Camryn Manheim never felt like a Debi

Camryn Manheim never felt like a Debi

Emmy-award winning actress and activist Camryn Manheim shares the story of  how and why she changed her name in this excerpt adapted from her memoir, “Wake Up, I’m Fat!

For many actors, taking on a stage name is a way to distinguish themselves.  I never took a stage name: I just changed my name altogether every few years until I got it right…

For some reason my parents decided to name me Debra.  (To all Debs, Deborahs, Debbies, and Debras, please do not take offense, but this name sucks!)  The hilarious part is that my parents agree that this is an awful name, which begs the question: “Well, then, what the hell were you thinking?”

And so I went through life with this albatross around my neck, a name with no character, no euphony, no style.  Then, lucky me, they made a whole porn series called Debbie Does Dallas. That really helped me through high school.

So it should come as no surprise that, at an early age, each time I went away to summer camp, I would adopt a new name, The first year at Camp Kamoroff I was Chloe.  It was sexy, irreverent, the kind of name they use for perfumes.  Can you imagine dabbing on a little Debra before a date?

The second year at camp, before I was dismissed for bad behavior, I insisted on being called Dusty.  It was rugged, the kind of name that says “Don’t mess with me, or I’ll saddle up, hunt you down, and hog-tie you.”  Well, that’s what it said to me anyway. My parents would send me letters addressed to Debi Manheim and I’d look at the counselor and say, “Never heard of her.”

I went through countless temporary name changes, trying to find the right fit.  And the problem was, until I came up with a name I could really commit to, I couldn’t get anybody to stop calling me Debi.  My parents laughed at all my halfhearted attempts to lose the offending moniker.

But when I graduated from college, about to embark on my new life, I knew this was my one and only chance to reinvent myself for good. After a thorough examination of the options, I had whittled it down to three finalists: Sam, short for Sammy Frances, not Samantha), Sydney, and Camryn.  I just always loved boys’ names.

I flew to England, which is where (my sister) Lisa was living at the time, and spent two weeks before we flew to Tel Aviv.  While in London, the first name I tried on was SamLisa really made an effort, but it was hard.  She’d call out, “Debi…I mean, Sam, I mean, Debi, I mean, Sam…whatever!”…Just when she had it figured out, I decided Sam just wasn’t quite right.  Sam, I am?  No, Sam I am not.

Next up: Sydney.  Now, I really liked Sydney and this name had a good shot of sticking.  Lisa kept trying… night we were in a pub and Lisa had it down.  She was calling me Sydney on the first try every time, and I was really feeling like a SydneySydney, Syd, Sydney Manheim…yes, you can tap your toe to it.  It was all set.

Then Lisa skipped to the loo and I was approached by a handsome bloke drinking a pint of stout.  He came up to me and said, “My name’s Simon, what’s yours?”

I was practically bursting at the opportunity to run my new name up the flagpole.  “Hi, Simon, my name’s Sydney.”

And without so much as a nanosecond’s pause, he said, “No, it’s not.”  Instead of fighting for my new name, I caved immediately.  “You’re right, it’s Debi.”

Lisa returned from the bathroom and said loud enough for the guy to hear, “Hey, Sydney.”

I snapped at her, trying to prevent any further embarrassment.  “My Name’s not Sydney, it’s Debi.”

To which she said, “You sure it’s not Sybil?”

If it was so obvious that I wasn’t a Sydney, then I would just have to scrap the name.

I had one chance left.  We arrived in the “Promised Land” and I had all my hopes riding on Camryn.

Okay, now, we all know that some pretty heavy stuff has happened in the Holy Land…Some people get to the Wailing Wall and have a vision; I heard a voice.

CamrynCamrynCamryn.”  Somebody—a benevolent spirit perhaps—was whispering my new name to me…..I got my sign and that night, my sister, the fabulous artist, sat on the bed, teaching me my new autograph.

When I later arrived at New York University for graduate school, I told all my new friends and classmates that my name was Camryn.  They seemed to believe me, but for months, every time I introduced myself, I looked into their eyes, half expecting them to say “No, it’s not.”  The hard part was convincing myself…It took me a full calendar year before I really owned Camryn.  But once I did, I knew I’d never let it go.

Many thanks to Camryn for permission to reprint this.

Anyone else out there change their name?  Or want to?

About the Author

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz is the co-founder of Nameberry, and co-author with Pamela Redmond of the ten baby naming books acknowledged to have revolutionized American baby naming. You can follow her personally at InstagramTwitter and Facebook. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed New York Review Books Classics novel Talk and a number of other books.