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Talking off-air with Delilah, the 'Queen of Sappy Love Songs'

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
February 14, 2012 -- Updated 1503 GMT (2303 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Each week, 8.8 million listeners tune in to Delilah for blunt advice and sappy songs
  • Who she is away from the microphone may surprise people, especially cynics
  • She's a single mother of 12, a devotee to refugees in Ghana and an emu owner
  • Divorced three times, she owns her mistakes and still believes love is everything

Seattle (CNN) -- "Who is on your heart tonight?"

Is it a spouse who died too soon, a recently discovered sister or maybe a weasel of an ex? No matter your situation, there is a song.

For the widow, it might be Garth Brooks' "To Make You Feel My Love." For the long-lost sibling: Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." And for that guy who said he wasn't ready for marriage but -- bam! -- is now marrying someone else? Cue Adele's "Rolling in the Deep," the quintessential "You're so going to miss me, jerk, song," our expert says.

You're tuning into Delilah, the unapologetic and anointed "Queen of Sappy Love Songs."

For five hours a night, seven days a week, she dedicates music for the mushy masses and serves up straight-shooting dish -- "Stop begging for love!" --in about 200 markets.

"Every single night, I try to get people to realize that love is what is most important, and that they need to use every opportunity given them to reach out in love," she says. "Schmaltzy and corny, I know, but it's true."

Her name elicits eye rolls from those who see her as too saccharine or don't buy that she or her callers are for real. But spend a day away from the microphone with Delilah Rene, who turns 52 on Wednesday but was supposed to be born on Valentine's Day (eye-rollers, you can take a moment), and discover this radio personality is about much more than sap.

Thrice-divorced, the single mother of 12 and grandmother of nine-and-counting knows what it is to love and lose -- and love again.

Delilah admits her mistakes and laughs at herself. Her down-to-earth accessibility leads strangers in supermarkets to spill their guts.

She challenges people, including herself, to be bold, think big picture and not lose sight of what matters.

"When I see people wasting their hours doing nothing productive, nothing to contribute to the world, nothing to build relationships, it makes me sad," she says. "Actually, it makes me mad. I want to scream: 'Wake up!' "

Someone should be on your heart tonight.

Out of the box, off the grid

The 49 acres that Delilah calls home sits on a peninsula near Seattle amid towering Douglas-firs and maples. Next to the restored 1908 farmhouse is the even older 600-square-foot bunkhouse she once lived in for six months with three children, a wood stove for heat and no running water.

A nearby stream rushes through a deep ravine, the banks lush with ferns. On the highest point of her property stands a large shrouded-in-white cross. Her horses take shelter from the light rain in a large stable, and down the way, a pig stands outside, his snout buried in mud.

Spotted through a long line of cherry trees is a big feathered symbol of where Delilah's heart truly lies.

Emma the emu was rescued from the local animal shelter that Delilah is convinced has her number on speed dial.

Delilah is many other things. She\'s a mother, grandmother, writer, artist, farmer, cook, seamstress and hair stylist.
Delilah is many other things. She's a mother, grandmother, writer, artist, farmer, cook, seamstress and hair stylist.

She has a habit of taking in the forgotten.

Of her 12 children, ranging in age from 32 to 7, nine are adopted -- four from the foster-care system, one privately and the others from Ghana in West Africa.

Seven kids still live with her, and they, as well as friends, move in and out of the chaotic kitchen on a recent Sunday.

Her 11-year-old son Thomas, a "fruit bat" who also goes by TK, polishes off his third can of mandarin oranges as Penny, a small potbelly pig, forages around the floor. Sammy, 16, is not feeling well and sidles up for a hug from mom. Zack, 12, no fan of mushy love songs, rattles off some of his favorite artists: Eminem, Lil Wayne and 50 Cent.

The family swaps stories about Zack's fearless and ill-fated foibles, such as the time he blew out all the electricity at a resort in Canada or swung from a chandelier while wearing nothing but a diaper on his head and frog boots on his feet.

"How did this become my life," Delilah remembers thinking.

She curls the hair of her baby, Blessing, 7, who gets in trouble every day for talking at school -- just like her mother did.

Delilah's third-grade teacher duct-taped her mouth shut. But in seventh grade, her incessant talking got her noticed by two radio station owners in her hometown of Reedsport, Oregon. Soon, she was sitting behind their station's microphone.

The longest she's ever been off air since then was the three months after her biological daughter, Shaylah, was born. Eleven hours after she gave birth to Zack, she bought a house. Seven hours after that, she was on the air. She kept doing radio, even as she toyed with being premed in college in Eugene, Oregon. After failing chemistry three times, she left school to do what she was already doing.

Unlike her mother, who was told to lip-synch in choir, 17-year-old Shaylah has a golden singing voice. She performs jazz and country, and she wanted to grow up to be black like most of her siblings. When she digested the news that she was destined to look like her mother, she burst into tears.

" 'I want to be beautiful,' " Delilah remembers her daughter sobbing. "I thought, 'I'm glad my kids appreciate the colors of the rainbow, but I think I just got slapped.' "

With fresh eggs fetched from her chickens and bacon from one of her pigs, Delilah gets to work cooking. She makes her own butter, thanks to her dairy cows, and she hopes to live 100% off the grid someday.

Her pond is stocked with well-fed trout. She has a vegetable and herb garden, more than 80 fruit trees, acres of berries and a grape arbor. The hair she harvests from her two goats she'll use to spin, knit and weave.

As if her horses, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and cats aren\'t enough, Delilah has rescued ducks and an emu of all things.
As if her horses, cows, pigs, chickens, dogs and cats aren't enough, Delilah has rescued ducks and an emu of all things.

She knows how to do those things? "No," she answers, matter of factly. "I'm going to learn how."

She says 90% of what's in her home, and most of her clothes, came from second-hand shops. The television isn't hooked up for anything but DVDs. When she hears about people spending hundreds on handbags, she gets a little crazy thinking about how many children could have been fed.

Delilah, who paints to wind down, doesn't sleep much. The only time her home is quiet, she says, is between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. And even then, it's not unusual for her to sleep on 4 inches of her bed as children pile around her.

Refusing to give up

In the evenings, Delilah often holes up in her home studio, taking calls from the 8.8 million listeners who tune in to her show each week. About 100 calls -- of the attempted 55,000-plus per evening -- get answered by her and her staff. She's been known to talk to people for 30 minutes, even if they'll never make it on air, simply because they need an ear.

For those in the throes of sadness, she shares her own lowest moments -- such as the time her husband left her, her family disowned her, she lost her job and thought she was going to lose her home.

"Life will go on, and you'll get past this," she might say. "You can either get bitter or you can get better."

By the phones staff members answer to screen calls, there are resources for those who seem in trouble. On the rare occasions when someone sounds suicidal, they trace numbers and contact police. Much more common, though, are the listeners who thank Delilah, after the fact, for lifting them up during their darkest hour.

"I have the best job in the world," says Donna Trent, Delilah's content manager, who helps field calls and sifts through stories submitted to Delilah by e-mail. "You go home at the end of the day and think, 'I helped touch someone.' "

Delilah deletes interviews if she thinks they might hurt people, and she checks in with callers who are struggling. When a distraught mother phoned to dedicate a song to her children, who were far away and missing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Delilah bought the woman a plane ticket to go find them.

The love crusader gets plenty in return.

Loyal listeners send her holiday cards, offer comfort when she's the one needing it and pepper her with advice -- on everything from how to treat Zack's autism to the best incubators in which to hatch chicken eggs.

She developed her show format in 1984, and hasn't looked back since. One manager in Boston told her that listeners -- even her largely female audience -- didn't want to hear a woman's voice.

"You, who have never had to buy a bra that fits, you're going to tell me what women want?" she remembers saying. "I refused to give up."

She was fired two months later.

When the syndication wheel began to finally turn in 1996, she and her now-executive producer and friend of 22 years, Jane Bulman, were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Rochester, New York, with two kids and a combined salary of $18,000.

"D," as she and many others call Delilah, "knows how to cook Top Ramen six ways to Sunday," Bulman says. "She's a wealthy person now, but she lives so simply. She really does shop at Goodwill."

Does she ever.

For those with nothing

Fortified with a small army of children, Delilah walks into the store.

Some troops are dispatched to grab clothes -- "green tags only," she tells them, indicating items that are half off. Others are assigned to soccer balls, soccer cleats, anything soccer. There are toys for babies to be snagged, and linens to be snatched.

