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St. Louis Magazine
MISS AMERICA AND THE AMERICAN DREAM
By the time Debbye Turner was 13 years old, she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up. Living with her divorced mother and older sister in the little college town of Jonesboro, Ark., she set her heart on veterinary school. Turner worked long and hard for the next decade to achieve her dream of becoming a veterinarian. Along the way, she also became Miss America.
But, Turner insists convincingly, that coveted title was just a means to an end.
“I was growing up with a single parent, in a lower-middle-class, African-American, southern home,” she recalls. “We didn’t have the finances to subsidize the necessary education.” Veterinary medicine requires not just a college degree but four years of postgraduate work that is both rigorous and expensive.
“I knew, even at 13 and 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 scholarship if I tried hard enough.”
It was not until a few years later, after she had grown out of the tall-and-gawky stage many teenage girls go through, that it occurred to her she might have a chance to win a beauty pageant, which might in turn help pay for her schooling. Laughing as she recalls those days, Turner explains that her road to Miss America didn’t begin, as one might expect, with a little girl’s dream of walking down that famous runway to the crooning voice of Bert Parks.
Turner didn’t see glamour and fame. She saw scholarship dollars.
“Actually,” she says, “I entered a local Valentine’s Day pageant, almost on a lark, and I won that.” One of the judges at that pageant happened to be the director of Miss Jonesboro pageant in Turner’s home state of Arkansas, and she was so taken by Turner that she recruited her to compete for the local title.
Turner recalls, “The moment I decided to enter the pageant came when she said these words: “The Miss America Scholarship Program is the largest source of scholarships for women in the world. Contestants who make it the Miss America pageant can win tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships.”
“That was it for me,” Turner says. She won, over a period of seven years, somewhere around $44,000 in scholarships. “I didn’t have a lot of money to pour into training and grooming and costuming and all of that stuff. We made my stuff. I rented, I borrowed, whatever we could do,” she recalls. That way, just about all the money Turner won was directed toward her education. “I graduated from college debt- free,” she says.
GOING FOR THE GOLD
Turner’s education includes three years at Arkansas State University, from which she holds a bachelor of science in agriculture, and four years at the University of Missouri School of Veterinary Medicine. None of it was easy. Veterinary school is tough, a combination of medical school, graduate-level zoology and a full-time job at a combination farm, ranch and zoo.
During this time, Turner continued to compete in pageants. In her late teens and early 20s, she failed three times in attempts to become Miss Arkansas. Twice, she became heartbreakingly close as the runner-up. At one point she considered quitting. Even her dad, Fred Turner, encouraged her to give up pageants and concentrate on her studies. “I really just didn’t enjoy seeing the disappointment in her, and I encouraged her to not try again,” he says. “ But that wasn’t Debbye. There’s just no give-up in that girl.”
A family friend who had been praying for Turner inspired her to continue by telling her she didn’t believe that God would have her settle for second-best. Turner, a devout Christian, kept trying.
In 1989, when Turner was living in Columbia and studying at the Missouri veterinary school, she decided to try a new approach – entering the contest from Missouri. That summer, she advanced from Miss Columbia to Miss Missouri.
To prepare for the pageant, she rose before 5 a.m. to work out, perfect her presentations and fine–tune her marimba routine.
At the pageant, she scored high in the swimsuit competition, wearing a canary-yellow maillot. Then she dazzled a panel of judges that included developer Donald Trump and actress Phylicia Rashad by playing a rapid-fire version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” on the marimba. Early in the routine, she dramatically flung two mallets behind her, dancing all the while in a red chiffon pantsuit.
On Sept. 16, wearing a white velvet gown, she was crowned Miss America 1990. She was the first candidate from Missouri to hold the Miss America title since the pageant began in 1921.
“I celebrated my 24th birthday three days later on the David Letterman show,” recalls Turner, now 32 years old.
She was the third African–American woman to become Miss America. She follows Vanessa Williams, who won the title in 1984 but was dethroned after a men’s magazine published nude pictures of her; and Williams’ runner-up, Suzette Charles, who succeeded Williams.
