Christina Cheakalos
October 07, 2002 12:00 PM

At 7:30 on a Thursday night, 18-year-old Stacey calls The Delilah Show to dedicate a song to her 26-year-old boyfriend Chad. “He’s away dealing with his past,” she says. Asks the host: “Is he dealing with his past in a place where he has to eat food he doesn’t like and wear clothes he wouldn’t choose?” “Yes,” says Stacey. Her beloved is behind bars.

Many talk-jocks would scold, scoff or psychoanalyze. Delilah, 42, who uses only her first name, has earned a place as America’s No. 1 nighttime radio emcee with a kinder approach. After all, she has suffered her own share of self-inflicted misery over the years, ranging from addiction to anorexia. Newly divorced, she is now experiencing what she wryly calls “the challenges” of rearing eight children—four adopted and one a foster child. Delilah has never harangued her listeners and isn’t about to start. Instead, she offers compassion, humor and a tune—at times with an impish edge: For a caller whose beau had a 23-lb. benign tumor removed, she played Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me.”

“This isn’t like Dr. Laura, where people get lectured,” says musician John Tesh. “They feel comfortable talking to her about personal things.” Tesh, Madonna and other brand-name guests have done spots, but the real stars of this Seattle-based, nationally syndicated program are its 7 million listeners. About 100,000 call in during each five-hour show, and 30 make it onto the air. Whether the caller is celebrating a birthday or, like the Manhattan nurse who dialed in after last year’s terrorist attacks, grappling with tragedy, Delilah offers soothing words and musical commentary. “Mostly, though,” she says, “I just listen.”

Even when callers give her an earful. “Some have said, ‘You preach about the sanctity of marriage and then you do this,'” says Delilah of her decision to divorce Doug Ortega, her husband of nine years and the biological father of two of their children. “I don’t pretend to have a perfect life,” she tells listeners. “I just do the best I can.”

She learned about family troubles early. A native of Reedsport, Ore., Delilah Luke was the second of four children. Her engineer father, Dick, drank, and her homemaker mother, Wilma, “was the classic codependent,” she says. (Both are deceased.) Wild but smart, Delilah won a speech contest in junior high by reciting the Gettysburg Address. Wowed by her velvet voice, the judges, who owned a radio station, gave her a part-time job reporting school news. She was hooked.

After her father kicked her out of the house the day of her high school graduation for coming home an hour late, Delilah moved to Eugene, Ore., and went to community college on a scholarship. But she left for Seattle at 21 to become a full-time deejay—with a puckish nod to her folks. “She was writing letters that said, ‘Thanks for the name,'” says her sister DeAnna Luke-Huey, 38. “‘It’s great for fame.'”

When Delilah brought her African-American fiancé to meet her parents in 1982, she says, her father came to the door with a shotgun. They wed the following year and soon had a baby, Sonny, now 18. But 1985 brought trauma: Delilah’s husband left her, and her brother Matthew and his wife died in a plane crash. The downward spiral deepened. The suddenly single mother battled an eating disorder and a diet-pill habit. In 1986 her station changed formats, and she lost her job. Bereft, she prayed, “God, if you exist, I need to know.” The next day, returning from grocery shopping, she found a Bible inscribed “Jesus loves you” on her windshield.

Inspired, Delilah turned her life around. She began attending church and Al-Anon meetings, followed the job market to radio stations in Boston and Philadelphia and in 1993 married Ortega, an assistant youth minister eight years her junior. When her show went national in ’96, she returned to Seattle, where Ortega became a stay-at-home dad to their then-six children—including two brothers and a sister adopted from two different foster homes. The hectic ménage strained their marriage. The couple separated in August 2001 and divorced this month. “I had been a parent for many years,” says Delilah, who this year took in a foster child and adopted a toddler. “I was used to paying mortgages and going to PTA meetings. I thought he’d catch up, but after nine years he didn’t.” The split was less than amicable. “Delilah and I exchange information about picking up and dropping off the kids,” Ortega says. “But communication beyond that just isn’t possible right now.”

Despite all her heartache, Delilah’s theme song remains Edwin McCain’s “I Could Not Ask for More.” “I spend days with my family and nights with my best friends—those in the studio and those who call in,” she says. “How could it get better than that?”

Christina Cheakalos

Mary Boone in Seattle

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