Heir Time

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

A nutritionist says fresh vegetables are good for you, Lean Cuisine is low-fat and that to have "healthy bowels" you need to drink lots of water. She recommends people eat smaller portions. "Don't overload your colon," she says.

During the 10:40 commercial break the audience puts on their clown noses. Debra has one on her nose and one on each nipple. The audience roars.

"Don't do it," a producer yells.

Debra never stops smiling.
Debra never stops smiling.

The floor manager puts one on his penis.

"It's a family show!" another producer shouts.

The next guest leads the audience in a loud ha ha ha, ho ho ho she calls "liberated laughing." She says that laughter is the best medicine -- it even relieves constipation. (Okay, that we didn't know.)

The clip about clown therapy at M.D. Anderson cuts off. Bruce, the lighting guy and set designer, announces: "Debra, they have breaking news."

She looks at the crowd. "The audience at Debra Duncan is being held hostage," she says into the mike. "They're starting the torture treatment now with clown noses."

She sings a few bars of "Send in the Clowns," and a handful run onto the stage tossing confetti into the air and onto the rug.

"Another mess," one producer says.

"Yeah," the other one says. "Bruce is going to have a fit."

The clowns declare Debra an honorary clown. After the show, audience members file past Debra, who graciously says good-bye and thanks them for coming. Several stop to have their picture taken with her. Meanwhile the producers are scuttling around looking for hairy women who might want to be on the next day's show.

At the post-show production meeting the crew sits in the audience and Debra pulls a chair onto the stage and faces them. She's still the star.

"Did you get a shot of my bowling shoes?" she asks, holding up her brown heels with a red stripe down the back. "That's all I want to know."

She sneezes three times. "I have to have more sex to build my immunity," she says.

A small blond producer tells Debra, "The eye doctor said I need to get laid."

"He didn't," Debra says, horrified.

"He said that I don't let people in," the producer says.

"Isn't that because you aren't trusting of people right away?" Debra asks. She says it's okay the producer doesn't let everyone into her heart. She has reason to be wary.

Debra's producers treat her like a big sister who's home from college. She gives them advice and clothes that don't fit; they go shopping together, and if the clasp on their necklace breaks, she fixes it. In return, they rush around doing whatever she wants. When asked for funny Debra stories, anecdotes they tell their mom, an expression clouds the producers' faces like they have dozens of things to say, but they all say that they better not because they don't want to get fired.

"Sometimes Debra gets frazzled before the show" is all the executive producer says.

Even people who don't work on the show anymore say they can't talk about what it was like working with Debra.

"Um, uh, well…," one stammers. "I plead the fifth."

Really? That bad?

Like any other boss, she says, Debra has her bad days. But like others we talked to (who said they couldn't talk on the record), she says she can't expand. She wants to work in television, and apparently Debra wields a mafioso-type power to destroy careers. So certain stories are kept secret, and there are people prohibited from interviews and times when Alicia steps in to keep reporters away from Debra. Debra acted oblivious even when her assistant grabbed my wrist and dragged me away from Debra. I screamed Debra's name and Debra kept walking. I told Alicia that Debra said it was okay for me to follow her around; she told me not to listen to Debra. Suddenly the Debra Duncan story seemed strikingly similar to HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, a comedy about a talk show where the star is always protected.

Munching on carrots she took off the vegetables-that-keep-you-from-getting-cancer display, Debra sits at her desk and pulls out a bag of hickory-smoked soy nuts. An associate producer walks into Debra's empty office. There's nothing on the walls, and the desk is bare except for a jar of Debra Duncan the-hottest-talk-show-host-in-town hot sauce.

"What's the feng shui in here?" the producer asks. "I'm not feeling it."

Debra turns off the overhead light and flips on a desk lamp. "Let's set the mood," she says as they sit down to read the script for tomorrow's show.

The associate producer writes the first draft, which is usually filled with too many facts; the executive producer reads it, cuts it and sends it to Debra. "I take out words I have trouble pronouncing," Debra says. "Sometimes you get a tongue twister."

Debra types a sentence, reads it aloud, then types another sentence. She deletes a few words, moves them around, then reads it again.

"What's her book about?" Debra asks of one guest.

"I didn't read it," the producer says.

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