Debbe Dunning has kept herself very busy since her stint as the Heidi Keppert, a.k.a.the Tool Time Girl on the popular Tim Allen series, Home Improvement. She is a busy mom of three, participates in many charitable pursuits and she has her own awesome new travel show called Debbe Dunning’s Dude Ranch Round-Up.
Southern California native Dunning got her start as Miss Burbank and she started modeling soon after. Her perseverance made her incredibly attractive to casting directors and she kept landing roles in commercials. She was featured as Louise in Taco Bells’ popular Run for the Boarder ad campaigns. She appeared in 21 ads for them alone.
After those successes, she landed her most popular role to date on Home Improvement, where she was in 148 episodes from 1993-1999.
Even though fitness was always important to her, she surprised herself by being the reigning champion of American Gladiators Celebrity Edition for two years in a row.
The joyful and gracious, Debbe Dunning spoke with Michelle Tompkins for TheCelebrityCafe.com about her early days as a beauty queen and model, how she talked her way into getting some parts, how she feels about the cast of Home Improvement, what charities are important to her, what makes her new show Debbe Dunning’s Dude Ranch Round-Up special, what she is most proud of, what she likes to do for fun and more.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, you’re from southern California, is that right?
Debbe Dunning: I’m from Burbank, yeah.
MT: And where do you live now?
DD: I live out in San Diego.
MT: Oh, beautiful.
DD: Yeah, it’s not bad. I feel like I live here but most of the time I’m on the road in Montana, Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado. So I kind of live everywhere. But my home where my stuff is, where my laundry piles up is right here.
MT: And you’re a mom of three, is that right?
DD: Yes, I am.
MT: Wow. That makes the laundry list even higher.
DD: Well, my son’s 17th birthday was yesterday and I had my daughter come in from San Diego, she goes to school out there and we had a nice dinner but of course, the laundry showed up. And it’s constant, you’re juggling. You’re doing this, you’re doing that, or watching movies, and looking at old pictures. But yeah, it does add up, I’m just glad that they’re doing it themselves mostly now. Sort of.
MT: It’s always sort of with kids there. Now, you’re Miss Burbank, what did you do for the talent competition?
DD: We didn’t have talent competition in Miss Burbank. We had basically a speech, we had questions, we had the evening gown, the bathing suit. We didn’t have a talent competition, which thank God, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I probably would’ve tried to do stand up or something. I don’t know. I wouldn’t have sung [laughter].
MT: That’s not one of your skills?
There were people who were like, “If we have to do talent, I’m going to juggle.” And I always thought, “Well, that’s not very sexy.” It’s just not [laughter]. I mean, there’s probably ways you can make it sexy but I’m so glad they didn’t have it. I was in high school and I actually had to work a shift at Alpha Beta that day of the competition and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get someone to cover my shift.” But the competition happened at John Burroughs High School right where I went to school. So I had to do it [laughter].
Dunning’s professional career begins
MT: What was your first professional gig as an actor or model?
My first professional one, let’s see. I used to do little extra work and then I did under five. You know what under five is? It’s where you go in and you have under five lines or less. And I did a lot of walk-bys or bathing suit shots in different films where you would just be laying there or you’d walk by the guy and he’d make a comment. So I had very, very little experience knowing how to get into the business. Bikini contests seemed to be the thing I did really well in. And so one of my girlfriends had talked me into doing one because my parents had been robbed. In the olden days, way back when, when you’d buy an airline ticket, you would hold it, it would be in your hand. It basically would arrive in the mail and you would have it. So I remember I bought them a camera and I bought them two tickets to go to Hawaii and they got robbed, which was crazy, but my girlfriend said, “You could…”
MT: Oh, my God. Oh, that’s awful.
DD: Yeah. No, it was terrible because it was in my room. I had already told them about it and it was up on my shelf. And when I came home, the house had been ransacked. We lived in Burbank and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s the most expensive thing I’ve ever bought for anybody in my life.” And I was working so hard at Alpha Beta. So my girlfriends were telling me I should enter this bikini contest down in Hermosa. We took the bus and we went down and got into a bikini contest and I won $500, and then I did the Netherlands the next weekend, and there was $1,000, and I got to give it to them so they could go again, and they actually went. So it was great.
