Debbye Turner Bell (1965–)

aka: Debrah Lynn Turner

Debrah Lynn (Debbye) Turner Bell, who grew up in Jonesboro (Craighead County), was crowned Miss America 1990. After her reign as Miss America, she became a veterinarian, has appeared on national television, and is a motivational speaker on youth-related and Christian topics. She was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 1994.

“Debbye” Turner was born on September 19, 1965, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Gussie Turner and Frederick Turner Jr., who was stationed there in the military. As a child, she set her goal to become a veterinarian but recognized the financial challenges ahead, especially after her parents’ divorce. Living in Jonesboro with her sister, Suzette, and her mother, who became an academic counselor at Arkansas State University (ASU), Turner took a fast food job at age sixteen, moving later to department store clerk and grocery store cashier. She graduated from Jonesboro High School in 1983. In 1986, she graduated cum laude from ASU with a BS in agriculture. Desiring to attend graduate school in order to become a veterinarian, she followed a path toward a scholarship which had begun several years earlier: beauty pageants.

Her first pageant had been Miss Black Teenage World in 1981, in which she was first runner-up. She won the title of Northeast Arkansas Junior Miss that same year and was a semi-finalist in the 1982 Arkansas Junior Miss pageant. In 1983, she won the Jonesboro High School Valentines Sweetheart pageant, after which was approached by the director of the Miss Jonesboro pageant, who encouraged her to enter that competition as her first pageant in the Miss America system. Turner was interested because the Miss America scholarship program was the largest source of scholarships for women in the world. She placed as second- and first runner-up respectively in the Miss Jonesboro pageants of 1983 and 1984.

Turner then won three local pageants—Miss Arkansas State University (1985), Miss White River (1986), and Miss Northeast Arkansas (1987)—through which she went to the Miss Arkansas pageant three times, finishing twice as first runner-up.

She entered graduate school in 1988 as a veterinary student at the University of Missouri at Columbia, thus becoming eligible for the Miss Missouri system. Turner won the Miss Columbia pageant in February of 1989, won the Miss Missouri pageant that summer, and went in September to Atlantic City, where she was crowned Miss America 1990, becoming the first delegate from Missouri to win the title.

After her reign as Miss America, she achieved her goal of becoming a veterinarian by graduating from the University of Missouri in 1991 with a DVM. Since then, she has added other roles, including that of television host on the PBS series, The Gentle Doctor (1995–98), and as a regular guest discussing animal issues on CBS’s The Early Show. She received an Emmy nomination for her own regional program, Show Me St. Louis (1995–2001). Though she does not currently practice veterinary medicine, she continues to carry her message about responsible pet ownership as well as education and personal achievement around the world as a motivational speaker.

In 1998, she was named a Distinguished Alumna of ASU, where she established the Debbye Turner Scholarship and the Gussie Turner Memorial Scholarship in memory of her late mother. She has spoken to more than 500,000 people at hundreds of schools, youth organizations, and college commencement ceremonies, including Auburn, Cornell, and Notre Dame. She has hosted the Miss Missouri, Miss Florida, and Miss Georgia pageants and appeared as a guest on such TV programs as The Late Show with David Letterman, Oprah, and the Today show.

She has served on local, state and national boards, including the Children’s Miracle Network, the National Council on Youth Leadership, and the National Advisory Child Health and Human Development Council, part of the National Institutes of Health. She resides in New York City and has completed the New York Marathon and Los Angeles Marathon. She married Gerald Bell in 2008; the couple has a daughter.

For additional information:
Debbye Turner Bell. (accessed June 28, 2022).

Miss America 1990: A Profile of Success. (accessed June 28, 2022).

Nancy Hendricks
Arkansas State University


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