Sometimes it was green beans. Sometimes creamed corn. And sometimes it was vye-EE-ners (a.k.a., Vienna sausages). But whatever DeAundra Peek and her lash-to-brow, single-shade eyeshadow happened to be serving, you could always count on it being glamorous, high class, and in a can.
Sporting reverse Farrah Fawcett feathering and minty Karen Carpenter couture, DeAundra Peek waltzed her way across Atlanta's People TV public-access channel from 1987 to 2004 with the infectious charisma of Tammy Faye Bakker and the naïvely self-assured conviction of Florence Foster Jenkins. Singing was her primary talent—to use the term loosely—but DeAundra also gave her viewers fashion tips, cooking lessons, and general life advice, first as a recurring character on The American Music Show and later as the star of her very own DeAundra Peek's Teenage Music Club.
There's something undeniably pure about the energy that DeAundra brought to every small-screen appearance. She just seems so happy to be spending time with you through the magic of television, whether she's serenading a can of wieners with Mariah Carey's "Dreamlover" or transforming the tranquilized existentialism of the lyrics to Deee-Lite's "What Is Love?" into a series of super literal questions about how to pronounce words that start with "de–." Howda yew say depressed? I honestly can't remember when I watch DeAundra perform.
"She's sort of goofy and kind of stupid, you know, but sweet and good-hearted," Rosser Shymanski, DeAundra Peek's out-of-drag alter ego, told me. "She's all about getting people all excited, and she's so grateful for having a stage and having a Mee Maw who lets her express her god-given talent."
Shymanski, who recently turned 59, retired his DeAundra Peek character in 2006 following "a horrible year" in which he lost his partner, Rodney, suddenly and unexpectedly to liver cancer. But the Florida-born Atlanta local, who has worked at Georgia Public Broadcasting since 1988 and now serves as Television Production Manager of the PBS member station, says that DeAundra will soon leave the cozy confines of her Mee Maw's trailer in Palmetto to perform for the first time in a decade.
I called up Shymanski a couple weeks ago to get the scoop on the Atlanta public-access legend's grand return to entertainment. The man I spoke with was every bit as warm, charismatic, and inviting as his drag persona, even if he didn't punctuate his sentences with an ear-splitting "YAYYYYYYYYY." For nearly an hour and a half, Shymanski recounted the birth of DeAundra Peek—whom I first learned about thanks to a "greatest hits" retrospective screened by Brooklyn's Spectacle movie theater in June—his lifelong involvement in TV broadcasting, the importance of knowing your queer history, and even a couple of fun anecdotes about Supermodel of the World herself RuPaul, who came up in Atlanta around the same time as Rosser before sashaying away to New York in the mid-'80s. You ready to go behind the Vienners?
Hi, Rosser! Before we get to DeAundra Peek, can you tell me a little bit about Rosser Shymanski? Like, where were you born?
I was born in Avon Park, Florida, but we moved over to Bradenton on the West Coast. It was fantastic, growing up on the beach. I come from a family of surfers. I didn't really surf myself, but all my brothers and my sisters surfed. I was born in 1957. Just turned 59, recently. It's, like, freaky as hell! You know? Like, "Wow, what the hell happened?" It seems like just yesterday that I graduated from University of Florida—I'm a Gator—and moved to Atlanta in 1983. Now once I got to college… That was when I came out. I came out right before I went away, on the Fourth of July.
Whoa. Happy anniversary!
This will be…39 years since I came out. It was tough at the time, and I didn't come out in my hometown until a couple years later. But being away at college, that was when I really started to open up more and allow myself to just be myself. I started doing drag shows every now and again. Me and my friends would come up with characters and do a show for Pride or at a local club when the resident drag queens took the night off. That was fun then, of course, being out and a part of a gay community. I was meeting lots of creative people, which really helped me hone my creativity. I'd always thought I wasn't an artist because I couldn't draw a human face, but then I realized: You don't have to draw a human face to be an artist!
How did you end up on public access once you got to Atlanta?
I first appeared on The American Music Show in the fall of 1983, just a few months after I moved to Atlanta. What happened was I went over to a friend's house Friday night when the show was on. I'm watching the show, which was all done on VHS camcorder, and I see Julian Bond's younger brother, James Bond, sitting right next to RuPaul, whose posters I had been seeing all over town. I just thought, "Oh, my god! I've got to get on this show."
I was gonna ask you about RuPaul! I figured you two had some kind of Atlanta-in-the-'80s connection.
He was performing all over Atlanta and had been on The American Music Show since around 1982. The producer of that program, Dick Richards, ended up signing RuPaul to his record label, Funtone USA, which then released his first two albums, [1985's] Sex Freak and [1986's] RuPaul is Star Booty, locally in Atlanta. We actually got sent an advance copy of the "Supermodel" video a few years later in 1992. We all went over to Dick Richards' house, and everybody was just sobbing and crying, like, "Man, this is it!" We just knew that that was the moment when RuPaul was finally going to become famous. We all knew he was gonna be famous—even when he was homeless, we all knew he was gonna be famous.
So, wait—back to you. How did you end up getting on the show?
Well, I had graduated from University of Florida with a degree in television production, so I sent Dick Richards a letter along with a really serious résumé and cover letter, which they read the next week on the show. I was humiliated! I thought, "Oh, my god. I totally blew it." Then a month later, Dick Richards, Potsy Duncan, and Reina Oostingh came to my Midtown apartment to tape an episode with me. They thought my disastrous cover letter was funny and wanted to see what I was all about. The very next day after the episode aired, I was at McGuire's Bookshop when the cashier looked at me and said, "I saw you on TV last night!" That was it—I was hooked.
