Heir Time

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

In the makeup room, a doctor who reads people's personalities in their eyes holds a flashlight and a magnifying glass up to Debra's pupils. He says she's a flower and a stream with "slight rings of accomplishment." He watches her cross her arms and legs to judge her personality. When he's out of earshot, Debra mutters something about how he should already know her personality from watching the show.

"Contact time," Debra says and pulls out caramel lenses; her brother's eyes were that color.

"I'm going to watch how you do this," her assistant says. "It took me 30 minutes this morning, and I still couldn't get them in."

Debra traded in her wedding ring for Gucci earrings.
Debra traded in her wedding ring for Gucci earrings.
Debra's "fun moment."
Debra's "fun moment."

Debra pops them in her eyes.

"You just got it in," the assistant says. "It's amazing."

Debra says she needs a coffee stirrer and a straw, and her assistant rushes to get them. She's a combo of Debra's mother and the guy Mike Tyson hired to tell him he's great.

Debra says she needs to go shopping. She wants new clothes -- she's tired of everything in her closet (which is the size of most people's bedrooms). Debra chats with the makeup artists about the Victoria's Secret semiannual sale, men buying lingerie and the aftermath of said lingerie.

"You're late?" Debra says to the makeup artist. "How late? Late enough to… Oh, God. Let's talk about it later."

Alicia pokes her head in, asks Debra how she's doing and if she wants some hotter coffee. The makeup artist runs a lint brush over Debra's brown suit, and the associate producer in charge of today's show briefs Debra on each segment.

Two minutes before the show, Debra is talking to a guest and Alicia drags her away. Walking through the news set so Debra can stay out of sight, Alicia takes Debra's hand and warns, "There's some clowns. Don't be scared."

One tries to give Debra a red nose like the one he gave the mayor. "Don't mess up her makeup, okay?" Alicia says. Debra smiles as she's dragged off. Alicia gets to be the bad guy; Debra gets to be the wonderful friend who really wanted to talk longer. Alicia calls herself "the keeper of the Debra." She reminds her of eye appointments, orders her merlot instead of Coke ("for dietetic reasons") and physically blocks reporters from Debra (even after Debra okays the interviews).

Debra straps on her mike, and Alicia tucks the wires into the back of Debra's skirt.

"What are you doing?" the floor manager asks. "Get your hands out of her pants."

"She's used to it," Alicia says and continues tucking like a mother in a department store dressing room.

Meanwhile the audience is practicing applauding, cheering and saying "aw" in unison. The seats stage right are usually off camera -- that's where they put people who have called in sick to work (since one woman's boss caught her on the break-room TV).

The rug the pony pooped on yesterday is gone; the old rug has been dragged out of storage. Wearing hip-holstered headsets, the associate producers scurry around carrying clipboards. They're dressed in suits straight out of Ally McBeal's office -- they look like an at-work magazine spread come to life. The executive producer is wearing a sheer leopard-print skirt, snakeskin boots and a belted turtleneck. Today's show is on tape. February is ratings month, so they're on tape once a week to give them more time to work on live shows. Ratings are good, the executive producer says, really good. Typically they get about 100,000 viewers a day, Debra says. Their biggest competitor is Martha Stewart. "She doesn't do well anywhere except Houston," Debra says. "Usually we beat her."

The floor manager announces Debra, starts clapping, and the audience joins in. Debra runs out and chats with a regular sitting in the front row.

"Here we go -- showtime!" The floor manager, shouts. "TAPE IS ROLLING!"

He starts applauding, and the red and yellow applause lights flash.

Debra smiles graciously. The eye doctor looks into Debra's eyes (even though he can't see anything with her contacts in) and says she has flowers and streams and jewels, which means she's a creative, people-oriented person who knows how to listen and connect.

He looks at audience members' eyes and tells one woman she's a nurturer. He tells another she's a tree.

The associate producers are putting clown noses on their ear lobes and fingertips; a makeup artist is attaching them to one woman's coiled braids.

Debra's doing a really good job of looking interested -- she hasn't even stifled a yawn. She says she never gets bored no matter how boring the topic; she says she's always genuinely interested in what people have to say. But she's also trying to think about the next question, watch the time and decide if she lets them keep talking where she'll cut the extra minute later.

The following guests say things like massages are relaxing, endorphins kill pain and it's good for a man's health to have sex four or five times a week.

The sex therapist is planning a couples' retreat to Hawaii where he'll teach massage techniques, swim with dolphins (because they're such sensual, sexual creatures), then hit the hotel.

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