Balance Summer 2004


Darn it. The finale of Friends airs in a few hours, and I’m stuck in traffic on a blistering afternoon on an L.A. freeway, late for my interview with Dayna Devon, the host of Extra (a nationally syndicated entertainment news show). I’m kicking myself that I didn’t schedule this interview for another day. As an industry town, Los Angeles is pervaded with melancholy. Unlike Oscar night, when anticipation is palpable, and the streets are nearly emptied by 5:00 P.M. as the populace gathers for festive parties (even if only to mock what the celebs are wearing), everyone I know will be tuning in tonight with a bit of dread. (And, if Ross and Rachel don’t end up together, heaven help us!)

Besides, who is this Dayna Devon? She looks too perfect to be true. The kind of girl who made me squirm in high school. Flawless skin. Perfect face. Not a hair out of place. Probably shallow, too—the type to steer questions toward the lighter side. Well, she must be a woman of substance, I tell myself, trying to get my energy up. She’s the replacement anchor for the most substantial woman I know in TV, Leeza Gibbons (who left Extra last year to form an Alzheimer’s foundation), and she’s previously earned an Emmy as a hard news anchor.

I race through the front doors of the studio five minutes late. “Ms. Devon is filming a segment for CNN in 20 minutes,” her assistant warns me. “She’ll have to keep this short.” Great. Of course she will. Okay, forget trying to establish rapport. I’ll avoid the niceties, ask my best questions, and be on my way. Sometimes that’s just the job. I’m swept into Dayna’s cozy office and hurriedly blurt out my first query: Dayna, when you think about your life, what are the top two “miracles” that stand out? Dayna looks taken aback, as if she can’t quite believe what I’ve just asked. “Well,” she begins…I see her eyes trail above my head and stop near the ceiling as she reminisces about being “lucky” enough to be born into a family with the most nurturing parents, and how she’s found that same kind of unconditional love from her husband, Brent. Dayna’s eyes begin to well up, and she nervously blots them with her sleeve, as if embarrassed. “Wow,” she says. “You’ve surprised me. That’s really funny! I can’t believe you’ve taken my breath away and made me cry just like that! I wasn’t expecting such a good question.”

Seems that Ms. Dayna didn’t have high expectations for our meeting either. I’m learning that these situations can offer the most auspicious beginnings (both in business and friendship)—when neither party has much confidence about the outcome. Dayna and I laugh about our mutual astonishment. “You know,” she explains, “this is exactly how I met my husband! I didn’t want to go, but it was an assignment for Extra and I didn’t have any choice. Brent is a plastic surgeon and has done extreme makeovers, and that was the focus of the piece. My thought was, ‘Oh, fabulous, ANOTHER plastic surgery story. Just what I want to cover, blah, blah, blah.’ I was expecting to meet some old crusty doctor, but…”

Out on A Limb
Dayna felt an immediate kinship toward the cutting-edge (no pun intended) surgeon, and couldn’t help herself. “I was flirting with him, even though he seemed to have absolutely no interest in me whatsoever,” she laughs. “It was as if I was a non-entity!” Dayna did her best to appear as businesslike as possible, even when calling him for technical clarification.” It wasn’t needed for the assignment, but it was an effort to connect with the man she couldn’t get off of her mind. “I asked him out on a date through email, but he declined. He and his girlfriend had just broken up, and he wasn’t ‘ready’ to go out with someone else.” Two weeks later, however, while shooting a follow-up segment to the story, Brent asked the beautiful TV host if she still wanted to have dinner.

How did she feel about going back to the “scene of the crime,” without knowing of Brent’s interest? “It didn’t feel good getting rejected, but I so admired him for being honest. When he later wanted to go out, I thought Brent had been so noble to say no to my original offer. I think sometimes, especially in L.A., we’re scared it’s all going to pass us by, but in reality, reacting out of a panic is no way to make decisions. Brent trusted that if we were meant to be together, I wouldn’t disappear. Interestingly, when we ended up going out, he was very committed and I was like, whoa, slow down. I wasn’t myself around him for a long time because I was nervous that he was so quiet and a little straighter than I. I was scared to cuss in front of him because I have a mouth like a sailor! He evened me out, smoothed my rough edges. I spiced him up a bit. For instance, if it weren’t for my prodding, he’d be working round the clock.”