Turner postponed her studies for a year while she hit the road for personal appearances, logging 20,000 miles a month. During her year as Miss America, she earned about $200,000, which more than took care of future college cost.
In the spring of 1991, she became Debbye Turner, D.V.M. But show business beckoned, delaying-not putting an end to –her lifelong dream.
THE SHOW GOES ON
Turner is finally able to pull herself away from the set after taping of Show Me St. Louis, the popular daytime show she has co-hosted on Channel 5 since September 1995. She’s already had a long day, and it’s far from over, but she seems fresh and cheerful. It’s hard to believe that Turner, who’s 5-foot-7, is considered short for a Miss America. She’s a commanding presence in her black slacks, bright-yellow blouse and red-tweed blazer--determination and optimism show in her eyes and manner as she skillfully works on the fast-moving show. ShowMe St. Louis is about “what there is to do, see, and get involved in for families,” Turner says.
“My job description is to have fun,” Turner says. “People seen to enjoy us. They’re turning the TV on. The ratings are good.”
Still, no matter how renowned Turner becomes as a television celebrity, she’ll always be known first as a former Miss America.
“I didn’t realize at the time how thoroughly this title would follow me throughout my entire life,” she says with the bright smile that’s familiar throughout the St. Louis area. Turner began to realize that reality during her year as Miss America after Bess Myerson, Miss America 1945, appeared in the news. (A former city official of New York, Myerson was acquitted in 1988 of bribery charges after a long and ugly trial, but the bad publicity followed her for years afterward.)
“The headline said, ‘Former Miss America Bess Myerson,’ and she had been Miss America 30 years before that, and I thought, ‘My gosh, this is never going to go away!’ It’s not so much a bad thing, but it’s sobering at times,” Turner says.
Even other celebrities are sometimes surprised at the recognition Turner gets for having been Miss America eight years ago. John Pertzborn, her former co-host on ShowMe St. Louis, remembers the day the Olympic torch was being run through town. He and Turner, the emcees of the event, were underneath the Arch on a stage. What most impressed Pertzborn was the adoration by Turner’s fans: “Soon there was a crowd around her, asking for her autograph, and people started to shout, ‘Oh hey, that’s Miss America! That’s Miss America!’ And they were ripping papers out of their pockets. Somebody had a loose-leaf notebook, and people were grabbing pieces from that so they could get her autograph.”
Turner long accepted that, to many people, she would always be Miss America—or “Miss A,” as she sometimes puts it. And she admits that winning a beauty pageant causes some people to stereotype her, as if intelligence were now out of the question. In today’s social climate, she says, pageants are seen by some as hopelessly out-of-date and sexist. But, all the same, she doesn’t hesitate to defend the pageant.
“I don’t agree with any of the criticism that spills over onto the Miss America system,” Turner says. “I don’t believe all pageants are good. I don’t believe all pageants are good for all girls of all ages. So I have to quickly say that I believe the Miss America system is different from all of the others, or at least most of them that are out there.”
First, it’s based on demonstration of talent and ability, Turner says. “You’ve got to have more than a pretty face to be successful in the system.” Second, she says, “The toughest interview I’ve ever undergone—veterinary school, jobs, bar none—is the Miss America qualifying interview. It prepares you to out-interview anybody, anywhere, anytime. My communications skills came from that. I’m able to do my job because of skills I got from that.”
Turner also praises the pageant for its emphasis on scholarship. “It’s for women who are going to a goal, and this is a means to an end—not the end itself,” she says. “Certainly people can misuse the system and abuse it, because people aren’t perfect. But the intentions of the system are good. And if used well and in the right perspective, it can only be a positive experience.”
Looking at Turner’s life, it’s easy to see why she feels so supportive of the Miss America system. Every door that opened to her after veterinary school came in no small part because of her Miss America title.
“Miss America changed the course of my life. I’ll never be the same because of that one evening,” Turner says. The pageant, she adds, didn’t necessarily change her goals, but it broadened her choice of goals. So, when she was nearing graduation from vet school, she was flexible enough to say yes when Ralston Purina recruited her to serve as spokesperson for a pet-education program called “Caring for Pets.”
