Below are selected works from my time at New Brunswick’s Telegraph-Journal.

The fabulous road to success; Television As Hampton’s Michael Yerxa shoots his last few episodes of 1 Girl 5 Gays, he reflects on his home province

New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal

Tue Jun 11 2013

By Cherise Letson

Michael Yerxa is a performer and always has been.

His Grade 8 English teacher, Theresa Ketchum-Boudreau, said Yerxa, who has been a cast member on MTV’s 1 Girl 5 Gays for the last four seasons, was destined for an entertainment career. She said she uses him as a source of inspiration for her students.

“He’s just an example for those kids of following your passion and setting a goal and moving towards achieving it. For them, that’s really important to make that connection, ” she said. “That a Grade 8 kid could know that this is where (his) passion lies and this is the road (he’s) going to travel and to do it, it’s a huge inspiration.”

The Hampton native said growing up in southern New Brunswick actually fostered his creativity.

“I always enjoyed growing up in New Brunswick and one thing that’s really amazing about where we grew up is that there is a really amazing arts community in Saint John and south New Brunswick,” he said. “There’s a lot of chances to do theatre or to see theatre, and I was always interested in the arts and it was really a wonderful place to be able to pursue that.”

Yerxa himself was heavily involved in the theatre program at Kennebecasis Valley High School.

After his high school graduation in 2001, Yerxa moved to Kingston, Ont., and attended Queen’s University. After graduating, he moved to Toronto.

“I had a friend of mine who was connected to the first people that were hired to bring MTV to Canada,” he said. “Subsequently from that what happened was a few years later they were developing a new show for Aliya-Jasmine (Sovani) for the network.”

The original concept for the show was straight couples giving other straight couples advice. As it evolved, it changed to gay couples giving straight couples advice or gay people giving straight people advice. It eventually took on the current format with 20 questions.

“Originally when they were developing it, they just asked a bunch of us to go in just to see how it would work with gay guys instead of straight couples,” Yerxa explained. “And I was asked by my friend, who’s a producer, to come in, and that’s where I really got my start on the show.”

On the show, current host Lauren Collins asks 20 questions to group of five gay men, which sparks frank, honest and often funny discussions. Topics can range from sex and relationships, to sometimes taboo topics. The show is now on its fourth season and has also been picked up by a network in the U.S.

“It really registered with people,” said Yerxa. “I think people have never seen gay individuals in media in a non-scripted kind of way. It was just really raw conversation between gay men.”

While the show features gay men, the content is accessible.

“Everyone can relate to it. I think when we talk about our relationships, just because they’re gay doesn’t mean they are different than anyone else’s. They’re sort of universal issues and problems people have in their relationships.”

Yerxa said he’s be approached by people on the street thanking him for the show because it helped them in some way. He said the show has served as an outlet for people who may not feel comfortable being gay in their own communities.

“I always say to people that I live in Toronto, (and) there’s a really amazing gay community here, but in smaller places around the country and around the world, they don’t have much access to a community or a group of people and they can’t go out to gay bars every weekend,” Yerxa said. “The show almost acts as their looking glass into the community or their bar on Friday or Saturday night. If they can’t go out to a bar, they can at least feel like they’re having conversations with people who are leading similar lives.”

Back home in New Brunswick, Yerxa said his response to the show from family and friends has been nothing but positive.

“I always had incredible support from my family and from people in New Brunswick. Everyone was sort of thrilled that I was a part of the show,” he said. “I think oftentimes with people that come from New Brunswick, there are not a lot of people on TV from our area. Everyone has been really supportive and thrilled for me.”

Ketchum-Boudreau, his former teacher and now principal at Hampton Middle School, is definitely one of those supports.

She said Yerxa’s also an example for young people who are insecure about being open about their sexuality.

“In my mind, for young people that may be unsure of what the future holds for them in that regard, he’s a guy who’s out there saying ‘this is who I am, like it or don’t.’ I just find that’s very inspirational as well.”

Yerxa said things have changed since he came out in his third year of university. He said he thinks 1 Girl 5 Gays is playing a role in changing people’s attitudes toward the gay community.

“I think the show is really necessary. I think we’re in a total generation of change. Bullying is a huge issue, and I think people are starting to really come around,” he said.

“Even if being a gay person is not what people believe in, maybe it’s against their belief system, I think they’re coming around to see that we are human beings and that we deserve equal rights.’

At the end of this season, 1 Girl 5 Gays will be getting a new cast. However, it won’t be the last we see of Yerxa. He’s already working on a new game show for YTV and hopes to work in more “queer” media in the future. Yerxa said being on the show has been humbling.

“It’s meant a tremendous amount to me, because I like being a gay person more than anything in the world. I enjoy it so much,” he said. “I always think about my 14-year-old self and I think about how if I’d have had the show when I was 14, how it would have changed my life, how it would have bettered my life.”

He said he hopes his voice on 1 Girl 5 Gays continues to have an influence.

“Even if my message reaches one kid. Even if I say one thing that really resonates with one kid and has an impact on their life, or how they’re able to be fully themselves, then I feel like my purpose is fulfilled.” 


