This Designing Woman Gives the Fashion
Industry a Reality Check
Reprinted from the Fall 1997 issue of Radiance
age forty, Delta Burke is having the time of her life. She is design
director of a rapidly growing women's apparel company called Delta Burke
Design. She's also working on her first book, entitled Delta Style -
Or, Eve Wasn't a Size Six, which will be published next spring. And
she has just completed a made-for-TV movie for USA Entertainment called
Melanie Darrow, in which she plays a feisty crime-solving attorney. (The
movie may be picked up as a series this fall.) Oh yes, and she's
madly in love with her husband of eight years, Gerald MacRaney. Not bad
for the small-town girl who began her journey to stardom at age sixteen
by winning the beauty pageant title Miss VFW Post 8207.
After spending much of her life trying to fit other
people's definition of beauty, Burke has reached a new level of
self-acceptance. "I think so much depends on how you are feeling
mentally and emotionally. I try to keep my head on tight, and try to
feel good, and just go out there and not be afraid."
Although Burke is eager to share her hard-won
self-acceptance, she is careful not to appear to have all the answers.
"I still have my days when I wake up and look at myself and think,
You're such a dog. And I have to work so hard at talking positively to
myself. If I don't, it's just real hard to get through the day, and I'll
get really down, and just want to cry. My whole body language changes. I
get more slumped over. And then other days, I'll wake up and think, I
like being a forty-year-old woman! A lot of women say that they want to
get to feeling about themselves the way I feel, because when I'm on a
roll, I'm hot, I'm really good. I try to tell them, I don't have a fix.
It's an everyday thing I have to work on. And sometimes, when you feel
low on yourself, that's just when you have to go out there and be
photographed or do a scene where you're hot stuff. You're always working
One of the ways the
actress-turned-designer-turned-author is reaching out to her fans is
through her signature fashion line of career wear, casual sportswear,
swimsuits, and sexy lingerie in sizes 14 to 26. If you ask her to
describe her market, she won't say that she designs plus-size fashions
or large-size fashions. She'll tell you that she designs "real-size
clothes for real-size women." Why? Well, $21 million a year in
sales might be reason enough for many manufacturers, but for Burke, it
goes deeper. Her overall goal is to provide the greatest number of
options, in an affordable price range, to as many women as she can
reach. Her clothing is now carried in more than one thousand stores
nationwide, more than twice the number when the company started in 1994.
Delta Burke Design is, in many respects, a way of saying thank you to
the countless women who cheered the actress on while she underwent a
very public struggle to accept her own "real size." That's why
her designs are accompanied by her personal written pledge. It reads,
"I pledge to my customer my commitment to provide her with
beautifully styled, perfectly fitting clothes in a variety of choices
she demands and with the quality of craftsmanship and affordability she
deserves. The Delta Burke Design Team's number one priority is you, the
wearer." Sound hokey? Perhaps, but as Burke walked me through her
New York City showroom, discussing the line, her career, and her work to
accept herself from the inside out, I found myself believing every word
of that pledge.
And I'm not alone. Just ask some of the women who have
signed up as members of the Delta Burke Design Advisory Council,
composed of more than two thousand customers who offer opinions on
quality, comfort, and fit. Burke created the council when she launched
her fashions three years ago because she was new to the clothing
business and wanted to hear comments directly from her clientele.
Members of the council receive a quarterly newsletter
and monthly announcements of Burke's upcoming personal appearances,
along with copies of press pieces, new ads, and greetings from Burke.
According to Barry Zelman,
senior vice president for marketing, the company receives approximately
two hundred letters a week from council members. "There's such an
outpouring of support because we're not just about the clothing,"
says Zelman. "It's because Delta has stood up and said, You can
feel good about yourself no matter what your weight, no matter what your
size, no matter what your stage of life."
Burke is involved in all phases of her business,
including preliminary design and final approval of all items. Burke also
models for the company's advertising spreads. She's even made it a
family affair by having her mother appear in a recent layout. "I
don't think it's right to show thin models in clothes that are supposed
to be for real-size women."
In addition to her ready-to-wear line, Burke has
developed four highly successful plus-size patterns for Butterick.
According to Zelman, "This is the first time Butterick has ever
done a celebrity line in real sizes." In a catalog that carried
twelve hundred styles, Burke's four patterns ranked in the top twelve,
and two of those styles finished in the top five in sales. The patterns
are carried in two thousand stores across the country, and in nine
countries worldwide. Burke's next challenge? A line of evening wear with
a particular focus on the youth market. "I really want to do
something for the teenagers. I'd like to be able to reach them sooner
and help them in building their confidence."
