The city’s liberal establishment filled the Rose Wagner Center for the Performing Arts. Several gin & tonics in, they laughed uproariously at a ribald roast of lame duck Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson. Then, the emcee for the evening, TV newsman Chris Vanocur, took the microphone to introduce the next speaker—“of all the roasters here tonight, the only one who truly scares the crap out of me”—Babs De Lay.
De Lay, looking the part she’s played in Salt Lake City for 30 years of crew-cut power lesbian, stepped to the microphone. She launched into an orgy of groans and grunts she titled “The Man Who Loved to Make Vaginas Happy.”
“Rocky loves vaginas, erect nipples, delicious mouths, moaning in various keys,” she began. As De Lay moaned, slapping her own ass, silence fell, leaving the crowd of self-selected Rocky Anderson liberals a sea of gaping mouths.
It was a performance De Lay had given about 100 times before as comic relief in the Eve Ensler play The Vagina Monologues—only with Rocky substituted as protagonist. De Lay has directed the play for seven years—casting the show with amateurs and local high-profile women—earning her national recognition in 2005 for bringing in more money to stop violence against women than the Utah Legislature. Many in the audience evidently hadn’t seen the De Lay version of the show. Or maybe they prefer their moaning come with advance warning.
Not that the reaction bothered De Lay. As far as her public persona goes, at least, De Lay has never given a damn about what anybody else thinks. Her ability to veer ahead past any barrier—actual or perceived—may be the secret to her success.
For those who hadn’t seen De Lay onstage before, the performance was an introduction to one of the most powerful figures in downtown Salt Lake City’s multimillion-dollar real-estate market. De Lay has defined that place for herself much as she has everything else in her 52 years.
Hers is a history of personal and professional risk. De Lay started life as a child of privilege, raised on horseback riding and dinners served by maids. That life was traumatically redefined at age 15, when she became pregnant following a rape by her own stepfather. A resulting pregnancy brought identical twin girls into the world—and De Lay to Utah.
De Lay has spent nearly her entire adult life in the public eye, the highest-profile lesbian in Utah and host of a weekly radio show. Like many celebrities, she’s at once loved and hated. Her brusque manner, impatience and damn-the-costs plain speaking have earned De Lay her share of detractors. For some, she is—as Vanocur joked—truly scary. Yet, like all storied monsters, she has a soft side. De Lay can be charming, funny, generous both with time and money and has a private life that includes the two devoted adult daughters she gave up at birth.
For a period 20 years ago, no one in Salt Lake City wanted to know De Lay, not even in the gay community. Now that it’s cool to be gay, at least downtown—or at least to have gays driving up property values—De Lay is sought for advice by the chamber of commerce and serves as a member of Salt Lake City’s Planning and Zoning Commission. She managed the rise from outcast to top perch while staying unapologetically herself. Love her. Hate her. Just don’t waste her freaking time.
“They Just Cut ’Em Out”
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Raised in a prominent upstate New York family, Babette De Lay should have had it made. But life quickly went downhill. Her only sister died of leukemia at 4; her brother killed himself at 12. After the family moved to Arizona to start a cattle-ranching operation, her grandfather noticed De Lay was wearing away the top of her shoe, and she was diagnosed with a rare leg disease that kept the young De Lay immobilized for two years. The end result was her characteristic limp and chronic pain. De Lay calls it “carpal tunnel of the ass.”
When she was 12, her parents divorced. Her mother would remarry several times. The last of the husbands De Lay would know as stepfather raped her when she was 15.
The adult De Lay tells the story dispassionately, coloring it with an occasional sarcastic barb in the clipped patois of a ’30s gangster. But she doesn’t meet the eyes of her interviewer and, looking off into the distance, rubs her buzz cut repeatedly front to back.
“I went for my exam for summer camp. My mother said, ‘I think she has a tumor.’ The doctor said, ‘I think she has two,’” she deadpans.
