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.
"Oh," Debra says. "I put it there."
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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."
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.
She didn't want to hit a New York City emergency room without a gaping wound. One of her guests that day was a physician, so she went to work. The doctor said it was a headache; Debra told him she doesn't get headaches.
She taped the first segment despite the pain. She looked at the 70 people on the set and thought to herself, "I can't leave -- if I do, I'll put them out of work." Debra decided that on her lunch break she would go to the hospital, get an MRI, come back, tape the rest of the show and have surgery that night. She walked over to a chair and blacked out.
In New York Hospital's waiting room, Debra slipped in and out of consciousness. "I remember staring at the security guard's gun and thinking, 'If I can get to it, I won't be in pain anymore,' " she says.
After eight hours of tests, the doctor confirmed her self-diagnosis: She had a small aneurysm in her sinus cavity. There was too much blood in her brain to operate; they needed to wait a week so it would dry up and he could see better. He gave her a one-in-ten chance of survival.
She spent a week in the hospital facing the fact that she would probably die. She asked God to forgive her for not making her life count more, for emceeing fashion shows and charity benefits but not actually sitting down with a needy child. If she lived, she'd have faced her worst fear, and if she died, she could see her baby brother again. "I was excited both ways," she says.
The last time she saw her brother, Gaines Duncan Jr., she was running out the door wanting to drive home before it got dark. He was killed three days later when a drunk driver crossed four lanes of traffic and slammed into his motorcycle. Debra missed him. A decade after his death, she still picked up her cell phone and started to call him before realizing he didn't have a number.
She asked the doctors to give her something for the pain. She was already on a full morphine drip, but she couldn't feel it. "I told the doctor to go to the street corner and ask the drug dealers if they maybe knew of something stronger, because they didn't have to get FDA approval," she says.
The night before the operation, the doctor said in the worst-case scenario she'd die on the table. Or she could end up comatose with brain damage and memory loss.
After four hours of surgery, she awoke feeling tired and groggy; her mind was blurry and nothing was connecting. "It's almost like you've gone past the point of being drunk," she says. Lying down hurt, and sitting up irritated her more. She watched the sun come up and go down for two sleepless weeks. Her husband and parents visited during the day, but no one stayed overnight. She asked the nurses which patients didn't have visitors, and she took them her flowers. She spent nights talking to patients in comas or people awaiting surgery. "I was doing my Mother Teresa thing," she says.
The night before she went back on the air for Good Morning Texas, she stood in her bedroom looking at her bald spot and the dip in her forehead where her skull didn't fit back together. Staring in the mirror, she thought about the past month and started crying. "It was a release of a lot of emotion I refused to have, because I tried to make everyone feel comfortable," Debra says.
Her husband walked in and said he couldn't believe her. "You should be grateful that God saved your life, and instead you're crying about your hair," he said. The fight escalated, and she told him he didn't understand.
She put her hands over her ears and said, "Don't yell at me. Please, don't yell at me." She backed up against the wall and cried as he walked out of the room. They had been fighting more, and both were feeling frustrated.
"I just felt so alone," she says.
He went downstairs to the library, then came back. She was still sobbing as he quietly sat down and put his arms around her.
THE SHOW: STRANGE MEDICINE
Tuesday, January 9, 2001
Debra strides past pictures of Channel 13's action-news team. In the corner is a full-length portrait of herself flanked by head shots of Sally Jessy Raphael and Rosie O'Donnell.
Behind the set, she grabs her contacts and picks up the script. Not much is spontaneous on the show; if an audience member is going to ask a question, Debra knows beforehand.
She pokes her head into the break room, smiles and shakes hands with the guests. A sex therapist hands Debra a copy of his book. "I want to have the honor of you having this in your library," he says.
She looks at the title, Loving with Passion. "In my personal library," she says in a bawdy bedroom voice.
"With the energy we saw on your show, you could probably write the book," he says.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
"I need to know what's in the book so I'm not doing 'So, you wrote a book,' '' Debra says. "I can do that, but I prefer not to."
Debra wants to know if the woman wrote the book based on her own experiences. Yes, the producer says. The woman has alopecia.
"If we're making a big deal about her being an author," Debra says, "we need to read the book."
Debra tells her to go buy the book -- she doesn't need to read the whole thing, but she at least wants the Cliffs Notes version. (That night Debra flips through it -- the author fictionalized her own story, and by writing it as "fiction" she could be more honest and still hide.)
