To hear Leslie Ezelle on the phone -- and to see her on HGTV's Design Star, which kicks off its sixth season Monday night-- is to encounter an upbeat personality, a self-admitted chatterbox who says she's fun loving and describes her persona as larger than life.
But the upbeat personality went through a down period not long ago, when Ezelle, who lives in Dallas, became abreast cancer patient.
"Breast cancer was actually a cakewalk," Ezelle says. "They caught it early, and I did six months of radiation and then waited for enough time to do my reconstructive surgery. After I started reconstructive surgery, that's where it went downhill. I had infection after infection. I was in the hospital. I really had a tough time."
Her final surgery was Dec. 27 of last year. She says since then she has been A-OK. And the struggle convinced her that she should go for her dream of having her own TV design show.
A 43-year-old former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader, Ezelle loved art and design growing up. Her family didn't have much money and her mother, a painter, had a knack for recycling and reusing things. She also loved clean spaces, which Ezelle says was an influence on her own clutter-free design aesthetic.
Ezelle also loved to dance and perform, which made the cheerleader experience a natural for her, and she pursued acting and dancing after her cheerleading days ended. But she never lost her interest for design, and did a lot of free interior design for friends -- until her mother pushed her to become a professional.
"Actually, she's the one who drove me to the show," Ezelle says, referring to the auditions. "I was in quest of my big dream after breast cancer, [and] what I really wanted was to combine my background of acting and being onstage with design. And I wanted my own design show. And my mom knows this, so she kept telling me, 'You just need to send your stuff to Design Star. See what happens.'"
Unlike Bravo's Top Design, which set contestants up in artificial spaces, Design Star has contestants decorate real rooms, which are then judged by a panel of designers familiar to viewers of home-design shows: Vern Yip and Genevieve Gorder, both veterans of TLC's Trading Spaces as well as their own shows, and Candice Olson, host of HGTV's Candice Tells All.
Like Food Network Star and Oxygen's The Glee Project, Design Star also gives viewers an inside look at what's taken into consideration in casting TV shows, as the contestants are judged on their TV presentation as well as their design skills.
Of course, all this has to be done in a limited amount of time that would be unrealistic on most real-life design jobs -- as Ezelle discovered firsthand.
"Sitting at home, on my comfy little sofa, looking at these people on Design Star, watching 'em and going 'Why is everybody sweating? Why is everybody crying?' -- I totally get it now," she says. "It's because they simply didn't have any time. It's a contest, you know. It's way more challenging than I ever thought it was."
She also found out what it was like to be in front of Design Star's judges, who can seem like totally different people than they do on their own shows. Gorder, often kind of giddy on her own shows, becomes very tough. Yip, a pleasant personality on his own shows, can look surprisingly imperious when he's not pleased by a Design Star contestant's work.
"At the end of the first challenge, I was feeling pretty light and pretty good, and then they start talking," Ezelle says. "Then we're put into this little kind of container room to kind of think things over, and my sweat glands were working overtime. You know [Albert Brooks] in Broadcast News? When he's just pouring sweat? That was me. That part was extremely jarring."
Ezelle says that although she pushes clutter-free design, fighting clutter is still a challenge for her at home, especially since she has four kids -- 11-year-old twin boys, as well as 13-year-old and 9-year-old daughters. She urges the children to purge their belongings as often as possible, with a simple test: If you wouldn't take an item to college with you, there's little reason to hang onto it now.
"We're the real-life Modern Family," she says. "I'm in a same-sex relationship, and we're a blended family. My little girl was born in China, and her little boys are quite the handful. So it's a pretty entertaining household. Plus we have a petting zoo. We've got so many living things in this house, it's crazy. Three dogs, a couple of kitties, turtles, hamsters. I'm doing a major overhaul of this space so we can make room for the growing boys."
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872