Eight months pregnant with twins, De Lay recounts living in the physician’s basement until she gave birth. An attempt at inducing labor failed. “They finally just cut ’em out,” she says. De Lay fell into a coma. When she woke, her babies were gone. Ten days later, she was sent away from Arizona to Wasatch Academy, a private school in Mount Pleasant, an artsy girl who sang alto and played the French horn with the youth symphony orchestra.
And that appears to be the last time Babs De Lay did exactly as she was told. Lesbian Powerhouse
Through her late teens and into her mid-30s, De Lay says she kept herself, “anaesthetized”—drunk or high every day—unable to deal with the rape or to come to terms with her sexuality. Eventually, she says she learned to forgive and plow forward. “I’m kind of intolerant of people, sometimes, who are stuck in their own emotions and can’t get over themselves. It’s like, ‘Deal with it,’” she says. “It’s like people that moan how badly their parents treated them, and they’re 45 years old. Get over it. Forgive yourself and your parents and move on.”
De Lay recalled her first attempt at coming out after determining she was a lesbian—a scary adventure to a downtown “women’s bar” that ended in disappointment when she pushed her friend ahead at the door only to find the door locked and the bar out of business.
When De Lay came out, it was with a flourish, with a shaved head and a pink braided “tail” hanging down her back.
Ben Williams, the unofficial historian of gay Utah, recalls the late-1970s’ De Lay as “a powerhouse” in Utah’s women’s movement. De Lay edited The Salt Lick, one of the city’s first gay newsletters. Later, she published The Rocky Mountain Woman. She ran women’s support groups, assertiveness-training sessions and was called on to lecture on gayness to the wider community. Later, she would become president of The Rape Recovery Center, where she still trains volunteers.
The episode that would define De Lay for some detractors—and challenge her instinctive survival mechanism as much being an openly gay Utah businesswoman—came in 1984. She was working as a DJ at the Puss ’n Boots club. Sports Illustrated had published an article alleging South Carolina women’s basketball coach Pam Parsons had a lesbian relationship with a player. Parsons was fired, and afterward sued the magazine saying the story wasn’t true.
De Lay knew better. Parsons, who had family in Utah, frequented Puss ’n Boots with her lover. When De Lay saw Parsons on TV, denying she was gay, it was more than she could stand. She telephoned the magazine and was soon testifying in a South Carolina federal courtroom. Parsons lost the case and later pleaded guilty to perjury.
The impact on the emerging Salt Lake City gay community was huge, says Williams. Some thought De Lay a hero, but many felt she had betrayed a still heavily closeted lesbian community. De Lay “became the focus of people’s fears of being outed,” says Williams.
For a time afterward, coming out in Utah meant deciding if you were pro- or anti-De Lay. To this day, De Lay says, some gays won’t talk to her—but she doesn’t apologize. “If we can’t base our existence on truth, we might as well go away,” she says. “I believe in the truth.”
In De Lay’s mind, she had no choice. She wasn’t the only one who thought someone should speak up, but she was the only one who was out.
Indirectly, the episode took De Lay to real estate, where, playing the lone wolf again, she could work for herself. Coverage of her trial testimony put her face in USA Today, and “the odds of my getting a job for The Man were kind of bad,” she says. Six months into her first job, De Lay says her broker summoned her and abruptly fired her for being gay.
It was the last time that would happen. Quickly, the industry figured out gays had money. For 10 years running, De Lay was cited as one of the country’s top-selling agents. Always Ahead of the Curve
De Lay thinks her frankness helped her career. “Realtors are sometimes seen as a little shady,” she says. “I took it up the ass for many years because I was one of the few ‘out’ gays working in this community in the business world, and now people respect me for that.”
It also doesn’t hurt that De Lay seems to have an uncanny ability to stay ahead of market and cultural trends.
Sitting on the outdoor patio of her sixth-floor, $700,000 condo in the Dakota Lofts building, De Lay has a commanding view of downtown Salt Lake City. It looks more vibrant—and a lot more like De Lay—than anyone would have imagined when she first bought into the building in the late-1990s.
