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From Sun Magazine: Debbie Phelps is puttin' on the glitz

Baltimore's favorite mother has inspired a saying. Whenever her friends and family encounter something Debbie Phelps would say or want or do, someone will inevitably say: "That's so DP."

Things that sparkle and shine and make statements? Very DP. An extra coat of mascara? A spray of sequins? Bold lipstick? Utterly DP. But the true DP essence is rooted in emotion: Unabashed displays of maternal love. Pausing, mid-moment, to steep in sentiment. Public tears.

These days, what wraps all of that into one luxurious package is Phelps' new home on the Inner Harbor. Filled with glamour and meaningful family mementos, the condo is wall-to-wall DP.

"I wanted the glamour, and I wanted the glitz," Phelps says. "But everything in this house has a connection to my children."

Since her son Michael made Olympic history in Beijing, Phelps' once-normal life has taken a bit of a star turn. She communed with Oprah, wrote a book and signed an endorsement deal with Chico's, her favorite clothing line. But she has also kept a demanding, full-time job as principal of Windsor Mills Middle School in Baltimore County, appeared at her son's swim events all over the globe and insisted on hosting as many sleepovers as possible for her toddler grandkids.

About the only thing the 59-year-old had run out of time for was worrying about maintenance and upkeep of her longtime Rodgers Forge home.

When she was ready to make a change, Phelps didn't go house shopping. She didn't need to. She's known the spot ever since the city threw a post-Olympic homecoming reception for Michael at Fort McHenry.

As Debbie and her son's agent drove home along Key Highway, she noticed the Ritz-Carlton Residences hugging the shore and told him, "I want to live there someday."

And that was that. Last fall she settled into a two-bedroom garden apartment with a fireplace, private elevator entrance and water views from every window. The harbor is so close, its easy waves could almost lap onto her patio.

"You know what?" Phelps says, on the verge of indulging, with a wink, in a signature DP declaration: "Water has been good to us."

Phelps achieved her vision for her home with the help of designer Lita Dirks of Colorado. After one very small communications glitch, Dirks understood exactly what Phelps was looking for.

The two were having their initial phone conversation. When the word glitz came up, Dirks thought she heard Phelps file that into the category of what she didn't want. So the designer said, "OK, no glitz."

Phelps quickly set her straight.

"She said, 'Nooooooo. I like mirrors. I like feathers. I like color,' " Dirks remembers, laughing. "She wanted glitz and drama."

One has only to step into Phelps' entryway to know she got her wish.

Visitors will first notice the zebra-print rug. Then, perhaps the gilded chest. And the ceiling covered with red grass cloth and framed with a gold wallpaper. A settee upholstered in silk chenille and covered with Asian-inspired pillows — an ethnic flavor that Phelps repeats throughout her home.

"I want someone to come in here and say, 'Wow,' " Phelps says. "I like the wow statement."

The high-impact vibe continues into the living space, which Phelps has divided into three sitting areas and a dining area. Her colors are red and black, softened with shades of cream and accented with metallics.

One of Phelps' favorite spots is the seating nook with four oversized chairs from Emerson et Cie, with their backs covered in a silk damask floral. Ten members of the Phelps clan squeezed onto them this Christmas to open presents.

On one side of the chairs is a black accent wall anchored by a grand hutch from CR Currin painted in red and gold. On the other lies the rest of the living room, where a simple sectional sofa adorned with fun pillows cozies up to the fireplace and throne-like armchair upholstered in red chenille and polished nickel legs to give Phelps her shot of glitz.

It was important for Phelps that nothing in the home be off-limits to her grandchildren. So the 5-year-old can squirm up onto the armchairs in Mary Janes. And Grandma doesn't worry (too much) when the little girl drops cupcake icing onto the champagne velvet of a dining room chair. (After a close call with red frosting, Phelps has started putting a towel down before cupcakes come out.)

Though Phelps didn't keep one stick of furniture from her Rodgers Forge house, she did save mementos — family photos and travel souvenirs she's picked up while attending her son's swimming events worldwide. These are things that accessorize and personalize every room of the house.

There are caricatures of her three children made when the kids were very young. Her mother's red glass collection. Kimonos and parasols from Asia. Framed Olympics posters.

Even in some of her new things, Phelps finds a connection to her family. The three abstract sculptures that surround the fireplace? That's Hillary, Whitney and Michael. The butterfly painting that hangs in the master bath over the soaking tub? "I said this is a must," Phelps says. "This is so symbolic. All three of my children were butterfliers."

Of course there's also the print hanging in a hallway, the one of a woman with spiky dark hair, no shortage of mascara and very red lips. A piece that's attracted more than a few comments — but one comment in particular.

It's so DP.

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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