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Micki Moore: Jewish Southern Belle

Lifestyles Magazine - March 4 2003
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Micki Moore has always been fascinated by the movies. In fact, she says Driving Miss Daisy was a slice of her life.

“Southern women are steel magnolias,” says Ms. Moore, an accomplished actress, broadcaster and author who grew up as one of just a few Jewish Southern belles in Shreveport, Louisiana. “They don’t make huge confrontations. They’re well mannered and well trained in tact and grace. They know how to write thank you notes.”

Not much for a painfully shy young thing to put on a resumé, indeed, but being southern and Jewish gave little Miriam Meisel all the more reason to prove to herself that she could make it in the big world after all. She has come an extraordinarily long way since that day in 1959 when she arrived in Toronto as a timid Southern teenaged bride with not much more than a frilly petticoat and a pair of silk shoes in tow. Not only did she build a solid career in print, on television and on the stage, but she managed to get there all by herself, using incredible drive and determination, a strong will, and an extremely positive disposition.

“I believe there’s talent and there’s opportunity, and somewhere they’re going to collide,” she says. “But without preparation, that opportunity will be missed. I’ve made opportunities happen all my life. It doesn’t happen to me. I make it happen.”

And she certainly has. She hosted CITY-TV’s syndicated daily talk show You’re Beautiful from 1977 to 1989 and spent two seasons as host and associate producer of The W Network’s show Double Duty. She was Flare magazine’s Broadcast Editor for four years in the early 1990s, and her celebrity interviews have been published in several Toronto newspapers and were distributed by the New York Times Syndicate to papers throughout the world.

Also in the ‘90s, she helped viewers sort out issues about family, gender, health and relationships as resident lifestyle expert on Global TV’s News at Noon and CTV’s talk shows Lifetime and The Dini Petty Show. Then she gave those same topics a comical twist in Women Who Talk Too Much and the Microphones That Love Them, a one-woman comedy show she wrote and performed in Toronto last year. The show featured Ms. Moore in eight different personas all based on personal experiences with real people, including a delirious bride who reveals too much about her true motivation for marriage during her wedding speech; a tipsy Bar Mitzvah mother who grabs the microphone during the party and tells her family what she really thinks of them; and, of course, a transplanted southern belle who describes her long, strange trip to the Canadian North.

“Micki is so fearless,” says Women Who Talk Too Much director and television producer Ian Ferguson, who met Ms. Moore when she signed up for an improv class he was teaching at a Toronto theatre and was instantly intrigued. “When I first met her I thought, ‘Here’s a woman who’s a grandmother, who’s going to act on stage for the first time, in a one-woman show which is really difficult, that she wrote herself.’ She’s really, really brave and has tremendous energy.”

Ellie Tesher, Ms. Moore’s former editor at The Toronto Star, calls her friend a woman with tremendous personal courage.

“Micki takes risks,” says Ms. Tesher, the Star’s advice columnist. “She’s never complacent about life. She’s very, very upbeat and positive. She sets herself a goal and goes out and does it. She doesn’t find it overwhelming to try new things. She’s not frightened by change. She has a lot of courage, a lot of moxy.”

Perhaps her perseverance is a product of growing up Jewish in the 1950s in Shreveport, La. - population: 200,000, Jews: 3,000. Her aunt, Gloria Meisel, had left Poland in the 1920s and ended up in Cuba, where she somehow managed to secure U.S. papers for her brother Nathan. With distant cousins living in Texas - 18 miles from Shreveport - Nathan settled there, and shortly thereafter he and Gloria started up Blue Grass Wholesale and Cuban Liquor “even though nobody in the family drinks,” laughs Ms. Moore. Nathan and his wife Esther, whom he met on a return visit to Poland, raised three children - Sophia, Micki and Daniel - and lived out their lives in the small Louisiana town.

“My mother left her entire family to come to Shreveport,” says Ms. Moore. “She knew six languages but English wasn’t one of them. She was in the Deep South where life was centred around home and family, involvement in the community, Dixie and Debutante Balls, and the Society Page. Everyone had to be properly dressed with little white gloves. When the war broke out, her family perished in the Holocaust. Needless to say, it made her adjustment to Shreveport even more difficult.”

Still, the Meisels remained steadfast in their commitment to Judaism. There were two synagogues in town - one Reform and one Conservative - and the Meisels supported them both. Daughter Micki was one of nine students in her confirmation class. Jewish soldiers stationed at the Barksdale Air Force Base always joined the Meisels for meals on Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

Like most young people in Shreveport, though, Ms. Moore left home at 17 to go to university and never came back, except to visit her family. She spent a summer at Cornell University studying theatre and art and then another two and a half years at Ohio State University where she majored in Radio and Television Arts. It was somewhat of an odd choice for a girl like Micki given her bashfulness (“I didn’t speak until I was 28,” she jokes). In fact, she was so petrified of talking that if she wanted to argue with someone she would first write down everything she wanted to say in case she clammed up and forget her lines in the heat of the moment.

“I was so shy that I lived entirely in my head,” says Ms. Moore. “That’s why I turned into an interviewer. I could listen but I didn’t have to say much. Most people like to talk about themselves but I never did. Actually, I became such a good listener that sometimes I would sit on a plane and perfect strangers would tell me things they said they’d never told anyone else. When you think about it, with my shyness and my heavy southern accent it’s a miracle I ended up in this business at all.”

