This Heavy Metal Singer Became a Lawyer Fighting Sexism in Music
Hellion's Ann Boleyn has had a career in metal that's taken her from working with Dio to getting a law degree. Now she wants to help shape the next generation.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Ann Boleyn may be the coolest woman to laugh at Kim Fowley’s dick that you’ve probably never heard of. When the infamously creepy rock producer was assembling his teen scream-queen band the Runaways in 1975, he made a fateful call to the girl who would become Ann Boleyn at her home in the sleepy logging town of Centralia, Washington. Now, over 40 years later, this ferocious metal vocalist takes revenge on the sorts of men who long held back her music career by working as a sexual harassment lawyer in Los Angeles.
Boleyn came to music in her early teens as a keyboard player. Watching the decline of the coal and logging industries that had long sustained her hometown, she knew early on that she wanted out. In Centralia, only wealthy families sent their kids to college; everyone else either surrendered to the extraction industries or pursued careers in sports or entertainment. Boleyn picked berries to save up for her first electric piano—what she saw as the difference between a good and a great band in the 1970s—and by 13 years old, she was in her first band.
But playing with her peers wasn’t satisfying. Soon, she had established herself as a serious enough musician that she was booked to play in adult bands, at adult clubs.
“In the 70s, a lot of high school guys wanted to be in an all-male band,” she explains during a phone interview, “and they wanted to go out and get a lot of chicks. They weren't that serious about making a career of music. I found that some of the guys that were older—they were actually playing and making music careers, so that was my support.”
At 15, Boleyn got a call from her old friend, Tommy Bolin. He was assembling a band with a woman named Candy Givens and thought it’d be cool to have a woman on keyboards, too. Was she interested? Of course she was—but her parents weren't. Boleyn’s mother and father forbid her to drop out of school and leave Washington while still so young. When that band became Zephyr and launched Bolin’s music career, Boleyn swore she wouldn’t miss the next big opportunity. Upon receiving Fowley’s phone call, she told her parents, “I’m really going to be a runaway if you don’t let me try out for the Runaways.”
So Boleyn and two friends piled into a Chevy cattle truck and made the 1,100 mile journey to Hollywood. They met Fowley at a payphone outside a supermarket before Boleyn was whisked away to a recording studio where the Runaways were laying down their first album. Immediately, things felt off. Only rhythm guitarist Joan Jett, lead guitarist Lita Ford, and drummer Sandy West were around. Where was singer Cherie Currie? Boleyn uncomfortably thumped out a few tunes on acoustic piano, but Fowley was hounding her to play bass.
“You know, I'm really a better keyboard player than a bass player,” she told him. “I'm barely adequate at bass, if that.”
Fowley said it didn’t matter. There’d be time to learn the instrument, and besides, the band had “Nigel"—later revealed to be Blondie’s Nigel Harrison—to play on the album under her name.
“It wasn't like I was going down and having a jam,” she says. “It was more Kim Fowley introducing me to all these different random people and seeing how far he could push.... sex, how far I'd go.”
The next afternoon, Fowley brought the 17-year-old back to his Bronson Avenue apartment. Boleyn alleges he bragged about things such as auctioning off two members of the Runaways to be passed around during a party. In the next breath, his pants were unbuttoned and he was exposing himself.
“He goes, ‘Hollywood is all about give and take,’” she says, “‘and if you want to be in this business, you've got to give, too.’"
Boleyn ended her trip to L.A. and headed back to Washington, but it wasn’t her last brush with fame—or sexism. She returned a few years later to do a brief stint as a radio DJ at the legendary KROQ. Despite amassing a following, her heart was in playing music, not sharing music, so she worked odd jobs to continue playing keyboards in metal bands. Most of her work came as a studio musician because bands didn’t want to tour with a woman.
“In other situations, after I was kicked out of a band, I was told the group was just using me for their demo,” she says. “Or because I lived at a house where they could rehearse, and that they had always planned to replace me as soon as they found a male keyboard player who played as well as I did.”
Boleyn thought her big break would come in Beowulf, a Minneapolis metal band that had chased its dreams to Los Angeles. They had good energy, and Boleyn felt inspired by the band’s talent, especially that of vocalist David Reece. Unfortunately, the band quickly got caught up in the usual partying and in-fighting; the final straw came when the drummer left to audition for Ratt, saying he didn’t want to be in a band with a woman anymore. Boleyn then approached former Beowulf guitarist, Ray Schenck, about forming a new project
At first, it was just cover tunes. The band, christened Hellion, was an excuse to play, but wasn't intended to be anything more serious than tha. Boleyn stood in on vocals while they looked for a permanent singer; she adopted the last name “Boleyn” after Henry the VIII’s doomed, strong-willed wife so she could preserve her reputation as a respected keyboard player under her legal name. Uncertain of her low, warbling rasp of a voice, she credited herself as “Throat” on Hellion’s first demo.
In 1982, Hellion debuted at a Fourth of July party at the dilapidated Tujunga mansion in which they lived and rehearsed. Thanks to an aggressive promotion campaign, they managed to amass a crowd of several hundred people for their first gig. The show was such a hit that they were immediately welcomed into the L.A. club scene, and Boleyn’s fell into a more permanent role as lead singer. At one point, she was even approached by Van Halen manager Ed Leffler, who pressured her to leave Hellion to become “the metal Pat Benatar.”
