From Miss U.S.A. to Dallas to Body Double, Deborah Shelton Is a Sex Object Who Objects

UPDATED 11/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

The voluptuous brunette in a satin robe is being chased around her boudoir. She is about to be turned into Swiss cheese by a psycho who is dressed as an American Indian and is wielding a mighty power drill with a 12-inch bit. Though the violent, bloody scene is only from a movie—Brian DePalma's latest shockeroo, Body Double—the terrified expression on the face of Deborah Shelton (Miss U.S.A. of 1970) is real. That's because De-Palma, who goose-bumped his way to fame with Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Scarface, used the real thing. No drill double. No siree. "At one point the drill was an inch from my nose," recalls Shelton. "When they turned that drill on, all the hairs on my spine stood up."

So did her dander, which disproves the theory that all Miss U.S.A. winners are beautiful but, knock-knock, nobody home. Throughout the filming Shelton and DePalma had heated discussions about the drill scene and why her character shouldn't fight back. "Who stands around like that?" Shelton asked. "Brian kept saying, 'Pathos, Debbie, pathos,' and I'm thinking, 'Stupidity, Brian, stupidity.' "

But Shelton went along. A veteran of TV guest shots, Shelton, 32, saw a big budget DePalma film as a way to the big time. "Even if it's terrible, it's going to be seen," she says. Shelton is not sure how she feels about DePalma. "I keep comparing Brian to Vincent Price. He had a sort of evil look." But, like a lot of feminists and critics, Shelton is not afraid to speak out against the man who might make her a star. "Brian makes women victims," she says. "He's into commerciality and what sells—and what people want to see. But I don't like to see women represented that way. When I see it, it creates anger in me." DePalma responds: "It's a sad state of affairs when you can't make a murder mystery and kill anybody because you're going to offend some group. You have to, I guess, pick a Martian as the victim."

Deborah is happier talking about her new role on Dallas, TV's No. 1 series. Last spring the producers auditioned actresses for the part of model Mandy Winger. Although Mandy was described as "a really young blonde, an ex-hooker with a heart of gold," the dark-haired Shelton won a reading and ultimately the part (she debuted on October 12). "So far I think I'm a good girl," she says, laughing. "I'm not blonde and there's no mention of her being an ex-hooker, though I keep waiting to find out that it's true."

When it came time to meet the illustrious cast, she "didn't sleep all night, but everybody was just wonderful." Although destined to become involved with Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval) and J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), Deborah says, "I don't want to be kept as somebody's little pet. I'm smart." At least it's not Body Double all over again. "The thing I love about Dallas is they don't make me do bathing suit pictures."

Like it or not, it was in a bathing suit that Shelton first won public notice. In 1970, while attending Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., her hometown, Shelton, who had always wanted a career in medicine, entered the Miss Virginia contest. She won and a month later she took the Miss U.S.A. crown. Three months later Deborah, the only child of a Southern Baptist dentist and his wife, became first runner-up in the Miss Universe contest.

When she passed her crown to her successor, Shelton found that life for an ex-beauty queen could be brutal. Her experience as a model in New York sounds nearly as harrowing as that of Vanessa Williams: "I had one photographer jump on me. I had another say, 'Come on over and we'll smoke some dope and look through your pictures. Another said, 'What you need is a friendly——.' " Shelton tried marriage in 1971. She had a son, but wedlock didn't work out.

Shelton then teamed up with a New York gynecologist. They had plans to open a clinic for women with diet and cellulite disorders. But those plans never paid off. In December 1976, Deborah met her current husband, Shuki Levy, 38, an Israeli-born, Paris-based singer-composer-record producer who was on holiday in America. They were together only two days, then spent $4,500 burning up phone wires to get better acquainted. Four months later they wed in Switzerland.

Shelton and Levy live in the Hollywood Hills, with Deborah's son and their daughter. Neighbors describe Shelton as a "Kool-Aid mom" because of the hospitality the kids on the block enjoy at her house. Since 1977 she has been writing the lyrics for her husband's compositions (their song Magdalena may be featured on Julio Iglesias' next LP). Luckily, Shuki is not too upset about all the exposure his wife gets in Body Double. "I don't like it but I can't take it seriously," he says. "Soon she'll be able to be more selective." Deborah laughs at being thought of as a sex symbol: "I'm a regular kind of person." But to keep her body gorgeous, Shelton endures rigorous exercise routines at home three to five times a week with Pete Steinfeld (brother and partner of coach-to-the-stars Jake Steinfeld). For that, Shelton says, she has DePalma to thank: "He wanted everybody in perfect shape for the film. He'd say, 'That's not a DePalma body!' Let me tell you, that got under my skin. Why didn't I turn around and say, 'You're damned right. It's a Shelton body.' " Maybe she will the next time. "Megalomania," she says, rolling her eyes, "has its limits."

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