When did DeAundra Peek enter the picture?
For the first couple of years, I was always just me on The American Music Show: a struggling artist working on my own projects and showing them off, gifting everyone with hand-painted T-shirts and buttons and stuff—you can't go wrong with a little swag! At some point, Dick Richards, the producer, asked me to do some characters onscreen. I started creating characters based on need. One week, they might need a farmer. The next week, a mailman. One week, they decided to do the Peek sisters, and so I picked a name, put on the makeup, and DeAundra was born. We became this overnight sensation in Atlanta, and by 1988 we were doing a bunch of gigs at Club Rio downtown.
Where did her voice come from? Her style?
It's kind of a mish-mash of a bunch of people. She was pretty stiff in the beginning, when I look at the really early tapes. It took me a couple of years before I was totally natural. The rule is: Never come out of character. When I did club gigs, I'd show up at the club in character, and that was it all night. As for DeAundra's personality, I wanted to make her different from the other Peek sisters. I didn't wanna be a mean character, and all the Peek sisters had—well, I won't say mean, but pretty caustic personalities. So, DeAundra ended up being so sweet and lovable and innocent—she just couldn't possibly be mean!
What was Atlanta drag scene and gay nightlife like in the age of DeAundra?
We really had a great time in the '80s and '90s because Atlanta had a fantastic club scene back then. There were clubs in several different areas of town where you could to for shows—if not you, then someone you knew. Colorbox, 788, Velvet—and the upstairs area Mr. Chuck Brand called the Popcorn Lounge. Gosh, we'd have a party there, and it would be all our local celebrities. We even had some big-time people like Holly Woodlawn. You know, the Warhol superstar? Holly was great. She passed away last year, but man! Everything you read about her was so true. She was just such a sweetheart. Having a cocktail with her, it felt like you were sitting there chatting with someone you'd known for a while.
And then us Atlanta folks would go visit everyone else. We went out to Los Angeles for SPEW 2, this underground fanzine fest, and then Pride in San Francisco and of course Lady Bunny's Wigstock for years in the '90s. We'd go to Wigstock for four or five days, book some gigs at a couple of clubs—the Limelight, the Pyramid Club. The night I was gonna perform at the Limelight for Wigstock, I was featured in a segment on this Fox show called Best of the Worst hosted by Greg Kinnear—in his early days, before the Oscar nom. They did a roundup show of public-access programming that was so bad, you loved it, and they picked DeAundra Peek! When I did my show that night at midnight, people were screaming because they'd just seen me on TV.
When was the last time you performed as DeAundra?
The last time was in 2006. The year before that was a horrible year for me personally. My good friend, Rodney—basically my partner—we had bought a house, and three weeks later he got sick. He ended up having liver cancer, and just before Christmas he died. It was terrible. Horrible. I was his caregiver. I took some time off after that because I was just fucked up, you know? It was so draining. He was just this incredibly healthy guy, went to the gym every day. Liver cancer is just a terrible thing. So, the last time I did DeAundra was for a friend's pilot for one of those food networks the following years. It was a Southern cooking show hosting by Rhubarb Jones, an Atlanta DJ who'd been on air for, like, a hundred years. I did a "Vienner" recipe, but the pilot didn't go any place. I've been doing some bands since then, the last one was the Wayward Family Band.
Do you think you'll ever bring DeAundra back?
Yes, actually. I'm planning a performance for the 50th birthday party of a really good friend of mine. His boyfriend—who was the editor of Etc. Magazine, one of our local gay rags here in Atlanta years ago—asked if I'd make a special appearance as DeAundra. It's a private party, not a club, but it's big enough for me to get all made up for!
What did it mean to you to have a creative medium like public-access television be so, um, public and accessible?
It was a great way for the John Q. Public to go and have a voice, and that's what we were doing: expressing ourselves and having a voice. We did commentary on social issues disguised as improvisational comedy, and we seemed to hit a nerve with a lot of people! The crazy thing is that even to this day I'll still get a phone call. Like, how you're talking to me! Thank goodness for the internet.
You've been out and gay for literally decades. Is there anything you'd like to say about the state of gayness, especially in light of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando?
You know, with all the crazy events in Orlando recently, it makes you think. That could have been any club, anywhere. We could've all been having a good time, which is not something gay people can do all over the place. I'm old enough now that I don't have to take any shit from anybody—if you're gonna give me shit, well, you don't have to be in this room! But clubs are a refuge for gay people to be themselves. The world is a lot safer today for us, but there's a lot of gay history that a lot of gay kids need to research and find out about. There's a lot of gay culture that they have to learn because no one is teaching it when we're youngsters. It's not like American history. You don't get it in school. No relatives are gonna talk to you about it. I'm glad people have the option to get married now, even though I was never someone who thought about getting married. But young gay people need to remember that there was a time when even that wasn't possible. You can't lose sight of that. The world is a lot better for gay people than it used to be, but we've still got a long way to go.
Any last words of wisdom you'd like to impart, Rosser?
When I first came out, I thought being gay was just gonna be a sexual thing, that it would just be me admitting that I wanted to have sex with dudes. I told myself I wasn't gonna turn into some kind of raging queen, but, within a very short amount of time, I was! And I became an absolute member of my local gay community. That thinking was because of ignorance on my part. Ignorance and fear. Those are the biggest things we need to wipe out among young kids today. Get rid of that fear, and just be yourself!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.