It’s hard out there for a gay soap star.
As prime-time TV actors like Neil Patrick Harris, Adamo Ruggiero, and T.R. Knight burst out of the closet to positive responses and thunderous applause, and daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres legally wed actress Portia DeRossi (nabbing a full-image People magazine cover in the process), the suds community is still stuck in the middle ages when it comes to the soap closet.
Even gay soap characters enjoy more visibility onscreen than their portrayers.
Over the past few years, several GLBT characters have made their presence known in SoapTown, USA.
As The World Turns boasts an extremely popular gay couple, Luke and Noah, while All My Children has welcomed back Emmy winner Eden Riegel as Erica’s lesbian daughter, Bianca, who returns onscreen later this month with a new gal, played by Tamara Braun (ex-Ava, Days of our Lives; ex-Carly, General Hospital). And by the time you read this, Guiding Light’s heterosexual Olivia may already be embroiled in a lipstick romance with single mom Natalia.
Earlier this summer, General Hospital: Night Shift introduced a popular gay doctor, Kyle Julian. Without wasting any time, SOAPnet even managed to lure out gay actor Chad Allen to play his love interest, Eric Whitlow.
Allen joins One Life to Live’s gender-bending lesbian comic Lea DeLaria (Madame Delfina) as soaps’ only out performers.
So why are daytime actors still seemingly afraid to come out of the closet?
Historically, there has been a misleading assumption that daytime audiences, which are mostly compromised of women and gay men, would reject a gay actor playing a romantic lead role.
However, the viewing public has only embraced gay portrayals onscreen. Would it be a huge stretch to assume the soap world could separate an actor’s real and reel life as well?
Earlier this year, SOAPnet.com, which is owned by ABC, outed a soap actor via a report by gossip blogger Perez Hilton. Despite this unprecedented outing, it was business as usual for the actor, who did not respond to the website’s claims.
Hilton, who has made a career out of forcing stars out of the closet, most recently Clay Aiken, defends his decision to TVGuide.ca, “I didn’t out anyone. I reported the facts. The fact is the actor is gay. He’s in a happy relationship. We out straight people all the time by asking them about their spouses and children. I don’t see the difference here really.”
Earlier this year, a major soap actor asked TVGuide.ca if it would be possible to keep their job and admit they were gay.
Riegel doesn’t see why not. She points out that it would only need to take one actor for the rest to follow.
In fact, the daytime superstar tells TVGuide.ca daytime audiences aren’t the problem, suggesting it’s the powers-that-be who needs to move into the 21st century — not the other way around.
“When All My Children’s Bianca came out, almost no one thought audiences were ready to accept a gay character on their favourite soap. The fans, however, surprised and shocked everyone. [Lena and Bianca were the No. 1 couple in daytime],” recalls the Imaginary Bitches sensation. “They embraced Bianca with a fervor usually reserved for only the hunkiest of heroes. That experience taught me to never underestimate the open-mindedness of daytime audiences. I hope that fact makes actors feel safe to reveal their sexual orientation to fans without fear of rejection.”
Onscreen gay visibility is one of the reasons soap newcomer Allen was lured to the soap airwaves.
Allen, who came out in the pages of The Advocate in 2001, tells TVGuide.ca he signed on to the show because the people in charge were very determined to tell an authentic love story between two human beings without a platform as an accessory. In fact, Night Shift’s breakout writing star Sri Rao gave Allen his word.
“Sri’s determination to bring this storyline to his show was beautiful,” says Allen, who was a little surprised to learn he’s the only out male actor in the business. “Hopefully my entry into soaps will inspire actors to come out. I feel soaps are heading in the right direction by tackling homosexuality in its narrative first. I was assured my sexuality, and my character’s would not be a factor. We’ve been promised Eric and Kyle’s love story would be treated as equally as their straight counterparts. I completely trust ABC and SOAPnet to tell this story accordingly and in a fair light. Art usually inspires bravery, so hopefully Kyle and Eric’s story will move people to be more authentic in their lives.”
||As gay characters become a part of the soap opera fabric, Riegel’s AMC co-star Bobbie Eakes (Krystal), whose husband David Steen produces gay LOGO series, Sordid Lives, predicts, “it’s only a matter of time before an actor comes out. Why not? Ellen did it — and look at her now. Our show was successful with Bianca and Lena, and later the Bianca and Maggie love story. If I was a lesbian I’d be shouting it from the rooftops, let me tell you! I’m still young, so you never know.”|
However, Allen’s best friend, actress and gay activist Heather Tom (Katie, The Bold and the Beautiful
) doesn’t trust the industry to fairly deal with a major romantic leading star bursting out the closet. Well not yet, anyway. She explains, “It’s getting easier, for sure. Coming out is still a brave thing to do. We recently made it possible for gay people to get married in California, so hopefully that will lead to a greater acceptance.”
|Conversely, Desperate Housewives star Tuc Watkins (ex-David, OLTL), who plays a gay character on the prime-time soap, thinks as gay rights inch closer to being realized, there will be less need to spill ink over a star’s personal life.
