Deb Pearce has a lot to be proud of. The industrious gal about town is a fixture in Toronto’s queer community: hosting events, dragging it up king-style and, most recently, returning to the airwaves as host of 103.9 Proud FM’s midday program.
A series of informal coffee-shop tête-à-têtes led the new gay radio station’s program director Rob Basile to extend a job offer to Pearce, already a radio veteran from her previous morning show on Jack FM. What followed was a carefully considered, lengthily deliberated decision for the funny lady.
“I contemplated for a millisecond and said, ‘Hell, yes!'” says Pearce, laughing. “I took to it like a dyke to water.”
She did have some trepidation. Pearce’s stint at Toronto’s “guy station” Jack FM lasted less than a year. Though there were no hard feelings at the programming change that precipitated her departure, the prospect of wading back into broadcasting’s fickle waters had its share of personal risk.
“With Jack FM, I didn’t anticipate the moment of here today, gone today,” she says, “so there was a real moment where I asked myself if I was ready to get back into this. I had to see if my suit of armour was strong enough.”
Fortunately for all concerned, the Proud environment has shaped up to be not so much a battleground, as a carefully coordinated crusade for an authentically queer radio presence.
“We’re so incredibly encouraged to just be exactly who we are,” Pearce says. “We know we were hired for who we are to the world, to the community and to ourselves. I’ve never been more myself in a working environment. It’s like a family.”
Their family is growing. Fans from all over the world are tuning in courtesy of the Internet. Pearce is both chuffed and humbled by local and international response to the endeavour.
“Some of the e-mails are coming from as far away as the UK, Tokyo and Australia,” she says. “There are definitely little soldiers out there e-mailing me from the workplace. They have me in one ear and their boss in the other, tuning in, fighting for recognition and respect.
“I had a very special one from a social worker today, saying that I’m a role model for kids and adults.”
It’s not just audiences from the web. Pearce is routinelyapproached by fans old and new.
“People on the street are telling me that a lot of parents and friends of our community are tuning in,” she says. “They’re getting in on the inside joke, discovering the differences and similarities in coexisting in the world… and maybe discovering how we’re not all that different.”
The differences are occasionally highlighted on the streets directly below Proud FM’s new quarters, smack-dab in the Church and Wellesley ghetto. Naughty displays of our sexuality are frequently visible from the booth windows which overlook the popular alley below.
“Sometimes I’m not sure whether I want to call Crime Stoppers or get my camera out,” says Pearce. “I could make a fortune from [Crime Stoppers] tips.”
The Peterborough native has been pretty lucky when it comes to workplace acceptance. A degree in recreational leadership (“I majored in popcorn and beer”) led to a lucrative career teaching conflict resolution for the Toronto school board.
Unhappily, job security flew out the window with the cuts-happy onslaught of Mike Harris’s every-rich-white-guy-for-himself revolution in the 1990s. Makeshift stints as a nanny and a barista followed, not to mention a life-changing position in beef telemarketing. “I’ve since become a vegetarian,” she says pointedly.
Following her brief sojourn with Jack FM, Pearce eventually settled into property management, where she could easily balance work with her extracurricular ventures.
“I always worked in gay buildings,” she says. “I’d put up my little Pride sticker, and then continued my other career as a drag king and gender illusionist.”
It’s that career that may have garnered Pearce her most ardent fans. As Mann Murray, the butch(er) version of Canada’s sporty songbird, Pearce delights audiences while poking fun at a beloved icon for lesbians nationwide.
“I was at a house party 14 years ago, and we were to pick a character of the opposite sex that we identified with,” says Pearce. “I thought it would be particularly cheeky to come as Ann Murray. An off-the-cuff comment from someone led to the Mann Murray name.
“A few months later I performed her publicly at [Toronto nightclub] El Convento Rico, and Monika Deol introduced me,” Pearce says. “I haven’t stopped doing her since… Mann Murray that is.”
When it comes to full drag king performance, Pearce dons her Dirk Diggler persona — a study of the male porn star in all his 1970s glory.
“There’s a whole new drag king movement that I want to help get its legs,” she says. “They’re getting great venues and recognition, and I’m happy to be a drag daddy to the younger ones interested in the drag king history.”
Her drag appearance in Sasha Van Bon Bon’s Who’s Your Dada for last year’s Pride festivities was a fan favourite, but, sadly, her new gig means a full dance card during this year’s Pride celebrations as she stumps under the Proud FM banner.
“I’ll even cut back on some of the partying,” she says, “for a few hours at least.”
Hopefully she’ll still have time for the more traditional Pride activities, as befitting a lady of her decorum and stature.
“It all usually starts with me on the balcony at home, with fruit and a quick shot of tequila,” she laughs. “It’s not just for dinner anymore!
“Then I pick a spot at Yonge and Dundonald for the Dyke March, and find myself running up and accosting bare-breasted women on motorcycles.”
The all-female parade has a special meaning for Pearce, who still feels inspired by the gathering after 14 years of village living.
“The jury’s really out about what the Dyke March means to our community,” she says. “For me it brings back a history of when I was just coming out, just after the secret special knock on the bar doors to get in.
“The joy in that march is tangible. It’s beautiful and self-expressive. It’s gorgeous.”