Burke worries about the obsession with thinness among
girls. "I think about those fourteen-year-old models who are only
98 pounds and are being told that they have to lose weight. I'm talking
to girls who are still in grade school and are on diets! It screws you
up! I went through all my twenties thinking that I wasn't good enough. I
want to find a way to reach young women emotionally and also to start
providing clothing for them so that they can wear the same things their
thin friends can wear. I really want to do evening wear and prom dresses
for these girls."
Burke's own teen years were marked by an ever-growing
collection of beauty contest titles and tiaras. "Yes, I really do
love tiaras," she laughs, comparing her own three-year stint on the
pageant circuit with that of her TV character Suzanne Sugarbaker on
Designing Women. During her time on the pageant circuit, Burke garnered
a wide variety of titles: Miss College Park Optimist Club; Miss VFW; and
two of her favorites, Miss Flame and Miss Florida Flame - both
representing the fire department. "I rode fire trucks, slid down
fire poles, wore a lot of red, and made a lot of appearances. I've
always had a special place in my heart for fire fighters."
The pageants served as part photo op, part hobby, and
part family outing. "I didn't know what the heck I was doing,"
she recalls. "I guess they liked my look at the time, and I
thought, This is just fine! Got my picture in the paper, got a crown,
got a trophy. So I just started doing all these dinky little pageants.
Every weekend, I'd go off in my trusty white chiffon gown. It was great
fun and I got very, very into it. My grandmother and my mother and I
would troop off to some little town for some jamboree queen thing."
Then came the Miss Orlando Pageant. "I never
thought I'd win. I was only seventeen and everybody else was much older.
But I thought, I'll get the experience and then I'll come back next
year, and then I'll win. And I wonthe thing! It was wonderful and very
exciting, but then all of a sudden, it beca me like this job! You had to
sign contracts and behave in a certain way. But I loved it. It was sort
of like being a goodwill ambassador, and I was quite happy. And then
that took me to Miss Florida. Again, I didn't think I would win - that
I'd just scope out the joint - but I won again! It was a nice way to
win. I was so naive and innocent, and to win was a Cinderella story.
Even though I didn't get to be Miss America, at least I got to go. Oh, I
wanted to be Miss America so bad. That really just broke my heart. But
that was my time of learning how to lose like a lady and be gracious and
all of that, which came in very handy later in Hollywood."
For Burke, the pageants were a useful vehicle in her
journey toward an acting career. "You know, small-town girl
thinking, I'm gonna get out of this town. I'm gonna break into the
pageants and be discovered,'" she says. The road to acting began in
junior high, where Burke was president of the Actors' Club. "I
wanted to be an actress, and I wanted to be a model. I started my
modeling at around age thirteen. I would do whatever I could in Orlando,
Florida. There'd be local modeling, and tea room fashion shows, and I'd
model in bars at lunchtime. Then I started with local theater."
At nineteen, Burke went off to drama school at the
London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). "It was a
growing-up time," she recalls. "If I hadn't been accepted, I
probably would have come up to New York and been eaten alive. I loved
living in London, and I didn't want to leave. I got into my very
theatrical phase. I wore only black: a big black hat and wild hair and
wild black clothes, and I carried a sword stick. I went there still
looking like Miss Florida, and I came back looking very different!"
Upon graduation from LAMDA, Burke planned to go
straight to New York in hopes of launching a stage career. "But I
thought, I've just got to check out Hollywood, so I sent out pictures
and resumes. I look back on it now and I think, What made you think you
could do that? But I was young, so I said, 'This is where I'll be if you
want to see me on such and such dates,' and I sent out around five
hundred messages. Two weeks later, Burke arrived in Los Angeles and was
greeted by replies from people wanting to see her. "I thought,
Well, they like them young in Hollywood, I'd better let them see me
while that's on my side."
The small-town girl who wanted to be discovered on the
pageant circuit also contacted Eddie Foy III, a judge at Miss America.
"He had said to me at the pageant, 'If you ever come out to
Hollywood, look me up.' And I did! And he was gracious enough to see me.
He got on the phone to three agents and said, 'I think you ought to see
this girl,' and they did. That's how I got my first agent. And that was
damn nice of him! So I decided, I'm going to Hollywood."
Although the classically trained actress still loves
live theater, she feels most at home on screen. And the camera loves
Delta Burke. Burke's first starring role in a series came in 1985, on
HBO's First and Ten, in which she played a young widow whose inheritance
was a professional football team. The series ran for two seasons before
Burke signed on for Designing Women in 1987. The country fell in love
with the feisty, sexy, somewhat ditzy Suzanne Sugarbaker, and even now,
years after her departure from the show, she is still strongly
identified with that character. "All the nice things about Suzanne
are me. All the things that aren't nice, that was just the
writing," she laughs.
