Heir Time

Debra Duncan pays her dues, hits her cues and hopes to be the next Oprah

It's the Debra Duncan Show's first live taping of 2001. Right at the beginning, a pony named Saint takes a huge, unscripted crap on the carpet.

Off camera, producers gasp and cover their mouths. The pony steps in the shit and mashes it into the rug. Someone pulls out a roll of paper towels, and the producers pass it around like a hot potato.

Debra, dressed in black cloth boots, short skirt and camel-colored sweater, smiles and jokes that animals are natural, comfortable creatures. Her most-requested guest, an animal communicator, says the pony is upset. He hates the stupid pink bow tied in his hair.

Debra never stops smiling.
Debra never stops smiling.

"Oh," Debra says. "I put it there."

The pet psychic says that Marvin Zindler loves his cat more than his kids; she diagnoses a depressed turtle and talks to a happy tarantula.

Debra's assistant, Alicia vonGreisman, sits stage right holding Debra's dog, a Jack Russell terrier wriggling on his yellow leash. "He likes to bolt," Alicia says. "He ran away from home one time without Debra knowing it and found his way to the station."

As Debra talks, her dog barks. The interpreter says he's jealous -- he wants to know who all the other animals are and why they're on TV and he's not. Debra tells him he'll get his turn.

The pony is running in small circles. The producers are fighting over who has to get Debra's chickens, Shaniqua and Misty, out of their cage.

At the commercial break, the floor manager cleans up the pony poop with blank cue cards.

Houston's darling, Debra Duncan might be Oprah Winfrey's heir apparent. That was the idea when she and Disney created the show four years ago. Her morning talk show is filled with likable, lightweight banter about dating, dieting and why everyone is so cranky. Even when she does serious topics, they aren't that depressing; Debra still smiles. The woman on the Egypt Air flight was shot in the head, but she survived. The woman who kicked her daughter out of the house because she didn't believe the girl had been molested by her stepfather has been to therapy and now she's closer to her daughter than ever. If the show's informative, Debra tries to make it inspirational. It's something people can have on in the background while they get ready for work or work at home.

As women have moved into the workforce, they've become more isolated from each other. Lucy and Ethel shared a cup of coffee every morning after their husbands went to work. Now Debra's the chipper friend who stops by to chat. An hour with Debra can be a nice break; she's always dolled up, singing, dancing and looking like she's having fun. No one throws chairs on her show or finds out that their fiancé is a transvestite. Nothing ever seems wrong in her world -- it's a happy place. When a pony poops on the rug, she doesn't even have to ask someone to clean it up -- it's not her problem.

Off camera, she hasn't had cue cards and a crew of people to clean up the crap. Almost every talk-show host has a tragedy they've triumphed over -- a life that lets them relate to their guests. (Oprah was raped, her boyfriend won't marry her, and her weight won't stay down; Sally Jessy's son did drugs; Rosie's mother died, she's a single mom…) Despite her constant slumber-party smile, Debra's story merits a show of its own -- she's coped with her baby brother's death, her own near-death and the dissolution of her marriage.

Consultants have told her to talk more about the pain in her life to make her more real and relatable. She actually talks less nowadays than she used to. "One thing I've learned to do is listen," Debra says. She bites her tongue and saves some of the funnier, more cutting comments for staff meetings. The show might be better if she talked more -- if she stopped smiling and really talked. But she probably won't ever do that. "She doesn't want to offend anybody," says a former producer, Stephanie Granader. "We struggled with that because we really wanted to see the real Debra, but we're not allowed to. She's a wonderful person -- it's sad that she can't come out and just be herself."

STRANGE MEDICINE

March 24, 1997:

Four days before her fourth wedding anniversary, Debra awoke in a New York City hotel room. She was 34 years old and had had a successful two-and-a-half-year run co-hosting Dallas's Good Morning Texas. She was in the city shooting her new show, Our Home, for Lifetime. Suddenly it felt like someone sliced an ax through her head.

"I couldn't call it a headache," she says. "I knew it was something else. I knew something was really, really wrong."

It wasn't a migraine, it wasn't spinal meningitis, it had to be a broken blood vessel, she thought. (Neurosurgeon was her alternate career choice.) Pins and needles prickled half her body; the other half went numb. "I'm dying," she thought. "I'm gonna die." She didn't know if she should call her mother or her husband first to say good-bye. "My mom will get on the phone and I will never get a word in and I will die on the phone," she thought.

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