De Lay opened her brokerage, Urban Utah Homes and Estates, at the Dakota after she was unable to sell property she owned there. Across the street was an undeveloped field. Today, the Disneyesque towers of The Gateway, Salt Lake City’s upstart downtown, rise directly across 400 South, and everywhere, contractors are busily fitting condos for a growing population searching for the bit of city life in Utah De Lay went looking for a decade earlier.
Today, according to the statistics De Lay keeps by tracking downtown condo sales, the new downtown Salt Lakers are Democrats between the age of 30 and 50 who eat out three times a week, own a pet, and have a more than 30 percent probability of being gay.
Pride of place inside De Lay’s condo belongs to a photo of “Uncle Fred,” the owner of a New York City professional-chef-supply store, dubbed “The Meanest Man in New York” by the Manhattan media on his death.
“He only sold to chefs, so if the public walked in and wanted to touch everything, he was like, ‘Get out. Don’t waste my time,’” recalls De Lay, who worked at the store summers. “I think I take a lot after him.”
Women who have volunteered to perform in her Vagina Monologues productions say De Lay demands punctuality and barks at those who fail to enunciate. On the Planning and Zoning Commission, De Lay is known for insisting builders accommodate the disabled—and for her impatience. She recently interrrupted a fellow commissioner who, three hours into a meeting, began quoting Mark Twain, reigning him in with “Come back. Come back.”
The beams of her condo are lined with Mexican Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) dolls, reminders of the many friends De Lay lost during the ’80s AIDS epidemic. De Lay ran a Sub for Santa program for the Utah AIDS Foundation for 10 years, never meeting any of the recipients. She became a minister around the same time in order to bury friends. Today, she mostly marries people, often at the Burning Man festival in Nevada.
De Lay hasn’t had a TV for four years, shutting it off because she doesn’t want to know what Paris Hilton is up to. She has never been to Wal-Mart, has never seen American Idol and doesn’t own a microwave.
She lives only in the moment, purposefully. “I’ve created my own universe, and I like it,” she says.
For the past 10 years, that universe has included her two identical twin daughters— “bossy, bright, beautiful babes”—who De Lay met as adults. They call her “Madre.”
Shellie Stehmeier, from the Los Angeles area, says discovering that her mother was De Lay wasn’t shocking at all. “She was so genuine, it was just instant admiration and an instant bond,” she says.
“She’s just a positive individual. You can’t help but feel her positive feelings and influences from her own life just rub off on you,” Stehmeier says. “She doesn’t let the events of her life—which for most individuals would be horrific—stop her. She just does her thing and plods along.”
No Hugging, Please
Arriving at the North Temple studios of KRCL 90.9 FM Thursday precisely at 8:45 a.m., as she has for 27 years, De Lay makes a few quick real-estate phone calls. Then she opens a binder filled with CDs by women, from the earliest recordings of Lena Horne to contemporary artists. At 9 a.m., she hits the airwaves, her voice suddenly switching to sexy-smooth as she plows through an interview with the operator of a Park City women’s shelter, a reading from a book of women’s history and a wacky sci-fi program about a female android whom De Lay thinks “kicks ass.” Off-air, she cranks up the tunes, singing along and, when the disco comes on, dancing a bit.
Throughout, De Lay gives listeners snippets from the biographies of the artists she plays. She wants younger listeners to understand that pioneering women inspired younger startlets, much as De Lay herself hopes she has been an example for younger women.
Donna Land Maldonado, KRCL’s manager, recalled the beginning of Women: The Third Decade. De Lay came to the studio occasionally to promote the United Way—and complain about the quality of KRCL’s women’s programming. “Our program director said, ‘Well, then you do it.’” Maldonado recalls. “She said, ‘OK, I will.’”
In the early days, Maldonado says De Lay didn’t speak to anyone—just marched into the studio, turned on her radio voice for a few hours, then marched out again. It’s the De Lay no-nonsense persona. “She doesn’t suffer fools at all,” says Maldonado.