A producer announces a McDonald's run. "Stop it!" Debra shouts at her. "You're, like, gonna turn 30 and be obese and you're gonna have to give us all your clothes because we're the lean healthy-meal people."
Another producer pokes her head in and asks Debra if she wants anything from Mickey D's.
Debra swivels her chair around, aghast. "No," she says. "Not you either. I thought you were part of the program. I thought you wanted to get lean and mean."
Yeah, but right now she wants a Big Mac.
Debra turns to the producer working on the script. "Who all out there is participating in the McDonald's situation? I want names."
Weight is an issue for Debra because she believes the camera adds ten pounds across her belly and makes her ass look huge. She lost 45 pounds, but she gained 15 back that she's working off. "I looked much more toned and better when I actually had those Angela Bassette arms," she says. She gave away her fat clothes, but she still can't fit into the size two's in her closet.
They turn back to the script. Debra wants to know if the guy with the hairy back is married. If not, she asks, is he cute?
A few minutes later the hairy-back man calls from his doctor's office to say he has the flu. The producer calls her boyfriend and has his hairy back fill in.
TURN YOUR TAME WOMAN WILD!
Thursday, January 11, 2001
It's 8:45 a.m., the show starts at nine, and Debra isn't here. Her assistant is pacing the hall. She looks at her watch and stares out the window, tapping her pointy-toed shoe. "C'mon, baby girl," Alicia says.
She looks like a stage mom whose nine-year-old daughter is about to twirl fire batons. She gets herself a cup of coffee, looks more nervous, but says she's not nervous -- or at least it's a good kind of nervous.
It's now two minutes until showtime and Miss Debra isn't here. Alicia presses her face against the glass. At exactly 9 a.m., Debra drives up and is rushed into makeup.
Today there's a slew of UH students in the audience. It's rare to see so many men without gray hair. The redhead who coordinates seating tells the guys they have to take off their hats. They boo; one leaves.
The set is decorated with Chinese ball lanterns. There's still silver clown confetti glittering on the rug.
Smoke blows from the audience entryway, and Debra rides in on the back of a Harley, brandishing a whip. She asks men in the audience what they think is sexy. One says a short skirt and boots; another says a skirt and high heels; she sits on the third guy's lap -- he thinks a ménage à trois is sexy.
An engine revs, and Leon Hall from E! Fashion Emergency rides in gripping the waist of another Harley guy. It's less exciting since Debra just did it. Audience members are starting to choke on the smoke; the place smells like burned eggs. Debra's wearing a floor-length tight-at-the-waist coat à la Kirstie Alley on Veronica's Closet. She cracks her whip and asks the audience if that's sexy.
Makeovers are a talk-show staple -- because everyone at home in their tattered bathrobe wants to change their life, or at least the way they look. Fashion Emergency is a show that does nothing but makeovers. Leon takes a woman shopping, gets her hair and makeup done and convinces her that she really is beautiful (making bitchy little comments along the way).
Debra shows a "heartfelt plea" from a farm wife who says she's "country with a 'k.' " Spread on her bed is the substitute-teacher-style wardrobe she says her husband hates. Leon takes her to the Galleria and dresses her in a shimmering, sequined snakeskin-patterned dress.
The next woman is tougher because she's already a wild woman dating a rock star. Leon swaps the Angel Face Barbie blond-streaked black hair for a subtler purple and red. Then he ties on a sparkly black top over her braless breasts. "She had some assets I couldn't ignore," Leon says, pointing to her chest (which stays remarkably round and firm).
Leon dresses the next handful of women in strappy silver sandals and glittery gowns. "I think life should sparkle," Leon says.
At the break, a guy screams, "Debra, I love you."
She says, "I'd love you back, but you're underage."
"I'm almost 18," he hollers.
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 Redbook than 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.
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.
At Dallas's WFAA-TV (Channel 8) she spent three months as a reporter before she was asked to co-host a live morning talk show -- less controversial and confrontational than the Today show. She didn't want to do a talk show. "It just wasn't me," she says. "I didn't think talk show was me." She was an investigative reporter, and she didn't think people would take her seriously if she crossed over. She didn't want to give up her hard news edge, so starting in September 1994 they let her anchor the morning news as well.
On Good Morning Texas, she played a duet with renowned flutist James Galway and did cutesy skits like a fake audition for the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in an oversize pink tutu. "I don't care how stupid it was because somebody got something out of it," she says.
In November 1996 an agent asked if she had thought of doing a national show. Lifetime had closed auditions for Our Home, but Debra got the job. She finished her contract in Dallas shooting Our Home on her vacation days. That's when she had the brain aneurysm.
