A model, actress and author, Karen Duffy was born in New York City and raised in Park Ridge, New Jersey. She graduated from University of Colorado with a degree in recreational therapy, and in 1989 she began modeling in television commercials. She became a video jockey for MTV in the early 1990s, going by the name Duff, and went on to win small roles in films such as 1994’s Dumb & Dumber. Most recently in film, Duffy provided the voice for Linda Otter in 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. In 1995, Duff was at the height of her career, serving as the spokesmodel for Revlon and a correspondent for Michael Moore’s The Awful Truth, when she was diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, which often leaves her in excruciating pain. Duffy battles the disease with her sense of humor, as shown in her autobiography Model Patient: My Life As an Incurable Wise-Ass. In 1997, she married John Lambros. They have a son, Jack. She currently writes a weekly column in the New York Daily News and is an editor at large at PBS Metrofocus.
What is your current state of mind?
I have a birthday coming up and a gent I greatly admire told me, “There are two important days in your life, the day you are born and the day you figure out why you were born.” I count myself quite lucky; when I met my son I understood why I was born.
Your greatest extravagance?
I am a bit of a Cheap Pete but I do spend a fortune on books and false moustaches and practical jokes.
Who is your hero?
My Mt. Rushmore of hero worship would include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Marcus Aurelius, Frank Sinatra and Barry White.
What is on your bedside table?
A copy of a daily devotional, rosary beads, a Greek icon of St. John the Baptist, water carafe, pill bottles, bud vase and a stack of books: The Groucho Letters, Pocket Book of Patriotism, and obscure commonplace books of miscellany I find at The Strand and Alibris Books. I love the notebooks from exlibrisanonymous.com; they make journals from old hardbacks. I wind up writing in bed, and after I fell asleep with a sharpie marker and drew all over my husband, I now use colored pencils and keep a sharpener and flashlight in a basket under the bed.
What was your first job?
I was an elf. My father managed shopping malls when I was a kid and my high school job was to dress up in an elf costume and take photos of kids sitting on Santa Claus’ lap. The guy who played Santa is now a parish priest and we are still great friends. He used to pinch the kids who would stay on his lap too long and hold up the line.
Your earliest memory?
My brother Jim is 13 months older than me and I remember doing everything with him. A very early memory is seeing our sister Kate in a bassinet under the Christmas tree. She was a newborn and I was about 20 months old.
Best advice ever received?
It is a mistake to do nothing just because you think you can only do a little.
Long plane rides – do you chat?
NO! Never. I value the quiet time to read and contemplate the marvel of air travel. I practice making an unfriendly puss and wrap my ears in headphones, eyes in shades and screw my features up to read “Do Not Disturb.” My husband is amused at my in-air persona non grata. One time, a lavishly proportioned seatmate kept creeping across the armrest and kept pressing into me. I wrote on a Post It note “kindly keep your arm from my midsection” and adhered it to her sleeve. Her arm was the size of a prosciutto and I don’t like to get squished by strangers.
Where do you go to think?
I get all my best thinking done walking around the city. I love walking around the West Village. Seven generations of Duffys walked this neighborhood. On weekends we jig up to our farm in Litchfield County, CT and I love to walk in the pasture with my pair of jackasses. They were a birthday gift from my husband and son – a pair of used donkeys. They are full brothers and are equine charisma on the hoof.
Your hidden talent?
I have a photogenic memory – not strong enough for photographic, but pretty good.
Qualities you seek in friends?
A sense of humor and longevity. I met my two best girlfriends in primary school. We went to junior high, high school and college together. We moved back to NYC together and lived together until we each got married. Then we bought apartments in the same building.
Your typical day?
Get up, click on NPR and make coffee in this fantastic gizmo from Nespresso. I read the NY papers and make my boy breakfast and walk him to school. Some mornings I go to chapel. I have a very messy office in my home, but I write all over the place. I write letters and e-mails, write or research for my book or column. I usually set meetings for the late afternoon. My son plays hockey and I am producing a TV show about insane sports parents. I have a chronic progressive disease called Neurosarcoidosis so I have to go to doctors and hospital visits every week. I think of myself as a healthy-looking sick person. If I only were productive on days I felt good, I’d never get anything done.
Your perfect day?
Having a chronic illness has taught me quite a bit. My body may be sick but my spirit is pretty happy and optimistic, so I guess it makes up for it in a way. The ancient Greeks defined happiness by leading a productive life. It’s not how much time we have, rather it’s what we do with it. I really love my husband and son. A perfect day is a day spent with them.
Favorite travel destination?
My very generous pal has a gorgeous home in Italy. It has become a summer tradition to visit and I love our time together. You never know who will show up when the dinner bell rings. We have long suppers under the stars, and spend the days reading and swimming and boating. It is heaven.
Best opening in a piece of music?
The enthusiastic explosion of notes from Herb Alpert’s The Lonely Bull.
Favorite film clip?
I love the “Hurray for Captain Spalding” routine in Animal Crackers, and any Marx Brothers or Stooges classic. Whenever I see a baby in one of those movies I think “Wow, that baby probably died of old age already.”
What drives you?
The Emersonian idea that you become what you think about the most. I feel grateful for my parents and siblings, my husband, son and great friends. This motivates me to try to give back. Mother Teresa said “We all can’t do great things, but we can all do small things with great love”.
Most embarrassing moment?
I was working as a VJ host on MTV and while filming a live segment my short wrap skirt unwrapped and rolled down my legs, exposing my knickers to my crew and the audience.
That villa in Italy.
My son Jack greeting me when he walks in the door from hockey practice.
I lost my sense of smell from having a brain injury and six years of chemo. I have a sense memory, so I will ask my husband or son to describe a smell so I can imagine it.
Our lobster clambake at my parents’ beach house on the dunes in New Jersey.
Jameson on the rocks. When we drive up to our farm on Friday nights I like to make a strong drink in a crystal glass and light a fire. I take it up to our bedroom and I like to drink the melted dregs when I wake up the next morning.
What’s your most distinguishing characteristic?
I do see a lot of humor in the world.
What do you deplore in others?
Greed, bad manners, vulgarity.
What’s your motto?
You become what you think about the most.
What would you do if you weren’t doing what you are doing?
I guess if I weren’t so sick, I would travel more. Often the disease and drugs leave me as weak as a kitten. I wish I were healthy enough for bigger adventures.
What question do you wish someone would ask you?
How may we cash this billion-dollar check?
What are you working on?
Editing my new book and producing this new TV show. I’m also working on another book, a collection of essays, and launching a site called Sugarwhistle.com
What are you like?
Um, read the preceding 20 questions, you’ll get a good idea.