Sonya Cote is a sexual abuse survivor.
But that doesn’t entirely define her.
The 52-year-old has been many things in life; singer, actor, mother, mentor, burlesque entertainer and stripper. And as she’s quick to point out, “Burlesque is totally different than stripping, but stripping my past made it that much easier to be a great burlesque entertainer.”
A friend of hers, real estate agent Kelly Welton from Coldwell Banker is presenting cote at The Loft on Division Street on March 23 at 7 p.m.
The event is a book launch for Cote’s book titled,”I’m Not Naked (anymore) – Memoirs of a Contemporary Jezebel.”
The two friends met several years ago after Welton saw a photo of Cote on her business card and called her up to say she loved her look.
Cote and Welton shared a laugh early on in the conversation, and the two have been close friends since.
Welton is a lover of the arts and thought it would be amazing to have the show and book launch in Cobourg.
“I want to give to the arts community and we both thought this would be fantastic for Cobourg,” said Welton.
Cote sat down with Today’s Northumberland to give an in-depth interview on how she’s arrived where she is today.
Her book is the first book in the #metoo movement to come out about the Canadian entertainment industry.
“I’m a sexual abuse survivor with a giant personality, and the two never really existed in peace until I was able to talk about everything. But that same personality made me throw myself into situations that weren’t always safe. Now, thankfully, and luckily, I’m still alive to tell some of these stories in my book.”
One story included in her book tells of Cote receiving notice that she had won an audition for a showgirl resort in Trinidad, only to find that she was nearly sold as a slave once she arrived. She escaped using her wit and instincts. Otherwise she would have been loaded onto a barge bound for Columbia.
This and other stories in her book are not just a chronicle of events, but a well written and entertaining series of events in her life. Somehow she’s managed to either develop or hang on to a sense of humour along with developing a talent as a writer.
“Because of who I am, this can’t just be a book launch at The Cobourg Loft, I have thrown a little bit of cabaret and a bit of saucy Q and A and of course, storytelling.”
“As an actor who’s been in this business a long time and in the music industry, I’ve had a lot of those #metoo moments.”
“I often wonder what our generation would be like if we didn’t have to fight through the casting couch crap and just be able to be free as artists.”
Among Cote’s many accomplishments is mentoring children through the business and protecting them from the evil within the entertainment industry.
One teenager she’s helped recently, Alexander Stewart, is now signed with Cherry Tree Records and with Sting’s manager, Martin Kierszenbaum.
“Why? Because I know some of these people, and they liked him, and they are going to take care of him.”
Often record companies tend to write parents out of contracts which essentially means the parents don’t have much of a say in the growth of the child’s career.
“The kids usually don’t have any type of negotiating skills, so the talent are often pressed to take less money for publishing and after 10 years of hard work they end up with nothing.”
Cote says sometimes parents may “muddy the waters” but it’s important they they take care of their children.
Having first hand experience of how the industry can harm people and abuse them, Cote says the #metoo movement will hopefully change the industry.
“I hope for the better because then people will start safe guarding kids more.”
As part of the orginal panel of 24 women in the industry she was called upon to help re-write ACTRA’s codes of conduct, including language and barriers concerning the industry.
Since then, 16 unions have jumped on board with ACTRA and collaborated to re-write their policies.
“So everybody knows what everybody’s doing now.”
“Stupid things like you would never thing of.”
“If you are up north shooting a television series, movie or whatever and you happen to be staying at Joe’s Motel and they don’t have a lobby or conference room, if you need to have that meeting with your talents in a hotel room, leave the door open.”
“Now if those rules are broken, you now have a leg to stand on.”
The President of ACTRA in Toronto, Theresa Tova, had to fight to have the word “bullying” in the Codes of Conduct, Cote said.
The word “bullying” doesn’t apparently appear in Canadian Sexual Harassment and Sexual Abuse laws.
“So if it’s classified by a Judge as “bullying” and nothing more, you can’t go anywhere with it, in terms of a sexual abuse crime.”
“The problem is sexual harassment and sexual abuse starts with bullying. It’s a power thing in any industry.”
Now artists have a structure that other unions are following to make sure people in the industry are being taken care of better.
“So we’re more free to be artists, without trauma getting in the way of our creativity.”