But my first gig, I would have to say my first gig where I was actually on TV where I was part of it was for a Super Bowl commercial for Foot Locker. And I was driving down an alley in Burbank, where I lived behind this coffee place, and there were all these girls that looked similar to me. So I just pulled in and walked into it, signed my name, and learned the dialogue, because it was a little rap for Foot Locker, and I got it. And that was kind of the first one. They gave me $200 and it played during the Super Bowl. So that was fantastic.
MT: Congratulations. That is fantastic.
DD: 200 bucks [laughter]. So that was just basically doing modeling jobs. I remember waking up, we had an earthquake one day, and I had taken a year off school because I didn’t know what I was going to do. And I had already gone to college for a couple years and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to just take a year off and figure this out.” And we had an earthquake and I’m like, “This is the day.”
I went to 10 agencies. I walked in and half the time they wouldn’t see me. But Judith Fontaine in LA saw me and she said, “Get those stripes out of your hair. Tigers don’t model,” and I was like, “Oh, my gosh,” and holding back the, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m going to have a chance.” So I did a photoshoot, got a ZED card, I think I borrowed 500 bucks to put it all together, and that thing came out, it was black and white, the cheapest you could go. It was a body shot on one side and a face shot on the other. And I started working, I started really working modeling. I was traveling. It was just a whole new life for me.
Then it was a couple years later I started doing commercials. They had a commercial department, so I went into that and then I ended up moving over into Commercials Unlimited because I heard they were fantastic, and they were. And then I just started kind of creeping into acting. People were like, “God, you’re so funny. You should go into acting.” I’m like, “I know, I just don’t know how.” That was always my thing, “I just don’t know how.” But it’s like even today, I’m like, “I don’t even know how I’ve got this show going,” except for the fact that I was golfing one day and this guy’s like, “I think you’re fabulous. We’ve got to do a show. Come up with something.” So pretty lucky girl.
MT: I think you’re lucky but you also take the opportunities and do something with them. That’s not what everybody does, so I think that you made something out of these opportunities.
DD: I certainly try. I mean I’ve been working since I was 12-years-old. My dad was sick when I was a kid. He was bipolar and in and out of mental hospitals, so it was my mom and my brother doing all the work. You had to work. You’d go to school but you had to work because we had to stay in our little teeny house. I think it’s why I am the way I am now. Of course, I would like to be a trust fund baby, who wouldn’t? Wouldn’t we all [laughter]? But I think it’s one of those things that shaped me and kind of made me a really responsible person. A good mom and very disciplinary to my children. I regret a lot of the stuff I had to go through, but at the same time I’m pretty proud of who I’ve become, and the life I’ve cut out for myself. And my children are amazing. They’re the best thing I’ve ever made. Ever done.
MT: That’s what people should say, so I’m happy to hear that.
DD: Yeah. I am pretty proud of them. I had them last night and they all left I was like, “Wow. I really cannot believe my children are so big and so responsible.” And I don’t worry about them. I don’t worry about drugs. I don’t worry about bad decisions. My daughter and I are like best friends, and she literally texts me until 12:00 p.m. I mean I think I shut the phone off at 8:30 p.m. but she just kept texting me asking advice. I’m like, “I’m tired. Mommy’s done.”
MT: I think you’re lucky with that. I think that’s important to have those kinds of relationships with your kids.
DD: I’m very, very lucky and I don’t ever take that for granted, trust me. I do know that because a lot of my girlfriends have absolutely no relationships with their children, and I can’t even imagine that.
MT: That’s very sad. Now tell me about Louise from the Taco Bell ads.
DD: Oh, that was a break. That was a great break. I went in to do another commercial and they were having Taco Bell commercials on the right. And so how it used to be is you could crash, and I was always an opportunist, so I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to line up over there.” And it looked like I had to be in a different type of outfit so I went back out to my car because, living in LA, I kind of kept a little bit of stuff in my trunk of things that might need. I always had a bathing suit. I always had shorts and a T-shirt. I always had jeans. I always had a couple things I kept in my trunk just in case.
I remember I had some cut-off shorts and a little top, and I twisted it and I tied it in a knot, and I went in there. And I didn’t really have cowboy boots for it, but I had flip-flops and I thought, “Well, I should probably be more country. This is a country looking kind of description.” But I ended up doing it. I crashed it and I got one commercial which was fantastic. And went out to Palm Dale, shot it out by Valencia, and thought, “Wow, this is an amazing crew.” Well, the director really liked me so he used me in Princess Cruises and Carefree Sugarless Gum. He really helped me move out of my house. I moved out late, at 21. I was still there because they needed me. So financially it gave me the big boost to make the huge move.
