Her latest gig involves trading barbs with Conrad Black on The Zoomer, a weekly talk show for audiences of a certain age. It’s hardly the first time Denise Donlon has been in the hot seat, though it may be the first time she’s held her own opposite a living lord. Here, the former MuchMusic host and one-time CBC exec shares some of the secrets to her success. (For starters – don’t slouch!)
Chill your body, expand your mind
I do yoga every day because it gives my brain time to wander. It seems obvious, but this is the time when the best ideas come. I have a 10-year-old Rodney Yee VHS tape, which I do every morning. I do it before I can come up with any excuses. I get up and I walk downstairs and before my body even knows what I’m doing, I’m halfway through the routine. In the meantime my brain gets a chance to work on a subconscious level. I get a lot of ideas when I’m in this state. I once had a great idea about whatever happened to the great protest bands of the sixties. CBC wasn’t interested, but I still think it was a great idea.
One woman’s bob is another one’s blunder
The whole work-life balance thing is complete crap. Life is about making choices and no matter what, you’re going to second-guess them. I think the key is to just accept it. I remember Hillary Clinton was here giving a speech. She was asked about the kind of criticism that female politicians get all the time and she told a story about how she was once approaching a podium. She heard one woman talk about how awful her hair was and how she couldn’t pick a suit and then she heard another woman comment about how great she looked. After that she realized that there was no point in paying attention to the voices. Everyone is going to have an opinion.
If you’re tall, stand taller
I was always the tallest kid in my class, but regardless, my mother always told me to stand up straight. In the corporate world it became a metaphor. When you’re often the only woman in the room, it can be hard. You want the attention, but at the same time you better deserve it. There is a lot of pressure to live up to everyone’s expectations, but standing straight shows people that at least you know you deserve it. To me, it has always been more effective than leaning in.
Fight the power. Get backstage
I encountered sexism all the time in big and small and often ridiculous ways. I was on a tour with Whitesnake in 1981. We were on the Slide In tour and I remember the manager handed me a laminate which was a really poor version of a woman’s mouth and a banana. I said, “I can’t wear that,” and he said, “Well then I guess you’re not getting backstage, are you darlin’?” I admit I went backstage, but at least I called him out first. I think you have to call people on sexism always and regardless. You have to make intention and integrity part of your priorities even if you can’t always win the fight.
Madonna as teaching tool
I had always felt a certain amount of responsibility to create programming that is important as well as entertaining. Even when I was at MuchMusic, it wasn’t just about playing Madonna. Sure, we played Madonna, but there were politics and censorship and media literacy too. I have always believed in putting a little spinach in with the sugar. There is always pain in changing something that people are attached to which is what I encountered when I started at CBC. You could worry about what people think forever and that would ruin everything. Eventually you go with your instincts and hope you are making improvements.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.