While the country fell in love with Suzanne, Burke
fell in love with Designing Women guest Gerald MacRaney, star of Simon
and Simon, Major Dad, and Promised Land (all CBS). MacRaney played
Suzanne's first husband, novelist Dash Goff, during the second season of
Designing Women. "We met at an awards show and eyeballed each
other, but couldn't hook up afterwards to exchange numbers or anything.
A couple of months later, the casting director for Designing Women said
that they were considering him to play my first husband, and I said,
'Yes, get that Gerald MacRaney. I think we would have good
Describing MacRaney's first day on the set, Burke
smiles radiantly and becomes just a little bit breathless. "The
first time we worked together, I was just all in a tizzy! And I was
trying to not act too girly.
I had just spent the whole first season of the show
telling myself, I don't need a man to feel complete. And then Mac walks
in! My compatriots on the show teased me a lot. I'd be riding this
bicycle around the sound stage - I mean, who does that? - and Dixie
[costar Dixie Carter, who played Suzanne's irrepressible sister Julia]
said, 'You think if you ride that bike around long enough, Mac will ask
you out to dinner?' And I said, 'Yes.' And he did! And we've been
In addition to their joint appearances on Designing
Women, the couple worked together on Simon and Simon, and, more
recently, on an episode of Promised Land. Says Burke, "We have a
mutual respect for each other as actors. I loved getting to do Promised
Land with him. I mean, he's really there for you. We did one very
emotional scene in the church. He's just a wonderful acting partner. You
feel very safe with him."
Feeling safe has been one of the foundations of the
couple's relationship, particularly when Burke began to gain weight.
"It didn't matter to him. I put the weight on after we were
together. I put on about 20 pounds when we got married, and people were
flipping their lids. And then I put on more after that, and I've gone up
and down since then. Actually, I think it's interesting that when I put
the weight on, I was already with him. I don't know, maybe I felt safe.
And he likes me like this. He likes me whatever size I am."
While stand-up comics and the tabloids were having a
field day with Burke's weight gain, MacRaney was a crucial source of
support. "He'd get up and defend me, and everybody loved that. He
is just great that way."
Burke quotes her favorite line from Tennessee
Williams's Streetcar Named Desire. "What was Blanche DuBois's
line?" she asks, looking out the window of her office.
"Deliberate cruelty is the one unforgivable sin, and the one thing
I've never been guilty of.'" Burke adds that after these words in
the play, "Blanche talks about aging, and why should she be
considered poor, because physical beauty is transitory and fading and
she has such richness of the soul. I think that speech is so beautiful,
and so telling and so true. I never understood deliberate cruelty. Once
you get to be famous, why do other people have to rip into you? I don't
like deliberate cruelty in stand-up comics, and I was the brunt of a lot
of it. I'll do humor about myself, I'll poke fun and everything, but
that's me and I can do it to me. I think it's cruel to do it to somebody
Burke's departure from Designing Women was a
particularly painful episode in her life. It was rumored that she was
fired because of her weight gain. She maintains that she left due to
abusive treatment by the show's producers, Harry Thomason and Linda
Bloodworth Thomason. "There were rumors that I did not show up for
shows. That I threw fits. I didn't do any of those things, but nobody
wants to believe it, or they don't really care because it doesn't sell
papers. I thought, I've always
tried to be honest with everybody and I've always cooperated with the
press, so why are they doing this? I thought, People are going to
believe this! And so I turned to Mac one day and I said, 'Honey, am I a
bitch? I'm starting to believe it from the stuff I'm reading and I'm
me!' Then later, I got to the point where I could look at it with a
sense of humor, and understand where it comes from: they hold you up
because it sells papers."
Despite Burke's troubled departure from the show, and
her much-publicized battles with the Thomasons, Burke accepted an offer
to star in another series written by Linda Bloodworth Thomason. The
sitcom, entitled Women of the House, picked up the story of Suzanne's
life as the widow of a Georgia Congressional representative who had been
appointed to complete her husband's term. Although the show ran for less
than a full season, it served an important purpose for Burke. "I'd
known Linda for so long. I met her when I was twenty-four. I started in
my first comedies with her. She had been a big part of my life because
of the work and was important to me in finding my own style. I grew so
much in those times and learned so much. When this all went bad, it went
so bad because it was so emotional. It was like a dysfunctional family
going public. But it didn't feel finished. Then I got a call from my
agent saying Linda wanted me to do the show."