“Some have dropped out of the industry because of this,” then she points to herself, “and some of us make a whole career out of being the “joke girl” and played the tarts and loose women on the screen.”
Admitting there was a bit of push back when the group was re-writing the Codes of Condcut, Cote said, “they all knew it was time.”
Throughout her career in acting and singing Cote admits there have been many instances where sexual innuendoes were brought up and she herself, brought them up, as part of her “schtick.”
But when it comes to roles where this was not part of the character, it still came up unexpectedly.
“So glad you’re here, how badly do you want this role?”
This is the experience she’s had with a few notable names in the business, and she writes about them in the book.
Another story in her book is when she signed on to a record deal and was teamed up to write songs with another person.
“He made a physical move on me. The moment I ran out, it killed my career.”
She would only say the man is a major artist in the industry.
Having every reason to be angry; at the industry, at men, at anyone, she’s remarkably balanced in her view and an advocate for equality in this new conversation.
“Which means, when you flirt with me in a bar and I’m flirting back, we’re both responsible for being clear in our communication.”
But she equally says, “this witch hunt we’re on for men, I think is completely out of line. I hope as women need to be heard, they will also be graceful as possible in their venting towards the supportive men in their lives. This can quickly turn into a social media hunt, and in one tweet, it can kill the career of somebody.”
“I find that grossly unfair and it will jeopardize what this entire movement is about if it is misused continuously.”
As a former stripper for a decade, Cote spoke to thousands of men and listened to their personal stories.
“I believe I know what they think, know what they want, I know how to respect them,” and she says adamantly, “I didn’t walk away from the business hating men.”
“I walked away thinking men have no outlets for communication and not a lot of ways for expression.”
When she was 40-years-old Cote was approached at putting a burlesque troop together.
“I thought it was hysterical. Because my fringe life was now mainstream – it was a riot.”
Cote is still working as an actor in television and films and does a good number of voice overs.
She has sung professionally for 25 years, and periodically will perform, confiding she may be recording another CD.
Now she has added public speaking and mentoring to her repertoire, and is finding a lot of interest for her opinions and story telling.
“I once complained to my mother about men ogling me on the street and she stopped, lit a smoke and said “darling you should only complain when they stop.”
“I get that, we all want to be flirted with, we all want to be attractive.”
“It’s not just the men who have taken it to far. If we are now standing on the precipice of this new time, it’s also up to women to actually speak up too. Sometimes that’s hard to do and I get that, but it’s necessary…now.”
Cote said she feels for the men who are worried right now at being stereotyped with the #metoo movement, but suggests they put themselves in a woman’s place for a moment and find some understanding and a bit of compassion.
“If I say the wrong thing, I’m going to lose my job, or I’m going to compromise my kids grocery bill. That’s where women have been living for a long time. Women need to be heard and these good, strong men need to stand in that fire. It’s going to be ugly for awhile, but I really hope we don’t lose perspective and an appreciation of each other.”
Giving an example that in any given room with people in it, the odds are that of the men and women in the room approximately 60-70% have been sexually assaulted or abused at some point, at least once before reaching adulthood.
But also in the room somebody will be in a car accident, their house may burn down or maybe a pet will die.
“The only thing I can hope in this new conversation is at the end of this, if this guys house is on fire nobody says, “what were you wearing?”
Stuff happens and we’re hoping this will now be a conversation and nobody says, “yeah, but what did you do to invite this?”
The last chapter in her book is titled Maiden, Mother, Crone where she writes about her mother’s surgery and ends in her death approximately one month ago.
“My mother taught me some amazing things, and she was in so many ways my hero. But she was of a generation that didn’t talk about these things. I took that and did much more with it in front of audiences in my burlesque act.
And now, I am much more free because of my mother’s generation. Then, it was my turn to take it further and I taught my daughter Lena to take on the next leg of this journey. I passed the baton to her, hopefully in a good way.”
“We’re in a whole new world.”
After the interview Cote was invited to perform a song with Bruce Longman who is a member of the group PHLO at the Oasis Bar and Grill. Longman played guitar on Cote’s first record.
Cote did a stunning impromptu version of Patsy Cline’s Crazy, that had the packed house yelling for more.