Valisia LeKae is a Grammy- and Tony-nominated singer and actress who performed as Diana Ross in the Broadway musical Motown: The Musical. The Memphis native was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2013 while performing in Motown, and left the show in December of that year for treatment. She is now living cancer-free on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her husband, Michael Ash, a retired photographers’ agent, and their two rescue dogs, Blu and Rosie. She is currently performing in Mark Twain’s River of Song at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley in Mountain View, California. Yes, Valisia sings to her dogs—and they sing back.
Did you grow up with dogs?
I did not. The only dog I remember being in my family was my grandmother’s. She had a dog named Tony Boy. He passed away when I was very young, so he was only there for a short part of my life. But I did not have any pets at all growing up. I did not get a pet until I went to college, and it was a turtle. I called him Yurtle the Turtle—and that was it! But I think my first dog was probably around [when I was] 25.
“These are my babies. He’s Papa and I’m Mama.”
When did you realize you were a dog person?
I was in Las Vegas working, performing in Mamma Mia, and my friend, who was also from New York, had a pup. I was touring, so it was not really easy to travel with a dog. I just remember thinking, “Oh, I want a dog.” There was a local adoption at a Petco, and I saw this dog while driving into the lot. He was a Poodle, and he was so sweet. Immediately, I adopted him. From that moment on, I was hooked. I named him Cosby. He passed away recently, after my stint with cancer, in 2014.
How did you get your second dog?
I adopted her, as well. I was on Petfinder. I wanted a Bichon, because I saw Bichons and loved their temperament. So, I adopted a Bichon, and she was from Kentucky, and they flew her to Las Vegas and her name was Anna. She passed away in 2009—I had her for about seven years. I ended up having two dogs in Las Vegas: Anna and Cosby. I then brought them back to New York when I finished the show in Vegas. And after Anna passed, I got Katie.
How did Blue and Rosebud come into your life, then?
I met my husband in 2011. He lived downtown in Chelsea—he wasn’t my husband at the time, but he would cycle up to Central Park and sit on a bench.
One day, I was walking Cosby and Katie on 72nd and Central Park West, and he was sitting a bench with his bike. He said, “Hello.” I didn’t see his bike—I just saw his weird outfit, so I thought he was homeless. I just said, “Hey.” And then I kept going on our walk—didn’t even think about him.
The next day he was sitting on the bench again. By the third or fourth day, he came back with his dogs, Rosie and Rocket. And I had Katie and Cosby—and we’ve been together ever since.
I mean, we didn’t start off being a couple. He came to see my show, which was Book of Mormon at the time. And we’ve just been hanging ever since, and that was eight years ago.
And then he told me he wanted to marry me.
Right there, on the bench?
No, I think he probably thought that in his head, but in 2014, I was still going through cancer and chemo treatments, and he proposed to me on Valentine’s Day that year, three years after we met. We came together, the Brady Bunch of dogs, and that’s how we had our four dogs.
Did your dogs fall in love with each other at first sight?
I think so. On the third day, when he brought his dogs, we took a walk in the park, and they immediately got along. I had two small ones—he had two big ones. Rosie is a Husky mix, Rocket was a Lab mix, and my two back then were Poodle-Bichon mixes.
And Michael and I got along too. It was hurricane season and Hurricane Sandy was approaching that weekend. I was like, “I’ve got to stock up on water and all these things,” and he immediately volunteered to get all that stuff for me.
Did you bond over the fact that your dogs are rescues?
I think we bonded over the fact that we had dogs. We had some reason in common to hang out at the park every day with our pups.
But we did find out that they all were rescues, so that was something that we were doing constantly, always wanting to make sure that we were giving back in some way. Rosie and Rocket came from North Shore Animal League.
And I did Petfinder for Anna and I found Katie at a mobile dog adoption unit. I probably stalked that dog like nobody’s business. I saw her—she was all matted up, she was stinky, and I was like, “I’ve got to have her.” I called every day for seven days because they have to interview you. And I was like, “Nope, I’m ready, this is my dog. You know my show schedule, I’m home all day and then I’d only have to leave for the show at night, I’m ready. She’ll have all the attention she needs.” And finally, they gave her to me.
“Dogs are not judging you for not combing your hair or not showering.”
When you have a show running like Motown: The Musical, what was your daily schedule with your dogs like?
If it’s a two-show day, I’m obviously busy from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM and then 7:00 PM to 10:00 PM. But on a normal show day, where there’s only one show, I’ll do a brief 6:00 AM walk with them around the block, and then my husband goes out and he does an extensive walk with them for an hour and a half or so around 8:00 AM. And then I’ll do a noon walk on the block with them, and then my husband goes out with them again around 3:00 PM—he’s out there probably two or three hours with them.
