Nancy O’Dell

by Elysian Magazine

Former Co-Host on Entertainment Tonight, Television Host, Author, Journalist, Producer and Entertainer

What were your parents’ professions?

My father owned a construction company. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for the majority of her life, but she also was a real estate agent for a while. She was a very involved mom. Her example is what really shaped me as a mom today. She and my dad were there for everything, attending all my events. My daughter is very involved in every sport you can imagine. I remember how much it meant to me to look over at the sidelines and see my parents at my basketball games and my tennis matches. I want to be there as well. It is very important to me to attend all my daughter’s activities. My mom helped me so much with my schoolwork, which I think is what allowed me to succeed. And there was never a minute that I did not feel loved.

And your sister?

She is in Charlotte, North Carolina. We were close growing up and are even closer now.

Were you competitive growing up?

Not so much. My sister and I were drastically different as far as things that we liked and were drawn to do. She was and is very artsy and into music. She definitely has the art gene; she’s amazing and I can barely draw a stick figure! I was into sports. I loved fishing, basketball and tennis. I was a tomboy, the boy that my dad never had.

You have also remained close to your childhood friends?

Yes, they were instrumental in my younger years. I had this incredible group of friends. We went to the same school from first through twelfth grade in a class of 32 kids. Thirteen of them are still my best friends today, and we remain in constant contact. We talk regularly, get together about once or twice a year and purposely meet up wherever we can. We talk all the time about kids, problems, everything. They are a beautiful group of friends who are tried and true.

Nancy with co-host Kevin Frasier on the set of Entertainment Tonight, the most watched entertainment news program in the world.

Is there a distinguishing characteristic with the group?

Most of them have careers, and a lot of them are very successful. One is the attorney for Invisalign. Only three of us moved to California. Most remained in the South. Many of them are in Atlanta, a couple of them are still in South Carolina, and some are in North Carolina.

You were raised in the South with a very traditional upbringing. How did that impact your success today and did you experience any tragedy?

I had a very Beaver Cleaver upbringing with two incredible parents, an amazing mom and dad. I didn’t experience tragedy until later in life. First, my mom was diagnosed with ALS and then my dad with Alzheimer’s. Those events were very shocking and hard for me. I was not prepared for them. The only tragedy I experienced prior to adulthood was elementary age when parents of schoolmates were killed in a plane crash; they were flying in bad weather. It was then that I realized something horrible can happen to your parents. I was so close to my parents, and I remember it really scared me. When the diagnosis of my mother came, it reminded me of the time as a kid that I realized that your parents are not invincible. But other than that, it was a pretty traditional, conservative Southern upbringing, probably a little sheltered. I was happy growing up in the South, but it probably would have been easier if I’d been exposed to a few other things early on. Maybe I would have had my guard up a bit more. I am a little too trusting. I’ve learned enough living in Hollywood that I’m not as trusting as I used to be, but I think I’m still a little bit innocent to “Hollywood.” I had parents who were very sweet and loving, so I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t.

Since winning Miss South Carolina, you limited your involvement in the world of pageants. Why?

Yes, I haven’t actually done much since I was Miss South Carolina 1987, a long time ago. I did serve as a judge one year and hosted Miss USA and Miss Universe when I worked for NBC because it aired on NBC. I was at Access Hollywood at the time. Pageants were the thing to do in the South during that time and were very popular. It was truly the first reality show. I do not regret having done it because it gave me a year of travel and speaking experience. So, it actually helped me career wise. For an entire year, I spoke as Miss South Carolina and traveled internationally in a trade relations program to Japan, which was a wonderful experience. It gave me scholarship money and paid for a full year of my college education, which was a wonderful thing.

What brings you the most joy, Nancy?

Spending time with my daughter and my family as well as going back to see my sister and my father and spending time with them. But definitely my daughter. There’s no question. It’s like medicine. When I get her from school, I am giddy and excited. I can’t wait to see her. Getting a hug from her is the best thing in the world.

Your greatest accomplishment?

Having my daughter. No doubt. No doubt.

If you could go back in your life and recast a path, what would you have done differently?

I would have had more kids, I think. I had my daughter later in life. It was just the way that life happened, the timing. But I love, love, love having a daughter. It is so much fun. I think it’s because of my own experience, being a daughter, a child of loving parents. The relationship with my parents was so great that it translates into my relationship with my daughter. You recently experienced a significant career shift by leaving Entertainment Tonight in August of 2019.