“They needed someone who was a veterinarian, someone with name recognition,” Turner says. “At the time what I knew best was how to travel and speak. It was what I had done as Miss America. Along the way I had time to continue doing motivational speaking that I had begun during my year as Miss America, mainly talking to young people.”
Turner’s motivational-speaking audience soon grew to include adult audiences, professional audiences, women audiences, Christian audiences. It was during that time that Turner met the then-general manager of KSDK, John Kueneke. He was developing the concept for a new show and was looking for a co-host. “So, after a series of meetings and conversations, I ended up here on ShowMe St. Louis,” Turner says. She also has a television show about pet care called The Gentle Doctor. It is seen on many PBS stations across the nation, although not on KETC (Channel 9), in Turner’s adopted hometown.
A CONTEMPLATIVE CHILDHOOD
Debbye Turner is a woman who has much more going for her than grace, beauty and the ability to play a mean marimba, although those attributes clearly played an important part in her ultimate victory. Just getting the chance to compete for Miss America required planning, intelligence and overcoming long odds.
Turner’s family moved six times before she was even 5 years old. Her father, Fred Turner, was an Army officer, and like other military families, the Turners packed up and moved with each new assignment. When Debbye was 5, they ended up in Jonesboro, Ark., her father’s hometown, and there they stayed. At least she, her older sister, Suzette, and her mother did. A year later, Fred Turner moved on again when he and Turner’s mother, Gussie Turner, separated and later divorced. That left the three women, or one woman and two little girls, pretty much on their own. But Debbye doesn’t recall a great sense of tragedy about her situation.
“Because I was so young when they separated and later divorced,” she explains, “I don’t really have any memories of my father being in our home before that. I was 6 at the time. I didn’t really feel the gravity of it until years and years later.” She credits her mother with teaching her to love all living creatures and with encouraging her to pursue her dreams, no matter how impossible they might seem to achieve.
“I think if one has to grow up in a single-parent home, in a divorced situation, I had the best situation that could be had. It was an amicable parting. And when he came and visited, my mom and he sat and talked like they were old college buddies. We stayed as close as we could, considering during part of that time my dad lived out of the country. He lived in Belgium. He lived in Germany. But we stayed in contact.”
Debbye and Suzette simply went on figuring there was nothing particularly unusual about their family situation. If there was some turmoil inside the family, it wasn’t noticeable to others.
Dr. Sylvia Richards, now a retired educator in Jonesboro, knew the entire family well back then. She saw Turner get through that period and many others. Richards recalls that, as a third grader, Turner was in her Girl Scout troop. “Her mother and I became friends through a spiritually group,” Richards says. “I remember Debbye as being very well mannered, pleasant. She wasn’t always quiet, necessarily, but she was contemplative.” When Turner got a little bit older, she had a paper route, which greatly impressed Richards. “I thought that was really neat, for a young woman of her age to have that paper route,” Richards says.
Richards also notes that even throughout Turner’s parents’ divorce, which would’ve been hard on any child, “Debbye was always respectful, very kind. I don’t remember her being out of sorts.”
WHERE DESTINY LEADS
Turner’s good nature may come in part from her upbringing. She makes it clear that her spirituality has always been the key to her strength and determination.
“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,” Turner says. “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.”
Turner does not hide her religious commitment. “I’m a born-again Christian,” she says, her twinkling with what is clearly a major love for her. “And my relationship with Christ is the foundation of my life. Anything I do is based on the principles set forth in the Bible. It’s what my identity is wrapped up in. I try to be very forthright with that. It’s who I am; Christ is who I am. I try not to hide it, sometimes to the offense of those who don’t believe in the same manner that I do. The simple fact is I know why I’m here and I know how I got here. God deserves all the glory and the credit, and I don’t mind giving him the credit.”
According to Richards, Turner owes that religious conviction to her mother. “Debbye was reared with a mother who walked the earth with one hand in God’s hand,” she says.