Touching bedside marriage a cherished memory

New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal

Fri Jul 12 2013

By Cherise Letson

In her line of work, Nicole Hamming is reminded each day of the importance of living life to its fullest.

As the nurse manager of Bobby’s Hospice, she works to fulfil its mission of compassionate care that celebrates life.

That mission was never more evident than with the bedside marriage of Patrick Campbell and Debbie Bosco.

In late March, Bosco came to the 10-bed palliative care hospice in west Saint John to spend her last days following a lengthy battle with throat cancer.

Her final wish was to be married to her companion of 26 years, and while the hospice had staged baptisms and christenings, this wedding would be its first.

“We’d known that they have wanted to (get married), that was on her ‘bucket list’ she used to say. So Pat approached us and told us that they wanted to get married and how it could happen,” Hamming said.

The couple were to get married in the hospice’s chapel. The managers of the Hospice Shoppe took care of the dress and veil. A hospice staff member had recently been married and donated the decorations. Bosco was also pampered with a French manicure and the hospice arranged a photographer.

However, as Bosco’s health rapidly declined, plans for the wedding had to change.

“Unfortunately, she got quite ill before (the original date) and we told the family that we thought we need to push it up and make it a lot sooner than the original plan,” Hamming said.

The wedding took place April 5, a couple of weeks before the original date. The venue also changed to Bosco’s room, which guests packed to watch the ceremony.

“When she was all dressed up, it was overwhelming. I never expected that was going to happen,” the groom said in an interview this week at Bobby’s Hospice. “Just wow, she looked beautiful.”

Campbell speaks thoughtfully of the woman he met when he was 26. She was 19, full of life and dreams. Over the years they had talked about marriage, but life got in the way.

“I just didn’t want to get married right away. I didn’t want to be on welfare all the time and I didn’t want her being on welfare. I wanted to have a good job, make good money,” he said. “But that never happened, then she got sick.”

Following her diagnosis, Bosco spent time in Saint John Regional Hospital followed by palliative care and then Bobby’s Hospice.

Campbell was by her side throughout her illness, giving her strength and support. Near the end, he gave her the one thing he had not – a wedding ring.

Though Bosco struggled to say the word “yes” at the ceremony, she made her love for Campbell known when it came time to exchange rings.

“I put it on halfway beyond her knuckle and she lifted her hand shown to us, showing off the ring,” he said, smiling at the memory of the moment.

Bosco died close to 24 hours later on April 6.

“I wish I would have married her a long time ago,” Campbell said this week, sitting in the hospice chapel. “It might have been a bit better than getting married when she’s on her deathbed.”

Hamming said she was honoured that the hospice was able to help out with the wedding.

“It was very special, very beautiful. It’s wonderful to have been able to be a part of something that’s so important to people,” she said. “It’s really what we’re about here. Our goal is dignity and comfort and to enjoy as much as they can their last days.”

Though it may have happened near the end, Hamming said the wedding was a special memory in Bosco’s life.

“I think it’s beautiful. I think it’s wonderful that they’re able to still seize those moments and make those memories,” she said.

“In my line of work, I’m reminded on a daily basis how important it is to seize the moments and seize the days and enjoy each moment like it’s your last.”


Spinning through a decade: record store celebrates

New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal

Sat Jul 20 2013

By Cherise Letson

SAINT JOHN – When brothers Kris and Mike Hopper opened their record store in 2003 at the tender ages of 25 and 22, neither of them knew what would come of it.

“Back when we were in high school, the dream job was always to own your record store,” Mike Hopper said. “So we were thinking about it and two or three years planning, saving up. Then, in 2003 we were like ‘we got to take the chance, do it for fun, see what happens. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we tried.’?”

It worked. Secondspin is celebrating its 10-year anniversary on Saturday. The Hopper brothers will be celebrating with their loyal customers at the store, which is wedged in the strip mall at 535 Westmorland Place.

“It’s amazing. It worked,” Mike Hopper said. “It’s a dream come true. We’re doing what we want to do. We love it and everybody seems to like it and dig it in some way.”

Though in the hub of the city’s commercial area, when you step into Secondspin, you’re transported into the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll hangout. The faces of Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, the Buzzcocks and other legends of the devil’s music, greet you from the walls.

To your left are several display bins of CDs. To your right, is the same for DVDs. The walls are also lined with exclusive action figures and rock memorabilia you’ll never find at Toy R Us. But you might not notice all this right away with the overwhelming bins of vinyl in the middle.

The store didn’t always look like this. In 2003, the store didn’t sell any vinyl. However, a few years in, the music industry started feeling a shift. Vinyl, which many thought was condemned to the back cupboards, attics and garbage cans of the world, was making a slow and promising return.

“Back in the ’90s, that’s when CDs were at their full peak, and vinyl got pushed out of the major chain stores,” said Mike Hopper. “And then once the downloading in the 2000s (happened), that kind of wiped out all the major stores, and left small, independent guys.”

He said people who’ve been downloading their music for years are looking for something more real. They want a physical copy to take out of the wrapper and listen to through and through.