How do you fill your days without the intensity of such a rigorous career post?

That is so funny because I told somebody that I feel busier since I left ET.

How did that happen?

I realized when I worked, I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do. Now I’m saying yes to the things that I always wanted to do but couldn’t do before. I have so many great friends. They used to invite me to participate in activities, but I always declined because in the position I held at ET, I couldn’t leave the studio. We had to be physically there in case of breaking news. When friends invite me now, I’m like, “Let’s go!” It is great because I’m actually living life. I have been doing entertainment for 24 years without a break. For six years before that, I was doing hard news in Miami, Charleston and Florence, South Carolina. So, I had been working for 30 years straight. In the news business, you cannot take a lunch break, and people don’t understand that. You are there because the show has to go on the air, hit the satellite. If there is breaking news, for example, if a celebrity passes away, then you immediately have to go into the voiceover booth and change the narrative for the show. You cannot leave and go have lunch. It’s not your normal job where you can say, “I’m going to take a lunch break from 12:00 to 1:00.” You are not allowed to take any time away for things like a manicure appointment, a luncheon. You can’t do any of this. All that must be done after hours. Consequently, I spent all my time outside of work with my daughter. Now, the time that I would normally have spent in work, I am now able to go have those friendships, work on projects and develop things that I’ve always wanted to do. I feel busier today than I did when I was working.

Is the intensity the same?

No. ET has started to go outside of the studio, traveling a lot. That was not going to work because I was not willing to miss time with my daughter. I just couldn’t. I have had changes in my personal life, and I just wasn’t going to be away from her, miss her sporting events, unless some major, unavoidable event happened. Kids don’t understand if you miss something. I think the one sporting event I missed was when I covered the royal wedding. I just don’t miss her events. She’s my priority. It always meant so much to me that my parents were present.

What’s next for you?

I have received a lot of calls for projects, and I’m very excited about one that is coming up soon. I’ve wanted to work with this producer for a long time. She is very flexible. The great thing about it is that she had wanted me to come because of the relationships that I’ve built over the years. The opportunity has given me the ability to set my own pace and schedule and work with the celebrities’ schedules too. I do not have to come in five days a week. These will be long format interviews, and I’ll be able to have control over how they’re produced and what actually airs. What a lot of people don’t realize is that you go to an interview and then the story is written by a producer. So, you do the interview which may last 30-minutes, and then it airs as a two-minute piece. It may not necessarily be reflective of how or what you expected. My new projects will allow me a little more control and direction.

You have experienced significant loss this past year. Your talent representative for 20 years, John Ferriter, passed away two weeks before your departure from ET. How did he impact your life?

I think I talked with him about leaving two years before that. The irony is that we were talking about leaving Entertainment Tonight two weeks before he passed. I told him that I really wanted to be able to spend the time with my daughter. People don’t understand that even though it’s a wonderful job, and I loved it for 25 years, and I still do, it’s like being in a wheel that churns and churns and just keeps going. There is a deadline every single day and up until that show hits the satellite. There is no break. Imagine doing that constantly for 30 years. We had talked about it because at one time, John had been in a coma and almost lost his life. He said the one thing that he learned is that you have to know what the priorities in your life are. It’s not all about these things that, on the surface, seem so important. Yes, Entertainment Tonight is this incredible, legend of a show. But you really have to dig deep and decide what makes you happy. He and I talked about what’s most important in life and what you’re gonna remember when you’re 70 years old. Will you remember going to all your kid’s games or going in and doing the show that you did for 29, 30 years?

Would he have been surprised to know that, two weeks after his death, you would go on air and give your dedication to him and announce your decision to leave the show?

Oh, the dedication to him, yes he would be surprised. He would not be surprised I was leaving. Although he didn’t know for certain when, we had talked about the fact that I would leave the show. He had said, “Do what makes you happy.” His passing made me realize life is too short.

Did that impact your decision?

It did. I already knew at that point that I was going to say goodbye within the year. But that was certainly a validation of “this feels like the right thing to do sooner.”

Has the #MeToo movement moved that ball forward for women?

