of film and television?

SP: I had been involved in theatre all my life—high school theatre, community theatre, Theatre Windsor and university theatre. So even though I majored in business, my two
minors were theatre and marketing—I think I was the only Business undergrad minoring in

There I was, working to be a CA like my dad, when I had an epiphany. I talked it over with my parents, and fortunately, they were super supportive. I chose Vancouver Film School, because VFS alumni are some of the most sought-after, successful artists, actors, creators and storytellers in the world of media arts. 

When I graduated, I was granted a spot in the CFTPA National Mentorship Program with Forefront Entertainment. They needed a five-year business plan, so my business
degree allowed me to help them with that, then they hired me into fulltime production. And the rest—as they say, is history! 

WL: What’s next for you?

SP: We’re hoping to release our Buffy Ste. Marie documentary later this year. 

WL: We’ve noticed from your social media pages that you are also very passionate about health and fitness.

SP: That’s right. Several years ago, I lost 80 pounds and I did it old school—eating healthy and exercising. I became a certified fitness instructor and I’m Board Chair at Langs Community Health Centre in Cambridge. 

WL: Any advice to budding filmmakers?

SP: Don’t be afraid to chase your dream, whatever that dream may be. I know that sounds cliché, but it takes guts to go for it! And I would also say, never stop being curious. Walt Disney said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” 

Toxic Beauty is currently available on the CBC Gem streaming service.

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