Her husband didn't move to New York with her. He says their marriage was falling apart and he couldn't see quitting his job and taking problems they hadn't dealt with to a new city. He had a couple of job interviews in New York, but a year later her show was canceled and she moved back to Dallas, then Houston.
He quit his job as news director and morning anchor at KKDA 730 AM, took a 60 percent pay cut and became the managing editor of Houston's Defender. "I was no longer interested in commuting," he says. "I was there a month before she said she wanted to get divorced." She had stopped wearing her wedding band in exchange for a four-carat diamond she bought herself. He wanted her to wear the ring he gave her. He asked if she was actually listening when she did shows on how to make relationships work. He says they tried couples' counseling but she answered her cell phone three times in the middle of a session. "She did not want to do it," he says. "She was very hostile. Both of us were very defensive."
He remembers her telling him, "I don't believe marriage is oneness. I don't believe I should lose my voice because we're married." He says he asked her, "Do you recall the vows you took? Were they simply words?" He says they just weren't on the same page; they didn't agree on the definition of marriage.
Debra doesn't like to talk about the dissolution of her marriage. She says she's not a vengeful person and she doesn't want to get into it. She rolls her eyes when she mentions an article Roland wrote saying that up until the day their divorce was final -- if she had changed her mind -- he would have stayed. She simply states that he wanted her to quit her job and have babies and even though she does want children, she wasn't ready. "It was difficult for him being married to someone who made more money than him and was more recognized," she says. "I was not going to apologize for my job anymore."
Her ex-husband talks about their marriage all the time. He gives inspirational speeches at church conferences, he's written articles, and he's working on a book. He and Debra were on the cover of Our Texas magazine in December 1997; he still has the issue hanging in his office. He says their marriage was full of love and he fought for it and never wanted it to end. Leaving, he says, was her idea. Her saying that he couldn't live in the shadow of her fame makes the calm evaporate from his even, evangelist voice. "That is an absolute joke," he says. "That is an insult because you want to rewrite history and you don't want to state facts. She would tell me to my face, 'You're jealous of my career,' and I would look at her and say, 'You're out your damn mind.' If there is one thing that truly pisses me off is when she makes a statement like that. That kind of statement is so absurdly false."
"Debra," he says, "does not want to confront real issues about herself."
He says he did want children, but what he wanted most was for her to put their marriage before her job. She told him that she is her job, it has her name on it. He says the marriage started stumbling in 1996 when she became a workaholic. "She was running and gunning 16-, 18-hour days, seven days a week," he says. "She was getting up at four o'clock and not getting home until eight, nine, ten o'clock." When they did see each other, they had long talks and long fights. Then they divorced. He plans to remarry in April. She says it will take a lot for her to get married again.
She met her current boyfriend, Neil (she won't say his last name), at the allergist's office last March. They were double-booked for the same 11 o'clock appointment. He had no idea who she was (she loves that). He asked the doctor, who said she worked at Channel 13. Neil called the station and asked her out.
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.
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.
Her viewing audience doubled last year when Channel 13 started rerunning the morning show after Politically Incorrect at 11:35 p.m.; they also show her Sunday morning at 11. Having 11 hours of airtime a week upped her recognition factor, and she's become a star in her own hunk of the world. She goes to Target, and people are wearing her T-shirts.
Her phone rings nonstop throughout the interview. First it's the realtor because her house is on the market. (She doesn't need that much space, she says. She likes the idea of a loft.) Then it's her executive producer asking if she wants to have her makeup done in her office from now on. Debra says no, she likes the one-on-one time she gets with guests before the show. It's usually her only chance to calm them down and make them relax -- it was just too much that morning when her makeup had to be done in a crowded conference room. "Makeup is where I separate myself," Debra says into the phone. When she hangs up, she won't explain that comment.
Her cell phone rings. It's her boyfriend. She asks him if he wants to have dinner. He says he wants to cook her a duck. She tells him he's tired and he doesn't have to cook for her tonight -- he can fix it this weekend.
She giggles on the phone, and I play with her dog. I tell her I'll give her some privacy and she walks me to the door. She says there are some pictures she wants to show me at her office and makes sure I have her home number. She acts like we're new best friends and says she'll call me tomorrow with her mom's number.
I drive away excited at no longer needing to go through Alicia (who has become increasingly hostile) and happy that I've begun to break through Debra's plastic facade. I can't wait to know the real Debra. I leave a message the next day, and another the day after that.
She never returns my calls.
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