I think it has moved it forward, some. I do. I hope that women are making forward strides and can be in the same powerful positions as men are. I also hope that they’re looked at as being capable to have the job of director or executive producer or hold a veteran position in a company. One of the things that used to drive me crazy, and I would always change it in voiceover, was qualifying women’s looks by age. I was asked why I changed them, and I would always say, because it’s just so wrong. We used to say, “Halle Berry looking amazing at 42.” Of course, she looks amazing at 42. We would never say, “Brad Pitt looking amazing at 42.” It would drive me crazy. Why can’t a woman look amazing at 42? Why can’t she look amazing at 49 or 55 or 65? We would just never say that about a man. So, I would always cut it out. I would just say, “Halle Berry looking amazing.” Why am I shocked that she looks amazing at 49? It was nuts, so I hope that that’s changed.

Who do you go to for advice?

My sister and a “mom” friend of mine I have. I’m so lucky because I have such great friends out here and my high school friends too. But I would say my sister for sure, and I call her all the time. She can always tell by my voice if I need her.

If you could ask God one question, what would you ask him or her?

Why does he take the good ones? I always wonder. Why did you take my mom so soon? She was only 75. I used to call her for advice all the time and talked to her every day. She was just a great mom.

Your mother lost her battle to ALS, and you were later the ALS Ambassador?

I think after something that tragic happens, you feel you need to do something because hopefully something positive might come out of this. Muscular Dystrophy Association—MDA was so great in helping us. ALS is a rare, very fast progressing disease, and there were not a lot of resources out there. MDA was so valuable in helping us to figure it out. Keeping up with everything is really hard. If MDA hadn’t been there, I don’t know what we would have done. Your mother was aware of what was going on the whole time? Yes, the disease is cruel because mentally you’re totally there, but you become physically incapacitated. She lost her voice. She couldn’t speak, but mentally, she knew everything that was going on. Mom’s was bulbar ALS, so it started with her breathing and talking. In most people with ALS, the disease starts in their limbs. They lose the ability to walk and the use of their arms first. Mom’s was the quicker kind, as it affected her breathing and her speaking first. She was still able to walk and fortunately, able to write and to communicate that way. It was tough because I was in LA, and we used to talk on the phone all the time. She eventually would write things to my dad, and my dad would talk for her. We did email, but she wasn’t great with technology.

Your father now has Alzheimer’s. The same puzzle piece but a different side?

Yeah, that’s the weird thing. Mom was mentally so clear and strong and physically so bad. And dad is physically incredibly healthy and strong and has Alzheimer’s. He’s actually doing great. If you saw him, I don’t think you’d even know he had Alzheimer’s. His personality is still totally there, always such a joker and funny. My daughter thinks he’s just the best because he’s so fun. I mean he plays pool with her and basketball. He’s still very physically fit and in shape at 85. And right now, it’s just the little things he doesn’t seem to remember.

What do you want to accomplish in this next chapter of life?

To be the best mom, just like my mom was. That’s always my biggest goal. In addition, I would like to produce a show with meaning behind it, something that makes a difference.

You went through a pretty rocky divorce. Is there a pearl of wisdom that you might share with women?

It was very tough. It’s very, very tough. I was very hurt and thrown off-guard, but my ex gave me the best thing that I could ever ask for, our daughter. So, I will forever have love for him because he gave me the most wonderful thing in my life. That is the thing that you have to remember. If you have kids together, then everything should be about the kids. Despite the things that happen between you two, your child comes first and foremost. She needs to know that you are okay because she is number one. That’s what I always keep in the front of my mind, for her sake. I will always remember that we created a wonderful human being. I think the one thing that you have to do is sometimes take a moment and breathe, especially when you’ve been through things. This is the reason that I made career choices, and that my life is like it is now. I know when I was so immersed in my career and mom was diagnosed with ALS, and then with dad with Alzheimer’s, I made a decision to get healthy too. As women, we focus so much on others that we forget about our own health. You have to remember to take care of yourself too because you do need to be there for everybody else. Take that moment to breathe, and if that means that you have to take a step back from your career for a minute like I did, then that is what you need to do.

Do you see yourself remarrying, Nancy?

Probably not. I never say never, but I’m not looking for that. I’m not against dating again. I would like to spend time with somebody. I just don’t know. It will take a little while for me to trust somebody again, that’s for sure.

Doing what brings her the most joy in life, spending time with her daughter. “Getting a hug from her is the best thing in the world,” says Nancy.

What is pivotal to your wellbeing?

Spending time with my daughter.

What piece of advice would you give to your “younger self”?

Enjoy life sooner.

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