A behind-the-scenes look at Asheville’s best-known TV celeb.
by Jess McCuan . photos by Rimas Zailskas
The Darcel Grimes you see on TV couldn’t be more dapper. For nearly 30 years now, the WLOS anchor’s wardrobe has been the subject of much speculation and comment. “I cannot imagine the clothes in that woman’s closet,” says Deborah Potter, a longtime WLOS reporter who’s now the PR manager at the Grove Park Inn. “She always looks just absolutely gorgeous.” One local blogger, Petulant Rumblings, posted 42 screen shots of Darcel on camera, arguing that her vast suit collection was lovely but monchromatic. In July, Grimes did a tongue-in-cheek interview about her clothes with Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle, who got this query from a reader: “I have watched Darcel Grimes on WLOS-TV News for about 25 years and, in all that time, she has not worn the same outfit twice. Does she really own all those clothes?” Grimes (who was voted Best Dressed in her high school) responded that she obviously wears outfits more than once. But she tries not to wear the same getup three times in a year. “I think they’re giving me too much credit on the wardrobe,” she told Boyle in an email. “I am the master of mix and match.”
She’s also, at this point, a master of all things Western North Carolina. She’s been a news anchor at Asheville’s ABC affiliate, WLOS, since 1981, covering everything from political rallies and teen pregnancy to lyposuction and teeth whiteners. She started as a nighttime reporter and weekend magazine show host. Now, she co-anchors all three evening newscasts and has a 10pm slot on My 40. Truly, there aren’t many regional topics that Darcel doesn’t know something about.
But at some point, Grimes didn’t even know where Asheville was. In 1981, when the Washington, D.C., native got a call from a WLOS news director, she describes the interaction like this: “He said, ‘How would you like to come to Asheville?’ And I’m like—where?”
She got her first job out of journalism school at a tiny radio station in Jackson, Mississippi. A few months in, Grimes—whose heroes are tough-but-tender TV anchors like Diane Sawyer—knew the medium didn’t suit her. “I couldn’t imagine who I was talking to,” she says of sitting in the sound booth. “I couldn’t feel that I was talking to anyone.”
At a D.C. airport bar in the late ‘70s, she got a lucky break. She ran into a TV producer who told her to send him a clips tape. She hadn’t made a tape, but she pulled one together fast, and a week or two later, landed a reporter job at WTVA in Tupelo, Mississippi. At that moment, she couldn’t have been greener. Her first day, she showed up in a patterned blouse and no makeup, assuming she would get an orientation. Instead, her bosses had her run down a story about reapportionment of the Mississippi legislature. She was dismayed to find that the station had no teleprompter and there was very little tape. The lesson? Among other things, “always take your makeup with you wherever you go,” Grimes says with a grimace. She must not have fumbled too badly. In a week or two, she was a fill-in anchor, and within a month, she anchored the 10 o’clock news.
Grimes got tired of Missisippi and wanted to move closer to her family in D.C. At the time, she was young and single, so she sent her resume far and wide. After a few bites from other stations, she landed in Asheville.
For longtime Western North Carolinians, it’s hard to imagine TV news without Darcel. In its annual Best of WNC poll, Mountain Xpress readers have voted her best local TV reporter for more than a decade. Grimes admits she’s doing fewer community fundraiser type events these days than in the 1980s, but she’s no hermit. People have watched her develop on the air and at public events. They’ve seen her family grow, sending her gifts and letters when her two sons were born. “I’m at CVS, I’m at Sam’s. People see me,” she says. “If somebody comes up to you, you make time. Because they make time for you.”
Grimes may be out and about, but she does lead something of a double life. She and her husband Johnny Lloyd, a real estate investor, live in the swanky Sondley area of Haw Creek. Their sons are 15-year-old Jaron and 21-year-old Johnny, now a student at University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Dial her cell phone and you’ll hear her call herself Darcel Lloyd. When she’s dealing with schoolteachers or parents, she tries to keep her career out of the equation. “My kids deserve to make friendships on their own,” she says. “They don’t need to be the poster child for TV mom.”
Grimes hates cooking. Period. She graduated college before she even tried to cook a meal, and she still despises it. Because she’s at the station until after midnight five days a week, she grits her teeth and cooks for hours on Sundays. (She also frequently packs her son’s lunches at 2am.) “I put gospel music on to soothe the savage beast in me,” she says of her Sundays in the kitchen. She soldiers on because she thinks home-cooked dinners are important, and because her youngest son has a wheat intolerance, so her meals are easier for him to stomach than food out.