“He offered me something like a thousand dollars a week,” she says. “It was more money than I knew what to do with, but the deal was I had to get fake boobs and fire Ray Schenck. I had modeled very briefly right after I came to L.A., and no one had ever asked for me to have fake boobs or anything. Now here I was in the music business, and I was being told that this was what I had to do to take this next step.”
While Boleyn was committed to her band, the commitment didn’t feel mutual. Hellion was getting attention from trade publications like Kerrang! and Sounds magazine, and their demo was topping the import charts, but despite their mounting successes, Boleyn still felt like her position in the band was tenuous. As soon as Hellion had the opportunity to get a better singer, she suspected, she’d be gone.
Meeting legendary metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio at a 5k run gave her hope. Dio and Boleyn bonded over many things: a shared love of running, being instrumentalists-turned-vocalists, their unusual singing styles. In early Hellion reviews, Boleyn’s voice is even likened to his. When Dio offered to produce Hellion’s first album, the band leapt at the chance, and his wife began managing the band.
Dio mentored Boleyn, building her confidence as a singer and demanding she approach her singing with the rigor she’d used to master keyboards. He expected her to hold herself to the same professional standards as any man in a band: no referring to herself as “throat,” for instance, and no wearing backstage passes at gigs. Boleyn feels indebted to him, but despite facing his own professional obstacles, Dio couldn’t anticipate the ones she would face as a woman.
At one gig, Boleyn was approached by security as she was preparing to go on stage.
“You’ve got to go,” the security guard said.
“But I’m singing,” she said.
“No, you’re not,” he said. “Hellion doesn’t have a female singer.”
“The guy grabbed his partner,” she explains, “and they shove me back in the tuning room and proceeded to grab [my] boobs, grab [my] crotch, and I probably would have been sexually assaulted had I not taken my knee into one of them who was trying to get my pants off. And after I kneed this guy, it was like cartoons: heave ho! I had to run all the way around to the front of the venue, run through the crowd, and go up on stage. It wasn't until afterward that a friend of mine says, ‘You know, there's blood all over your face.’”
Because Boleyn’s position in the band felt so insecure, she would minimize how incidents like this affected her. Hellion was opening for bands such as Dio, W.A.S.P., and Whitesnake, and their first single under Ronnie James Dio received significant radio play. By 1984, they’d been voted Best Local Heavy Metal Act in L.A. Street Scene, but the major labels still weren’t calling. Boleyn is confident that labels didn’t know how to market them—a complaint often shared by women in 1980s metal. When Dio left for tour in early 1985, Boleyn was fired and replaced by Richard Parrico. After threatening a lawsuit, members surrendered the name Hellion to Boleyn and regrouped as Burn.
Undeterred, Boleyn put together a new Hellion lineup. She even founded her own record label, New Renaissance Records, which put out some of the earliest material from bands such as Mayhem and Sepultura. In 1988, Hellion became the first metal band with a female vocalist to appear on MTV, and they performed at the first Monsters of Rock in the former U.S.S.R. in 1990. Like so many times before, they seemed on the verge of their big break—but it was actually the beginning of the end.
As soon as the 90s hit, anything associated with the 80s was poison. Her already scarce opportunities dried up. She couldn't even get an appearance on a VH1 special after viewers voted her one of the most influential women in music. Boleyn watched as peers, many with successful records, turned to selling drugs and other illegal activities. Depressed and with little to show for her time in the music industry, she began weighing her options.
“Law school was kind of a long shot because I barely got out of high school,” she says. “But what else was I going to do? And at least I could do civil rights law, or something to help people.”
She first dipped her toe in the water at community college, and it turned out that school agreed with Boleyn more than she'd expected. In 2004, she earned her bachelor’s degree in Germanic languages from UCLA, then got her law degree from the University of La Verne in 2007. Initially, Boleyn expected to focus on criminal defense so she could advocate for people marginalized by the legal system. While waiting for her bar results, though, she decided she wanted to use her degree to benefit women like herself whose careers had been stunted by sexism.
When Boleyn was accosted by security guards, she filed a complaint with the club, but didn’t follow up or press charges for fear of damaging her relationship with the venue, a place where she regularly performed and had even filmed a music video. Now, as a solo practitioner running her own firm, she encourages women to make waves—and helps them do it. In one case, she won damages for a county lifeguard who regularly deflected suggestive comments and leers from her boss, then turned down his advances only to be intentionally injured by him during a fabricated emergency situation. In another case, she represented three plaintiffs who witnessed a restaurant broadcast an employee’s butt on closed-circuit television, and turned a blind eye to sexual harassment from drunk customers. While Bolyen works on a diverse range of employment issues, sexual harassment and intimidation cases are her bread and butter.
In a 2016 Facebook post celebrating California passing legislation that requires employers to investigate all claims of harassment, she wrote, “This seems like it should be a ‘no-brainer.’ Unfortunately, there are a lot of companies that don't do anything when somebody complains about something in the workplace making them uncomfortable. Other companies handle complaints by firing the employee who complained. As of today, failing to investigate complaints is no longer optional. The companies who think otherwise will be making more business for me.”
“I’ve represented a whole lot of women that have been raped by their bosses and other really horrible things,” she tells me. “It's a pretty cool feeling to be able to catch somebody in a lie that screws them over. There's nothing I like more than humiliating some of these jerks—though the roar of the crowd when you're playing is still pretty awesome, too.”
Boleyn still performs and releases records with Hellion today, but most of her energy goes into her legal practice. It’s been a way to reclaim much of the power she lost in her earlier days. Eleven years into life as a lawyer, what was once an act of self preservation has become one of salvation.
Micco Caporale is slaying on Twitter.