She stood out, and not just because she was six-foot-and-then-some. In her new memoir, Fearless as Possible (Under the Circumstances), Denise Donlon tells of a music-filled life and a trailblazing, glass-ceiling-smashing career – from MuchMusic host to the Sony Music Canada presidential office to the executive directorship of CBC Radio's English-language services to an Order of Canada membership. The Globe and Mail spoke with her about the book, the journey and what it all meant.
You've had a high-profile career, but, relative to the musicians you often worked with, you've been behind the scenes. Given that, how difficult was it writing a memoir, in terms of balancing the personal stuff, the professional stuff and the celebrity stuff?
The book was willful. It seemed to have a mind of its own. I started writing it and I thought, "Who cares about my celebrity stories? I'm not Oprah." So the book became about leadership and feminism. That's when it began to take shape.
You included a diary entry you wrote when you were 12, saying that you didn't know who you were or why you were. Did writing the book help you answer those questions?
I think it did. There's a lot to be learned from looking backward, before you think about what you're going to do moving forward. What I found, even in terms of the corporate positions, was that I was most happy and the most fulfilled when I was able to use my powers for good.
What are some examples?
At MuchMusic it was about the drive for relevancy. It was about presenting something important between Madonna and Guns N' Roses videos. We spoke about HIV/AIDS, about gender issues and about environmental causes. At Sony, it was very much about supporting the artists and nurturing the talent. And at CBC, it's all about public service. So, in writing the book, what was revealed to me was the importance of trying, in some small way, to make a positive contribution.
You had a lovely turn of phrase, "Pollyanna in a shark pool." Can you talk about your career choices and your decisions to dive into challenging situations?
You start to wonder, on an existential basis, when you look at a career path. Had I been the type of person who was more avaricious, I think I might have tracked a different trajectory. For me, I was lucky. People offered me opportunities. My choice was to dive in or walk into the pool, or not. It was odd that in many cases I would walk into a situation where I imagined it to be one thing and then it turn out to be decidedly different.
The music business is male-dominated. Having been in that world, do you have any Pollyanna left in you?
There's some Pollyanna, yeah. I mean, the whole "woman in a traditionally male-dominated world" was an interesting thing to deal with. When I was at Sony, I was the only female label president of a country at the international meetings. And it was an industry in which illegal downloading at the time was pulling the rug out from all of us. I was trying to manoeuvre in these meetings, and in a world where there weren't a lot of high-powered women. A friend asked me if I was leaning in, at these meetings. I said I was leaning in so far my feet were off the ground.
How hard was it?
There weren't any female mentors. It's a hugely competitive business. Asking anyone to mentor me would have been like asking them to help me tie my shoes. It just wasn't done. So, you have to find your own way.
Sink or swim, right?
Well, yeah. For women in many businesses it means you have to work harder. You do the old Ginger Rogers thing. You do everything Fred Astaire does, but you have to do it backward and in high heels. It comes with the territory.