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 DallasThat 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?

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14 Responses to “Camryn Manheim never felt like a Debi”

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Nook of Names Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 6:01 am

Interestingly, most of those who disliked or even hated their name had names, like Camryn, which were commonplace and very much had been the popular names at the time of their birth.

Hat’s off to Camryn for being bold enough to change her name; most of us in the West aren’t, even though in many cultures in history and the present time, changing your name as you progress through life is the norm.

This whole issue is something I’m planning to take a closer look at in the New Year.

Nook of Names Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 6:05 am

Argh! Apologies, I just had difficulties posting my comment, and now it’s missing it’s original first paragraph, which should read:

I ran a little survey recently among my friends to see how they felt about their name; more than 50% weren’t happy, some were so-so, but very few actually really liked their name.

IzzyQ Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 8:51 am

I’ve always liked unusual or out-there names. Sometimes I wish I could change my name to Niobe but I just don’t seem like a Niobe.

Lola Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 9:02 am

I’ve been thinking of becoming the Cleo I’ve always been. Lola has been my nickname for 42 years but I’ve always thought my name should have been Cleo. If I do it, it’ll be soon. How practical is it to change your name in your 40’s?
Lola MacK- fits me, but… I don’t know. I wanna be Cleo MacK!

I’ve asked my friends if they like their names (over the last year) and most of the girls are dissatisfied, most of the guys like their names. Like Kathleen wants to be Katharine but Charlie is happy with Charlie. Go figure! 😀

mkat41896 Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 10:32 am

My name is Mary Kathryn, but I go by Kathryn, and I’m seriously considering changing my name to Kathryn Mary… would that be stupid?

CharacterNamer Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 1:10 pm

I don’t think it would be stupid! If you already go by Kathryn, it wouldn’t be hard for people to adapt to your new name.

On another note, my birth name IS Cameron, and it fits me well.

skizzo Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 2:08 pm

Heh, I find Deborah (spelt this way) so much better than Sam, Sydney or Camryn. But that’s just me. But good for her on having the courage to go through with it

rollo Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 5:55 pm

I think the name Deborah is beautiful and Camryn I think you do look like a Debbie!

miloowen Says:

December 20th, 2011 at 6:33 pm

I vastly prefer Deborah to Debra and Dvora to both, and I love Dvora. Cameron I prefer for boys, and I don’t like the spelling Camryn at all. However, I do understand her desire to go from Debi to something she felt suited her. I have never liked my first name nor have I ever felt it suited me. Since I chose my own middle name in 3rd grade — I didn’t have one — it seems likely that I would have chosen a new first name too, and yet I didn’t. Maybe after you publish under your birth name it just seems crazy to reinvent another identity? I do love my Hebrew name — Michal — and wish that I had had the guts to ask people to call me that instead.

catmcroy Says:

December 23rd, 2011 at 2:21 am

@Lola – go for it!!

As for me? Like Camryn I grew up with a name I hated and with nicknames I hated even MORE (Susan and Susie/Suzy/Sue). Basically everytime someone calls me by it, I utterly cringe and wince inside. I used to take foreign language courses in school so I’d have a chance to rename myself for a bit (in grade 5 French, well into my L.M. Montgomery obsession, I tried on Anne for a bit but realized I wasn’t an Anne). And I tried on more – Mercedes, Suzanne (I was in French immersion and this one didn’t fully catch on but at least had Leonard for a soundtrack), I don’t remember what for German.

And then I discovered a local medieval re-enactment group. And I tried on another name and discovered that while I love the name Gwenhwyfar, I didn’t love having it automatically shortened to Gwen. And then in Withycombe, I stumbled across Cateline (13th Century French version of Catherine) and when I started university, I made the transition from Susan to Cat(eline) (and eventually got really tired of having it mangled to kate-lynn) to Cat(herine). And when I look in the mirror and think of myself, I’m Catherine.

bderosia Says:

February 6th, 2012 at 1:18 pm

I never wanted to change my first name because I think it is perfect for my personality, my parents took their time (almost the whole nine months of time) to get agree on it and I think they got it right.

However my parents split up when I was very young and my dad more or less stopped being my dad. So as through my pre-teen years I thought about changing my name to my step-dads last name. Then when I was 16 he and my mom split up and eventhough he tried really hard to still be my dad for about a year he eventually got re-married and only calls me on my birthday now. It’s sad but I’m now glad I didn’t take on his name either. Once again I was back to the “is it possible to pick my own last name or something” state of mind.

