Since the third season of HBO’s The Wire (the fifth and final season of which debuted Jan. 6), Felicia “Snoop” Pearson has had a recurring role as one of the most feared characters on the show, half of a hit-squad duo employed by a notorious West Baltimore drug dealer. Though Pearson is a perfect fit for the role, she came to it through pure coincidence.

“I met Michael K. Williams in a nightclub here, Club One,” she says. “He kept looking at me, so I asked my cousin, ‘Man, who is that guy that keep lookin’ at me?’ So my cousin was like ‘Who, Omar?’ And I said, ‘Who the hell is that? You know him?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one that play on The Wire.’ So finally Omar came over and said, ‘Let me ask you a question, are you a girl or boy?’”

Pearson laughs about it now. “I said, ‘I’m a girl,’” she continues. “And he said, ‘Naw, get outta here. You fit this role that we have written up in the script, and we didn’t find anybody yet to fill it.’ He told me to come to the set to meet the writers and producers. The writers said they’d be calling me in weeks, and here I am.”

At that moment, Pearson felt like she was in the right place at the right time – for once. Pearson is a former drug-dealing, prison time–serving young black woman from one of East Baltimore’s toughest neighborhoods, and these days she increasingly finds herself the star of the hour. For her recently published autobiography, Grace After Midnight (Grand Central), written with the assistance of David Ritz, Pearson describes her childhood in a foster home, her introduction to the drug game, being sentenced to eight years in a state prison for murder and eventually landing a role on The Wire.

“[There’s] people that went through what I went through or probably still going through what I went through,” she says about why she decided to chronicle her life story. “I wanted to give them courage. And for them to say, ‘Hey, if she can do it, I can do it.’”

Pearson, 27, is a survivor. She weighed only three pounds at birth, born to a drug-addicted biological mother, and had to be fed with an eyedropper. She grew up in the foster-care system, with the hopes of staying with her mother, but was adopted by foster parents after her mother stole the clothes off her young body for drug money and locked her in a closet. Pearson was raised and nurtured by a loving family; however, they were surrounded by the cold streets in their home at Oliver Street and Montford Avenue. Her foster mother, Cora Pearson, was a sweet, churchgoing woman married to a handyman named Levi, who often let young Felicia help him with various repairs; both treated her as their own.

Pearson’s childhood was filled with normal memories, such as watching The Smurfs and Knight Rider, but she also experienced traumatic events such as witnessing shootings and killings. She also dealt with children and adults questioning her sexual orientation even as a young child, even though Pearson was comfortable with her crush on Pam Grier and taking the role of the “daddy” when playing house with other little girls.

At the age of 8, Pearson was given the nickname “Snoop” by a ’round-the-way hustler named Arnold Loney, whom she affectionately calls “Uncle.” (This was long before the world ever heard of Snoop Doggy Dogg.) Pearson’s short stature and demeanor reminded Loney of the Peanuts dog: “He’s sweet but he’s sad,” Pearson recalls Loney saying in her memoir. From then on she was called Snoop on the streets. Loney went on to be the person closest to her, teaching her the ways of the street while remaining a generous father figure.

In her preteen years Pearson hung out with her homegirls – all straight – who accepted her masculine look and disposition, but mostly admired her nerviness. As a teen in the mid-1990s, to the dismay of her parents, Pearson was a full-fledged drug dealer who had a male crew under her command. The other hustlers viewed her as just one of the fellas because she carried herself like them and could hold her own.

Though heavily involved in the drug trade, Pearson was sent to prison for a case unrelated to narcotics. In 1996 she was convicted of second-degree murder for the fatal shooting of 15-year-old girl that she didn’t even know. At the time of the incident Pearson was 14, and she was sent to the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup at 15. While serving time, Pearson did all she could to keep from going insane and/or becoming completely heartless. She took classes to earn her GED, began secretly dating a female correctional officer and looked forward to visits from Loney. One day during the second year of her bid she received the news from another inmate that Loney had been murdered.

Pearson says she went through a range of emotion but was suddenly overcome with a feeling of peace, which made her turn her life around. She sensed that she’d survived the most dreary part of her life and that it was time to focus on a fresh start. “The book goes through my life at my darkest time and how I got past that,” Pearson says. She says that she still visits her East Baltimore neighborhood and is greeted with respect and admiration.

And she is acting. The Wire’s Snoop – whom Stephen King called “perhaps the most terrifying female villain to ever appear in a television series” in the Sept. 1, 2006, issue of Entertainment Weekly – is a far cry from the real, mild-mannered Pearson. “The character Snoop on The Wire is a cold-hearted person,” Pearson says. “She don’t care about nothing. I have a heart. I’ve always had a heart. So I look at a script and think of how Denzel might play it.” She laughs briefly at her own joke. “Plus, I already know how the streets are, so it wasn’t too hard for me to capture the gangsta side that they wanted to see,” she adds.

Since The Wire’s final season’s shooting wrapped over the summer, Pearson has been pursuing other entertainment endeavors. She was asked to appear as Snoop in a video for “It’s a Stick Up” by 50 Cent’s protégé Tony Yayo. Pearson admits to dabbling in rap during her free time but says she has no plans to record anything seriously. She is still touring and doing book signings for her autobiography, which she hopes will be adapted into a movie. In addition, Pearson has other acting gigs to be announced in the future.

“I’m working on a film, but my lawyer asked me not to discuss that right now,” she teases.

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