Karen Duffy: Courage is model’s makeup

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
October 23, 2000

Karen Duffy is digging around her purse. She isn’t looking for lipstick, mints or a comb. She is looking for morphine.

The raven-haired former MTV veejay suffers from sarcoidosis, an incurable disease that attacks the central nervous system. And this afternoon–after a morning of interviews to promote her book Model Patient: My Life as an Incurable Wise-Ass (Cliff Street/HarperCollins, $24)–Duffy is in pain.

“I’m very lucky,” says Duffy, who will appear on “Politically Incorrect” tonight at 1:06 a.m. on WLS-Channel 7. “Not everyone has the resources to get treatment for this disease, or a support group of friends and family who are with you 100 percent through the long haul. I’m tougher now than I’ve ever been because I have to fight pain all the time.

“But sometimes I feel like I can barely deal with it. Boxers and professional athletes could not imagine what nerve damage does to you. It’s eternal and it never stops. I never get a break.
“But then I have to just suck it up and go on, because I have to use my resources to try to help find a cure for it so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Duffy says that she has about four good days a week where she feels “normal.” The other three are spent resting.

And while her publicist tries to stagger her interviews on this book tour–which kicked off Oct. 3 in New York–it is nonetheless a grueling experience.

Besides, she misses her husband, businessman John Lambros.

“That’s one of the hardest things,” she says. “I don’t like being away from him. He makes me laugh so hard that it sometimes feels like my belly is going to split. He’s just the best.”

In Chicago, Duffy’s day begins at 5 a.m. Her first interview is at 7:15 a.m. on WGN-TV. From there, she is whisked away to Mancow Muller’s radio show at WKQX-FM (101.1), followed by more interviews with WBBM-Channel 2, WGN-Channel 9, and a handful of phoners with publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle.

She is perky, bright and funny. But she is also very tired and would like to squeeze in a short catnap.

For now, she makes the most of her lunch at Bistro 110 just off the Magnificent Mile.

Dressed in a stylish snakeskin leather coat, jeans and a pair of spiky heeled Gucci shoes, Duffy turns heads as she walks to her table.

She gives the menu a glance and bypasses the salads, opting instead for a hardy order of duck, beans and garlic sausage. She munches on bread that is covered with butter, roasted garlic and a touch of salt.

Though she has modeled for Calvin Klein and currently has a contract with Revlon, Duffy insists she is not a girlie girl. She goes to a barber, rather than a trendy New York hair salon, to maintain her stylish short ‘do. And though she’ll indulge in designer footwear, she’ll only purchase those that she can run in, should the need present itself.

The fact is, Duffy is an attractive 39-year-old woman who doesn’t look like she’s dying.

“I certainly have my days where I look like I’m already gone,” she says, laughing.

“But I know what you mean. I have this image of being really carefree and healthy, so I think people sometimes can’t believe that I am ill.

” Getting this disease has changed my life, but I’m not going to stay at home and cry my eyes out. But I had my doubts when I was diagnosed [in 1995].

“When I got sick, I never thought Revlon would stick with me. I was losing my hair from the medication. I was bloated from the steroids I had to take. The only thing I could’ve been a model for was an aftershave commercial. But they said, “Big deal. We hired you for your inner beauty.’ I was like, `Wow, you don’t really sell a lot of that.’ I was fully anticipating that I was going to be let go.”

Not everyone has been as supportive. When Duffy was being made up to do a segment for “Entertainment Tonight,” a manicurist screamed after a chunk of Duffy’s hair fell out. And one editor at a publishing house turned down the manuscript for her book, saying that while he liked it, he didn’t want to invest all that time and money into an author who might die before she could promote it.

“There’s a lot of ignorance, and a lot of people are scared of being sick or being around people who are sick,” Duffy says. “So many well-meaning people have said to me, `Everything happens for a reason. You work too hard.’ No. Announcing videos on TV is a cushy job. I’ve seen hard work. Try wrestling a 250 pound invalid into a bathtub and tell me that’s not more difficult than interviewing rock stars.”

Duffy, who has a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy from the University of Colorado, interned at the University of California at Berkeley, where she taught disabled athletes how to sail and trained skiers for the Special Olympics.

She also did volunteer work at New York’s Village Nursing Home even after landing her MTV gig in 1992.

“I’m as vain as the next person but I’m not obsessed with my looks anymore,” says Duffy. “I’m older now and I have sarcoidosis. I don’t care how much I weigh or what size my jeans are. I feel lucky to be alive.

“I have a chance to help people. And then I get to go home to my husband. Things aren’t so bad.”

***

Duffy’s road to true love

        Before marrying investment banker John Lambros, Karen Duffy dated her share of celebrities. She was fixed up with Richard Gere. Dwight Yoakam sent her 100 roses after their first date. And she went to the Emmys with George Clooney.

But she and Clooney were never anything more than friends, she said.

“I could never fall in love with a man who has a pet pig, and George’s [pig] is disgusting,” she said, laughing. “He’s huge and he smells. He’s the size of a couch and he eats everything. ”

She has much kinder things to say about the heartthrob actor.

“We are still very good friends,” Duffy said. “My husband and I went to his New Year’s Eve party. George has a group of people called `The Boys,’ and my husband is one of them. George invited him out next weekend and John said to me, `How about if I take you for a weekend to the Chateau Marmont [in Los Angeles] and then we can go to George’s Halloween party together.’ This is why I love my husband so much. How cute is that?

“You know, I think a lot of people expected me to end up with a musician or an actor. They associate me most with that whole MTV thing. I think I thought maybe for a second that that would happen, too. But then I met John and we became such good friends first. I think that was the key. Falling in love was easy after that.”


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