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But a CD on the market, anyway

Roma Downey: No voice of an angel

Roma Downey

October 15, 1999
Web posted at: 3:57 p.m. EST (1957 GMT)

By Donna Freydkin
Reporting for CNN Interactive

(CNN) -- "I have the soul of a singer and do splendidly in the shower," says "Touched by an Angel" angel Roma Downey, "but the world will never hear it. Basically, I'm the only Irish person who can't carry a tune."

She may speak with an appealing Irish lilt, but Downey is the first to admit that when it comes to singing, she's vocally challenged.

So it may surprise fans of Downey, star of an avidly watched CBS show -- "Touched by an Angel" ranked by Nielsen at a near-holy No. 9 last Sunday -- to find that she has released a CD called "Healing Angel." They might assume it's her debut as a singer.

But Downey, a two-time Emmy nominee for her halo-warming work, will assure you she's no TV star-turned-singer, à la Jack Wagner or Natalie Imbruglia. Not even close.

"Healing Angel," released in September by BMG/RCA Victor, is a recording of Downey reciting inspirational meditations from Celtic texts. Her spoken passages are set to gentle compositions by her longtime friend Phil Coulter.

To fans, it's sure to come as a divine complement to the wholesome, moralist character of Downey's popular show. On Sundays at 8 p.m. Eastern, she's seen as the caseworker-angel Monica who, with her heavenly supervisor (Grammy- and Emmy-nominated Della Reese) and some amber down-lighting, sets out to help the misfortunate face life's problems.


Listen to a clip of "Be Thou My Vision"

Audio clip: 235k MPEG-3
Audio clip: 320k WAV
Video clip: 1.9Mb QuickTime

'Blank canvas'

In keeping with the show's family appeal, Downey's CD deals with what she calls the four universal themes of life: family, faith, friendship and love.

The actress, a native of Northern Ireland, says she may have harbored dreams of being a singer but never acted on any such childhood longings. She was content to confine her dramatic skills to the screen, until family friend Coulter approached her about doing an album together. When she reminded him that she can't sing, he urged her to help him select uplifting reflections she could read to his music.

"It was a blank canvas at that point and that's what excited me," says Downey. "We picked the reflections together. He came out of Ireland at various points throughout the year and raided the shelves of my book collection."

"You know, it's very deep in everyone's secret longings, to be a recording star," she says. "I know I used to hold a hairbrush and lip-sync with songs on the radio. So making this album was great fun and allowed me the opportunity to work with a family friend."

And with 15 track titles including "In Perfect Harmony," "Longing" and "My Little Angel," the album offers up a large dose of hearty encouragement.

"It's a personal album for me and people are responding to it," she says.

Downey says "Healing Angel" helped her to deal with issues in her own life. It incorporates the voice of her 3-year-old daughter, Reilly Marie, who on the album recites a prayer that she and Downey say together every night .

"I lost my mother when I was very young and my father when I was in college," Downey says. "So this CD became something of a personal journey for me. The tone of the whole CD is uplifting and inspirational. It's an upper. We have enough downers in the world."

You're the inspiration?

Given the relentlessly inspirational tone of "Touched by an Angel" and "Healing Angel," it would be so easy to deride both the actress and her work as quaint throwbacks to less complex times, attitudes passé in our cynical age. No one, you might assume, could possibly be that nice, that decent, all the time. Especially not in the infamous world of Hollywood.

But Downey is about as pleasant as they get. She has to delay her interview because a babysitter cancelled. She calls, herself -- twice, no less -- to apologize. She even offers to reschedule for a time convenient to CNN.

And once she gets rolling on the subject of her show, which critics like Tom Shales of the Washington Post have blasted, she enthusiastically explains its appeal. If, as Shales wrote, it's "so goody-goody and lovey-dovey," then why, argues Downey, do people respond to it with such fervor? Why do mothers write to the cast members and thank them for putting on a show the whole family can watch? Teachers say they use the show as an educational tool.

After debuting in 1994 to dismal ratings on the Wednesday program schedule, "Touched by an Angel" has thrived in its Sunday night home. "I think people are hungry for things of a spiritual nature," Downey says. "The show hit its stride on a Sunday evening and that's no accident."

A hardbitten industry observer might respectfully note that a more earthly power may be contributing to that timely success: "Touched by an Angel" wings its way into living rooms in a heavenly spot on the show grid: It immediately follows CBS' all-time blockbuster, "60 Minutes."

Neilsen Media Research on October 10 showed the perennially powerful "60 Minutes" to be one of the few shows that beat "Touched by an Angel" in viewership. "60 Minutes" was in fifth place, to the ninth-place showing of Downey's show. In numbers, that means an estimated 11.6 million homes were watching Downey's Monica do her good deeds last Sunday.

As a key to such wide popularity, Downey points out that despite its embrace of faith as the main mechanism of good and its direct references to God, "Touched by an Angel" isn't aligned with any specific religious doctrine.

"We're nondenominational," she says. "I come from Northern Ireland and we've had religious wars for years. I didn't want to create an illusion that my God is better than your God. So our show is a spiritual show, not a religious show."

Now, says Downey, she's trying to reach more listeners with her new CD. She calls it an "upper" that "allows you to take a little time out of your busy routine for a little reflection and soul searching . It reminds you to be grateful for what you have." Yet she knows that it will make its mark with a niche audience.

"I'm not fooling myself," she says. "I don't expect my faith to turn up on the cover of Rolling Stone anytime soon or expect MTV to run the video. But I know there's an audience for it. And our album is sincere and comes from a well-intentioned place."

Speaking of singing

Does Downey -- who started out as an aspiring painter, cut her teeth in European theater and made her mark in the United States as Jacqueline Onassis in the 1991 television miniseries "A Woman Named Jackie" -- ever see herself singing to an audience?

Not likely.

"If you heard me sing," says Downey, "you wouldn't ask me if I would ever sing!

"We have a rolling gag on the show. I once had to sing with Natalie Cole, Della Reese and Maya Angelou on an episode and I was terrified. I was trying to carry a tune and people thought I was trying to be funny. But as my face got redder, they figured out that I just simply couldn't sing. I wasn't trying to be funny!"

Downey's a divorced single mother living in Salt Lake City, where her show is filmed. She says she enjoys reading to her daughter. And that's why the prospect of voicing books on tape appeals to her these days.

"I never say 'never,'" she laughs. "I'd love to do some bedtime stories for kids or that kind of thing. But with the demands of the shooting schedule and balancing the demands of being a single mother, it's a wonder you can squeeze in anything."

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October 7, 1997

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