In The News
PAGEANTRY MAGAZINE WINTER/2000
MISS AMERICA 1990
By Lisa Nees
Most people know Debbye Turner as Miss America 1990, the motivational speaker, popular pageant emcee, and the dynamic TV host. However, there’s a lot more to the former Miss America than the many hats she currently wears.
Debbye was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and spent the first years of her life moving from place to place as a military child. Her father was an officer in the Army, so in the Turner Family, moving every few years was a common occurrence. Although she was only six years old when her parents amicably divorced, Debbye recalls a childhood filled with love, religion, and a closeness with both parents.
"Though times were not always easy," Debbye says, "one parent raising children doesn't automatically equal a dysfunctional family. I certainly don't think a single-parent household is the best situation. There should be two loving parents -a mother and a father - but in some homes that's not possible. Our mother knew the Lord. She loved Him and lived her life according to Biblical guidelines and faith."
Since times were financially tough, Debbye was interested in helping out however she could. When she was young she had a paper route which she dutifully held for years. In school she was very studious. "I knew, even at 13 or 14, I would have to do something to help pay for my education," she says. "So I worked on my grades. I knew I could get academic scholarships if I tried hard enough."
Then one day in high school, a fluke event would alter the course of her life. Because she was involved in FBLA (Future Business Leaders of America), she was "roped into" representing the group at a school pageant, since each of the school's service organizations were required to have a participant. Debbye remembers, "It was a little pageant called the Jonesboro (Arkansas) High School Valentine Sweetheart Pageant." Much to her surprise, she won!
That would have been that, except for the fact that one of the judges happened to be a director for one of the Miss America preliminary pageants. "This (judge) asked me to be in the Miss Jonesboro (AR) Pageant. I wasn't the pageant type... so I wasn't interested in doing other pageants until she said that beauty pageants were the largest source of scholarships for women in the world."
This caught Debbye's attention. "I was growing up in a single-parent, lower- middle class, African-American home. My family couldn't pay for the education I wanted. I saw it as a way to reach my goals. That's how I got started."
After winning the local Miss Jonesboro Pageant, she advanced to the state pageant, the Miss Arkansas America Pageant, where she placed in the Top Ten. She then re-competed over the next two years, placing First Runner-up both times. All in all, it took Debbye seven years and 11 tries, but through sheer determination she finally qualified for the Miss America Pageant.
While attending vet school in Missouri, to prepare for the pageant each morning she rose before 5 a.m. to work out, perfect her presentations, and fine-tune her marimba routine. While competing, she dazzled the judges, which happened to include Donald Trump and The Cosby Show's Phylicia Rashad, by playing a rapid-fire version of "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the marimba, and the rest is history. On Sept. 16, 1989, wearing a white velvet gown, she was crowned Miss America 1990.
She was the third African-America and the first representative from Missouri to hold the Miss America title since the pageant began in 1921.
A humble Debbye recounts the reason for her victory: "I do a lot of motivational speaking now, and I tell people I didn't win Miss America because I was the prettiest or most talented girl there," she explains. "I believe it was God's design for my life. So He gave me the favor and the grace that I needed. That's why I won."
To this day, Debbye, a born-again-Christian, speaks highly of the Miss America system. "I believe the Lord blesses the Miss America pageant, because I have met more Christian women in (this) system than in any other extracurricular activity. Many of the recent Miss Americas are not only Christians but publicly professing Christians. In my year, a number of contestants were believers, and we'd pray before competitions."
After her year of service in 1990, she returned to vet school where she graduated debt-free as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She also has a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture from Arkansas State University. Today, the 5'7" beauty emcees pageants across the county and is co-host of Missouri's popular, half-hour, live TV show, Show Me St. Louis, a family show about what there is to do, see, and get involved with in St. Louis. John Pertzborn, her former co-host, remembers the day the Olympic torch was being run through town. What impressed John was the instant recognition of Debbye Turner. "Soon there was a crowd around her, asking for autographs, and people started shouting, 'Oh, hey, that's Miss America!' And they were ripping papers out of their pockets. Somebody had a loose-leaf note- book, and people were grabbing pieces from that so they could get her autograph."
Debbye also has a television show about the proper way to take care of various pets. Her program is called The Gentle Doctor. It is seen on many PBS stations across the nation. And, one of her most recent weekend appearances was in Orlando, Florida, as host of the highly-rated Miss Florida America '00 Pageant which was televised throughout the state of Florida.
In addition to her two popular TV shows and pageant work, Debbye makes about 100 personal appearances per year. She's particularly interested in teenagers and promotes abstinence. "I talk to them about choices... but I don't try and cram anything down their throats." She has also appeared as a special guest on many top-rated shows, including the David Letterman Show, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and the Today Show.
Although she's a highly successful professional, motivational speaker, television host, and pageant emcee, Debbye continues to credit all of her success to the Big Man upstairs. "I strongly believe that we all have a purpose and a destiny, a God-given destiny in life, if we choose to follow that path. I had to work hard for everything I have ever gained in life. It has always been the result of, I believe, divinely being in the right place at the right time, having the opportunity there when I was ready for the opportunity."
Six years ago, Debbye's mother, Gussie, passed away, but Debbye remains close to her father Fred (now a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel) and her sister Suzette. Until Debbye finds Mr. Right (whom she believes will find her), she lives with her two cats and maternal grandmother. An old-fashioned gal, Debbye believes that "God can pick better than I can, so I believe that at the right time, he'll attach me to the right person."
In the meantime, her long-term goals include the progression of television career until its natural conclusion, when she can then take care of animals. "What I've decided in relation to television is that I do believe God placed these opportunities in my life for a reason. I seek to fulfil that purpose. To that end, I've decided to ride this wave for as long as it goes. And when it washes out, I've got the best fallback in town: I can go back to practicing veterinary medicine."
But for now, she reflects once again on her Miss America pageant experience. "I believe the Miss America system is different from (many) of the others. First, it's based on demonstration of talent and ability. You've got to have more than a pretty face to be successful in the system. (Second) the toughest interview I've ever undergone - veterinary schools, jobs, bar none - is the Miss America qualifying interview. It prepares you to out-interview anybody, anywhere, anytime. My communication skills come from that. I'm able to do my job because of the skills I got from that. Miss America changed the course of my life. I'll never be the same because of that one evening."