The Belle of Beaumont
debra jo's the one they sing about deep in the heart of texas
Sometimes it pays to go a little out of your way. For instance, if you were driving to Houston, it might pay to take a side trip for about 80 miles to the city of Beaumont. We know the trip is worthwhile because that's where we found Debra Jo Fondren. Beaumont is far enough west so that your best suit can be made by Levi Strauss and far enough south so that a one-syllable word gets stretched into two or three. That's the way Debra Jo talks. As though every sentence is a song. Beaumont isn't what you'd call a slow town, just easygoing. It is, after all, bayou country; more like Louisiana than the Texas the movies bring to mind. The boys in Beaumont grow up to be very big boys and the girls grow up feminine and unaffected. You might say it's a life well-suited to the growing of hair. Otherwise, how do you explain the luxuriant growth that is Debra's? The golden mane took her a full eight years to grow and, to hear Debra talk, it was worth every minute. "To me, a woman's hair is her glory, and my long hair is my tradmark. It's what sets me apart from everyone else. It makes me feel more feminine and I love it when a guy runs his fingers through it." Of course, there's more to do in Beaumont than grow hair. A warm breeze off the Gulf Coast might find Debra on the rifle range. Trap and skeet shooting is one of her passions and she's good at it. "I think I'm as good as any man, and I always beat my boyfriend. In fact, this year we went duckhunting for the first time and I was the only one to bag any. Unfortunately, the bird dog we had wasn't used to working for me and he refused to retrieve them. I guess he expected me to swim out and get them myself." A lot of Debra's life centers on the water: skiing, swimming, deep-sea fishing or just sun-bathing. "Once, some deep-sea-fishing friends left me on a secluded offshore drilling rig and I took off my clothes to get an all-over tan. But the spot I had picked just happened to be a helicopter landing platform. Before I knew what was happening, a chopper was trying to land and blew my clothes off the platform into the water. When the pilot and I stopped laughing, he was nice enough to lend me something to wear." You get the feeling little mishaps like that don't bother Debra Jo. "I'm just an honest, natural person and I like others to be that way with me."
Right now, Debra's still undecided about her future, partly because she hasn't done much traveling. "I've got to see what's out there before I know what I want. The big cities may be a problem for me because I don't like crowds. I'm not what you'd call shy, but if someone does get overly aggressive, I just go right into a shell."
Debra's plan for seeing the world includes some practical experience. "I'd like to get into photography. That seems like it would be the ideal life, just to travel and shoot pictures. First I want to see Hawaii and its beautiful beaches and then I have to go to Africa 'cause that's where the big animals are." Animals are special to Debra -- not the common household variety but the big ones. "I feel very close to large animals, almost as if I'd been one in a previous life. It's as though they know me and I can talk to them as you would talk to another person." The reincarnation theory notwithstanding, it's clear Debra has the kind of gentle personality that would appeal to man or beast. Ant it'll probably help her a lot when, as is inevitable, she leaves Beaumont for the opportunities a bigger city can offer. But she's not likely to lose that small-town charm that has molded her life. "Even if I do eventually have to live in a big city, I'd still like to keep a place in the country. It's important to remember where you came from." Right now, however, there's no rush. Debra's goal is to be "totally happy and satisfied with myself" and she knows that achieving that goal is a lot like growing hair; there's no way you can hurry the process; it just takes time.
Photography by Robert Scott Hooper