De Lay has mellowed since. But acquaintances say, to this day, she doesn’t hug. Maldonado has known and worked with De Lay for nearly 30 years, but doesn’t know—and says she wouldn’t ask—if she has a partner. (The answer is that De Lay is currently single.)
In some ways, the outrageous public personality is a private person. On the radio, she constantly puts out calls for volunteers to help the women’s shelters but frankly admits she couldn’t do it herself.
“I’m not good at touchy-feely. I’m a thinker. Too many emotions overwhelm my databased brain. The people who work with battered women or rape victims one-on-one, they are very in touch with people’s emotions,” she says. “I can provide better services, figure out your annual budget, your public relations. I’m just not going to be the one sitting and holding a group therapy.”
Julie Brizzée, De Lay’s friend and a mortgage lender, doesn’t completely buy the persona. “She’s a pussycat trapped in a lion’s body,” Brizzée says. “As often as she can make you cry by pushing you and pushing you and pushing you, she makes you cry by being so damned nice.”
Brizzée recalls getting into hot water with De Lay when the pair jointly advertised a series of tongue-in-cheek ads in City Weekly that made them appear naked behind strategically placed office furniture. (De Lay is an advertiser in City Weekly. Paula Saltas, the paper’s assistant business manager and wife of founder John Saltas, is a real-estate agent who works out of De Lay’s brokerage.) Complaints about the ads’ simulated nudity poured in to the Utah Association of Realtors.
“I’m freaking out,” says Brizzée. “She is just giggling. She’s like, ‘Let ’em try to take our license away. Last time I checked, the First Amendment was still in force.’”
“She’s very good at challenging people’s limits,” says Brizzée. “I could say to Babs, ‘I don’t do commercial lending.’ She’s like, ‘You do now.’ She really tries to make people better themselves. She is very intimidating and could be very frightening, but that woman would give her shirt off her back for someone.”
For every person who thinks De Lay is just mean, there is a pair of former bartenders whom De Lay bankrolled to their own business.
“I really am big about paying it forward,” De Lay says. “I believe in karma. It’s my universal belief that we have to give in the place we chose to live.” “This Is What I Like”
That is about as much “touchy-feely” as De Lay has time for.
“I can’t enter into a long discourse,” she says. “Let’s get to the point. Just keep moving. My train is very fast.”
At De Lay’s condo, the phone goes off about once a minute. (“Hello, hey did you get that fax? … Holy crap-a-holy, I think we need to counter this.”) There are four offers on the table and a guy wanting desperately to buy his neighbor’s home. Then there is the AIDS Foundation fund-raiser, the Human Rights Campaign banquet (De Lay donates to both groups) and a real-estate class she’s teaching.
Out the window, a new TRAX line is under construction. De Lay loves the chaos.
Having built a world for herself, she is now helping build a city that she takes comfort living in, recently signing up for a second four-year stint on the city planning commission. De Lay hasn’t become The Establishment, but The Man is now coming to her. The Downtown Alliance, an offshoot of the Salt Lake Area Chamber trying to gin up downtown, happily embraces her, turning to De Lay for help putting on its annual Downtown Living Fair.
Last year, Urban Utah Homes and Estates sold $83 million worth of properties in Salt Lake County. The brokerage beat out four others in a competition to sell Marmalade, a new 90-unit project. De Lay, herself, is the agent for 200 condos coming online in the next 18 months. That’s about one-fifth of the total condos going up around downtown, according to alliance statistics.
She recently purchased the 9,000-square-foot commercial space on the ground floor of the Dakota Lofts for new offices she’ll need for an anticipated near doubling—to 60—of the number of agents working under her brokerage license.
De Lay says she’s “building Salt Lake one homeowner at a time.”
“I am the demographic,” she says, explaining her success. “I live down here. I work down here. I shop at the farmers’ market, take public transportation. I really, really believe in the city and downtown. … This is what I like.”
What De Lay likes, there’s probably more of in Salt Lake City’s future. If it’s not what you like, try telling it to someone who cares.