Mr. and Mrs. America
The Emerys, doing good with Glam
At the top of a spiral staircase, on the second floor of the sprawling Sobre Vista home where John and Deborah Emery now live on a shoulder of Sonoma Mountain, there hangs a voluptuous nude painting of a gorgeous woman sprawled on a bed, with lavish breasts and an expression of sensual satisfaction.
The woman is a former Miss Oakland, a former model and beauty pageant contestant.
The woman is not Deborah Emery.
It’s her mother.
Standing there with Deborah, looking at her mother au naturel, is an interesting moment.
You may wonder what kind of woman displays a nude picture of her mother in public view. There is, you can’t help notice as Deborah stands nearby, a striking family resemblance. Is the painting, in fact, a metaphoric mirror? Is it a point of pride?
Or is it just Mom, and she happens to be nude?
As you linger, Deborah’s attention has wandered somewhere else, she’s not focused on the painting, it’s no big deal. It is just her late, beloved mom, on the wall, naked.
But in that moment an insight is unwrapped, a window opens on Deborah who, as anyone knows, from across the street, from across the room, from any angle, is more than casually invested in beauty. And her mom inhabits the same world. And beauty is as beauty does. And they’re both beautiful.
Deborah and John are two of the more luminously glamorous fixtures of the Sonoma Valley, they are everywhere, at every event, and Deborah is always dressed to the teeth. Some people suggest that’s because she’s a walking advertisement for John’s skills as a prominent plastic surgeon. That’s understandable, perhaps, given her ageless beauty, but it misses the reality of who Deborah and John are and the fact that their social omnipresence is most often connected to their support for countless local causes.
It’s true they like to do some power partying. But—and there is no other way to put this, once you know them—they are kind and caring, they have a lot, and they want to give some of it back.
They are, we could say, doing a lot of good with glam. And, as we will learn in a bit, it would not be inappropriate to call them Mr. and Mrs. America, even though John was born in Montreal.
Deborah grew up dirt poor in Oakland—“We had no money. Nothing.”—and her career path led through the Oakland Raiders where, straight out of Skyline High School, she became a Raiderette.
If you’re from Oakland and you’re poor, being a Raiderette is not a big deal, it’s huge. And for some pretty 18-year-olds it could be the far point of their personal horizons. But underneath the blond hair and the pom-poms there was also a healthy brain and a very practical, penetrating mind.
So Deborah stayed simultaneously on the school path, first at Laney JC, then at UC Berkeley, where she studied exercise physiology. But she also began exploring a parallel and more lucrative line of work.
The Raiderette gig opened the door to modeling opportunities and then TV commercials and suddenly an unexpected new career took off. Before long she was doing commercials for Coca-Cola, and Wrigley’s chewing gum and Miller beer and Cadillac. She did fashion ads and then TV dramas, including The Streets of San Francisco. She even appeared in one of America’s most iconic horror films, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and yes, she is that old).
“I did swim stuff and lingerie,” she reflects. “I advertised everything from glamour right down to hands washing a toilet with Clorox. I had a great career, I made a living doing it, worked in LA. It treated me well.”
Along the way Deborah got married, had a daughter, and kept building her career, but the marriage wasn’t working, her husband was abusive and she wanted out, even though it took her eight years to learn how to leave.
When Deborah was 19 and newly married, her mother and a few other women who helped steer her career had a heart-to-heart with the emerging model.
“They said, ‘We love everything about you, but you look like you’ve been out drinking all night. You’ve got bags under your eyes.’ Which was weird because I didn’t drink. So they sent me to see this up-and-coming plastic surgeon in San Francisco; he was Canadian, he’d just arrived on the scene. And when I saw him, I’ll never forget it, I said, wooooo, that is one damn good-looking man.”
And that was John.
She was married and still a kid, and she was afraid of the surgery, didn’t want to do it.
“But my agent said, ‘You have to do it or you’re never going to make money in this business.’ So I did it, but I was the worst patient he ever had.”
Eight years later, no longer a kid but still in a tenuous marriage, Deborah went back to see John because of a breathing problem. He was separated from his wife and Deborah later told a mutual friend, “I got a vibe from that Dr. Emery.” The rest is romantic history.
Deborah left her abusive marriage, started dating John, and then, when he said he wanted to marry her, “right now,” she confronted a painful truth.
“The thought that a man like that could be interested in me…I was afraid. Here I was, a top model, making big old money, I got all the bookings, and I had no confidence.”
It took another four years before the knot was tied and a lot more time after that before the gorgeous girl from Oakland came to terms with the frightened little girl inside.
And she did it by entering a beauty pageant with her daughter.
“I was walking down the street with my daughter and somebody said to us, ‘Hey, you guys ought to do the mother-daughter beauty pageant, you and your daughter can do it together.’ I thought about it, it sounded like it could be fun, so we entered, and we won California, but then we got to the nationals and it was just dog-eat-dog. I mean, everything bad you’ve ever heard about pageants? It was that and then some. The backstabbing, the corruption. There were mothers and daughters fighting like dogs and cats in the back. We didn’t know what a pageant was, we were just in it for fun.”
