Heir Time

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

She says, "I'd love you back, but you're underage."

"I'm almost 18," he hollers.

She smiles.

The next segment is on body language; the expert says that when a woman touches her hair while talking to a guy, it means she likes him. (Wasn't that on Murphy Brown nine years ago?) An impressive thing about Debra is that she always looks like she's learning something new even when her guests are saying really obvious things. Watching her show is like flipping through an outdated magazine in the dentist's office. It's light and maybe readers will stumble upon something they haven't heard, but usually not. She's more Redbookthan The New Yorker. It doesn't bother her that most of the information isn't new, she says, because more people than you realize haven't heard it. "The whole hour may not be revealing," she says. "You're amazed at how many times something is new."

It's hard to figure out how the next clip of a mud-covered couple fits into the show. Maybe they had a metaphoric makeover. The girl says the mud disguised her, shielded her, gave her freedom. She says that people don't take the time to pamper themselves (really?) and that mud softens and smooths your skin.

The next commercial break is long. Long. Long.

"Everybody bring a sleeping bag?" the floor manager asks.

Bored, the rock star's girlfriend takes Debra's whip into the audience and bends a few men over.

More smoke billows onto the set, and the mud wrestlers enter doing an interpretive mud dance. They walked out too early, so they're sent back to start again.

"Uh, do we want to remove the carpet?" Bruce says into his microphone. His suggestion is vetoed. "Oh," he says. "Okay."

"This is real this time," the floor director announces.

More smoke. The caveman ballet commences, and bony-ribbed models enter in fetish gear: rubber chaps, feather boas and merry widows. A larger lady is carrying a sparkler; Houston Fire Department calendar models tear off their jackets and dance around the stage.

"COME ON OVER, BABY," a woman screams.

Cut.

Debra didn't get to introduce the firemen. The show stops while the producers and Debra figure out how they're going to fix this problem. They have to rewind the tape, stop at the applause before the firemen came out, cut to Debra seated in the audience and let her say something about how these outfits are so hot the fire department has to make a house call. This takes about 20 minutes.

Debra sits in the audience, smiling, throwing her hands up and shrugging her signature shrug. It's 10:58. They only have until 11:30, when the cameras have to go across the hall and shoot the news.

They try to start. The camera guy messes up. They start again. They stop again.

The firefighters push their calendar. Debra thanks them for thinking about the kids it benefits and also for looking so good.

One of the firemen gives Debra his number. She thinks he's married.

HUSBAND HUNTING 101

October 27, 1999

Two women looking for love are here for advice. Debra's "experts in the husbandry field" are a divorced stand-up and an almost-divorced bartender. (People who found husbands, but not ones they wanted to keep.)

Al "The Rage" Walker and a local radio show host recommend going up to good-looking men and saying, "I'm in room 1102 at the Hyatt; can you meet me there at 11?" Another suggestion is to look for a husband at La Bare. (Aren't many male strippers looking for husbands themselves?)

Debra, near the end of the show, debunks fairy tales that taught women to wait for their prince. She says that women have to validate themselves from the inside out.

The only personal thing Debra says on this show is that she's divorced. She never forgets to put "ex" in front of the word "husband."

"He's been dismissed," Debra says, fingering her Gucci diamond-and-platinum earrings. "He gave me these for Christmas," she says, "but he doesn't know it." She traded in her wedding band.

"Was he the love of my life?" she says. "No. There is no love story there."

Debra graduated from UT and interned at a radio station for two weeks before it became a full-time job. Two years later she became a television reporter -- eight months later she was anchoring the evening news. She met Roland S. Martin at a meeting of the Austin Association for Black Journalists; six and a half years younger than she was, he was covering county government for the Austin American-Statesman. Her smile is what caught him. "Debra has a smile that can light up a city," he says. They dated three months before they got engaged and then married a year later -- two months before Debra's 30th birthday. "I got in just under the line," she says.

Roland became the city hall reporter at The Fort Worth Star-Telegram two months before their marriage; she followed him to Dallas a year later. "She was leery about leaving Austin," he says. "Dallas was supposed to be a treacherous market. My attitude was, 'Damn them, you can compete.' Debra's talent went far beyond Austin." Bored as an anchor, she wanted to get out of the office and talk to people again. She's always liked talking to strangers and hearing their stories -- growing up in Taiwan (her father was an air force engineer), she sat on the cement wall outside her parents' house talking to whoever walked by, often inviting herself home for dinner. "I got spankings, and I didn't know why," she says.

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