Oh, you mean that he’s a brainiac workaholic? I ask. “Oh yeah, big time! He went to Harvard and Yale, where he was at the top of his class. He would go to the library the second it opened and stay until it closed at night. He had no job and was so broke he didn’t eat. After we got married, I would catch him doing the funniest things, like going to work even if he didn’t have anything to do. He’d just sit there and piddle. I said, ‘Oh, no, no. There will be no piddling. No piddle! You’re coming home at noon on Saturdays, and you’ll be home by 7:00 for dinner on weeknights. You’re going to have a life and we’re going to spend time together.’ He was like, ‘Oh. Okay,’ as if it had only just dawned on him to have a balanced life.”

Leap of Faith
Knowing that Dayna was previously divorced, I wondered if she had any fears of a second marriage. “I was really scared to do it again. In my first marriage I needed to be the perfect weight, wear the perfect clothes, drive the perfect car, and have the perfect looking husband. In reality, nothing is perfect, and I was experiencing failure at every turn. We started having bad marital problems, but I wouldn’t tell anybody. I had never missed a day of work, but I needed to. I was walking through the newsroom and a news director saw something in my face and said, ‘Come into my office.’ I broke down, sobbing, with no idea of how I was going to go on air. I said, ‘I think I’m going to get a divorce, and I might need a day off.’ She said, ‘You know, Dayna, I know exactly where you are. This happened to me. You’re not going to believe a word I’m saying right now, but some day you’ll be so grateful this has happened. Some day you’ll look back and see that.’ I thought I’d never be okay with the stigma of divorce, but she was right. There’s a balance, in that you appreciate relationships so much afterward. You’ll never let that balance go awry again.”

Dayna suddenly gets solemn, and again, I see her eyes tear up. “My, this is a day!” she says, as if she’s about to lay all of her cards on the table, relinquishing the need to protect herself. “My parents have just split up after 35 years of marriage. I’m just taking it so hard! I can’t imagine being a kid going through this. Mom and Dad both agreed that it wasn’t working, and he just moved out. My husband has also been divorced. His parents are still together; I think of them as fish. You know how fish move together in schools? They don’t make a move without each other. My parents were good together, but not quite like fish. Still, I was so surprised that, over the years, things built up that couldn’t be fixed.”

“I took so much faith in the fact that I could make a relationship work simply because my parents had done it. So suddenly I look at them and say, ‘Why even try and make it work, if it’s just going to go down the drain 35 years from now?’ It’s devastating. I can only hope that Brent and I have learned from our pasts and will beat the odds. It’s intimidating, though. Nothing quite looks or feels the same since their split. Being with Brent, who’s so stable, makes the pain of it easier. I never would have guessed that my assignment on Extra that day would bring one of the greatest experiences of my life, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get scared.”

Speaking of fear, I wanted to know if Dayna had overcome a lot of angst to make it in such a highly competitive field. “Of course!” she said. “I was so scared to attempt this career, but I always knew what I wanted. I was 8 years old, seeing newscasters and thinking they were so perfectly articulate, so groomed and professional. Their voices flawless, brimming with confidence. When I heard the music signaling a broadcast, I’d get so excited and run close to the screen, studying everything-how the anchors blinked, how they did their makeup. As a matter of fact, when I was in kindergarten, I was a news anchor in a play. I wrote my own copy and practiced my ‘news’ voice. I just got a letter from my teacher, Mrs. Matthews, that said, ‘You were the best little news anchor. I should have known.’ Isn’t that hilarious? I had forgotten all about that play!”

