Legendary heavy-metal DJ Tawn Mastrey—the disease that took her life

Tawn's sister Cara works hard to raise awareness

Best known locally for her work with heavy-rock station 93X, DJ Tawn Mastrey led the kind of life that is usually reserved for fiction. After hitchhiking to California at the age of 17, she put herself through broadcasting school and landed gigs as a DJ in the Bay Area and then Los Angeles, interviewing rock stars and becoming close friends with people like Slash, Ozzy Osborne, and Sammy Hagar.

During the '80s, Mastrey was credited with popularizing then-unknown bands like Mötley Crüe and Poison, pushing hair bands and heavy rock onto the commercial airwaves. Her Wikipedia page credits her for "breaking" AC/DC and the Police single "Roxanne." Mastrey's radio shows and interviews were soon picked up for national syndication. Dubbed the "Leather Nun," she was renowned by rock lovers everywhere for being a sassy, strong woman in a field traditionally reserved for egomaniacal men.

Throughout her career as a DJ, Mastrey followed a steady upward trajectory. She moved back to her home state of Minnesota and worked as a DJ on the heavy-metal-friendly station 93X during the late '90s, then took a national gig at Sirius Satellite Radio as the host of Hair Nation. But things took a dramatic turn around the time she started working for Sirius. In the early 2000s, Mastrey began to feel sick, as if she had contracted a flu that she just couldn't shake.

Tawn Mastrey with Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash
courtesy of the Tawn Mastrey Foundation
Tawn Mastrey with Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash
Tawn Mastrey, a.k.a. the Leather Nun
courtesy of the Tawn Mastrey Foundation
Tawn Mastrey, a.k.a. the Leather Nun

"She became ill and she didn't know why," says Mastrey's younger sister Cara, seated at the dining room table in her bohemian south Minneapolis apartment, surrounded by photos of Tawn. "They did all sorts of tests, and finally it came out that she had the hepatitis C virus. She didn't even know what that was."

Cara became Tawn's main caretaker, moving back to Minneapolis from Ireland to care for her ailing sibling. As Tawn's symptoms worsened and the medical bills piled high, Cara scrambled to learn more about the disease and raise money to care for her sister.

"She called me a bitch robot because I made sure the nurses were giving her medication," Cara says, smiling bashfully. She is a beautiful woman with high cheekbones and long dark hair, and her eyes sparkle with the same mischief that lights up so many of her sister's old photographs.

Without health insurance, Tawn's options became increasingly limited. "She was not able to afford the treatment," Cara explains. "So she figured, well, I'll just live my life like most people with these diseases do." Surrounded by her family, Tawn's energy and vitality were slowly and steadily whittled away, and on October 2, 2007, the disease took her life. Tawn was 53.

"She felt personally responsible, having hepatitis C," Cara says. "She really felt it was imperative that the word needs to get out there."

Taking the lead from similar hepatitis C-awareness foundations like Donate Life America and the Greatest Gift, Cara Mastrey created a foundation that could draw on her sister's connections to the rock community to spread the word.

"People aren't getting themselves tested because they don't even know there is that disease," Cara says. "It becomes dormant in your body for up to 30 years before you feel any symptoms at all. So when you think about how you get hepatitis C, through blood transferral—through unscreened [donated] blood in the '70s and '80s, or intravenous drug use, tattoos, brushing your teeth with someone else's toothbrush...you never know how things can spread. Our foundation is to spread awareness to people, to encourage them to get tested so they can get treated."

The Tawn Mastrey Foundation was formed last year, and this Saturday's benefit show is the foundation's first official fundraising event. Cara has assembled a crew of her sister's old assistants to help her organize the event. She calls them "Tawn Mastrey's bitches."

"I'm the alpha bitch," she says, grinning.

Musicians are lining up to help. Fergie Frederiksen of Toto will perform at Saturday's show, Sammy Hagar has donated a song for a forthcoming compilation CD, and stars like Alice Cooper have donated autographed memorabilia for a silent auction.

As she moves forward with the foundation, Cara says she thinks back to her sister's final words of support. In the words of Tawn Mastrey: "Rock hard, live long." 

The CELEBRATING TAWN MASTREY'S LIFE benefit show will include performances by Fergie Frederiksen, Scarlet Haze, Sunshine Behavior, and many more on SATURDAY, APRIL 4, at STATION 4. For more information visit tawnmastreyfoundation.com.

 
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