Women of the House provided Burke with a perfect
opportunity to address the issues that had haunted her since leaving
Designing Women. She entered into discussions with Thomason, hoping to
redeem the creative partnership that had helped launch her career.
"I used all my little tricks I'd learned in therapy, like saying,
'When you did this, I felt like. . . ' I really told her how I felt
about everything. I couldn't begin again without working through the old
stuff. And so we did. And our friendship went to a new level."
Recalling the first day of shooting that show, Burke
says, "When I walked out to make my first entrance, I thought I'd
get some applause and maybe I'd have to stop for a moment but keep
acting, but instead, the audience stood up. I had to stop and
acknowledge the applause, and it was a wonderful moment for me as an
actress. But then I walked over and I took Linda's hand and brought her
out with me, because it was very much about the two of us overcoming
Burke looks back on Women of the House as a turning
point in her life. "It's not so much that you're supposed to
forgive and forget," she says. "You're supposed to remember,
and still forgive."
These days, as Burke's business expands into new
markets and her acting career continues to grow, she finds herself
happily exhausted. Asked what she likes to do when she's not working,
she replies without a moment's hesitation, "Sleep! Sleeping is big
fun because I get really burned out. My brain can do only so many things
at once, and I have to recoup. My idea of heaven is to lounge and
luxuriate in bed, and not have to get up, just kind of roll around in
nice, clean, soft sheets with lots of pillows and have my little dog up
there with me. And if there's a pile of catalogs, all the better. And
then, I do love my shopping, but actually, lounging is the big
The ideal shopping spree for Burke is a leisurely
afternoon at an antique store, where she indulges her passion for
Victorian jewelry, particularly lockets. She has recently launched a
jewelry line to accompany her fashions and plans to incorporate copies
of antique pieces into her collection. One of the pieces she hopes to
create is a commemorative locket, in memory of her grandmother.
Burke has strong family ties with her mother and
sister, both of whom share her ongoing struggle with weight. Her mother,
who is quite comfortable in front of the camera, was featured in one of
the recent ad layouts for the company. Burke eagerly draws my attention
to the stylish photo of her mother wearing a bright red jacket over
wide-legged black trousers. "We have the same exact body
shape," she says. "I have pictures of her when she was young
and dancing and stuff, and it was the same body I had when I was doing
the pageants. As I've gotten older, my body's going the exact same way
hers did. We even walk the same. It's so embarrassing, we've got this
little kind of waddle. We say the same thing at the same time in the
same tone of voice. It's kind of scary, actually! But it is so much fun
to have her around now. She was with me for the past two years in L.A.,
living with me and the rest of my family. Now she lives a block from me
in New Orleans."
When Delta Burke first launched her fashions, she said
that through her designs she hoped to help women "find the Goddess
within." In the past two years, she has taken time to contemplate
the idea of the Goddess and what she means to women today.
"The Goddess is many things to many people. All
those figures of the Goddess are powerful in their womanliness. Some of
them are highly shocking to look at today, when most things that are
female - great roundness and great voluptuousness - are looked down
upon. We're told, You shouldn't be hearty, you shouldn't be curvy. But
that's real life, what makes you unique, the giver of life. It is so
strong and powerful."
Although Burke encourages women to celebrate the
Goddess within, she is quick to admit that it's not always easy.
"Some days you wake up and you feel like the Goddess, with strong
loins, standing tall and walking proud." She takes her voice down
an octave and assumes the role of Goddess, saying, "Yes, my parts
are big, but they are good, strong, and all that stuff." Resuming
her natural voice she adds, "Other times, you don't feel that way,
but it's what you need to feel, and you just have to get there however
To illustrate, she tells the story of a self-defense
class she enrolled in recently. "The woman who was teaching it was
a big woman who was not afraid of her body. She stood in a powerful way.
She stood proud, and she wasn't afraid to go into any positions or do
any of this defense stuff. A lot of times, when you have the weight on
and you're feeling insecure, you're going to try to hide. It's different
for everybody, but that's how it is for me. When I feel good about
myself, I strut. I like it when I strut."
Delta Burke has come a long way from her days as Miss
Florida Flame. And although she's no longer riding on the back of a fire
truck, she's still enjoying a red-hot career. "Life's been
good," she says. "Even the bad things have served a purpose.
And when I go out on the road, I feel so much love coming back from
everybody. It feels so good when you have the good days - so incredibly
© GLORIA CAHILL is the director of community
service projects at New York University and a freelance writer.
this is only a taste of what's inside the printed version of the
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