"The guy who had been cutting my hair for years thought I was a man," former MTV VJ Karen "Duff" Duffy tells PEOPLE

By Liz McNeil
December 20, 2017 09:25 AM

Karen “Duff” Duffy is the first to admit she wasn’t exactly qualified for the job as one of MTV’s first VJs. The New York City native, who’s written a new book, Backbone, about living with chronic pain, got her start calling Bingo at a nursing home.

“In my late 20s I experienced something of an overnight metamorphosis,” Duffy, now 56, tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “I went from being a recreational therapist at a nursing home in Greenwich Village — where my job was to host the Frank Sinatra Appreciation Society, organize art classes and call weekly bingo games — to landing one of the most coveted jobs as an MTV VJ.”

“I sent in an unsolicited tape of myself interviewing people in Times Square,” she says. “Although I was a rookie, I had the experience of entertaining an audience with a short attention span. Most of the residents at the nursing home had dementia, and I had practice embarrassing myself to get them to listen to me.”

  • For more on Karen Duffy, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
Alex Abaunza

As a VJ, her boyish on-screen hairstyle came about almost by accident.

“I would get my hair cut at Nick’s Barber Shop on Horatio Street, right by the nursing home,” Duffy says. “It was a scrappy, old-school barbershop. My barber, who was named ‘One-Eyed Louie,’ only had one eye. But what he lacked in stereoscopic vision gave me a slightly asymmetrical, floppy quality I liked. One day I told Louie — I never had the nerve to call him ‘One-Eyed Louie’ — that I had a new job on MTV. He told me ‘Well, if you got your hair out of your face, you’d be a good-looking fella.’ The guy who had been cutting my hair for years thought I was a man.”

But the unique cut caught the attention of one major icon.

“After filming my VJ shift, I got a message from the big cheese that they were sending a photographer to take photos of my hair,” Duffy recalls. “It seems Michael Jackson saw me and wanted to copy my hair cut! I tried telling Louie, but I don’t think he believed I was on TV or that I was a woman.”

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Her TV career had its less glamorous moments, too.

“At the Grammy Awards, I was filming the red carpet. I had on my leather jacket and a sequined wrap mini skirt, tights and boots,” she says. “I went to use the restroom and ran back to my post on the red carpet. While I was conducting an interview, my skirt unwrapped and fell into a glamorous, sparkly puddle at my ankles. My crew and I laughed so hard, the show had to cut away — or there might have been other reasons they could not have a VJ on live TV wearing only her knickers.”

Life took a more serious turn when Duffy was diagnosed with sarcoidosis of the central nervous system, a chronic invisible illness, over 20 years ago.

“I’ve lost a lot,” she admits. “I’ve lost my career because I can’t pass a physical. I lost my fertility and I’ve lost the ability to turn my head or to button my clothes. My gait and my vision is impacted, but what I have gained is an appreciation for every day.”

Duffy continues, “There’s a lot of shame with chronic pain because your coworkers and your family can’t experience it. It’s hard to talk about. All they can do is witness it and they can’t help. I thought maybe there is way to be useful. Every day we have a choice to be useful or useless — this book was my attempt to be useful.”

Now nearly two decades later, Duffy looks back fondly on her MTV days.

“While I’ve mourned for my old life, now I’m figuring out this new life,” Duffy, who considers George Clooney a friend, says. “I feel grateful I’ve lived this long. And I feel like, well, there must be a reason. And one of the things I’ve gained is resilience. I have found the upside in having your life turned upside down.”

She’s also found a way to lighten the mood.

“I love the quote from Lord Byron, who said, ‘Always laugh, it’s cheap medicine.’ I absolutely believe in that,” she muses. “I think a great way of dealing with a chronic illness is finding a purpose and find a way to keep yourself amused.”