Of course, I snuck out because my mom would’ve died if she knew that I’d moved out [laughter]. So two months later I told her. Yeah, I spend all my days at my apartment and then I’d sleep there, but then finally I was like, “I just have to tell her.”
But anyway, so Taco Bell ran that commercial and their sales quadrupled and they like, “We have to get her again.” I wasn’t Louise at the time, but then they ended up naming me Louise. And I did commercials with all sorts, like T Graham Brown. All sorts of country western people. And there was a guy named James Alt who I knew prior, and he ended up getting cast as my guy. And so the two of us would do all these commercials together. He was always my guy. Real good looking guy and I knew him so it was really fun to be working with a buddy too. I did 21 commercials for them.
MT: Wow [laughter].That will get you moved out of your parents’ home [laughter]. That will do it.
DD: And giving them enough money to stop crying that I left. “Here just take the check. Okay, bye.” Yeah [laughter].
MT: Close, but yeah. I’ve got to know about American Gladiators. How did you prepare for that?
DD: You know? I didn’t prepare for it. I should have prepared for it. But like anything, I usually kind of just got there, and they’re like, “You don’t even need an outfit, just some shoes.” “Okay.” Because you’re going to be given everything and “Okay.” And I walked through, and I saw this huge jungle gym of activity and challenges. I said, “Which part do I have to do [laughter]?” They were just like, “It’s the whole thing. Maybe you should watch this one in front of you.” And I’m like, “Well, who really is my competition here?” And they’re like, “Well, it’s you. It’s you, but here’s this playmate girl over here. She’s going to be competing against you.” And I’m looking at her, and I’m sizing her up. And I’m like, “She doesn’t look nearly as athletic as me. I can beat her.” And they go, “It doesn’t matter if you beat her. You need to beat them.” And I looked over at this wall of men-women, like these men and women that were just super strong. And I’m like [laughter], “What do you mean? What do you mean? I can’t go against them.” So I think the fear of them catching up with me kept me going. And I had somebody say to me, “If you get past the first one, you’re going to be fine.”
The first one is the arm bicycle. “And if your arms drop, you’re screwed. But if you keep your arms tight, really close like a pterodactyl [laughter], whatever, you keep them up there, you’ll make it. And then swing so you can land.” I’m like, “This is ridiculous. This is so hard.” I do remember being scared to death going, “God, give me a chance. Give me chance. Just okay.” And I didn’t really prepare. So the fact that I won, I was out of breath, I was– I don’t know. It’s crazy. I know one girl at some point, she took me down. We were on the bars. And it’s the luck of the bars if they’re swinging or not when you’re going across that water. You know what I’m saying.
MT: No. I didn’t realize it’s lucky if it’s swinging or not. Does it mean you’re lucky and it is or isn’t?
DD: Well, you pull your arm up when you’ve got your other arm on the bar and then you release. And you have to let go. So you’re going to grab for another bar, and it’s got to be really precise to be able to have it in that area of grabbing as you’re swinging. So that’s when she got me. And so I had my hand on two bars, and she wrapped her legs around me and just put all her weight on me. And we both dropped. But I took her down with me. She was trying to pull me. And I just turned around instead of holding onto the bars, I hung onto her. I’m like, “If I’m going, you’re coming with me so.” [laughter].
It was funny. The next year when they had me back they go, “Well, you have to defend your title.” I’m like, “You don’t have to do anything.” They’re like, “Well, everybody else does.” “So well, if everybody else does, I guess then I’ll be a follower. I’ll do that too.”
But if you think about it, and you’ve got a charity, and you really are just having a fun day out there, they’re going to give that charity ten thousand dollars to help research and families, it was a done deal. I’ve been doing charity things ever since. I just think it’s amazing how much money celebrities can make or bring into these particular things like children’s’ cancer. I do a lot of stuff with burn children, which I think that’s one of these charities that doesn’t get enough attention. These children go in, they’re burnt for the rest of their life. They’re having surgery so they can continue to grow. They put in balloons in their stomach an expand skin and then they slice the skin and put it to their neck, so now they can put their neck out. But burned skin doesn’t grow, and so a child who’s burnt may have 80 surgeries in one year, especially during those adolescent years where their bodies want to stretch and grow, and it is painful.