He shrugs, “I don’t think anyone really cares anymore. Having said that, I think actors in general want to maintain a cipher role. Actors want fans to see them as the characters they play, not as the person behind the role. When viewers find out too much about ourselves, then we become celebrities, not actors. And those of us who sign up to be actors want to be actors.”
But that sheds light on a gay-straight double standard: why do straight actors feel free to reveal their personal lives in the press without judgment on their artistic process and not gay actors?
If an actor’s life isn’t important, why is our mainstream media and public obsessed with writing and reading about the lives of the rich and famous?
“It’s not fair,” says Hilton. “But that’s changing, at least on my website. I treat every celebrity equally — gay or straight.”
One place actors are treated equally is in the audition room, claims Emmy winner General Hospital casting director Mark Teschner, who helped cast Allen in his groundbreaking Night Shift role. The daytime vet tells TVGuide.ca that an actor’s sexuality is never addressed when casting a role.
“It’s all about talent and acting on our show. We never ask nor discuss an actor’s personal life — well, until they’re hired,” he says with a laugh. “What an actor does offscreen is their business. I don’t think GH would have a problem if an actor came out.”
Teschner brings up a good point. If a successful actor did reveal he or she was a friend of Dorothy’s, the law would be on the star’s side.
Talent manager Michael Bruno thinks, “It would be very hard for a network to fire an actor without a lot of backlash. My feeling is that now is the perfect climate for a soap actor to come out. Let’s face it: most of the popular actors on soaps are gay, and fans are a lot smarter than executives give their audience credit for. Those of us in the business know who’s gay and who is not. Let’s hope someone decides to make history and come out soon. They would be hailed a hero.”
With the country talking about change and hope, does Allen think now is the perfect time for a soap actor to come out?
“Oh yes, absolutely,” he answers without hesitation. “There is no question an actor can come out and keep their job. It may not be the easiest thing in the world, but nothing worth gaining should be easy. I believe in my heart, knowing what I know about networks, that they will protect the star. And yes, it’s true money talks, but from what I see, I don’t think an audience cares that much about what an actor’s personal life is all about. They care more about whether that actor is performing at the top of their ability.”
||Former The Young and The Restless star Thom Bierdz, who later came out publicly after his soap stint, tells TVGuide.ca it was a very different reality during his 1980s stint as Philip Chancellor. “I was always scared because I was a closeted gay soap star living in a straight world. Even though the Bells never made it an issue professionally, I knew I could never bring my gay lover to Y&R events or discuss my personal life. When I told Lauralee Bell I was gay, she burst into tears. She was scared I would die of AIDS, but in her defense, it was a very horrific time in the gay community. Most of us were dying. I think she also had a crush on me.”|
Things have changed on the work front, suggests out Emmy-winning scribe Tom Casiello (ATWT, OLTL, Y&R, and DAYS).
“No one really cares if you’re gay or straight behind the scenes. From wardrobe to hair and makeup — we’re all really out. And everyone gets along. In my experience, there’s never been an issue with me being gay or with an actor being homosexual. Most actors feel comfortable talking about their personal lives without judgment,” he states.
When asked if an executive has ever asked Casiello to write a gay actor to appear more masculine, the scribe laughs, saying, “I got a few notes but they weren’t about gay stars but about our straight leads!”
And that’s one of the reasons radio soap creator and head writer, Scripts and Scruples’ Roger Newcomb — who helped spearhead the Nuke kiss campaign (for months, P&G refused to script on-air physical affection between the couple, until the fans ran to the mainstream media to voice their outrage) — is flabbergasted over the coming-out question.
“I don't understand why a soap actor coming out would negatively impact their job. If the producers honestly think that is the reason a fan would tune out, they are even more clueless than it seems,” he says. “Most fans are smart enough to separate an actor and their character. Being gay is just who someone is and not some scandalous thing to be ashamed about. If I found out a soap was forcing an actor to remain in the closet, I would be outraged.”
The Bold and the Beautiful’s international publicist, David Gregg, who is waiting like many gay Californians for Proposition 8 to be overturned on Nov. 4 before legally tying the knot with his partner, offers this sage advice to a daytime actor thinking of opening up to the public.
