HERE ARE THE THINGS CRYSTAL BERNARD misses about Texas: The house in Spring where she grew up; digging dirt in her back yard; her grandmother, who lives in Houston; Christmases; and the weather. It was muggy—she misses the muggy weather. Otherwise, she doesn’t remember much about the place, even though she spent half her life there. But lounging around one October afternoon in her dressing room on the set of her hit sitcom, Wings, she is trying to jog her memory by thumbing through an issue of Texas Monthly. She first stares at the cover, which shows three ranching types, one of whom is a woman. “I think I recognize her,” Crystal announces hopefully, but then decides she doesn’t. Luminous and tiny, the 35-year-old flips from page to page before stopping cold on an ad for LeAnn Rimes’s chart-topping country CD, Blue. Crystal glowers at the blond prodigy, who grew up in Garland, and grouses, “She’s in everything.”
Crystal, who recently cut her own country CD, The Girl Next Door (River North), could do without another reminder of Rimes’s popularity—especially today. This is an “add day,” when radio stations nationwide decide which songs make it onto each of their high-rotation playlists. If Crystal’s sentimental tune “Have We Forgotten What Love Is” doesn’t measure up to new songs by Rimes and other “new country” sensations, it—and she—will be ignored. “When you get an ‘add,’ that means they add you and take someone off,” she explains. “And they have to get rid of Reba or someone, so it’s really hard.” To improve her odds, Crystal has been visiting radio stations in three cities a day. When she hasn’t been plugging the CD—which features several you-dumped-me ditties along with sudsy songs she co-wrote—she has been back in Hollywood running her music video production company or shooting Wings, which is now in its eighth seasonon NBC. The pace of life has her frazzled. “There’s just so much on me that I go and do things like drink way too much coffee and smoke cigars,” she says, reaching into her purse to produce a dainty cigarillo.
It’s truly odd to watch Crystal Bernard puff on a cigar, even if it is a girlish one. The sight just doesn’t jibe with the image of her character on Wings, Helen Chappel Hackett. Sunny Helen is the childhood friend of Joe (Tim Daly) and Brian Hackett (Steven Weber), brothers who own a one-plane airline on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts. Though she dreamed of being a world-class cellist, Helen is pretty much content to run the airport’s lunch counter. Two seasons ago, she fulfilled her other great dream—to marry Joe; this season she will finally consider having “baby sex” with him. Such is also the ethos of The Girl Next Door, on which Crystal as the girl warbles longingly for commitment, mostly to a perfidious cad who bolts for another woman. Unswervingly wholesome, she sings, “Frankly dear, I don’t give a …” but just can’t bring herself to say “damn.”
The real Crystal, however, isn’t entirely this confection. “Boy, she says words she can’t say on TV,” says pop star Peter Cetera, who invited her to sing with him on his hit “Forever Tonight.” Furthermore, unlike Helen, Crystal is far too ambitious to sling hash. At age eighteen, as a sophomore in college, she fled her life in Texas, a place of limited possibilities for a girl on the make. “I just couldn’t stay there anymore,” she says. “School was easy for me. I was itching for a career. I wanted stimuli.” Her determined ambition, in fact, makes a mockery of Wings’ idealized domesticity. Not only does Crystal not want babies; she says she has never even fallen in love. “I’m too busy,” she explains. “Crystal expects a lot from a man,” says her mother, Gaylon Bernard. “She used to tell me, ‘You know, Mama, there’s a lot of great guys out there, but there’s something wrong with every one of ’em.’” Indeed, while Crystal divides her time among an adoring gaggle of what she calls “guy friends,” she seems more consultant than girlfriend to them. “I’ll see something in a man that he’s not doin’ for himself career-wise,” she reports, “and I try to nourish that.”
What Crystal and Helen do have in common is a comic appeal. “She’s about as funny as she is on TV,” observes Cetera. Gaylon Bernard recalls that whenever her other daughters were getting attention, Crystal would “do something to try to take the show, like turn upside down or lift her dress up and stick out her bottom.” She doesn’t stick out her bottom on Wings, but she does use her body to good effect, with much flailing of the hands, the occasional crying jag, and the rare leap into some male’s arms. Her trump card is a sweet, jabby drawl that goes up and down, up and down. Never mind that the accent is a bit illogical: Helen supposedly lived in New England until she was ten, then moved with her family to Texas and returned to Nantucket as an adult, yet her sister Casey has no accent whatsoever. But even though Crystal says she can curb the twang “to a certain extent,” her bosses don’t want her to. “When we write, we hear her rhythms in our head,” says Wings executive producer Howard Gewirtz. “Crystal’s accent is humorous because she has such a great delivery. She just knows how to put a spin on a line that makes it funny.”
Most interesting, though, is how she achieves girl-next-door likability despite her copious good looks. Wings producers quite shrewdly made Helen a former fat girl who shed 68 pounds just in time for the series premiere. Trim for nearly a decade now, she recalls being reviled as “Helen, Helen, the watermelon” by nasty classmates. Likewise, the girl next door on Crystal’s CD is invariably humiliated; not once does she get to jilt anyone