My daughter was nine months when I did my first burn charity in Australia. And I just looked at her, thinking, “Oh, my goodness, I am so blessed. I am so lucky.” But sometimes it’s just leaving your kid alone for too long and not educating them about the petrol that’s sitting in the garage. You’re not allowed to take that or light it on fire. You’re not allowed to play with that. You need to lock it up. And that was kind of the number one reason these children were burnt.
There’s a place in San Diego here, it’s called Angel Faces, and there is this gal who gets out there and she basically takes a bunch of women who have been burnt, and children too. She takes them from their moms and dads [for full-time care]. It is the first time they have ever left. There is nursing around the clock, there’s counseling, there’s great food, there’s swimming.
The first thing she does is she sits down with them and she talks to them about all the bad names they’ve been called. And then she sits there and wipes her makeup off. And she’s a burn victim herself. She’s like, “See, I know your story and what I’m here to do is teach you how to own your story and now start living.”
These children grow so much in a week. And what we do is we just raise money so we can offer a scholarship to them for this program for a week. And it doesn’t change everybody. I mean these kids are teenagers. They still love Justin Bieber, they still love these people and are never going to look anything different than a melted candle. I mean their faces will never come back. But she really teaches them to be strong and empower themselves and not give up. And it’s pretty great. So, anyway, I kind of went off on a tangent there, didn’t I? Sorry, I’m pretty passionate about that one.
How she landed Home Improvement
MT: It seems like it. And I hadn’t even gotten to the charity question yet but I’ll get there soon. But tell me how you got the part of Heidi on Home Improvement?
DD: I got the part as a completely different character. I hadn’t watched the show. I was one of those people who wasn’t a big TV-watcher. I was just working a lot. So I got the part as Kiki Von Fursterwallenscheinlaw, where I come in and I ask him for an autograph on a date night where he’s not supposed to even look at other women. And I’m in a restaurant, so I come over – and I had a week with them on the show – and I was dressed in this really revealing, black, skinny, tight little dress. Anyway, I did my show, had a great week with them, went home, continues my career. I got a phone call– no, actually, I looked at the breakdown and it said, “Looking for the Debbe Dunning type, but not Debbe Dunning.” I go, “I am so much her type. I can’t believe they’re not seeing me for this.” So I called my print agent and I said, “How come I’m not going out on that?” And she goes, “Well, I don’t send you out.” I didn’t have a theatrical agent at the time. She goes, “I’m not sending you out,” she goes, “And it says right here, not your type.” So I was like, “Wow, that’s terrible.”
So I let it go and then about two weeks later, it came across again. They called my modeling agency and said, “Can you please relay a message to Debbe from Jonell Dunn to casting?” So I called her and she’s like, “They want to see you how you were.” I’m like, “Great, I’ll see you tomorrow.” I got the dialogue. I didn’t know what the Tool Time girl was because I didn’t watch the show.
This was their second year, I was in their first year as a different character. So I came in and I was dressed in the same black dress thinking, “Oh, they’ll remember me.” My hair was super sexy and Jonell just shook her head going, “No.” And I’m like, “That’s the worse thing you can do before someone auditions.” I mean, that is terrible. And I go, “What?” And she goes, “I told you to come in the way you were.” I go, “This is exactly the dress I wore for my character.” She’s like, “You don’t get it. I meant the way you were. The normal no makeup, jeans, and a t-shirt. Down to earth.” I’m like, “Well, I’ll do it tomorrow.” She was like, “I don’t think so.” So I went in and auditioned and I came back out and I looked at her, I go, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She goes, “Don’t. We’ll have it cast by then.”
Well, I knew that tomorrow was the callbacks. So I showed up. And you would walk on to a lot a lot easier back then, because I had been there the day before, and I kept my pass. So I parked and I walked back over there. I sat there and she again shook her head. And I walked over, I said, “Listen, I am going to give this a shot.” Because I was pretty aggressive anyway, I had to be. I like to eat [laughter]. So I went in and I did the audition for the Tool Time girl, and I came back out and I sat there and then she walked in and talked to them for a good amount of time. When she came out she told everybody, “This concludes our casting.” And she goes, “So everybody, thanks for your time.” And then she looked at me and she said, “Stay put, missy [laughter].” I literally thought I had one more week on the show until I walk— she goes, “The wardrobe girl will take you down.” I go, “Oh, right now?” She’s like, “Yeah.” So I walk down and she’s trying me on for six, seven different outfits and they’re pinning the sides and I’m like, “You know I’m only here for one week.” She goes, “Oh, no. You’ll be here a little bit longer than that.” And that was the first time I realized, “Oh, this might be a reoccurring thing.”