Deborah and Tami got first runner-up and, Deborah claims, but for the corruption of one judge, they would have come in first.
But the pageant experience touched the raw nerve of Deborah’s insecurity. “Even though I was doing well in the business, you know, you get to thinking that you’re just hired for your face, that no one knows you really, and whatever TV show or commercial you’re doing, that’s not really you. It’s you doing the role. And I never really had a lot of self-confidence. In fact, I was sort of surprised I got jobs, even though I was the top in the agency.”
Winning a pageant became a challenge and a tool for prying Deborah out of her insecurity. She tried for six years to get into another major pageant. “But I was too “modelly” and not real, I had to find myself. So I got this minister to help me communicate onstage. She said you don’t have to be the valedictorian. Just come from love and who you are, just be real. I worked with her for six months, answering questions, who are you , who are you. And that helped me, it was a growth process.”
Deborah entered the Mrs. United States pageant, competing for California. At the same time the tabloid TV show, Hard Copy, had picked up on comments John and Deborah had made in the media defending plastic surgery, and they wanted to do an exposé. The Emerys said they wouldn’t cooperate, but the show’s camera crew came to the pageant and shot every segment Deborah was in. “They just zeroed in on me, and I said, OK, I can make this good or I can make this bad.”
Deborah, wearing “this gorgeous Bob Mackie dress” decided to play to the cameras, discovered the power of free advertising, and ended up with airtime she’s convinced helped her win.
And the plastic surgery “exposé” turned into a conversation about the variety of tools women use to look beautiful. “Some people were saying women shouldn’t do plastic surgery, it’s not natural. But here they are taping and pulling and doing everything they can to look better. But plastic surgery’s not OK?”
Which leads to the threshold of the obvious question. How much work has Deborah Emery actually had done? She smiles. There is a silence. She smiles again. Then she says, “I’m not going to tell you.” More silence. Then she says, “I got my eyelids done.”
It may be only after you meet her without her makeup that her flawless face doesn’t demand the question. And she is so genuinely, just plain nice, that the question becomes at once mean-spirited and irrelevant.
And besides, when John began his practice, cosmetic surgery wasn’t on the menu.
“The way I trained was very high on ethics and high standards,” John explains. “Nobody advertised, nobody went on TV shows. My background was all in reconstructive work, in England and Scotland. When I came to San Francisco, I mainly did reconstructive surgery, at first. I did very little cosmetic surgery. But I quickly got into that, this was a whole new world for me, cosmetic surgery, but it’s a very demanding side, much tougher than reconstructive, because people are hoping they’re going to get something more than they’re going to get. It wasn’t just trying to fix something.”
John adds, “I can’t draw, I can’t do art, but when it comes to surgery I seem to be able to do it, to produce a natural look. I guess it’s a gift, like being a musician or a painter.”
As successful as his San Francisco practice became, John Emery has never been defined simply by his surgery. He is a vitally active man with an enormous list of physical achievements, starting with a 1964 Olympic gold medal as a member of the Canadian four-man bobsled team. His brother Victor, who shared in the victory, spearheaded formation of the team after landing a chance ride on the Spanish bobsled team in the 1956 Winter Olympics with legendary auto racing driver Alfonso de Portago.
The Emery brothers are now enshrined in Canadian Olympic annals, but John has never stopped facing physical challenges.
He is a pilot, he and Deborah have both competed in the Tevis Cup, a 100-mile-in-one-day horse race over the Sierra. He’s run the Boston Marathon, swum both the Escape from Alcatraz and across San Francisco Bay. He’s done the Hawaii Ironman, done marathons on skis, ridden a double century bike ride (“I forgot to take water with me, I got a little dehydrated”), and has run the Dipsea and the Double Dipsea, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach and back over the spine of Mt. Tamalpais.
He and Deborah are passionate about horses, they’ve bred, raised, and shown Arabians for years, and moved to a 360-acre Sonoma estate primarily to give their horses room. Riding, says Deborah, is the one thing she does better than John. “I used to do a lot of 50 milers and I had a very, very fast horse. John’s horse would poop out on the trail. I’d say, ‘Honey, I can’t wait any longer. You know, I have to go.’ We had fun doing that.”
They sold the ranch to downsize a year ago, but still have about a dozen horses in area stables.
They’ve both been active and honored in nonprofit causes. Deborah was twice president of the board of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley. And in 2002 she even ran, unsuccessfully, for the Sonoma City Council.
For John’s 80th birthday, they went heliskiing in British Columbia. You saw that right. John is eight decades old. And Deborah? There’s the coy smile again. “You can do the math,” she says.
Let’s just call them both ageless.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA