Ms. 'Designing Woman' Carter: Southern belle, circa 1992

THE HEART OF DIXIE

November 22, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

If Dixie Carter ever made a list of life's most embarrassing moments, near the top would be her debut with the Atlanta Symphony last year.

Her performance wasn't the problem; her fingernails were.

Walking onto the stage -- her shapely legs peeking out from her dress, her false eyelashes firmly in place -- she was ready to play the chanteuse. Or so she thought.

Then she glanced down, and it hit her.

"I had only painted the fingernails on one hand," she says. "I'd forgotten to finish. I couldn't have apologized more to the audience. I told them I thought I'd finished my toilette, but . . ."

But the show must go on. Whether it's her cabaret act, her role on the CBS series "Designing Women" or even her new fitness video, Ms. Carter is known as a trooper in a town rife with prima donnas. Ask her to stick her head through a banister railing, don a tight leotard or slither on a piano in the name of art, and she will oblige with the manners of a Southern belle.

A member of the chic New South and a supporter of Bill Clinton (her name has been bandied about as a celebrity in favor with the new administration), she's part Julia Sugarbaker, part Scarlett O'Hara. In one breath, she'll hop on her soapbox to condemn the country's educational system; the next she becomes a would-be romance novelist, cooing and billing about how her husband, Hal Holbrook, likes her "soft and squishy."

This, friends say, is the wonder of Dixie.

"She's a throwback to a classier time -- the '30s and the '40s," says Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, executive producer of "Designing Women" and other shows. "She's the kind of girl who drinks champagne out of a slipper and runs through the Trevi Fountain in her underwear, but . . . she's also a good mother and a wonderful friend. That down-to-earth, family side balances her bohemian side."

But even the cool Ms. Carter -- who will be performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next weekend -- admits to becoming unnerved before singing. So far, she has survived hecklers, unpredictable microphones and noticeable runs in her pantyhose. Her stage fright is so severe, though, that she insists on 12 hours of sleep on the eve of every performance.

"I'm never sure what will happen at one minute after 8 o'clock," she said during a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. "I'm always scared. That's part of the mystique."

Her voice, even thousands of miles away, sounds honey-coated and soothing. She's made money off it alone, recording several books on tape, including one she was particularly suited for called "The Southern Belle Primer." Her lilting drawl is something others subconsciously imitate.

"If we spend an evening with Dixie, my wife will start to sound like her by the end of the night," says David Steinberg, director of "Designing Women." "She'll start . . . tall-kin' liiike Dixie."

But when Ms. Carter explains how she adapts her cabaret act for the concert stage, that voice changes. The free-wheeling quality is gone, replaced by long pauses and words chosen more carefully than magnolia blossoms from a tree.

"I hesitate to talk about it because it's so mysterious to me. It has to do with concentration and energy and focus . . . and with the fact that I truly enjoy the audience," she says.

Sticking to favorites

While she uses New York's Cafe Carlyle as a testing ground for new material, she sticks to eclectic favorites -- Cole Porter, Fats Waller and Bob Seger -- for performances elsewhere. Rather than sit on a stool for shows, she's more likely to play the harmonica, imitate animals or even dangle upside down from the piano.

In a review of her act, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote: "What made it all work was Miss Carter's mixture of charm and exuberance and her extraordinary generosity of spirit. Mischievous one moment, meltingly tender the next, she wove extremes of sentiment into a thrilling roller-coaster celebration of living in the moment."

John Wallowitch, a songwriter who was Ms. Carter's first singing coach, says, "Everything she does is infused with life. If Ronald Reagan was the great communicator, then she's better."

One thing she won't communicate is her age, although published reports put her at 52. "Let's just say I'm old enough to have a 22- and a 23-year-old," she says.

Growing up in the sleepy town of McLemoresville, Tenn., Dixie Carter longed to be on the operatic stage. "I always, all my life, have dreamed of being a great, great singer. But I would have to say I believe I am an actress who sings. It's heartbreaking in a way to tell you that. But if I'm honest, that's the truth."

What got in the way?

"My voice," she says. "I have the musicianship and the musicality. And when I was young, I had the voice. But I didn't always have the best training, the best advice or the best discipline. And I had a tonsillectomy when I was young. I almost bled to death, and it left a lot of scar tissue."

Valedictorian

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