I was reoccurring for two years until I got an offer to do nine episodes in a row on Friends. And when that happened, Tim was not very happy. So Shawn Shea, fortunately, the stage manager, whispered in my ear that I needed to discuss this with him. So I did, and I said, “I don’t think you realize that I don’t know until Friday night if I’m working on Monday. So I have to hustle to try to get jobs, and if I get a job, you guys always have first right of using me or not for just, ‘Does everybody know what time it is?'” So he goes, “Well, I did not know that.” He’s like, “I’m not going to tell you how to make your decision. I’m just going to tell you this. If you stick around, I’ll make sure I make it up to you, but I’m not going to make your decision. It has to come from your heart.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh.”
So at this time, because I was on Home Improvement, I was able to get a big-time agent. Not that they were getting a dime from Home Improvement, but this was putting me in different places. So I was doing guest star in this and that, and so they were starting to get little bits here and there. Well, Friends would have been a big thing for them and when I told them I was going to pass, they dropped me [laughter].
MT: Oh. Wow. Okay.
DD: So there I was again, no agent. And it was our 100th episode and Entertainment Tonight had hired me to host it. And I remember walking around and I went over to Bruce Ferber and Elliot Shoenman, two of our producer/writers, and I was introducing them and telling them, “This is the table I always sit at all the events because this is the funnest table to be at. They’re so funny.” And they said, “We have a proposition for you, Debbe.” So they turned it around right on camera and they said, “How would you like to be a cast member and actually get your own invitations to People’s Choice Awards?” I was instant tears. I was like, “You heard it right there. They changed their minds. You heard it right here.” So that was huge for me because I felt like what they say in the business, “I’d paid my dues.” I made way more money on Taco Bell commercials than I made on Home Improvement the first few years that’s for sure. But you know what? It’s not always about the money. It’s about the every day, and the happiness that you send every day, and the laughter. And if you can get by on what you’re making, I think that that’s something to be said for how you spend your life.
MT: Do you have a favorite anecdote from the show?
DD: Oh, God. Yes. Okay, well Tim knows that if I laugh too hard, I’ll wet my pants. He would always try, so I would always go to the bathroom even right before Tool Time. But still, there’s this funny thing that happens, I get nervous. Even though I’ve been on the show forever, I still get a little nervous—just seconds before. And one time we were doing a salute to colleges and kids coming back from college, and there was a wall and I was dressed up like a cheerleader. And sometimes in the makeup room, you talk about gross fan mail and stuff and I was discussing this particular letter that I got [laughter]. Because by this time I had met Steve Timmons who was a volleyball player and we were just dating and Tim got behind this wall where nobody can see him. It was a big piece of paper, and I was in front of Tool Time and he got right behind it and his mouth was right to where my head was, so he started whispering the letter that this guy wrote me why I [like?] Steve. Tim, he goes, “You probably are in love with him for his big orange balls. You probably—” And I’m staring at Tool Time?, about to introduce the show, our salute to college. And he starts doing this and so all the people see is this girl standing there who just breaks into— I literally start cry-laughing. I can’t stop him. I can’t hit him because the paper will break, and so I keep walking away. I go, “Sean, I’m going to need a minute,” but oh my gosh.
Tim and I used to do so many things. He’d be on Tool Time. I’d get under the bleachers of where the Tool Time people sit and I would flick little beans or jelly beans or rice or anything at him, and he would not know where it’s coming from. I’d always scare the heck out of him too, because our rooms were across from each other and he’d have to come up the stairs and I’d be on knees and I’d be like, “Rahr” just to scare him.
He and Richard Karn are the ones, and Zach, that I’m very close to still. We all golf together. We all kind of make sure we keep in touch. It sucks where all of sudden you have a family that you see every day for eight years and then you have, “Bye.” Nobody, you don’t see them even for a week or two. It’s hard. It’s really hard to stop that.
