Deborah Norville, Steely Magnolia, Makes Another Comeback

If Martha Stewart needed one thing after her devastating court convictions on Friday, March 5, it was a little L.P.F.-what blond TV anchor and author Deborah Norville likes to call “Life Protection Factor,” something to rub on the soul to protect from life’s burning rays.

“It’s called perspective ,” wrote Ms. Norville, author of Back on Track: How to Straighten Out Your Life When It Throws You a Curve , on her Web site, “and it’s applied regularly with a deep, cleansing breath.”

But that day Ms. Norville, who was sitting in a tiny NBC News office preparing an emergency all-Martha hour of her new 9 p.m. MSNBC show, Deborah Norville Tonight , wasn’t feeling Ms. Stewart’s pain.

“It’s a little late!” she exclaimed, when asked to give Ms. Stewart some soothing advice. But she gave it a shot:

“Well, what is it they say? ‘As long as the feet are willing and the sun keeps shining …. ‘ But she’s going to go to jail, so I can give you some advice about jail.”

Ms. Norville once spent a week in prison for an episode of Inside Edition in 2000.

There was a detectable glee in Ms. Norville’s voice. She flashed the Deborah Norville smile-eyes crinkled, mouth a winsome V-shape -her mischievous button-nose almost twitching like Samantha’s on Bewitched . Ms. Norville said the fallen mogul should have listened to her “mama,” and then, off the record, used a succinct word to describe the homemaking mogul, one not fit for a family newspaper. And not this one, either.

It was a little weird coming from Ms. Norville, the Scarlett O’Hara of TV news. At 45, the former Georgia Junior Miss America pageant winner has survived her own tribulations, including her devastating ouster from NBC’s Today show in 1991, her career’s version of the burning of Atlanta. After bootstrapping from local Chicago TV to Today with Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel in 1989, rumors spread that Ms. Norville was playing Eve Harrington to Ms. Pauley-not the warm, unthreatening image you need on morning TV and, by most accounts, a far cry from the truth. Ms. Pauley felt threatened, the viewers complained, and while Ms. Norville was on maternity leave in 1991 with her first child, NBC News fired her.

That prompted: a spiraling depression, the self-help book, some hard years on the motivational-lecture circuit. Ms. Norville cobbled her career back together, hosting The Deborah Norville Radio Show for ABC, anchoring a newsmagazine called America Tonight for CBS News, jumping a long ride on the tabloid TV train as host of afternoon schlockfest Inside Edition in 1995-where she still flogs sharks and celebs weekdays at 3 p.m. Ms. Norville insisted that she was over the Today show debacle. But it still defined her career. And now Ms. Norville was back at 30 Rockefeller Center. And it felt good. Oh so good.

“My very first office at NBC was across the hall,” she said, giddily, before her show on Friday night, March 5. “My bathroom key from 1987 still works!”

It’s sometimes hard to make out Deborah Norville through the glare of that smile: Is she the hardened tabloid sharpie, an icy news queen with teeth bared? Or the chirpy, soft-focus sweetie from Georgia, a “tomorrow is another day” girl, if only we could apply a little more L.P.F.? Former high-school flag-twirler, debutante, University of Georgia sorority girl (“Delta Delta Delta!”), mother of three, wife, seamstress, philanthropist, Bible-school teacher and motivational speaker, Ms. Norville comes off like iced tea sweetened with what just might be strychnine.

Drink up, honey.

But so far, since its debut on Jan. 21, Deborah Norville Tonight -built to go up against that old suspender-meister, Larry King-hasn’t shown much bite yet, averaging only 254,000 viewers a night. From the start, Ms. Norville was a curious choice to host her own nightly show. And MSNBC insiders have been growling. Even Today show weatherman Al Roker had to be skeptical when he interviewed Ms. Norville on the Today show. “I mean, MSNBC has not been known for-it’s got a revolving door, basically …. Does that give you pause?” he asked.

But if the show seemed slightly undefined, maybe it was because Ms. Norville hadn’t felt entirely comfortable letting it rip on Jesus, Martha and gay marriage. So on Saturday, March 6, the night after the Martha Stewart story broke, Ms. Norville met with new MSNBC president Rick Kaplan for the first time and asked if she could crack the anchor façade and start unleashing more of the real Deborah Norville. What would you say, dear viewer?

The following Monday morning, sitting in the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, Ms. Norville glowed, her blond hair coiffed, revealing that face, neck bescarfed, hips hugged in a tight leopard-skin skirt, calves in suede boots with pointy toes.

“You’re going to see her go out on a limb more,” said Ms. Norville, referring to Deborah Norville. “And I’ll tell you why: I’ve been shot at, I’ve been firebombed, they’ve said pretty much everything you could say about somebody-there’s probably a few things they haven’t said, but even the bad guys wouldn’t stoop that low. I’ve been through it: I’ve been up, I’ve been down, I’ve been out, I’m back in. I know who I am. I’m real confident about that. I’m know what I’m good at.

“It’s gritty reality, with hope,” she continued. “That would be my message. Look, there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s not attractive, that’s not pleasant, that’s infuriating, but it doesn’t have to be that way forever. It’s like the Chicago weather: Wait five minutes, it could change.”

Was Ms. Norville a Southern belle?

