A Thanksgiving Story: La Verne’s Abby Duncan Has An Iron Will, a Steel-Hard Body, and a Heart of Gold

November 27, 2009
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Abby has been featured in many magazine spreads, including this one in Spanish.

Abby has been featured in many magazine spreads, including this one in Spanish.

On Thanksgiving eve, Romanian-born Abby Duncan — make-up artist, hair stylist, former fitness competitor and  champion, wife and mother – wasn’t arranging the fine china in preparation for the big Turkey Day feast; she was racing to Los Angeles International Airport to pick up her National Guardsman husband Joseph Duncan and take him back to their La Verne home.

In the last year, she and their two-year-old son Alden have seen husband, dad and soldier only once. A major in the National Guard, Joseph is returning to the states after a year’s duty in Kosovo.

“It’s hard, a lot of families don’t make it,” said Abby, referring to the long separations active military families often have to endure. “The woman’s been in the driver’s seat the whole time and the kids go to them for everything, and all of a sudden the husband comes back and wants everything just the way it was. That’s why the divorce rate is so high.”

Abby said her husband’s first tour of duty in Cuba in 2005 was tough on her. The second assignment went better, thanks to modern communications technology.

“I don’t know what we would have done without Skype (voice and video email where you can talk for free or little charge to someone half way around the world and even given them a video kiss goodnight),” she said.

Fortunately, Abby is independent and steel-minded. In addition to being a hairdresser and make-up stylist working out of her home-based La Verne salon, she has assiduously worked out at LA Fitness over the years. When some friends dared her to enter a regional National Physique Committee competition, she took them on it. She won her first competition, and soon her petite, lithe and strong body was making the rounds from Miami, to New York, to Chicago, the darling of photographers on a non-stop competitive circuit that she rode from 2002 to 2005. GNC was one of her sponsors.

Spray tan helps accentuate Abby's assets.

Spray tan helps accentuate Abby's assets.

Heaven forbid you were one of her regular customers in need of a bob or a wave. Most of her customers were loyal, however, and rooted her on as she gained more national acclaim.

Nonetheless, she wrestled with the extreme demands of her sport. To get the eye-popping body, the judges’ votes and the public’s adulation requires almost round-the-clock dedication. Consequently, life’s balancing wheel can quickly get out of joint.

“One of the bad things about the sport,” Abby said frankly, “is it’s a selfish sport. It’s all about you. When you commit to a show, it can take anywhere from between 12 and 16 weeks to prepare.”

A pimple on your forehead can become a national disaster.

“Your diet becomes very restrictive,” she added. “Knowing how to manipulate your diet and when to cut your water and sodium so your muscles will pop and be at their competiton peak is a science.”

Leading up to competitions, she would perform two hours of cardio a day, not to mention hours of weight training. There was time for little else. “You lose friends along the way,” she ruefully admitted.

As a magazine cover girl on countless fitness magazines, she found it hard to hide her extracurricular activities from her old-school, old-country parents who brought her to the United States from Romania when she was five-years-old.

“My dad definitely wasn’t thrilled,” Abby said. Abby’s father is the pastor of Mt. Zion Romanian Pentecostal Church in Kirkland, Wash.

With her first pregnancy and the evolving move to mother and parenthood, her perspective changed, however. She wanted the spotlight on her amazing son and her warrior husband. She had her 15 minutes of fame.

“Quite honestly, there’s an ugly side to the fitness competitions,” Abby said. “It’s not something I was willing to bring my son around.

“There are perverted photographers and other hangers-on, not unlike the Hollywood scene. “Sadly, a lot of girls fall for empty promises,” she said, touching on the sport’s darker undertones.

Competitors are judged on fitness, strength, coordination, flexibility, overall appearance and several other criteria. Abby, in this photo, is second from left.

Competitors are judged on fitness, strength, coordination, flexibility, overall appearance and several other criteria. Abby, in this photo, is second from left.

Her new baby was her cue to leave. “I left at the top,” she said. “I have no regrets. I did a lot in a short time. It’s a period of my life that I’m proud of. It was just my time to move on.”

She’s still in the glamour biz, only now she is making others glamorous by styling and coloring their hair, and applying permanent makeup to their lips, eyelids and eyebrows.

“The makeup is better, and the techniques have gotten better,” said Abby, working with two clients during the interview. “Permanent makeup saves time and hassle when you’re on the go, and it’s nice to look decent when you wake up in the morning. You’re never caught without your makeup.”

There’s still another side to this amazing woman. Although she has never been back to her native Romania, she sends bi-monthly relief packages of food and everyday necessities to her former countrymen, contacts she helped establish through her father’s church.

“Conditions are horrible there,” she recounted. “People here can’t comprehend the devastation in Romania. To stimulate the economy, (Nicolae) Ceauşescu (the former dictator before he was toppled) offered incentives for women to keep having babies. There was no birth control, and it never stopped. Once he fell, they were still having kids. Many of the children were mentally challenged, and just abandoned in most cases. They were simply dropped off in orphanages, never to be heard from again.

“They had absolutely no human contact. Some were old as four, and their only source of food was a bottle. They didn’t even know how to eat.”

In response, Abby has contacted a number of families and sent them such everyday basics as Tylenol, toothpaste, tooth brushes, shaving cream and cue tips.

“People still die there from common colds,” she said. “They have no means to treat themselves. Many are farmers. It’s so sad. One lady I talk to about every two weeks always has a cold. She’s always wearing a hat and is bundled in jackets. They have no heat, and the weather there is brutal this time of year.”

Abby faced dozens of competitors at both regional and national events.

Abby faced dozens of competitors at both regional and national events.

When she learns that a care package has reached her former country, she’s ecstatic. “There’s not a better feeling in the world,” Abby said. “They cry over things we don’t even think about.”

Abby said she is grateful to live in La Verne. After moving from Romania to Garden Grove, Calif., the family moved again to Seattle where she was raised and went to high school. As soon as she graduated, she returned to the warmer, drier climes of Southern California to attend beauty school in Fullerton. She met Joseph at a gym, and they married inside a year, living in Fullerton before sinking roots in La Verne.

“I always missed the California weather, the beaches, the desert,” she said, defending her escape from the great Northwest. “I’m a jeans and flip-flops type of girl.”

About living in La Verne, she said she pinches herself daily.

“You don’t find little towns like this anymore,” she said. “It’s a Mayberry. It’s the whole feel of being able to walk next door and borrow a cup of sugar. My neighbors are so cool. You don’t find little towns like this anymore.”

And you don’t find people like Abby Duncan every day. She’s had a great past, and is excited about the future, even traveling to Romania some day.

But right now, she and Alden have other things on their Thanksgiving plate – like get reacquainted with husband, father and an American soldier who has been sacrificing for all of us, so we can enjoy the holidays in peace and harmony.

To learn more about donating to the Romanian relief effort, called Beyond Boundaries, contact the Mt. Zion Romanian Pentecostal Churct website, www.muntelesion.com.



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