Conquering Self-Doubt
But having a childhood dream and actually going for it are two different things, right? Yes! Even though that’s all I wanted, I had gained a lot of weight, 20-30 pounds after high school. That shook my confidence as nothing else has. I felt as if I had gone from having a great figure to having the worst figure in the world. And, I had the most awful acne, which I still wrestle with. I’ve just finished my third round of Accutane. Acne hurts, and makes you feel dirty and gross, that you’re doing something wrong, not understanding something everyone else knows. Even my mom once said, ‘I guarantee I can clear up your acne. If you did everything I said in one week it would clear it up.’ But that’s not true. It’s a hormonal thing.”

“I wrestled with self-confidence, and I felt ugly and fat and in no condition to go up against women who were smarter and prettier and more eloquent than I. (Oops. Maybe Dayna and I would have been kindred spirits in high school after all?) But, on the other hand, my parents had given me an unshakable belief in myself through years of unconditional love. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I came home from college and spent the summer with my mom and completely mimicked her. She’s thin and beautiful; a yummy mummy—the kind my guy friends wanted to date. She taught me how to take long walks on the way to the frozen yogurt store, as opposed to driving the four-mile round trip. She helped me to eat smaller portions, with homegrown sweet tomatoes for snacks instead of candy. We made sun tea in the yard rather than drink sodas. And, I lost the weight, which gave me the strength to address other things in my life that I wanted, like a career in broadcasting.”

Courting Coincidence
Once you started, were there “miracles” all the way? “That’s so true!” she answered. “So many coincidences. I loved doing news, but I was working for a station in Memphis when I got a call about the Extra audition. I wanted to tape the show to study the host [Maureen O’Boyle], but the program aired at 3:30 in the morning and I couldn’t program my VCR. I taped only one show, which I watched constantly, listening to Maureen’s cadence and style. When I got to the audition, the script they handed me was for the same show I had taped! I was covered in goosebumps.”

“Working under Leeza was a dream. People in this business want to believe that two females working together end up in cat- fights, but as far as I’m concerned, Leeza vibrates on a different level than the rest of us. Like Oprah. I remember watching Oprah years ago, and she taught me to be courageous because there was no one on TV with her honesty. She wasn’t afraid to air her ‘dirty laundry’ in order to help others. People ask me, ‘Why would you publicly talk about your acne?’ Why wouldn’t I? Because other people have it too! I have scars. We all have our own scars. Honesty sets us free. Admitting our weaknesses lessens their power.”

Being Real
I ask Dayna about her favorite types of stories. She says: “I love doing this! I love going deep. But there’s never enough time. I was with David Schwimmer the other day, and he’s shy in interviews. We were laughing, and getting along so well and it was one of those moments where you’re able to pull somebody out and hold their essence up to the light. It’s a phenomenal feeling, but then it’s over. Our segments are short, like our attention spans.”

“And it’s not an easy job. People see the glamour of the red carpet, but they don’t see the hard work involved. It’s an intense environment. A lot of times you get one shot to ask a question, one shot to get it right. Over time, I think criticism can make you an unhappy, paranoid and bitter person. I’m constantly on guard about becoming that person. They hire you because they like you and think you have talent. But the second you get on air, they change the way you talk, your hair, your clothes, your makeup. In this business we’re often judged more on what we wear to the Oscars than what we deliver in an interview. And that wasn’t my biggest hurdle. For me, once at Extra, I had to figure out how to be professional, and not such a fan. I would get so giddy, especially around Oprah or Katie [Couric]. My boss wanted to see me succeed and said, ‘Dayna, you’ve got to stop acting like a teenager. It doesn’t make you credible. A lot of times you’re not going to feel like you’re the host of Extra, you’re going to feel like a kid impersonating the host.’ I said, ‘Okay, just let me gush a bit when talking to Oprah or Katie,’ so we compromised.”

Dayna and I had our 20 minutes that day, but many more later on. Ironically, on the day of the heartrending conclusion of Friends, I made a new friend that afternoon. Maybe this one’s for life? You just never know…

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