She sometimes visits this place three or four times a week. She knows everyone's names and doles out hugs freely. The shopping sprees are all about the work she does in Ghana, which she first visited in 2004 and returns to several times a year.

She founded the nonprofit Point Hope to be a voice for forgotten children -- both the 500,000 kids she says are stuck in the U.S. foster-care system and the orphans and refugees she's come to love in West Africa.

"When I tell you they have nothing, I mean they have nothing," she says of the refugees, as she works her way along the shoe racks, filling her cart with sneakers of all sizes.

Her organization provides food, education and health care for two refugee camps. Delilah snatches up hospital equipment at auctions, stocks up on essentials such as Band-Aids and buys scrubs for health care workers to wear in clinics.

Before trips to Ghana, which she takes several times a year, Delilah loads up at Goodwill.
Before trips to Ghana, which she takes several times a year, Delilah loads up at Goodwill.

Her living room becomes a holding station for clothes, shoes, toys, books --anything and everything she can bring with her on visits.

Sammy, who arrived from Ghana in August, holds up a pair of black jeans.

"Mom, you want this one?" he calls out.

"There's a big hole in them," she answers.

"That's the style," he tells her.

"That's not the style," she says, rolling her eyes and smiling at her teenage son. "That's ridiculous."

Sammy has sickle-cell anemia, but when he was young, his relatives in Ghana believed the pain he felt was caused by demons. When Delilah first met him, he was in an orphanage, suffering from horrific neglect. She first met daughter Angel, 17, on the Ghana streets, after the girl became homeless at 9. Now she plans to go to medical school.

Thomas, adopted from foster care when he was 2, flies down an aisle, riding a cart full of soccer balls. Shaylah and her friend shop for little girls they'll never meet. Zack struts around in the rainbow suspenders he just found, his pants hiked high.

Bridget, who arrived from Ghana with Sammy, walks into the store as Goodwill employees begin the assembly-line checkout to which they've grown accustomed when Delilah appears. A bit earlier, the 14-year-old slammed her finger in a car door. She melts into her mother's arms.

"Lord Jesus, I pray your hand will be comforted. Take the pain away," Delilah says. And then, after a pause and with her hands on her daughter's cheeks, "Does it hurt too bad to come look at a dress I found for you?" Bridget smiles, and the two race off.

This evening's grand total: 11 piled-high carts ringing in at more than $1,400.

As Delilah moves the troops outdoors with their carts full of bags, the woman at the cash register rubs her sore arm.

Trusting in God's plan

A call on Delilah's cell foreshadows what the night will bring.

"Just keep him comfortable," she says to the person on the other end. "I went through this with my mother who had brain cancer. I just want him comfortable."

Delilah says her parents disowned her at 21, when she told them she was marrying a black man. She never reconciled with her father before he died, but she did make some semblance of peace with her mother before she was gone. Of her three siblings, her older brother died when his small plane went down when Delilah was 25.

So she knows grief. But this loss, which will come within hours, is different.

Jeffrey was her first college love, "my true love when I lived in Eugene in the '70s," she writes in an e-mail two days after his death. "We met, and it was an instant connection. Not a giddy love-at-first-sight thing, but an honest 'I belong with you' type thing."

A lot had happened since they'd been together last -- marriages, divorces, his years with alcohol and drugs. She'd only heard from him once in 30 years. Then, about a year ago, he showed up.

"He was as sweet and fun and funny as he was as a teenager. But he was also a severe and insane alcoholic," she says. He got clean and was repairing burned bridges, when in August he was diagnosed with cancer.

"I missed him for many, many years," she says. "Having him back in my life this year was a true gift from God."

She takes comfort in her faith and is inspired by the Lord every day. She doesn't think this is something she should hide, and it's not something she wields like a weapon against others.

"I have more love in my life than I ever dreamed or imagined," she says. "And I trust that God's plan will unfold perfectly."

What she wants is for everyone to love, let go of their fears, open up and be the best that they can be.

Doing her part, she'll keep the schmaltz and sappy songs coming.

Well, maybe not all the songs. If there's one she could do without, it's "Wind Beneath My Wings."

"Not that I have anything against the song or lovely Bette [Midler], but I've probably played it 3.7 million times in my career," she says. "I'm over it."

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