Deb Docherty, founder of Docherty Agency in Pittsburgh, dead at 63

It plays like the lore from the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Deb Docherty began a career in the entertainment industry when she was discovered in the early 1980s while standing at a phone booth in Downtown Pittsburgh. An agent saw her from the street asked her if she was interested in modeling.

Though she was initially studying marine biology, she seized the opportunity. She began working with local retailers and department stores like Gimbels.

“Our mother was a model, too, and when you see the pictures of my mother and Debby at the same age, it gives you goosebumps – she had my mother’s grace,” said Michael Docherty, one of her six siblings. “She was a natural.”

After five years under the lens, she parlayed her modeling work into a thriving career behind the camera.

She founded the Docherty Modeling and Talent Agency in 1987. She funded the business with a credit card because banks weren’t eager to give a woman a loan, according to Jared Pascoe, the agency’s director.

In November 2020, Docherty was diagnosed with ALS. On Tuesday, she died at 63 years old.

Docherty was born in DuBois, Pa., and grew up in Wexford. She spent many years in Edgewood, where she raised her son, Daniel. In recent years, she moved to Fox Chapel.

“She was my mentor,” said Pascoe. “She spent years advocating and developing talent, thousands of careers, and has impacted the Pittsburgh entertainment community.”

Docherty opened the agency on Market Street across from Froggy’s bar, knowing that’s where advertising executives would hang out. The agency expanded from Pittsburgh into Ohio and brought up local talent like Zachary Quinto and Joe Manganiello.

Docherty had a knack for identifying potential in someone, even if they didn’t see it themselves, Pascoe said.

Pascoe was promoted to lead the agency shortly after Docherty’s diagnosis, but she remained in an advisory role. He said he is grateful for her guidance.

“I think most people are one helping hand away from where they want to be, and it’s amazing to have someone like her that recognizes something in you,” Pascoe said.

“One thing she said to me that was so freeing: when I first started, I would pay such close attention to the details and be so afraid of messing up that sometimes I got in my own way. She told me, it’s ok to (mess) up. We all (mess) up. Just own it. Don’t try to hide it. Learn from it,” Pascoe said. “That was one of the last conversations we had.”

Docherty’s brothers, Michael and John, became more involved with the agency as her health waned.

As he got more enmeshed in the company, Michael saw how his sister impacted the people she worked with.

“Especially on the talent side, as soon as they heard my last name, they would immediately tell me about how she went above and beyond helping them,” Michael Docherty said. “Any agent is going to support their talent, but she would do things like drive up to New York with models on her own dime to introduce them to agencies there.”

Donna Belajac, owner and president of Pittsburgh-based Donna Belajac Casting, said Docherty ran her agency with “integrity.”

“She took actors under her wing, was kind and was always trying to think of solutions to problems, even in their personal lives. I remember one young model was having emotional problems and financial issues. Deb was running out in the middle of the night to her house to see if she was OK.”

Docherty could see creative solutions others didn’t see.

“At first, I’d say that a suggestion didn’t make sense, but then it would turn out great and I’m like, ‘Damn Deb.’ She always had a different take on things and it was really valuable.

Belajac and Docherty first met in the early ’80s when Belajac was working as a casting director for a production company. Docherty was a model for different fashion accounts in Pittsburgh. Their friendship sparked when Docherty gave her a gift of sorts.

“I would cast her in commercials,” Belajac said. “I must have mentioned to her that it was an adolescent dream of mine to be a model. She talked with the photographer shooting the Gimbels ads and worked with a stylist to put me in an ad.”

When Belajac began her own modeling agency, Docherty signed with her and helped train new models. Eventually, Docherty decided to break out on her own and they were competitors for 10 years.

“We were vying to for the same models,” she said.

After they both had kids, they realized they preferred different sides of the business.

“I liked casting, and she liked the modeling side,” Belajac said. “So we swapped. And that set it up the way it is in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles where casting directors and talent agents are separate.”

“We became dear friends,” she said. “She was one of the best people I know.”

She is survived by her son Daniel Schapira (Praneeta), her partner David Volk, sisters Karen James, Kathleen Docherty, Maureen Docherty, Cathy Bigham, and her brothers John Docherty, Bob Docherty, Michael Docherty, stepmother Patricia Docherty and stepchildren David Schapira and Stacy Shay.

She was preceded in death by her parents John and Jacqueline, her stepbrother William Carlisle, her nephew David Docherty and her ex-husband Evan Schapira.

A celebration of Docherty’s life to be held on May 5, 2023, at Allegheny RiverTrail Park in Aspinwall. Donations are welcome to the ALS Association of Western Pennsylvania.

Stephanie Ritenbaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephanie at sritenbaugh@triblive.com.

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