MT: Well, now Home and Improvement is streaming on Hulu. Are you excited that a whole new generation gets to see the show?
DD: I did not know that. That’s great. I had no idea, that’s fantastic. Well, I wish we could be one of those shows that did the comeback. Just a little bit, you know. Now because I think it would be so interesting. We don’t have Earl Hindman anymore who played Wilson, but we still are all around and we’re still very active in acting. It would just be so fun, but Disney and Wind Dancer haven’t come to any type of settlement, so, unfortunately, we’ll wait [laughter]. I’m sure it’d be good.
MT: I have a loaded question for you. I just was curious about this, but since you didn’t even know that it’s streaming on Hulu, I was just always curious how are actors compensated for doing a Hulu thing? Something that’s been picked up by one of the streaming networks. Do you guys get a flat fee or—?
DD: I have no idea. I have no idea. I’ll have to ask my agent about that.
MT: Because I’ve always wondered if people actually get paid again for it. I know that was a reason why the writers’ strike happened, but I didn’t know what happened with the actors.
DD: You know what, I wish I had an answer for you. I don’t. Had I known I would’ve tried to look it up or ask somebody. I guess we could Google it [laughter]? How do Hulu actors get compensated? I have no idea, but you want to know. I feel like I’ve made—and I hate to say this — but I feel like I’ve made some good money with Home Improvement and it has been such a staple in kind of forming and branding me to the person that people know and I am so grateful for everything I’ve got and did on that show. I remember Andy toning me down. He’s like, “Seriously, you don’t understand how much better wholesome natural is going to take you. And maybe it was because Pamela went super sexy and super flirty. Who knows? But I can’t even tell you how appreciative I am and how grateful I am for that show to giving me that opportunity. That was my big thing. That was my big break.
Debbe Dunning on her new show
MT: Well, you have a new one now. Tell me about your new show.
DD: Yeah. Yeah. My new show, seriously it’s like it was on Home Improvement. I’m loving every single day I’m at work. I surround myself with the beautiful countryside. I created the show because I golfed with this guy, Patrick Gottsch who owns RFD-TV. And I was at my friend Dan Whitney who is also known as Larry the Cable Guy, his golf tournament. And he put me with Patrick, and his daughter, and her boyfriend, and another couple. And I tell you what, we had such a great day. And when he said to me, “I want you to go home, and I want you to think about a show, and I want to produce it with you.” And I was like, “Oh, if I had a dime for every time I heard that.” It’s like, “Why?” [laughter].
But he came back and he goes, “Listen, I’m going to be leaving. Here’s my card. Remember what I said.” He goes, “And I’m from Omaha. People from Omaha, we keep our word.” And I’m like, “Oh my gosh. He came back.” Usually, it’s like, “Oh, why would I blah, blah, blah? This is all about me.” So this was in June of last year and I just was, “God, just didn’t know. Should I take him to the golf courses with me, should I shed a little light on all the charity events that I’ve chosen, that I feel very special about and I feel could use some more money coming their way or some more publicity so people know about them?” Because we just have so much fun at some of these tournaments, and there’s so much good music.
So I said to him. Somebody goes, “No.” I go, “Okay. I’ll just think about it then.” And so in February of this year, I went to The American which is the large rodeo in Texas. And he’s like, “Why don’t you be a rodeo girl, why don’t you just announce?” I’m like, “If you’re going to be a rodeo person, you have to be real. You have to grow up knowing what rodeo is. You have to have competed and you know everybody’s names. And you have to have some type of history with these people.” He’s like, “Well, think about it.” So we went to the rodeo for the next two days and I saw that’s not for me. I mean I could definitely host and I could do some commentary, but it’s just wasn’t me.
It wasn’t where I felt I had enough background. So we went to the airport and my gate was C8 and his was C6. And we sat next to each other until it was time. And I said, “Pat, if I was to have my dream show, it would be all about these ranches. I would travel the U.S. and I would go from one to another and show America that there’s more than a vacation, a family vacation in Hawaii. There’s more than just the beach or the mountains. There is so much to do.” And boy, he just put his hands on his head and he goes, “I knew you’d come up with something brilliant.”