Yeah, they get to sit and they get to walk and they’ll do a little playing. Occasionally, depending on my schedule, if I’m able to do that last walk with them, I will, but most of the time, my husband will do the 9:00 PM walk with them.
Tell us about your ovarian cancer diagnosis in December 2013, and did your dogs help you in any way?
Right before I started performing in Motown in 2012, we lost Rocket—who was our oldest. And then I got diagnosed with cancer in 2013. Dogs know you’re either not feeling well or not in the best mood, but all they want to do is love you. It becomes a distraction because they have to eat, they have to poop, they have to be walked, so it encourages you to get up and do things even when you’re not feeling great. Dogs are not judging you for not combing your hair or not showering.
They just love you no matter what. What I’ve found particularly with Cosby—because one of the things about Poodle-Bichon mixes is that a lot of them, when they get older, have congestive heart failure and knee problems—was that he was ailing starting from 2012. He was having issues breathing, so on my worst days, his temperament would sort of be like mine—very mild, resting all day.
One of the things I’ll always remember about my journey was that he was having issues breathing, and there was a lot of fluid starting to build up in his lungs right after I had finished my last chemotherapy treatment. My birthday is on the 25th of September. On the 23rd of September, my husband and I decided to celebrate my birthday; we were going to go out of town. That morning, I woke up because I knew he wasn’t comfortable, and I finally said to him, “Mommy’s okay, I don’t have cancer anymore, I’m going to be okay, you can go now.”
And hours later, he went. I felt like he was holding on just for me at that point. He had his ups and downs as well, but he just stuck right through to the end part of my journey.
Losing him was also part of my grieving process with cancer, because I was grieving my life at the time—grieving who I was after coming out of this whole treatment, grieving relationships, and also grieving the passing of the dog that I’d had the longest.
Do you consider yourself a dog mom?
These are my babies. He’s Papa and I’m Mama. I’m definitely a dog mom—over our time together, we’ve had a total of six dogs. We plan our lives around what we can do with them, where we can go with them. When Katie was around and she was in her stage of having kidney failure, I couldn’t travel, I couldn’t take a job out of town because she had to have shots for insulin everyday. I couldn’t be away from the city because I didn’t want to have her traveling with me. At one point, I got too afraid to even give her the shots because they were just way too painful, so we would go to the vet every single day and the nurses would administer the shots. I wake up with them every morning. Blu is only around 17 months old and she’s no longer sleeping in the bed with me, so I’m searching for her in the house, like, “You’re not going to come to bed? You’re not going to snuggle with us?”
This summer, you played the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who died of pancreatic cancer in the off-Broadway show, Sweet Lorraine. Turns out, she also had dogs.
Chaka and Spice.
In this 1959 New Yorker article, Lillian Ross interviewed her about her daily routine. She was 28 at the time, and was becoming a big thing. And she talked about taking her dog on walks between all the parties and awards shows she attended. Do you relate to that?
I remember reading Lorraine’s diary; she would write about having to take Spice to the doctor.
So yeah, you have a responsibility, and it does ground you because you know that someone else is depending on you. Like I said, there’s no judgment. They just love you. And on your worst day, they’re going to love you, and there’s something wonderful about that.
What is it like to play these big icons, like Diana Ross or Lorraine Hansberry?
Well when you think about it, they’re humans, so you don’t think about them as big icons. When you get down to the nitty-gritty of who they are, they’re humans, and they live, they breathe, they make mistakes just like all of us. It just so happens that at that present time, or at a moment in time or for decades at a time for Diana in her life, the spotlight’s on them. They still wake up and smell the roses, or not, or they still have a good day, or not. They have pets or not. They are human beings, and so what I try to portray is that they are just like us. Because when you think about what they accomplish, it takes you out of separating how we’re both unique, how we’re both aligned. What you really want to bring to the core is that I’m a human being just like you.
Do you ever sing to your dogs?
Yes, absolutely. I make up songs, I make up stupid songs, but I vocalize when I warm up, so they hear that. If you stop touching Blu, she might make a noise or so, so she sings a little bit. Blu will try to sing with me. Rosie—she’s not having it.
You mentioned during our photoshoot that the bathtub is Rosie’s safe space during rain and thunderstorms. Tell us about that.
She knows probably an hour before if it’s going to rain. I don’t care what the iPhone says—she feels it.
Rosie will come into the living room, sniff, and look outside the window, and we know it’s going to rain. No matter what Bill Karins, the weatherman, says, it’s going to rain. And then next thing you know, the rain will start and she will go into the tub. And Blu sometimes will go and sit with her a little bit.
Rosie was a puppy when Hurricane Sandy happened, and we were living downtown in a big loft with a skylight back then. after the hurricane, she changed, and there is not a thunder jacket or a warm blanket or a hug that could change it. She continues to go straight for the bathroom, and she just has to work it out herself.
