Heir Time

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

She doesn't talk about him on the show; she says she respects his privacy (he turned down being interviewed for this article). Maybe she doesn't want an embarrassing Oprah-and-Stedman experience. He brings her a fresh flower every time he sees her, kills deer to make her meat loaf, and together they're raising two chickens because they wanted productive pets. When she talks to him on the phone, her smile doesn't seem fake.

From the show's kicky, come-with-me intro, Debra seems very approachable. But it's hard to talk to her alone because her assistant or producers are always around. She cancels an afternoon interview at her house and reschedules for the next day. I don't expect her to show up. I've already written a sorry-I-missed-you note to tape to her door. I'm shocked to see her convertible black Mercedes parked in the driveway. She opens the front door smiling and talking as she trashes small trees that died in the frost.

Debra lives in a three-story French stucco house in West University. Her home has 20-foot ceilings, and she's especially proud of how she faux-finished the bathroom walls herself. She gives me a tour (of the first floor only), showing off her craft closet and stopping to explain how she made most of the expensive-looking decorations from $2 plates she bought at Target.

Debra never stops smiling.
Debra never stops smiling.

Just past the entryway is her "Talk Show Corner." On the shelves are autographed pictures of Donahue, Donny and Marie and the Queen herself: Oprah. After a year, Lifetime offered Debra her own talk show, but she wanted to go network. Oprah was talking about retiring, and Walter Liss, the president of ABC Owned Television Stations, wanted to do a development project. He told Debra he wanted to sit tight and see what Oprah did. But Oprah renewed her contract.

"Nobody's filling that woman's shoes," Debra says. People tell her she looks like the Queen of Talk, and sometimes she sounds like her -- they have the same speech pattern. She sits down on her plush plum-colored couch covered in dog hair. The dog is scratching at the windows of the enclosed brick courtyard.

Debra says she wanted to start locally and do a slow rollout. She wanted time to hone and develop her show; she didn't want to get canceled when she was starting to get good. Geraldo retired, and the news director in Houston wanted to do a local talk show. Since she was known in Dallas and Austin, Debra thought she'd start in Houston, spread across Texas and then go national. Plus her (now ex-) husband was born and raised in Houston -- he went to Yates High School and has hundreds of relatives here. That family connection was played up in the show's promos. Her name is Deborah Kay Duncan, but "Debra" fit better in the graphic. "My mother came to the first taping and kept saying, 'That's not how you spell it. That's not how you spell it,' " Debra says.

Debra Duncan debuted in August 1998. The Chronicle wrote a cutting review four months into the show criticizing everything from the lighting to the pacing of the show. It said that the show "slipped into town on the quiet, and if you've been watching, you understand why." The review trashed Debra's first show, where she appeared in a marching band uniform because her San Antonio high school band played at the Oilers games, and criticized her for not doing anything more than mention that President Clinton was testifying that day. They said Channel 13 should have chosen in-house talent instead of importing Debra.

That infuriates Debra. "I created a show with Disney," she says. "The reason they didn't do a job listing is the No. 1 requirement was being Debra Duncan."

The Chronicle also said, "All her talk-talk-talk becomes blah-blah-blah. To pull that off takes the practiced polish of an Oprah or Rosie, and Duncan is neither. Nor is she likely to be a Kathie Lee." It said Debra needed to calm down. "When Oprah started, she wasn't as polished as she is now," Debra says. "People liked her because she was real."

People started watching the show because they felt bad for Debra after the nasty review; several asked for autographed copies of the article. "Don't worry," Liss told her. "You have all the time in the world." Michael Eisner reminded her that Regis and Kathie Lee spent 13 years locally before they went national.

The article said the show needed time and changes; shortly after the review, Debra switched from a five-segment show on unrelated topics to the way it is now, where there's one theme and the topics are all related. "I can't do kids on heroin and then turn to quilting bees next," Debra says. "It used to be 'Oh, your son died from sniffing paint. Aw. Coming up -- It's the Chinese New Year and we're going to teach you how to make lanterns.' You can't cut people open, make them bleed and then say buh-bye."

They hired three more producers (for a total of five), which allows more time for research and lets Debra leave the office. They also brought in executive producer Wendy Granato, who spent three years doing news for Channel 51. They lost the living room look, with bookcases, a grand piano and a cello, and switched to a simpler set. Now there's just a soft wood stage with an aqua-blue background with "debra" subliminally imprinted in the paint. The purple and orange arches look like a rusted rainbow.

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