To experience the full fabulousness of Denee Busby, first you have to see her in action, then you have to meet her, and finally you have to listen to her story.
I recently saw her onstage, playing a scantily clad comedic floozy opposite Vivica A. Fox. When we met after the show, Busby was resplendent in a neon orange jumpsuit with rhinestone hoop earrings and wild, curly shoulder-length hair. And that was when she told me how she got to be both a working engineer and an actress.
Since 1999, when she graduated with double bachelor’s degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering from the University of California, Los Angeles, Busby has assisted with the design of refineries, plants, and pipelines along the West Coast for Shell and Chevron. She has also appeared on the TV series ”Eve” and ”Charmed,” had a role in the 2004 movie The Cookout with Ja Rule, and was in last year’s sold-out touring musical Whatever She Wants with Fox. She says her cast mates would tap her for computer tech support on the road.
”People tell me, ’You don’t act like an engineer, but you operate like one,’” Busby says with her husky voice. ”I was attracted to electrical engineering because it was so structured. It was circuit design, and there was only one way it worked. But because my brain thinks in absolutes, the subjective nature of entertainment is hard for me to deal with.
”I always knew that the analytical side of my personality would be how I’d make my living. But I still danced and sang through college, as a release. It didn’t happen until after I graduated college that the acting bug really got unbearable.”
Busby grew up in northern California and began dancing at age 2. In high school she acted in school productions and spent a summer performing with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. But an affinity for math coupled with two academically oriented parents pushed her to the safer path of engineering. She began at MIT, but says she found it too cold, too white, and too staid, so she transferred to UCLA. From there she went on to Shell and Chevron.
She says she did not blend in at the office.
”Imagine a boardroom of white men over 60 who have been in this business forever,” she says, laughing. ”I walk in with a miniskirt, 4â''inch stilettos, and a very bright smile. They’re, like, ’So, uh, when is the head engineer gonna get here so we can start the meeting?’ I’m, like, ’No, no, Boo. That’s me. Now turn to page one.’ But after I started talking shop, they realized I knew what I was talking about.”
Then came the epiphany she had in 2001 while watching the ”Soul Train” dance show. She began crying, realizing how much she missed performing. The experience persuaded her to start dancing and to take acting classes, where she was spotted by a casting director for The Cookout . She soon landed an agent.
To get the flexibility she needed to schedule clients around her auditions, she started working as a contractor, primarily for the Encino, Calif., branch of Go Engineer, a consulting agency headquartered in Salt Lake City. Her boss doesn’t mind that she has a second life as an entertainer, but it took her parents six months to reconcile themselves to her career moves. She has advised such big-name clients as Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman, mostly on product design and the streamlining of communication between manufacturing and production divisions.
She says her background in engineering helps her as an actress, and vice versa. ”After memorizing formulas and theories, I can memorize a script in a matter of minutes,” she says. ”And being an actress helps me adapt to each client’s personality.”