“Be the person you really, truly are, in private and in public. Your talent, magnetism, and all the other elements in your bag of tricks that make up your craft will not change in any way. It's old school to stay in the closet; leftover shame from a bygone era. Stereotypical definitions of what a gay actor is capable of have become obsolete, as more and different kinds of gay people go public,” he says. “Public opinion is changing, with or without you. So, look forwards, not backwards. It would make a huge positive difference if everyone in the industry was open about their sexuality. I say, empower yourself, the industry, and your fans.”
But there are still many hurdles to overcome.
OUT.com editor Shana Krochmal tells TVGuide.ca their print counterpart, OUT magazine approached P&G and TeleNext publicity to feature ATWT’s gay super-couple Van Hansis (Luke) and Jake Silbermann (Noah) in their year-end OUT 100 Special, which features both straight and gay actors who represent positive on-and-offscreen portrayals of the rainbow milieu.
However, a P&G rep turned down the offer for reasons that are unclear.
Krochmal sighs, relaying that being a part of a gay magazine is still a taboo some actors shy away from, regardless of their sexuality. The editor, however, hopes that reality will change soon — especially since LGBT fan bases are very vocal and loyal.
“Almost any likable actor who is good at what he does and willing to be honest about his life will keep the support of his loyal fans after coming out — which especially in daytime TV is the best way to keep your job,” she points out. “It’s more of an uphill battle for someone who has lied through his teeth, either by repeatedly denying gay rumors or parading fake girlfriends around. But for those who have quietly declined to answer or generally avoided the question, I think audiences are far more ready to accept out gay actors than most producers and studios like to assume.”
Well, except for co-head writer and co-executive producer of daytime’s No. 1 soap, Y&R. Maria Arena Bell tells TVGuide.ca she’d feel all gay inside if an actor of hers decided to kick down the closet. “Omigod — it would be fantastic,” she says with a huge smile. “I’m all for people being authentic. I’d support it completely. I’d love to see it happen — and I’m not feeding you a line here. I support coming out 110 per cent! And let’s face it; if an actor is freer in their life, their performances will be, too. Coming out doesn’t just make perfect human sense, but perfect business sense.”
Newcomb adds that coming out could even save lives. Alarmingly, gay-teen suicides are still on the rise.
He points out, “The more visibility the gay community gets from out-and-proud celebrities, the better off we all are. Like it or not, actors are role models for many and their stories can help people of all ages deal with their own sexuality in sometimes less-than-accepting environments.”
New York Daily News and Soap Opera Digest columnist Carolyn Hinsey doesn’t see what the big brouhaha is all about, but she does see one hurdle when it comes to fan acceptance. “I can’t think of an executive producer who would not support an actor coming out,” says the former editor-in-chief of Soap Opera Weekly before warning, “their support would be tempered by the basic fact of soap operas, which is that many fans love the character first and the actors second. Super-couple fan bases like Zandall, Liason, JaSam, Nuke, EJami — you name the couple — love the fantasy, so any actor who flaunts his/her personal life does so knowing that he/she is breaking the fourth wall with a small segment of the audience.”
Another soap opera journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees, pointing out a major difference in prime-time and daytime-TV realities. “Actors play the same character day in and day out on soaps. Soap actors have a very different relationship with their audience. And I think if a soap star came out it would be akin to breaking the fourth wall. I don’t think a star, male or female, can come out of the closet and continue to be a viable romantic lead on soaps. It’s a sad commentary, yes. Are there open-minded viewers? Of course, but they aren’t the majority. To bring the bigger picture into focus: most soaps discourage actors from stating their political associations — it’s the same thing here. With such a large fan base, can this audience really buy a gay actor in a straight love story? I don’t think so.”
What will happen? Who will come out? And will anyone care? As they say in the business, we’ll have to tune in tomorrow to find out how this cliffhanger will resolve itself. Of course, we won’t have the answer until one brave actor casts himself — of herself — in the role of hero before taking a big, gay leap of faith.
—Additional reporting by Jamey Giddens
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Nelson Branco is a Toronto freelance entertainment journalist, who regularly contributes to Hello! Canada, The National Post, The Los Angeles Times' theenvelope.com, TV Guide USA, tvguide.com, Inside Entertainment, OUT, and fab magazine, along with spearheading the soap coverage for TVGuide.ca's popular daytime TV hub. After graduating from Ryerson University in 1997, he moved from Toronto to New York in 1998 to take on the roles as senior news editor at Soap Opera Update. Branco first freelanced for Soap Opera Weekly as an intern in 1994, and after leaving Soap Update to help create and launch Bauer Publishing's In Touch Weekly in 2003, Branco continued to freelance occasionally for its sister publication, Soaps In Depth. Most recently, he helped create and launch Canada's first celebrity magazine, Weekly Scoop in 2005 as its news and entertainment director. Branco is also a contributor to a new TV show titled Planet Soap to air in Canada and America.