“I think downloading is disposable, because I don’t think there is any sense of ownership to your music like that,” Mike Hopper said. “And now there are all kinds of bands putting their reissues out. New bands like the Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, whoever, they’re putting it out on wax. They know their fans want that now.”

As the store’s vinyl offerings grew, Mike Hopper said the store started getting comparisons to other retailers in the city.

“There was lots of comparisons at first, lots of negativity and stuff,” He said. “But that always gets pushed aside. Now, we don’t really hear it because we’ve set ourselves apart.”

Carrying everything from brand new turntables, record crates, and exclusive posters and action figures, Kris Hopper said the merchandise, along with the store’s earlier market is what makes the store stand out.

“I think it’s got to be the toys, that’s definitely what keeps us apart, I think,” he said. “Plus, we were more, at first, concentrated on punk records, metal records, indie stuff. Now we’ve kind of expanded more into classic rock, we kind of appeal to everybody.”

In the decade to come, Secondspin plans to continue to expand, with a possible Fredericton location in the works. Looking at the past 10 years, Kris Hopper said he didn’t expect the store to be where it is now.

“I just can’t believe we’ve actually got to the 10 year point, really. Especially in this type of business. All through the late ’90s and early 2000s there were independent record stores closing everywhere, somehow, I think we got lucky and people supported our store.”

Like all independent records stores, he said Secondspin is a place for music lovers to share what they love most, the music.

“I think it’s one of those places where you’re always meeting somebody new in a shop like this,” said Kris Hopper. “I’m always learning about new kinds of music even from customers that come in. I might tell them something they don’t know about and that’s what’s great about it. It’s always been that way and even 10 years later it’s kind of what keeps you going.”


Skating through the fog; Film Saint John filmmaker James MacGowan examines the evolution of skateboarding in New Brunswick

New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal

Mon May 6 2013

By Cherise Letson

A local filmmaker hopes to inspire Saint John’s skateboarders to go back to their roots: the streets.

Pushin’ Through the Fog is a feature length skate film directed, filmed, and produced by 20-year-old James MacGowan.

“It started back in film studies class, to be honest,” said MacGowan, a graduate of Saint John High School. “It was when I first started getting into film. And once I got my VX 2000 (camcorder) that the video was filmed with, I was like ‘OK, time to do this.’ Because there hasn’t been a (skate) video coming out of the city in a few years.”

Pushin’ Through the Fog is the first skate film to come out of Saint John in over five years. The film premieres May 10 at 7 p.m. at the Saint John High School Auditorium. Admission is $5 and is open to all ages. The film depicts a group of Saint John skateboarders cruising some of their favourite spots across New Brunswick. They include the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University campuses in Fredericton, King Street in Saint John and several parking lots with concrete to jump over. You’ll see the skaters sliding down rails, leaping over staircases and grinding on ledges. Sometimes, they’ll even land in cringeworthy, painful positions.

One thing MacGowan did try to omit from the film was confrontation with law enforcement, which wasn’t unusual.

“I tried to stay away from that, because I find I could get in trouble for that,” MacGowan said. “But I do have a couple clips here and there, just showing cops talking to us or bums yelling at us trying to get us out of the spot, something like that.”

He said he wanted to show what skateboarding was like before the Station One skate park came to Saint John’s waterfront in 2008. A time when the only place skateboarders could skate was the concrete jungle.

“(It’s) 40 minutes of pure, raw, street skateboarding. Because there hasn’t been a video like that in a long time. Everyone nowadays, since we got the skate park, everybody’s at the skate park. That’s all your ever see,” MacGowan said.

He said the park has helped grow the city’s skate scene and helped change the public’s perception of it. However, he said street skating is still important, especially for young skaters who hope to get sponsored and turn professional.

“You got to get that (street skating) back into them, say if they wanted to get sponsored someday, they have to have street footage. Because sponsors don’t want to see park footage. They want to see you skating street and doing your own thing,” said MacGowan.

Though skateboarding’s rooted in street skating, he said many young skaters don’t know what it is or how to do it.

“That’s where skateboarding evolved in the first place. They had no skate parks 20 years ago. All they had was their skateboard and the streets,” said MacGowan.

The premiere is sponsored by East Side Board Supply, a local skate shop that also sponsors some skaters in the film.

“It kind of gives kids the idea that other than going to the skate park, there is a lot more to skateboarding as far as street skateboarding goes. It’s a culture thing more or less.” said Dan Boyer, assistant manager of East Side Board Supply in Saint John.

Boyer, who is also featured in the film, said it shows how much the skateboarding scene has changed in Saint John. He said the people featured in the film grew up without the park, and street skating was all they did.

“It has definitely changed. When I was a kid, we went to ‘the circle’ (by Market Square), that was our big thing. Or Loyalist Plaza and City Hall and Kings Square, that’s where everyone kind of met up (and) skated. We really didn’t have a place to go,” he said.

He said the film shows the city’s next generation of skaters what’s possible.

“It’s cool for the kids to see, although they may be only going to the park, that there is still stuff to skateboard beyond that park,” he said.