This was the first time somebody really, really believed it. I saw it on his face. And he goes, “Go home and start writing up your plan, and tell me what you need. I’ll get you the bus, I’ll get you three cameramen . And then I go, “Well, I’m going to need a makeup artist.” And he goes, “You’re not going to need a makeup artist.” I go, “Yes. I am. I’m looking like crap.” He goes, “You look great.” I go, “Okay. Just so you know, I’m going to need a makeup artist and a wardrobe person.” He goes, “I’ll give you a makeup artist.” So I was like, “At least I got half of it.” So I’ve been doing my own wardrobe.
I’ve been doing the scheduling with a buddy of mine named Russell True, who is really one of my favorite people in the whole world. He owns the White Stallion dude ranch out in Arizona. He also is a partner with Ranch De La Osa and a couple others that we filmed. And he was so instrumental and positive and just said, “This is going to be huge. You’ve got to do this.”
The number one thing people said to me is, “How are you going to make it different [laughter]?” I’m like, “Just watch me.” And that’s the perception people have about these dude ranches is you go to one and you get on a horse and you eat. And really, there’s so much. Did you get to see the reel? Did you get to see the sizzle reel?
MT: I did. I did.
DD: Okay, okay, so you see there’s so much to do. There’s just so much to do. The great thing is there’s not a ton of coverage when it comes to the wifi, and so your kids can’t sit there and have their phone in their hand the whole time. They actually have to do things. They have to participate. And when they start to do that, they forget. They forget about the Instagram and the Snapchat, and they start to really, really enjoy living in the moment.
MT: So you’ve always been kind of an outdoor girl?
DD: Oh, yeah. In fact, my childhood friend, this boy that we grew up with and we went to Yosemite every year when we were kids with his family or my family, he said to me, he goes, “You’re still exactly the girl you were, little Tomboy,” he goes, “that I grew up with,” which I like that. I like that I’m 51 years old. I feel so young still. I feel like I’m just still part of it, and I see these kids in school with just their phone in their hand. I’m like, “Man, they’re not living. They got to get out and do it.” So, yes pretty outdoor girl.
MT: Now, when and where can people see your show?
DD: Well, you’re going to have to search because it’s not so easy. It’s on RFD TV, and it’s going to be on tomorrow. And it’s also going to repeat on the Cowboy Channel, which is also carried by RFD. We just launched the Cowboy Channel July 1. So if you go to DIRECTV/AT&T, whatever you got, cable-wise, and you look up those letters, RFD TV, it’ll give you a layout.
I know one thing, people are going to look at dude ranches in a whole new light because it wasn’t popular, and then, all of a sudden, city slickers came out and everybody wanted to go to a dude ranch and live that western cowboy lifestyle. You’re on the top of the hill that overlooks all of the mountain tops. There’s just nothing like it in the world. There’s a lot of things you can do but in your lifetime you should at least a dude ranch once. The problem is, people, visit one dude ranch and they never want to go to another one. They love it so much.
And it’s a pattern that continues to repeat, even with kids in college. Well, on their summer break they don’t want to go home so they go to a dude ranch. They put in their application, they say I really want to work at this dude ranch and they show up, they work there for the two to three months and they fall in love. Not only with the dude ranch lifestyle, but sometimes they fall in love with somebody else there.
I think there’s been nine stories of owners of dude ranches and I sat down with them and they told me the same story. It was college, I was just doing this for my break, fell in love with it. So the people at Cherokee Park, this gal, Christine Prince, she told me that she fell in love with the whole feeling and then she met another wrangler another time that she was volunteering and they fell in love and they decided once they got married they were going to get a dude ranch. So they looked and looked and looked, nothing is like your first experience and that’s the crazy thing.
How she spends her leisure time
MT: Well, when you’re not working, what do you like to do for fun?
DD: Oh my God, I love laundry [laughter].
MT: That always makes everyone’s day.
DD: I love to golf. I love doing spares at the beach. I live in San Diego so there’s all sorts of coastline and there’s certain places in Cartus where the stairs run up and down and there’s six sets. I love doing that. I have a great group of girlfriends, we love to go out and golf or go work out or just hang out, have a beer or four [laughter].
My play time is really doing celebrity golf tournaments. I get to see all the people that I know from golfing and usually, there’s a fantastic concert, there’s Darius, guys from Chicago, The Who, 38 Special, the list goes on. And these guys all get together and jam and you really feel like you have found this diamond because these concerts are once in a lifetime. They never get together again unless they’re all particular at another golf tournament. There’s a really good one, The Annual Scott Medlock-Robby Krieger Invitational for St. Jude Kids. Scotty Krieger is the guitarist for The Doors. That concert is one of the absolute best concerts. And we’re sitting there golfing, we’re at the Gala, we’re buying things that people have donated and all the money’s going to St. Jude’s.
