Accessing Hollywood

Access Hollywood co-host Nancy O'Dell is best known for reporting on the lives of celebrities, but her heart is focused on a more heavenly assignment.

by Dan Ewald

Nancy O'Dell

Nancy O'Dell and Pat O'Brien lounge behind their anchor desk on the glossy set of Access Hollywood, the popular entertainment news show that airs nationally in syndication. A commercial is playing back on the monitors lining the wall. O'Brien, a former sportscaster, is reading the sports section of USA Today. A makeup artist with a flower tucked behind her ear dabs at his face, deepening his thick makeup. "Okay, you're still good," she says, standing back and squinting before turning to O'Dell. The beautiful, statuesque blonde with the distinctive alto speaking voice decides she'd rather have her ponytail draped over her right shoulder than her left.

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 1 Peter 5:7 as her favorite Bible verse-"Cast all your anxiety on [God] because he cares for you"-staying grounded in the values of her Christian heritage is a top priority.

'Good-girl complex'

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.

Nancy O'Dell interviewing Julia Roberts.

Before joining Access Hollywood seven years ago, O'Dell worked as a morning news anchor and crime reporter in Charleston and later as a co-anchor and investigative reporter for NBC's Miami station. Back then, it wasn't uncommon to find her in the woods, dressed in camouflage, recording crimes with night-vision cameras. She even once posed as a prostitute for a sting operation. "When I was much younger, I actually did some really dangerous things," she says. "I think about it now and wonder, What in the world was I thinking?"

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 Access Hollywood do tease her about being so nice, claiming that she suffers from a "Good-girl complex." "I tell everybody it's not an image," O'Dell says, as she snacks on a cup of kettle corn between tapings. "The reason I never would miss curfew at home, for instance, wasn't because I was afraid I was going to get punished. It was because I had such love and respect for my parents."

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."

A genuine touch

O'Dell doesn't mind being known for a lightweight celebrity news program (She also recently hosted the USA Network's Nashville Star talent competition.) In fact, she brings certain earnestness to the job of lobbing softball questions at the stars ("Tell me about your dress" or "What does it feel like to be nominated?"). "We're not that much of a gossip show," she says. "We try to make it fun by the way we read things, just so people won't take it too seriously."

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."

'Resting in Christ'

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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