“It’s not ‘Southern belle,’ it’s Steel Magnolia ,” she said, dipping into a twangy Georgia drawl. “Man, I don’t know who thought up the title of that thang, but it’s absolutely right. You know, we’re willow trees, we’re not oak trees. And the wind can blow, but we’re not going to break. We’re not going to break. And that’s not just Southern women, that’s women in general. That’s not a Southern trait, that’s women. That’s estrogen.”

Ms. Norville’s new boss, Mr. Kaplan, would not speak to The Observer for this article, but through a spokesman he said: “Deborah is a key player in our prime-time lineup, and I couldn’t be happier with the show.”

Already, on Wednesday, Feb. 24, Ms. Norville had begun to experiment with the new, outspoken Deborah Norville. Talking about Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ , she confessed at the end of the show, “I accepted Christ when I was 15. In fact, I was a Sunday-school teacher for the fifth- and sixth-graders when the World Trade Centers were attacked. My Christian faith is an important part of my personal life …. I weep at the Good Friday services just hearing the Scripture on His death.”

Ms. Norville said that she was proud that some viewers had phoned in pegging her as a “non-believer.” But now she was turning a corner: “Now I want to get personal about The Passion , because it seems like just about everybody else has,” she said. She confessed her Christianity, then concluded: “That’s our program for tonight. Coming up tomorrow, Carson Daly.”

Ecce cable .

Unlike Bill O’Reilly, the onetime Inside Edition anchor turned Fox News talker, there was a thread of liberal sympathy in Ms. Norville’s point of view. She came off as the clear-eyed P.T.A. mom separating herself from Mr. O’Reilly’s patriarchal barking and snarling, concerned with corporate malfeasance and President Bush’s attempt to ban gay marriage. “I believe in Georgia it’s still legal to get married when you’re 14,” she said. “They might want to look into that at the same time they’re looking into some of this other stuff.”

She wasn’t espousing a political point of view, she said, just a popular one. “I don’t think I’m alone there,” she said. “I think I’m part of what Nixon would have called the silent majority.”

She called her style “righteous indignation,” which wasn’t so much a red state or a blue state, but a cable state, ready for surfers searching for sordid tales of celebrity flameouts and shark-attack victims who go surfing one-armed a week later-the kind of stuff that’s slowly seeping into network TV. “There’s really a new paradigm out there,” said Ms. Norville. “I would say that traditional network journalism jumped the shark when O.J. Simpson was accused of murder.”

Network bigs, she said, said that “we’re going to give them a Twinkie, and then we’re going to give them the meat and potatoes and those good, healthy vegetables. But you had to have that Hostess cupcake right up there, front and center. America has a very big sweet tooth now.”

Ms. Norville has very big, beautiful white choppers.

“I feel for people,” she said. “When they’re in some of these so-sad situations, you go, ‘How do they get it up in the morning?’ For just a half a second, I’m just there with them, and it just sort of takes your breath away. Which is why I couldn’t go see The Passion , because I would feel every lash. They don’t make boxes of Kleenex big enough for me to sit through something like that. I walked out of Glory . Remember when Denzel was getting whipped? About the third lash, I was out of there.”

In a way, she was less Steel Magnolia than just good old-fashioned belle: “I do sew my own curtains,” she said. “I did make my headboard. It’s me …. I don’t think I’m a freak of nature because I have that aspect to my life …. And I know some people out there are going to say, ‘Oh, yes, this is the lady who lives on the Upper East Side and has a housekeeper who cooks her kids’ meals because she’s working at dinnertime-what can I say? … I’m real smart. But I’m real Betty Homemaker–y. What can I say? My talent was sewing. Want more? That’s it. Straight A’s and she sews. It’s pathetic, but it’s me.”

Ms. Norville has lived on the Upper East Side with a Norwegian money manager named Karl Wellner for 17 years, bringing up three kids with two live-in servants while she chaired the Greater New York City Council of Girl Scouts and worked as the spokeswoman for the March of Dimes. “There’s nothing phony about her,” said Marilyn Chinitz, a Manhattan attorney and friend. “There’s nothing false about her. There are many wonderful aspects to her personality. If you watch her show, you pick up several aspects. And they’re all her.”

Apropos of nothing, Ms. Norville said that she didn’t want to talk too much about how great her marriage was, because, you know, it’s dangerous. “You don’t want to say ‘I’ve got a great marriage’ too loudly, because sure as shootin’ somebody’s going to say, ‘Well, I’ll take care of that, sweet thing!'”

Sitting at the Palm Court, she pointed to a chandelier on the ceiling to describe the many aspects of Deborah Norville.

“If you think about the prism on these light fixtures, there are a lot of sides to it and it reflects in different ways,” she said, her voice growing slightly both more steely and magnolia. “And it’s in many ways that it does have so many facets that makes it so interesting. Because down below, it is just the glass vase, and, you know, it’s pretty-but it’s not nearly as intriguing to look at as the multifaceted prism. I got a lot of facets.”

I’ll never be hungry again!

“I honestly believe the last thought of anybody in this room-their face down in the gutter, they’re wired up to something in a hospital, or they’re sitting there having a heart attack or choking and we couldn’t get over there fast enough to do the Heimlich on them-the last thought that’s going to flash through their minds is, ‘Did I matter?’

“I mattered,” Deborah Norville said. “I made a difference. I’m cool.”