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THE HEART OF DIXIE Ms. 'Designing Woman' Carter: Southern belle, circa 1992

If Dixie Carter ever made a list of life's most embarrassing moments, near the top would be her debut with the Atlanta Symphony last year.

Her performance wasn't the problem; her fingernails were.

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Walking onto the stage -- her shapely legs peeking out from her dress, her false eyelashes firmly in place -- she was ready to play the chanteuse. Or so she thought.

Then she glanced down, and it hit her.

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"I had only painted the fingernails on one hand," she says. "I'd forgotten to finish. I couldn't have apologized more to the audience. I told them I thought I'd finished my toilette, but . . ."

But the show must go on. Whether it's her cabaret act, her role on the CBS series "Designing Women" or even her new fitness video, Ms. Carter is known as a trooper in a town rife with prima donnas. Ask her to stick her head through a banister railing, don a tight leotard or slither on a piano in the name of art, and she will oblige with the manners of a Southern belle.

A member of the chic New South and a supporter of Bill Clinton (her name has been bandied about as a celebrity in favor with the new administration), she's part Julia Sugarbaker, part Scarlett O'Hara. In one breath, she'll hop on her soapbox to condemn the country's educational system; the next she becomes a would-be romance novelist, cooing and billing about how her husband, Hal Holbrook, likes her "soft and squishy."

This, friends say, is the wonder of Dixie.

"She's a throwback to a classier time -- the '30s and the '40s," says Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, executive producer of "Designing Women" and other shows. "She's the kind of girl who drinks champagne out of a slipper and runs through the Trevi Fountain in her underwear, but . . . she's also a good mother and a wonderful friend. That down-to-earth, family side balances her bohemian side."

But even the cool Ms. Carter -- who will be performing with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra next weekend -- admits to becoming unnerved before singing. So far, she has survived hecklers, unpredictable microphones and noticeable runs in her pantyhose. Her stage fright is so severe, though, that she insists on 12 hours of sleep on the eve of every performance.

"I'm never sure what will happen at one minute after 8 o'clock," she said during a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles. "I'm always scared. That's part of the mystique."

Her voice, even thousands of miles away, sounds honey-coated and soothing. She's made money off it alone, recording several books on tape, including one she was particularly suited for called "The Southern Belle Primer." Her lilting drawl is something others subconsciously imitate.

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"If we spend an evening with Dixie, my wife will start to sound like her by the end of the night," says David Steinberg, director of "Designing Women." "She'll start . . . tall-kin' liiike Dixie."

But when Ms. Carter explains how she adapts her cabaret act for the concert stage, that voice changes. The free-wheeling quality is gone, replaced by long pauses and words chosen more carefully than magnolia blossoms from a tree.

"I hesitate to talk about it because it's so mysterious to me. It has to do with concentration and energy and focus . . . and with the fact that I truly enjoy the audience," she says.

Sticking to favorites

While she uses New York's Cafe Carlyle as a testing ground for new material, she sticks to eclectic favorites -- Cole Porter, Fats Waller and Bob Seger -- for performances elsewhere. Rather than sit on a stool for shows, she's more likely to play the harmonica, imitate animals or even dangle upside down from the piano.

In a review of her act, Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote: "What made it all work was Miss Carter's mixture of charm and exuberance and her extraordinary generosity of spirit. Mischievous one moment, meltingly tender the next, she wove extremes of sentiment into a thrilling roller-coaster celebration of living in the moment."

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John Wallowitch, a songwriter who was Ms. Carter's first singing coach, says, "Everything she does is infused with life. If Ronald Reagan was the great communicator, then she's better."

One thing she won't communicate is her age, although published reports put her at 52. "Let's just say I'm old enough to have a 22- and a 23-year-old," she says.

Growing up in the sleepy town of McLemoresville, Tenn., Dixie Carter longed to be on the operatic stage. "I always, all my life, have dreamed of being a great, great singer. But I would have to say I believe I am an actress who sings. It's heartbreaking in a way to tell you that. But if I'm honest, that's the truth."

What got in the way?

"My voice," she says. "I have the musicianship and the musicality. And when I was young, I had the voice. But I didn't always have the best training, the best advice or the best discipline. And I had a tonsillectomy when I was young. I almost bled to death, and it left a lot of scar tissue."