Dogs can be complicated—thank you for sharing. Are you involved with the Broadway dog parent community?
Broadway Barks—it was founded by Bernadette Peters. She’s not only an amazing actress, singer, and dancer. On top of all that, she loves dogs. It’s this whole fair where all the dog owners who are on Broadway bring their dogs in. Sometimes they perform and take pictures with their dogs. I’ve done it before.
What do Blu and Rosie like to eat?
Around noon, the Kong is filled with Skippy peanut butter. We were doing Blue Buffalo for a bit, and then I tried Freshpet, which is basically just human food with all the great nutrients in it, and it’s fresh so you open it and have to use it in a certain amount of time. They love it, whether it’s the chicken breast with the carrots and the peas, or the [pâté-style] tube with the carrots and the peas. They have beef, they have salmon. They love it, and it’s the best thing you can give to them because you know they’re eating really healthy. They also love these Dognation Turkey Bacon Dog Treats from Freshpet. And Trader Joe’s Banana Chips. Rose likes them, but they upset her stomach a bit. But Blu loves them so much! And Blue Buffalo makes a cookie that they love.
What about dog accessories?
Blu is still a puppy. She’s gone through a number of harnesses and leashes because she chews so much. When we got her, she was four pounds. Now, she’s at a steady weight, so we’ll have the same harness for a long time. We’re using a Gooby harness.
But the products we love the most are from Found My Animal—especially the rope leashes. Rose has had hers since she was a baby. Bethany [Obrecht, the co-founder], used to be my husband’s assistant. We love her products because we know her intentions are great. She also promotes pet adoptions—you know, “Adopt, don’t shop.” I love supporting people like that because you know she’ll do whatever it takes to get a dog adopted.
What about grooming products?
TropiClean Hypo-Allergenic Gentle Coconut Puppy & Kitten Shampoo is our basic product. It’s very simple and clean. I like to use that one for Blu. We also take them to A Cut Above on 69th Street to keep them groomed. I used to use John Paul Pet [founded by the co-founder of Paul Mitchell] for my dogs. For dogs that are hard to comb through, I would suggest the John Paul Pet Oatmeal Conditioning Rinse any day over anything else that I’ve used.
“The great thing about adopting dogs is that you see this transformation no matter how hard their life was before—you see them slowly peel away the layers where they trust you.”
How do they like to play? Do they play with each other?
Blu is all over Rose, nipping at her ear and chewing on her collar. Rose is not a big toy person—she just wants her nap. But Blu started destroying her Kong toy two weeks ago. We’ve gone through stuffed animals, we’ve gone through balls—at one point, I did Amazon boxes because she loves to be in them and then chew them. Finally, I gave her my socks that I don’t want anymore. Now, socks are her favorite toy.
We also love this contraption—the Parkland Pet Portable Foldable Playpen Exercise Kennel. They’re so great because they collapse, you can keep your dogs in there, they sleep in there, they feel safe, you can take it to the beach. We took it to the Berkshires with us. Even now, any time Blu has a Kong or special treat, she’ll go in it.
What do you love about having dogs in a pack? In New York, it’s a big deal to have more than one dog.
We’ve always had pets in our [adult] lives, so when we don’t have them, we feel a void. It’s way too quiet—it means my husband and I have to talk to each other! We’re used to talking on the phone and grabbing the dog, or combing my hair and grabbing the dog, or you know, [my husband’s] getting himself together and picking up the dog, so it’s never one thing when you have dogs. Even when I’m in shower, Blu busts open the door and comes in and sits on the floor, so there’s never a moment where you’re by yourself when you’re in your house with the dog.
I really love that you mold your life around your dogs.
We have to. You know, being a parent-parent is the hardest job you can ever have, but I still have a responsibility to these pets that I have. I decided that I wanted to adopt a dog and therefore, I’m responsible for everything for the baby.
What do you love about adopting dogs?
Years ago—and we’re still friends with him—I was dating my ex-boyfriend, and [my dog] Anna was so afraid of everything. We had to smother her with love. [My ex] developed this thing he called “love therapy,” where he would just sit in bed for hours and just love her, love her, and love her. And he would do this for six hours a day because he was also a show person as well, and so he didn’t have to leave the house.
The great thing about adopting dogs is that you see this transformation no matter how hard their life was before—you see them slowly peel away the layers where they trust you. It’s a trust relationship—they depend on you. It’s the power of love.
You also learn to trust them, you listen to what they need, you back off when it’s time—like with Rosie, you back off when she needs space. It’s communication. It’s a relationship. I just love seeing that a dog has opened up their life to you—that they are saying, “Okay, I accept you.”
Comic illustration courtesy of Lila Ash
Photography by Tayler Smith