In 1983, Deborah Wesoff-Lopez was just a high schooler working at a record store in Miami when music producer Tony Butler, who produced popular electro dance tracks, walked in. Pretty Tony, as he was known, told her that he liked "the way she talked," and by the next day, the girl who had spent hours recording her own versions of Teena Marie and Deniece Williams songs at home was in Tony's studio, writing lyrics and laying vocals for her first single, "When I Hear Music."
On a lark, Deborah agreed to record two songs with Tony and received just $100 for each track. To her surprise, both singles—"When I Hear Music" and "Lookout Weekend”—blew up. Released on the Jam Packed label under the name Debbie Deb, both songs became hugely popular in dance clubs and on urban radio, and “Lookout Weekend” reached No. 26 on the Billboard Dance chart. Debbie Deb's songs became anthems in the burgeoning freestyle genre, a style of up-tempo electronic party music.
Despite the success of the music, Jam Packed had a problem. Deborah had no proper training or performance experience, and although she had always liked to sing on her own for fun, she had never sung in public before. Also, she was overweight, a fact that contributed to the 17-year-old's stage fright and insecurity.
"I had no training," Deborah (now Deborah Lopez Kowalski) told Metro Active in 2006. "I was thrown into it. Then when push came to shove, I didn't know what to do. They wanted to make money quickly so they kept the name and hired an imposter."
Because her photo hadn’t been on the artwork for either single, Jam Packed made a business decision to hire other, more conventionally attractive women to appear in photos and perform in clubs as Debbie Deb. Jam Packed even released a 1987 Debbie Deb album that included her two songs, plus newer songs like "I’m Searchin" and "Fantasy," which featured one of the fake Debbie Debs on vocals.
"Back then, MTV was just coming out and nobody knew how I looked, and they didn't want a heavy girl," Deborah told Miami New Times in 2013. "They wanted a Madonna type. A sexy, dancer type. So they did a Milli Vanilli kind of thing. There was no picture of me [on the singles], so nobody knew the difference."
Deborah felt betrayed and devastated. She moved to Pennsylvania, became a hairdresser, got married, and had a son. During that time, Jam Packed was still paying other singers to pretend to be Debbie Deb, a ruse that fooled everyone except for people in the know in Miami.
A decade later, in 1994, Deborah was living in Florida again when the president of Miami label Pandisc Records, Bo Crane, found her and convinced her to get back into music. The next year she released her first full-length album, She’s Back. It failed to sell many copies since it came out at the tail end of freestyle’s popularity, but by then, Deborah had grown out of her insecurities and had caught the music industry bug.
Her stage fright is a thing of the past, and Deborah now performs frequently to huge crowds at “freestyle explosion” concerts with other dance pop artists. (Her Facebook URL is, aptly, "The Real Debbie Deb." No word on whether the imposter Debs are still touring.) Major artists like Janet Jackson, Black Eyed Peas, Kelis, and Jason Mraz have covered or sampled Debbie Deb’s music. Gwen Stefani has cited her as a musical influence, and in a recent personal playlist that Pitbull curated, he said that "Lookout Weekend" reminds him "of being in roller-skate rinks ducking and dodging skaters to get to the dance floor in the middle of the rink to dance with the girls." Not bad for a girl who had to overcome actual imposter syndrome to get her due.