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This Designing Woman Gives the Fashion
Industry a Reality Check

By Gloria Cahill

Reprinted from the Fall 1997 issue of Radiance

Delta BurkeAt 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 on it."

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 chemistry.'"

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 together since."

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 else."

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 things."

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 thing."

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 you can."

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 good."

GLORIA CAHILL is the director of community service projects at New York University and a freelance writer.

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