Ms. Moore, who gives her age as “somewhere between Goldie Hawn and Sophia Loren,” met her first husband, a Canadian, at Ohio State University and followed him to Toronto after graduation (they divorced in the early 1970s). Her first job was as a production assistant working on commercials that ran during televised hockey games, and it’s there that she first realized the limitations of her accent.

“When we were counting down to airtime, the cameramen would purposely stop filming just to hear me repeat 5-4-3-2-1 in my southern drawl,” she recalls. “Once I decided to pursue an on-air career, I had to change my voice and my accent just to get work.”

Subsequently, Ms. Moore started elocution lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music so she could sound more Canadian, making her more confident and raring to go. Today there’s not a hint of Shreveport in her voice.

As she got her accent under control, Ms. Moore kept talking and it always paid off. She had been watching an exercise show on a U.S. television station one day and decided to cold call CFTO-TV where she soon convinced a Toronto television producer that Canada needed an exercise show of its own. Even though she admittedly knew nothing about exercising, she ended up with a two-year gig as co-host of CFTO-TV’s live show Free and Easy where she honed her skills as an interviewer.

Ms. Moore quit the show when she was five months pregnant with her first child (“Pregnant women weren’t on TV in those days,” she deadpans.) but kept her eye on the working world. She stayed busy by taking acting classes, doing commercials on and off camera, working on her accent, and thinking of new ways to reinvent herself.

“I was never a person who had things fall in my lap,” says Ms. Moore, who’s now obsessive about exercising and is an avid golfer, tennis player and Pilates enthusiast. “I’d set the wheels in motion. I learned to make 10 phone calls and something would always come out of one of them. Even though I was shy, I was very disciplined.”

At 37, Ms. Moore landed the You’re Beautiful job at CITY-TV, which she says was one of the first television shows geared specifically at “helping women get what they wanted out of life.” Those 12 years shaped her book Making It, which talks to women about such issues as love, sex, career, and family.

With her captivating personality and style, Ms. Moore was surprised when two years into her You’re Beautiful television show her footwear supplier, a trendy boutique department store called Harridge’s, pulled their footwear from under her. She quickly called the president of Town Shoes, which supplied Harridge’s shoe department, to ask why she couldn’t get the shoes anymore but couldn’t get a straight answer. When she ran into Town Shoes’ chairman Leonard Simpson at her tennis club a few days later, she cornered him.

“I spent five minutes talking about shoes and then two hours talking to Leonard,” says Ms. Moore of the beginning of their budding romance.

Much to her dismay, the next day the president of Town Shoes called her to say there was no shoe deal and that was that. Several months later, Leonard approached Ms. Moore with a unique business proposition: “I have a new store opening and we’re trying to get [actress] Barbara Eden, who’s in Toronto, to make an appearance. If we can’t get a real celebrity, can you show up?”

And she did, so today Ms. Moore has Leonard and more shoes than she ever thought one person could own (“I used to have beige, white and black but now I have multicolours,” she laughs). They have been together for 22 years and between them have five children and 11 grandchildren. They eloped in 1990 and were married in a small synagogue in Nice, France, while vacationing with friends and are extremely devoted to each other, their family, and the community. They’re major supporters of United Jewish Appeal and United Way as well as Zareinu Educational Centre of Metropolitan Toronto, a Jewish school for children with Down Syndrome, autism, cerebral palsy and other developmental and physical disabilities. Ms. Moore is a Board Member of Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and was the honorary spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. They reside in Toronto.

Mr. Simpson is perhaps Ms. Moore’s biggest fan. Despite her protests, he came to every one of her performances of Women Who Talk Too Much, waiting for her at the stage door every night and then taking her out to celebrate. The experience “lit a fire under our marriage,” she says. “It changed the routine.”

With the one-woman show behind her, Ms. Moore is taking a bit of a breather. In fact, she says, “it’s the first time I’ve needed to clear my head.” She used her time in Florida this past winter to study Spanish, dance and computers. Now back in Toronto, she teaches a course to Humber College’s comedy students on how to be a TV talk show host, classifies movies for the Ontario Film Review Board, and takes improv classes because “it’s like fun therapy.”

Director Ian Ferguson says Ms. Moore is a rare find in the entertainment world because she’s “intelligent, funny and honourable” with values that “are spot on the money.” He says she has confirmed his belief that you don’t have to be young to make it in the cutthroat business.

“Young performers always act like they’re running out of time,” says Mr. Ferguson. “You talk to a 25-year-old who’s bitter because their career isn’t where it’s supposed to be, or somebody in their 40s who wants to be a performer but thinks they’re too old. I’ve always believed it has nothing to do with age. It’s just totally your desire to do something, and if you want to do something you’re never too old to do it. Micki has more energy than a 20-year-old, and as an actress she has never stopped wanting to be better.”

While she’s not sure what her next big project will be, Ms. Moore knows it’s lurking out there somewhere. But she also knows it won’t fall at her feet. Rather, she says, it’s up to her to go after it.

“I see things and hear things that other people don’t and I store it,” she says. “I keep notes on everything. I have an overworked brain and it never stops, though sometimes I wish it would because it wears me out. Many people have ideas, but it takes a certain tenaciousness and will to make it happen. It’s so easy to give up on what you want to do, but if something strikes me I go for it.”

Suzanne Wintrob
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