IN HER CANARY-YELLOW PANTSUIT AND black top, Dr. Laura Schlessinger looks more like a prosperous suburban mother than a karate black belt. In truth, she is both -- as callers to her radio advice program tend to find out the hard way. A woman with a 3-year-old calls to say she may marry a man who's not sure he wants to be a father. Dr. Laura strikes: "Does he want to sell the kid off to slavery?" (Pow!) "Are you this desperate to get married?" (Thwack!) "Are you nuts?" (Thud.) Another caller hits the canvas.
And the crowd roars. More than 10 million people a week tune in to hear Schlessinger, 49, preach what she calls the three C's: character, courage and conscience. Hers is an advice show, but Dr. Joyce Brothers she's not. Victimology and mollycoddling are out. Values and responsibility are in. Her admirers include Oliver North and William Bennett, who recently sent her an inscribed copy of his "The Moral Compass." Schlessinger's show, carried on more than 300 stations in North America, went national about two years ago. Now only Rush Limbaugh has more listeners, though Dr. Laura is beating him in a few markets. She's also spun off two best sellers, her current call to values, "How Could You Do That?," and 1994's "Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives." (It would have been more, she says, but for her editor's insistence.)
With a Ph.D. in physiology (hence the "Dr.") and a license to practice marital and family therapy, Schlessinger discovered talk radio in 1979 -- as a caller. The host found her so entertaining, he kept her on for 20 minutes, predicting her eventual stardom. Dr. Laura is a talk-radio natural: quick with a joke and even quicker with a blunt assessment of her callers' predicaments. "She's kind of edgy," says Randall Bloomquist, a talk-show columnist for Radio & Records magazine. "That's what people like about her." Besides, he says, her emphasis on responsibility is "an antidote" to a pop-psych movement that many people feel is short on ethics and long on excuses. "It's fun to eavesdrop on these people's problems, and at the same time it's good to get whiners stomped on."
Schlessinger thinks it's about time somebody put her foot down. "I am judgmental," she says proudly. Her moral code includes opposition to premarital sex and abortion, and discouragement of divorce, especially in marriages with children -- although she supports it in cases of abuse, addiction or adultery. (You guessed it -- "the three A's.") Even then, callers are likely to receive a lecture on their role in selecting a poor mate. "Women view men like houses," Schlessinger says. "They look for fixer-uppers." Dr. Laura definitely doesn't prescribe day care: "It's a disaster for kids." When her show went national, its syndicators wanted her to broadcast from 12 to 3 in the afternoon; she insisted on 11 to 2, so as to be home when her son, Deryk, now 10, returned from school. "I work my career around my son. I don't work my son around my career," she says.
Self-righteous? That's the danger, says Bloomquist: "Down the road, people could get tired of her moralizing. Dr. Laura runs the risk of becoming a cartoon of herself, almost this Jerry Falwell type." Unlike Falwell, however, Schlessinger, an observant Jew, doesn't peddle religion or right-wing politics. In fact, she says, one conservative station dropped her because she "spoke to homosexuals as if they were human." Nor does she shrink from her own personal frailties.She's estranged from her mother. She confesses to having slept with a college boyfriend. Her first marriage ended in divorce. And, a few years ago, Schlessinger began suffering panic attacks. Her husband had just had bypass surgery for heart problems, and she was convinced, irrationally, that she, too, was on the verge of keeling over. She sought comfort from her karate instructor. His response? A succinct order to "start kicking." She thought: "That son of a bitch," but now she knows he was right. Sometimes, even Dr. Laura needs a taste of her own medicine.