Nancy O'Dell and Pat O'Brien lounge behind their anchor desk on the glossy set of
Suddenly, a camera fixed to a crane swoops down directly in front of O'Dell's face. Taping is about to resume. She sits up in her chair. Words appear on the teleprompter, and the woman begins to read them at twice the speed of a normal person. She is clearly at home in front of the camera.
Hairstylist Ing Ostrom leans over and whispers, "Nancy's just so at ease with people. It doesn't matter who you are. Whomever she's talking to, she wants them to feel comfortable. Maybe it's her upbringing, her Southern-ness."
It's true. Nancy O'Dell's job at NBC Studios in Burbank, California, couldn't be any farther from her roots in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where she attended a Methodist church every Sunday with her parents and older sister. But her warm smile and gracious manner make it plain that this Southern belle has not been infected by the narcissism of Tinseltown.
Indeed, for a woman who cites
Of course, this doesn't mean that Nancy O'Dell, 34, can't hold her own in the dog-eat-dog world of her profession. She has always been driven to succeed, from scoring straight A's in high school and college (she graduated summa cum laude from Clemson University) to working her way up the broadcasting ladder to her present role. "I don't think it's some need to have recognition, because I came from a really great family," O'Dell explains. No, she says, it's just a desire to pursue excellence in whatever she's called to.
The word "perky" comes to mind when describing a TV personality like O'Dell. She doesn't mind the term, but adds this disclaimer: "I think 'perky' connotes a little bit of fakeness. [The media] think you're being perky just for the audience. But if you weren't somewhat energetic, people would think you're bored with what you're doing."
No one will accuse O'Dell of being bored, but her colleagues at
And her parents remain a force in her life today. "I always think when I do anything, Would Mom and Dad approve of this?" she says, laughing. "If I ever wear a dress that's a little too low-cut, they'll let me know."
O'Dell doesn't mind being known for a lightweight celebrity news program (She also recently hosted the USA Network's
She admits it's disheartening when a celebrity whose work she respects turns out to be difficult in real life. "I think the bigger the star, the nicer they usually are because they have no attitude," she observes. "But I've had a few incidents when people were different from what I thought they were going to be and, yeah, it was disappointing."
Though she considers herself ambitious, O'Dell says she'll never step on others to achieve success. "I'm not that kind of person," she says. "Almost every single day in this business, I tell myself that [a particular decision] might not be the best thing to get me to the next rung in the ladder, but it's the right thing to do. It'll all come back around. If you do the right thing, it will always come back—even if it's not in this world."
The Zone diet and an occasional basketball game at the gym support O'Dell's physical well-being, but Scripture reading injects spiritual nutrition into her fast-paced life. "I have devotionals that I read," she says. One book she particularly enjoys is Springs in the Valley, the classic by Mrs. Charles E. Cowman. Awhile back, one particular reading stuck with her. "The February 17 lesson about resting in Christ and not rushing the day. For me, it's hard to make time to just be still."
Still, when she's not on the inevitable weekend press junket, you'll find her in a pew on most Sunday mornings, trying to stay focused on what's really important. For now, she enjoys attending a smaller Methodist congregation in the city of Westlake. She also puts her faith in motion through her role as a national spokesperson for the March of Dimes's "Blue Jeans for Babies" project, a campaign to educate women about prenatal and pregnancy care. She's convinced that God wants her to use her platform on TV "to make a difference in the world."
When it comes to sharing her faith in Hollywood, however, she faces a dilemma common to many believers—the time crunch. "I rarely have enough time to talk one-on-one with the celebrities about spiritual things," she says. "It's frustrating to see people accepting ideas just because they're the cool thing to accept. That's what so much of Hollywood is about, being in the 'in' group."
Too often, O'Dell sees the emptiness of earthly pursuits, such as money and fame, when she interviews the stars. "You see it with the downfall of some of the celebrities. Are they truly happy? I have heard a lot of them say, 'I can have pretty much anything, but it doesn't necessarily make for peace within me.'"
As for Nancy O'Dell herself, she hopes to keep her heart fixed on a place with more permanence than the flash and dash of Hollywood. "I want to be happy in heaven," she says, "because that's where it'll last forever."
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