Although Gussie Turner died in August 1994, she did live long enough to see her daughter walk down that runway in Atlantic City. “I lost my best friend when my mother died,” Turner says, clearly still finding it hard to talk about without becoming emotional. “It was absolutely devastating. I was not at all prepared.” Gussie Turner battled cancer, and, after going through chemotherapy and radiation treatments, she was in the recovery stage. “The problem was that she took so long to go to the doctor for the diagnosis that the radiation had to be incredibly strong to get the cancer,” Turner recalls. “It damaged organs around the tumor.” Gussie died unexpectedly as a result of complications from the treatment.
Turner has remained close to her father, now a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel living in Austin, Texas, and her sister, Suzette, married and the mother of an infant, who lives in Houston. Debbye has not married and has no children. She does, however, proudly note that she has two cats (Snicker and Blessed), a French poodle (Jacques) and an 88-year-old roommate- her maternal grandmother, Gussie Jones.
Her grandmother moved in with Turner a year after Gussie Turner died, Turner considers her a great companion and likens her to the character played by Estelle Getty on the television series The Golden Girls. Caretakers look after her grandmother when Turner is away, which is often, because Turner still travels on weekends to give motivational speeches.
AN OLD-FASHION GIRL
Despite her hectic schedule, Turner has found room in her life for a "special friend," as she calls him, although she's hesitant to discus their relationship. "My best friend is a young man that lives here in St. Louis," she says. "And I am blessed to have a purely platonic, pure, very special and close relationship. But we're not dating. If I've got spare time I'll hang out with him if he's got the spare time, and so everybody thinks we're dating."
Turner isn't eager to rush into anything. “Who knows what the future holds?" she says. "I believe God can pick better than I can, so I believe that at the right time, he'll attach me to the right person. And if this young man's the right person, then that's fine. He's an honorable and wonderful young man, I wouldn't object at all. I'm a '90s woman but an old-fashioned girl, and I'm not ever going to be the aggressor. We're comfortable with where we are. And if the time comes that he asks that we do something else, I'll consider it."
By the way, he is not in the television business.
CHANGES AND CHOICES
Debbye Turner is one of the busiest women in town. She makes about 100 personal appearances every year, many of them at charitable, Christian and other community events. She's particularly interested in organizations that work with teenagers.
"I talk to them about choices," she says, "And I tell them how the choices you make affect your life. For example, I tell them I made the choice to remain (sexually) abstinent until marriage, and I have lived that choice, But I don't try and cram anything down their throat.’” Three years ago, Turner was approached by some prominent Missouri Republicans, who suggested she would make a strong candidate for lieutenant governor. She says she was flattered. But at the time she said, "I would only run for office if I had strong enough convictions and strong enough beliefs that I could make a difference. I would not run just because I was the right woman or the right African-American or had the right image. That belittles the importance of the office,"
She also said, "I prefer to keep my political beliefs to myself because of what I do. In my talks, I want to inspire and motivate people. I don't want anything to get in the way of that."
Perhaps the biggest thing standing in the way of her having more of that free time is doing a live show every day. And many wonder what affect the departure of John Pertzborn, Turner's former ShowMe S., Louis co-host, will have on the show. Dan Buck has now taken on that job, and it remains to be seen whether he and Turner will share the same chemistry.
"When you're sitting next to someone and you're on the air, you have to learn what you can get away with and what you can't," Pertzborn explains. "It took us a little while and some getting used to, to know what our parameters were. I had to be on my best behavior with her, because she doesn't beat around the bush. When I pulled a fast one on her, she'd go, 'Now back off, buddy."' So far, Turner and Buck seem to be getting along fine.
Even if the show doesn't last forever, Turner says she won't suffer over it. She isn't even sure she'll always live here in St, Louis, regardless of what becomes of the show. But Turner says she loves living here.
"Will I be here forever? I don't know," she says. "Being in television, if I pursue this, into the future, it's unlikely, so I'll probably have to move on to progress in my career in television,"
There are also some goals she'd like to accomplish outside television. "The pageant certainly wasn't the pinnacle, and this isn't the pinnacle of my life," Turner says. "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 fulfill 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."
Turner says that being a vet is her retirement plan. "When I get tired of TV, or TV gets tired of me, I'll take care of animals," she says.