The first time Pamela Leak stood before an audience, she wore a gray wig and mismatched clothes, her flabby midriff was exposed and a piece of toilet paper trailed from her pants.
"I had stacked the crowd with my friends and told them to laugh at everything I said and did," Leak recalls. "The show started, and I came running out on the stage. I came out and said, 'I'm sorry, ya'll, for running out here, but I was in the bathroom and some old man was trying to look up my dress.'
"People were laughing, and then I knew I could make people laugh. The people who were laughing weren't even the people I invited."
On that night six years ago, Leak's comedic alter ego, Miss Maybelle, made her debut at Baltimore's Comedy Factory. Since then, Leak has been on a dogged pursuit to vault her brainchild from the handful of area black comedy clubs to a national stage.
Leak, 40, has worked in the mortgage foreclosure department in Courthouse East on Calvert Street since 1999, but those familiar with the Baltimore comedy circuit know her better as Miss Maybelle, a smart-mouth, grandmotherly, quick-witted spitfire - a character molded in the same vein as Moms Mabley and, more recently, Tyler Perry's Madea.
Entertaining at night is a relief for Leak, who spends much of her day on the phone explaining the foreclosure process to people who have defaulted on their mortgages.
Leak says it is an emotional, taxing job, but one that gives her the flexibility to develop Maybelle. Leak's boss, Clerk of the Court Frank M. Conaway Sr., allows her time off when she needs it to perform regional shows.
"It's refreshing to have someone that can lift your spirits a little or say something in such a pleasant way that not only is it funny, but it makes you feel good. She's that type of person," said Conaway, a mayoral candidate.
Maybelle came into being six years ago when Leak resolved to break into standup comedy. But did not want to do so as herself. "Pam is shy," Leak said. "Maybelle is not."
She came up with Maybelle while shopping at a thrift store, then spent a week writing material for an open audition to be a two-week guest host of a comedy show.
Since she won the contest at the Comedy Factory - which she calls her big break - Leak's popularity has been on a steady rise.
Leak, as Maybelle, has a weekly guest on Larry Young's show on radio station WOLB since 2003, offering entertainment news with a twist. She starred on the late-night Fox 45 show Keeping It Real last year, and she is host of the show's spinoff, As Real as It Gets, which producers hope will be picked up by a local television station.
Maybelle has opened for recording artists the Temptations, Gerald Levert and Shirley Caesar, and for comedian Rickey Smiley. For good measure, Leak does a little plus-sized modeling with Travis Winkey Modeling Studios on the side.
Friends and co-workers say that when Leak performs as Maybelle, she is hysterical, but others call her act a demeaning black stereotype.
Hal Katz, owner of Katz Insurance, said he wants to make Leak's character his official spokeswoman. He said Leak has done two commercials, one of which depicted Maybelle in a beauty salon talking about "baby daddies."
The commercials, which first aired during the winter, drew complaints, and Katz pulled the plug after a few weeks. But he has recently started airing them again, and he claims business is up. Leak and Katz are in negotiations for a series of commercials.
"I had quite a few African-American people call me up and say I was making fun of the African-American community with her when they first started," Katz said. "But after three months, I decided to put the commercials back on air again.
"I spoke to about a half-dozen people personally, educating people on who Miss Maybelle was. She's a comedian, and she's funny. And if you don't like my commercials, change the damn station."
Leak, for her part, says she is just showing everyday life. She says she has few limitations on the lengths, or places, she will go to get a laugh - funerals included.
"My girlfriend's brother got killed a couple of years ago," Leak said. "They asked me to perform because they wanted comedy to be part of the funeral."
Leak, dressed as herself, said she took the microphone at the beginning of the service and gave a play-by-play commentary as people walked by the casket.
"I told them, 'When y'all come up here, don't put nothing in the casket because where he's going, he can't carry it with him,'" Leak said. "Everybody laughed. Then people did something funny to make me say something funny. One of the guy's brothers tried to pick up the body. I said, 'If you pick him up, I'm gone. I'm still going to get paid for today, but I'm gone.'"
It is one of the few times Leak did a public performance not as Maybelle.
Leak does not like to come out of character, primarily because she realizes it is Maybelle who can take her to stardom.
The past four months, Leak's main comedy gig has been as host of The Attitude Adjustment Hour, a segment in As Real As It Gets. The show is taped at Sista's Place in Randallstown every week and features local comedians.
Leak mostly ad-libs her way through her performance, focusing primarily on the audience.
A heckler at a recent show called Maybelle "Aunt Jemima." Maybelle, not missing a beat, told the woman that her hair weave looked as if it was coming out at the root.
"She's quick. She's original. And she's unique," said her manager, Bruce Brown, as he watched Leak perform.
Raised in West Baltimore and a graduate of Edmondson-Westside High School, Leak, who has three boys - Antoine, 21, Shawn, 15, and 14-month old Nicholas - says she derives some of her humor from the darker points in her life.
She lived primarily with her father until he died of a heart ailment when she was 15. Her relationship with her mother, whom she stayed with until she graduated from high school, is troubled, she said.
Leak says she was involved in a physically abusive marriage for six months before it fell apart. She had a brother killed during an attempted robbery in 1997 and learned last month that her youngest son has cerebral palsy.
That same month, Leak's fiance underwent triple bypass surgery. Leak has taken medication for high blood pressure, and she was hospitalized for exhaustion a year ago.
"I've been through some things," Leak said.
In the next breath, Leak switches from her past and looks to her future.
She talks about her hope that those old episodes of Keepin It Real are picked up by Black Entertainment Television, which would give her national exposure. She speaks of leaving her job at the courthouse and moving to Los Angeles in the future, where she can focus full time on developing Maybelle and bringing her act to a bigger stage.
Leak rattles off the contacts she has made which could give her a helping hand. She spoke with comics Steve Harvey, Wanda Sykes, Baltimore native Mo'Nique and film director Spike Lee on a trip to Los Angeles three years ago, picking their brains on how to make it in the business.
All advised her to move to a city where she would get greater exposure and have a better possibility of hitting the big email@example.com