I could always use my mothers madien name but since my last name will change when I get married I think I’ll just keep the one my father gave me. But you can bet I will not be hyphenating my last name to my husbands, I will be Mrs.Blank plain and simple.

hmmm…. Says:

September 23rd, 2012 at 3:05 pm

I actually don’t understand not liking your name – I don’t mean this in a critical way, i just mean that i thought since your name is part of your identity that you just don’t think in terms of liking it or not liking it – unless you are bullied or something- i know a friend’s son who was bullied becasue his first name was slightly girlish so he uses his middle name now. i just never really htought in terms of liking or not liking my name growing up. in ways i shouldnt like it bc it is not that common and i am very shy so like to not be noticed. but i like it and i thought people jsut generally like their names because it is jsut that their name….hmmmm i do worry that it has to do with using a name that is too common at th time of birth bc we used a common name for my daughter (although i love it)

maddie_colouis Says:

October 16th, 2012 at 11:32 pm

My birth name is Juliana. But I’m Maddie now. The change happened not because I don’t like my birth name, it’s just that I’ve never really felt like a Juliana.

It didn’t really bother me for several years because I honestly couldn’t come up with a better one… So although I wasn’t very fond of it, I wasn’t trying to make several other names catch through out the years. What I did try was making nicknames catch (from the most random funny ones to ones like Lia – from juLIAna), it didn’t work. People still called me by the ordinary shortened forms of my birth name.

However, when I was about 13 or 14… I started playing RPG games and, at the time, I used to watch a TV show that had a character named Maddie. I loved her name and I was obssessed with her. So I named my RPG character Maddie. Looking back now, reading old stories I wrote years ago, I see that I also unnoticed named characters Maddie. So I guess the name has always been around me, deep down in my mind, waiting for me.

A few of my friends who also played RPG at the time started calling me Maddie, but it didn’t really catch. About 2 people called me that.

Slowly, some other friends started calling me either Maddie, Mad or Mads too. But still today most people call me by my birth name (or shortened forms like Ju or Juju).

It’s been 5 years already and, although most people still call me by my birth name, I have found myself in Maddie. Differently from every other nickname I tried when I was younger, Maddie never lost its appeal to me. I truly feel like I’m Maddie.

I’m from Brazil and Maddie it’s an unusual name there, so maybe that’s the reason it didn’t really catch yet. But I’m in touch with people from all over the world all the time and I always introduce myself as Maddie, because that’s who I really am.

I’m not legally changing my name from Juliana to Maddie, at least not yet. Mainly because I don’t hate my birth name that much to feel uncomfortable with it and also because I don’t think Maddie fits my last name pretty well (Juliana Serette vs. Maddie Serette). But I’m not discarding any options yet, maybe in a few years I’ll feel the need to legally change it. But not right now.

Anyway, the whole “never felt like my birth name” thing reminds of Dianna Agron’s (actress from Glee) story with the name Charlie. Like me, like Camryn, she says she never really felt like a Dianna and that Charlie has always been there somewhere in the back of her mind. To quote her:

“I guess I have never really felt like a Dianna. [..] I didn’t realize it at first, but it seems as if I had taken a liking to the name Charlie for longer than I can remember!

Upon looking back at old school papers, stories I wrote, screenplays, you name it, I have always used the name Charlie as one of the main or ancillary characters. About five years ago, a psychic came up to me as I was walking down the street and said a few things to me, one of them being, “You have someone named Charlie that looks out for you.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, I don’t know anyone by the name of Charlie. Much later, I starting looking at old papers, found the name here and there, and thought of that psychic. I joked to myself that perhaps, I was a man named Charlie in a past life?? Then, in Scotland last year for the holidays, another psychic told me that, “Someone by the name of Charlie holds a very special place in my life.” How could I ignore all of this?”

Haili73 Says:

November 12th, 2012 at 2:11 am

On a similar note, I used to always want a nickname. I’m not sure why, as my name is Michaila Christine and it’s beautiful, but I wanted a nickname. I’ve tried a couple of times to get people to call me Haili, the nickname my parents designated for me when they spelt my name MicHAILa… but the sound’s too different and it never caught on. I tried Caila (like Kayla) but I soon hated how I got confused with all the other Kaylas and Calebs in my class. I didn’t like Mickey at the time, though I do now, since I’m a Disney freak, but if Caila’s any indication, I wanted my name spelt similarly to my real name, and Michey just doesn’t work. I tried spelling my name backwards- Aliachim- Allie, Kimmie, Alia…never caught on. Tried my middle name- Christine, Chrissy, Christy- even less luck. McKay, Lia, (from a misspelling, Michailia that I actually really like as far as misspellings go) Michailey (my brothers’ pet name for me) Caylee… MC…
I was once told I looked like an Alexa. Became obsessed with Alexa and Alexis for a while…

My nicknames now? Matilda (after the character…an inside joke that’s gone really far with a friend of mine to the point he barely remembers my real name) Asoka/Snips (simply because I wanted to call my Star Wars/Clone Wars obsessed friend Skyguy) Michailey, 4’9″er…(my height)…Haili caught on for a week or so, I’m still working on Mickey, though.

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