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Saturday August 11, 2001

MuchMusic's 'baby VJ'
By BRENDAN KELLY
The Gazette

Amanda Walsh had planned to start studying communications this fall at Concordia. Instead the 19-year-old from Rigaud has skipped a few steps in her media training and is holding down her first full-time job as a VJ on MuchMusic. Walsh, who began on-air at the Toronto-based national music-video network on July 9, is the youngest video-jockey in the history of Much. She actually has some experience as a music-video host: she played one last year in a brief scene in film-maker Denys Arcand's showbiz satire, Stardom. But she is as surprised as anyone that she's landed such a prime TV job.

It certainly wasn't part of her master career plan. In fact, Walsh's big break came courtesy of the sort of chance meeting that is only supposed to happen in Hollywood fairy tales.

In Tinseltown lore, the screen siren is discovered by the studio mogul at the drugstore on Sunset Blvd. In Walsh's case, it happened at the Chateau du Lac in Hudson.

Last year, Walsh spent some time flipping crepes at the World's Fair in Hannover, Germany, and then backpacked across Europe. Took a Waitressing Job

When she got back to Montreal late last year, she applied to Concordia for the fall and, while waiting to start university, took a part-time job as a waitress at the well-known Hudson watering hole.

One day this spring, an acquaintance of Walsh dropped by the Chateau du Lac with a producer from MuchMoreMusic, MuchMusic's adult-contemporary sister station. Walsh's friend mentioned that Walsh was into theatre and improv, and the producer suggested she send a demo tape to the MuchMusic bosses. She took his advice, and soon enough she landed one of the higher-profile TV-host jobs in the country.

"I find it really funny, just the way the events happened," Walsh said in a phone interview this week from the CityTV/MuchMusic building on Toronto's trendy Queen St. W.

"The fact that I took that job (at the Chateau du Lac) not really wanting it, and I was walking by that table and a guy I barely knew introduced me to someone I didn't even know. Just the whole turn of events. Because I've watched MuchMusic and I thought that I'd like to be a VJ. But it never went any further than that. I always just dismissed the thought."

The senior managers at MuchMusic were smitten with Walsh as soon as they saw her homemade audition tape.

"We're always poring over endless amounts of tapes," said Sheila Sullivan, director of music programming at MuchMusic. "We looked at Amanda's tape and were immediately floored. The sparkle, the creativity, it was dynamic. Usually you look at tapes and you get a straight stand-up, 'Hi, my name is so-and-so, I'd like to see this video and here's this video now.' Amanda's tape was very different. She wrote little skits. She went out on the street and interacted with people." Walsh, known around the office as Much's "baby VJ," is the first Quebecer to join the Much on-air team in a number of years. In the early days of MuchMusic in the mid-'80s, several of the best-known VJs were Montreal exports, including Erica Ehm, Steve Anthony and Mike Williams. Ehm, in fact, hails from Hudson, making the bucolic upscale Quebec town something of a hotbed for budding MuchMusic VJs. Two other Montrealers, Natalie Richard and Juliette Powell, both MusiquePlus veterans, were part of the Much VJ stable several years back.

Last month, popular Much host Rachel Perry, a young, lively blonde, left the station to move to New York, and Walsh - also young, lively and blond - is widely seen as the station's replacement for Perry. (MuchMusic is set to lose another well-known personality, with the announcement this week that Tony Young, aka Master T, is leaving after 11 years with the network.) Walsh does not have a lot of high-profile on-air TV experience. But she has been performing one way or another ever since she can remember, with lots of amateur theatre and improv comedy under her belt. She was a member of the improv troupe 8 People while studying creative arts at John Abbott College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, and her improv gang won a gold medal at a national improv tournament in Quebec City last year. She further honed her improv skills in an unusual job a couple of years ago with Canada Customs. She was hired to play various shifty-eyed, nervous people crossing the border as part of a training exercise for would-be Customs agents. The trainees had to try to guess if Walsh was playing a character who was actually smuggling something across the border or was simply nervous for other reasons. Improv teaches you to think on your feet, a skill that comes in handy as a VJ, noted Walsh.

"Just being able to think on your feet is really important," said Walsh. "There's no tele-prompters. I have to figure out what I'm going to say and how I'm going to say it. Sometimes we'll shoot out on the street and you just have to react to what's going on around you and not be afraid." Walsh is taking a pass on university for the moment. She's skipping class in part because the MuchMusic gig is a great opportunity. But she also figures school is not the only place to further her education. "There's definitely a lot to learn here as well and it's in the same field as I was going to study in. But school is something I'm still keeping in my plans. I've always been a school person. It's important to me."