WLOS staffers past and present speak with genuine warmth about Grimes. “She’s got a great sense of humor and she’s completely down to earth,” says Frank Kracher, who’s worked at the station on and off since 1998. They also tell funny behind-the-scenes stories about what’s hidden under the news desk. Often, on late-night broadcasts, Grimes trades her high heels for bright white sneakers. Once, during a snowstorm, she wore house slippers. Because she is such a veteran newswoman, they say it’s hard to find anything that ruffles her (though Grimes herself admits that, when she gets nervous, she ducks into the dressing room to do jumping jacks). To her colleagues, though, she is nothing if not a cool hand. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked with another anchor who takes breaking news minute by minute and is able to remain calm like her,” says Julie Fries, the WLOS news director. “She never lets on to the viewers that she may have just heard this 30 seconds ago.”
On air, Grimes seems to glide effortlessly between friendly chatter and no-nonsense earnestness. In long, feature interviews, about topics like divorce or infertility, she comes across as gentle and open, and in person, she has an infectious, girlish giggle. In the newsroom, though, she doesn’t hesitate to take the gloves off. Potter, a WLOS reporter from 1980 to 1987 and later, from 1991 until 2001, says Grimes was never afraid to speak up. “She would question things—like, how do we know this? She would take every word very seriously,” Potter says. “She is one of those anchors who goes through a script with a fine-tooth comb.” Karen Wynne, a News 13 meteorologist and reporter, says that, given Grimes’ bubbly on-air persona, she’s been surprised by Grimes’ seriousness off camera. “She’s friendly, but she’s rather quiet,” Wynne says. “There’s not a lot of idle chit-chat…When she talks, people listen.” Grimes acknowledges this: “If I’m wrong, I will take responsibility,” she says, describing a conflict with a WLOS news director in the early 1980s over her less-than-stellar election night coverage. “But I’m not going to be anybody’s punching bag.”
There are far more African-American women in TV news today than when Grimes started in the late 1970s. That still doesn’t mean it’s easy to land a job. First, a station’s managers have to be open to the idea, Grimes says, and second, they have to gauge how their viewers feel about it. Living in Asheville, she has occasionally been rubbed the wrong way by a comment: A man standing in front of the Asheville Civic Center once said to her, “Darcel, if you was a white girl, I’d drive you crazy,” she recalls. She generally lets comments like those roll off her back.
Occasionally, she has taken a stand on race-related coverage at the station. As the Susan Smith case unfolded in South Carolina in 1994, Grimes did three newscasts that included the first version of Smith’s story: a black man had stolen Smith’s car and kidnapped her two young sons. A few days later, it was revealed that Smith had lied about the black man and drowned her children herself. The WLOS news director at the time wanted to run the corrected version of the story on only one newscast, instead of all four that day. Grimes objected. “I just looked at him and said—okay, so tell me, when I’m out Saturday shopping, you tell me what I am going to say to every older African-American who walks up to me and says, ‘So why didn’t you say the black man didn’t do it?’” she says. According to Grimes, the news director stood up and left the room. A few minutes later, he re-entered and said, “You’re right.”
In TV news, there is simply more emphasis on the way a person looks than in other types of journalism. Grimes doesn’t like to tell anyone her age (“it’s the best-kept secret in Asheville,” she says). Her colleagues and admirers say her age helps her build credibility with viewers, not detract from it. But Grimes is well aware that the TV business can be cutthroat, and producers are always looking for fresh talent.
Viewers get a close-up, high-definition view of Grimes these days, which brings its own challenges. But they often note that Grimes has flawless skin. This may be helped along by good genes, and by the fact that Grimes is diligent about her beauty routine. When she gets home late from the station, she washes her face twice with a Clinique cleanser, removing every last bit of TV makeup. When she goes out and doesn’t have to wear makeup, she doesn’t. (And thus finds it particularly vexing when people want to snap shots of her with their cell phones.) She exercises regularly and tries to keep treats to a minimum (lately, she says, she’s been making too-frequent stops at a TCBY). But for the long haul, she realizes that whether she makes a good anchor or not will not depend on her looks. Instead, it will depend on her continued ability be witty and cool under pressure, letting viewers know that what she’s telling them is accurate and fair. “Looks fade,” she says. “I think you need to put more into perfecting what you’re doing and continuing to grow… If I’m tight on time and I have a choice between going over scripts or going over my makeup, I’m going to go over the scripts.”