Oh, Sweet Sarah, there have been good times. But for Lady Di and her fans all over the world, the times they are a-changin’.
Lady Di, another part of Vernon Porter, has delighted WOMR-FM radio listeners for 22 years with her show Leggs Up and Dancing. The 5 p.m. Friday night spot has set off the weekend in style for many. WOMR Executive Director John Braden describes Leggs Up as “an oldies show where the host sings along to the music — way off key.
“It is a bit of a phenomenon,” Braden continues. “It has taught me we have no idea what people will like or support.”
Lady Di has listeners who tune in online from as far away as Kuwait and South Korea. Fans have brought cake and champagne to her in the station’s Provincetown studio. They have asked her to officiate at their weddings and invited her to Thanksgiving dinner. Mary Richardson of WCVB Channel 5 called her “Provincetown’s Sweetheart,” and the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce placed a stone with the sobriquet at its entrance.
Lady Di has also been the nonprofit community radio station’s top fundraiser for many years, typically bringing in $30,000 a year. That exceeds the second-place fundraiser “by a lot,” says Braden.
But in late August, Lady Di hung up her radio dancing shoes. For financial reasons, Porter says, he had to sell his Provincetown condominium, which he bought in 1999, and move to Sandwich. For a person born in 1947 with some health problems, he says, the long commute became unsustainable.
Leggsup.us can now be found on the live stream service Twitch on Friday nights at 5 p.m. Porter also plans to reconnect with his listeners soon on the Pennsylvania-based internet radio station Tube City Online.
But Lady Di’s grand dame days at WOMR are over — and that, says Braden, “is a real loss for us.
“She is very embracing. Everyone she talks to, she talks to like a friend,” he says. “Even if they have never met, there is a lot in common in her eyes.”
Porter was born in Springhill, Nova Scotia — the home of Anne Murray, one of his favorite singers. (Murray’s father was the Porters’ family doctor.) Porter’s father was a coal miner; he moved the family to Waltham when his son was 14.
Porter attended the Waltham public schools, was married for 15 years, and had a daughter, Sarah, who is now 44. (That is why Lady Di says “Sweet Sarah” a lot.)
For years, Porter worked at the Polaroid Corp., where he says he became its first male executive secretary. (He says he could type 95 words a minute.) Porter left Polaroid and eventually opened a shop where women could buy clothes “for any age in any size.” When business problems ended the retail phase of his life, Porter picked up work as a medical assistant.
In 1999, he met David Guertin, then the director of the Provincetown Dept. of Public Works, who was his neighbor in complex where Porter had a small condominium on the Truro-Provincetown line.
“David convinced me to work for the selectmen,” says Porter who became the board’s executive assistant.
In 2007, however, Porter began to run into problems with the select board.
“I ended up leaving in September 2013,” he says. “I was having PTSD, and I still have it.” His appeal of the town’s denial of disability benefits based on evidence that his health suffered from a hostile work environment is still before the Contributory Retirement Appeal Board.
While radio fans might not know the challenges Lady Di has faced in her life, they must understand that her gender fluidity made her vulnerable — and that revealing it has been a brave and joyous experience for her.
Porter is happy to talk about gender. He says he did not start dressing as a woman until he came to Provincetown in the 1990s — at the encouragement of a friend and patron of his shop called “Auntie Helen.”
“When Helen said to ‘come dressed,’ I showed up in a three-piece suit,” Porter says. “I had no idea what crossdressing was back then.”
He has never really identified with a particular category. He says he has been interviewed many times by “social workers and shrinks.” At one conference of psychologists where Porter was a panelist, the experts dubbed Porter/Lady Di “gender gifted.”
“It is someone who understands and knows both genders,” he says. “I am not a crossdresser; I don’t have to do this. It is just another part of me. If I am dressed as Vernon, I expect people to call me Vernon. When I am dressed as a woman, I act like a woman.”
That permission to be yourself is at the heart of Lady Di’s appeal. The fact that she’s OK with singing over the music, with panache if not perfect pitch, reinforces that message.
What began accidentally — the result of a hot mic and exuberant singing — people have come to love.
Nasser Alhamad began listening to Leggs Up and Dancing years ago when he stumbled upon the show on a visit to Provincetown. He and his fiancée later became diehard fans from their New York home. They had no idea Lady Di officiated at weddings. But when a friend told him Lady Di might be able to marry them in Provincetown, it seemed meant to be.
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” Alhamad said. “We wanted traditional vows, but Lady Di did an amazing Native American prayer afterward. It was lovely. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful wedding.”