MT: I guess that leads to the next question. What are some charities that are important to you?
DD: Well, I think I covered some of them. My best girlfriend growing up, Candice Johnson, she and I were just always together and just last year she went in for a stomach ache, she has ovarian cancer. She’s one of the most fantastic people, like most people who are fighting for their lives with cancer. I just don’t get it. So that is another huge, huge one that I like to support. It’s just so frustrating because there’s certain things I feel like we’ve done so much for cancer there should be something by now that would help. There should be something right now that we could be over this. There’s so many different types.
MT: There are.
DD: Yeah, we just can’t wait for the one that actually works. A lot of them prolong their life, which, thank God for that. It’s really close to my heart.
I mean, I had friends of mine lose children and I’ve lost a child. I lost a little guy, he had Dandy Walker Malformation and I just said, if there’s anything, anytime I have that I’m not working or spending with my kids I will be at a charity event. I mean, I would rather be at one of these things knowing that I’m helping because there’s nothing worse. There’s nothing worse than losing your child.
MT: Yes. I’m sure that’s everyone’s nightmare. How do you like fans to connect with you?
DD: I think Instagram is probably the best way for me. It’s just @debbedunning, D-E-B-B-E-D-U-N-N-I-N-G. I don’t have an I. I always tell people, “There’s no I in team, there’s no I in Debbe.”
We’ll have to find out about that Hulu. I love that.
MT: Yeah. Yeah. It’s really only been in the last month that it was announced, so it’s brand new.
DD: I can always call you back if I get a check.
MT: Oh, that’s great [laughter]. I hope you do.
DD: I’ll let you know.
Well, then I could also go to my P.O. box and say, “This is from Hulu,” and I’d be like, “Oh, I don’t know what it is but I’ll just cash it.” I would have no idea. Think about it. Home Improvement ended in ’99. That’s a long time. ’91 to ’99, that’s a long time ago. And now I still go to the mailbox and there’s like oh, residual. You’re like, “I can’t believe I still get free money for this.” I mean, for having the time of my life [laughter].
MT: That’s fortunate. You chose the right business for that. And you’ve done very well. I’m very glad for you.
DD: Thank you. Thank you very much. I appreciate that. That’s what my Aunt Diane said today. She’s like, “You have nobody to blame but yourself for your success [laughter].” Thank you. It’s been a fun ride.
MT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
DD: I think that if people watch the show I would be really happy. I would really be appreciative. And if they could share it, that’d be fantastic. I have the link on my Instagram page, so it’s right under my name. I’ve hired a really good group of publicists out of LA that are working around the clock, trying to make sure that this doesn’t fly under the radar, because I think it’s a fantastic travel show and I think people will be very relaxed watching it. And very surprised of all the different things you can do besides just hopping on a horse.
MT: Well, it sounds like a different kind of show that’s out there, and in this case I think different is always good.
DD: Yeah. I’m so excited. I’m so excited that I actually had a vision and it came to fruition. It’s actually we’re doing it and it’s tomorrow. I mean, I sit there [laughter] and I walk around my place, mopping my own floor and this and that, I’m like, “I might not have to do this next year [laughter].”
MT: But you seem to love it anyway, so.
DD: I do. I do. I’m pretty attached. I’m pretty much family person when I’m home. I have a 9-year-old, I have a 17-year-old, and I’ll have a 21 -year-old in December. And seriously, I’ve got elementary, high school, and college covered [laughter].
MT: Back to school’s fun for you, I’m sure.
DD: Yeah. It’s funny. I’m like, “Back to school night? Open house? Okay, here we go again [laughter].” But I’m pretty involved in all three of their different lives. I make sure I go to all the basketball games and with my daughter, we like to tailgate [laughter]. And then I’m sitting in a baby chair with the readalong, so. Third grade. Anyway.
MT: Well, little bit of everything. That’s cool.
DD: Yeah. Yeah. My cup is full. I feel very blessed.
Debbe Dunning can be seen on Debbe Dunning’s Dude Ranch Round-Up on Wednesday nights on RFD TV.