Valedictorian

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After graduating from high school as valedictorian of her high school class, she hopscotched to several colleges before getting a degree in English from Memphis State University.

She went to New York in search of fame. But after working in nightclubs, on Broadway and at the New York Shakespeare Festival, she met her first husband, a businessman, and settled down. She had two daughters and put her career on hold for seven years.

The married ended in 1977, after Ms. Carter realized her husband had fallen out of love with her.

"What it did to my self-respect is like what a cat does to a scratchin' pole," she has said.

Resurrecting her career wasn't easy. She landed a role on the daytime soap opera, "The Edge of Night," and had a short-lived marriage to a Broadway actor.

Through the help of a good agent, she inched her way back into the business, playing bit parts and roles on TV shows including a program called "Filthy Rich." There she met Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, who cast her in "Designing Women" and became a close friend.

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"The way I always think of Dixie is in her rose garden hosting a lawn party in a big summer hat and flowery summer dress with her arms wrapped around her daughters singing for her guests," says Ms. Thomason.

When guests go to her home, they have to perform, too. After Ms. Thomason let it be known she was an ace cartwheeler in high school, Ms. Carter made her do one during a dinner party.

Although most people know her best as the sassy Julia Sugarbaker, one of four partners in an Atlanta interior design firm, Ms. Carter is far less inclined than her character to go on a feminist tirade. She admits, though, that playing this designing woman has changed her.

"A lot of her goes into me, and a lot of me goes into her," she says. "I think I speak out for myself quite a bit more. I'm more forthright than I was seven years ago."

The show has faced tough times recently. Ms. Thomason, who is executive producer with her husband Harry, has been involved in the Clinton campaign and inaugural as well as two other shows ("Evening Shade" and "Hearts Afire"). Upheavals in the cast -- including the departure of Jean Smart, Julia Duffy and, most noticeably, Delta Burke -- have taken their toll on the ratings. While the show was once among the top 20 in the Nielsens, it ranked 36th in the most recent ratings.

But with the addition of Judith Ivey this season, Ms. Carter believes the ensemble is connecting again.

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"It has been very draining," she says. "Thank heavens Judith Ivey has come in. She's an exceptional actress, and we now have a very sweet unit. . . . Now we have to begin to have scripts that allow us to show what we can do."

To deal with stress -- particularly the demands of juggling a weekly TV show and a singing career -- she walks three times a week and does yoga. Ms. Carter, who wears a size 6, got interested in yoga after realizing it helped alleviate her back pain and arthritis. Next month, her exercise regimen -- "Dixie Carter's Unworkout" -- comes out on video.

"I wanted to call it 'I'm Not Jane Fonda and Neither Are You,' " she says with a laugh.

"A lot of people are responding to the idea that not all of us have the desire to work out all the time. My husband likes me soft and squishy anyway."

The real thing

She and Hal Holbrook met during the filming of a TV movie and married in 1984. Friends knew right away this was the real thing. "She called and said she had met the most wonderful man," recalls Mr. Wallowitch. "I think she loved him right away, but there was a note of caution there."

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Mr. Holbrook, who also played her TV beau on "Designing Women" until he got killed off last year, is planning to accompany her to Baltimore, if his schedule allows. The BSO engagement will put a crimp in their Thanksgiving. They are celebrating on Wednesday, but the holiday is lackluster since her daughters, Ginna, 23, and Mary Dixie, 22, spend the day with their father, she says.

Her children -- both graduates of Harvard -- show signs of following in her path. Her eldest is writing and performing country music, while her youngest is studying acting.

Her best professional advice to them: "Don't stay with it if it doesn't reward them and nourish them."

For Dixie Carter, that's never been a question. With two albums out and a monthlong engagement at the Cafe Carlyle next year, what she longs for now is a chance to star on the theatrical stage.

"I want to do some of the great dramatic roles, some Tennessee Williams," she says. "And I want to produce some beautiful and wholesome entertainment. I think there's room in the world for that."

DIXIE CARTER

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What: Dixie Carter will perform with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

When: 8:15 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $16 to $43.

% Call: (410) 783-8000.



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