Daytime soap operas: Victoria Rowell pushed for more diversity among staff and faced retaliation

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Actress Victoria Powell addresses racism in daytime TV through her new podcast, ““Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva.” Photo by Jennifer Cooper.

The soap opera “The Young and the Restless” has been a staple of daytime television since the early 1970s. For 15 of those years, Victoria Rowell played the feisty character of Drucilla Winters. Off-screen, she has fought against racism in daytime television. She addresses many of these issues in her podcast “Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva.” 

KCRW: Tell us about your character Drusilla Winters and why she’s resonated with so many viewers. 

Victoria Rowell: “The character name, it's actually in the Bible. The character became iconic because she was so relatable to so many people across a variety of ethnic groups. I learned this because I travel. … From Greece to Turkey to Africa — wherever Sony distributed the show — this character really resonated with especially populations of lower socio-economic environments. Not exclusively so, but the character is a pull-her-up-by-the-bootstraps character. 

We watched the evolution of this character from being illiterate to an adult literacy program. I asked the powers that be to consider a foster care adoption storyline inspired by my own experience in foster care, and to include classical ballet, hence bringing my alma mater American Ballet Theatre into the fold. 

The character meant more to me than just a part. I was working with Jim Carrey, Dick Van Dyke and Sam Jackson, and big luminary stars, but this show equally was important to me. I believe because of my foster care experience, I knew that I could reach millions of people daily and around the globe. ViacomCBS has been re-running episodes of my character and the audience has come out to ask a lot of questions that perhaps they hadn't asked before.”

What kind of questions?

“People have long asked even before COVID, which is why Sony, ViacomCBS had to show reruns. They ran out of episodes after 47 years, the first time in their history. And people want to know what it's like behind the scenes, not only in terms of the character play, but also who's behind the camera. ‘How does the show run?’

The questions have changed over time. People really understand now what I was fighting for in terms of fairness, parity, economic inclusion behind the camera. I mean, when did diversity become a dirty word? 

I think with the sweeping changes over at ViacomCBS for diversity, we are beginning to see some wheels change over there. I hope that daytime [television] is included in the conversation. Oftentimes, nobody pays attention to that silly little genre called soap opera. Nothing silly about a $50 million a year budget.” 

You began raising questions like “Why aren't there Black writers or showrunners?” What was the reaction? 

“There was a sense of ‘mind your business,’ but I felt it was a part of my business. My objective was to help the show that I worked hard on — to help them keep up with the times. So I pushed for a Black hairstylist. That was met with a lot of resistance. The Black cast was then relegated to get our hair done in a separate but equal room at CBS. It was outrageous. The writers thought it would be funny if they had my hair fall out in the storyline. It just went on and on. Lots of punitive behaviors. 

Ultimately, one of the most egregious behaviors was being saddled with a $20,000 fine by Sony Pictures Television. Steve Kent, who is still in charge at Sony Pictures Television, stated that I allegedly missed a day of work. … That's when I called the NAACP. SAG-AFTRA stepped in and said, ‘This is illegal, and you will give her back every penny.’”

Then you left the show, sued Sony and settled?

“Yes, we settled. I filed a lawsuit against Sony and others for the reprehensible behaviors exacted against me in retaliation for speaking out on lack of diversity. They did not want [it] to get out that there were barely any Black people ever hired behind the camera in daytime. Of course it's systemic. 

So they tried to punish, and they punished quite severely. I call it ‘artistic house arrest’ because it's not just the soap opera. The tentacles are wide and long. They all know each other at the top. I booked a job and before I left, my agent would call and say, ‘It's gone away, Vicki.’ I was on ‘Law and Order,’ for example, playing a recurring judge. It went away.”

Why do you think daytime soap operas haven't caught up to evening when it comes to Black representation? You have “Scandal,” “Empire,” and a whole host of soap operas at night that are focused on Black characters that are run by Black creatives and written by Black writers. 

“Because no one bothers them. Also consider that these soap operas were privately owned. William Bell [and] his wife Lee Phillip Bell created “The Young and the Restless.” And one of the most difficult things to do — National Urban League President Marc Morial said to me — is to change a privately held company. 

We're at a place right now where ViacomCBS has the opportunity as the licensor. Procter and Gamble has an opportunity as the leading corporate advertising sponsor to say, ‘Wait a minute, you mean to tell me that the Bell Philip family owns two shows, “The Young and the Restless” and “The Bold and the Beautiful,” and not a single Black showrunner, executive producer, head writer, casting director or PR person?’ I could just go on.

Anything that is bringing in millions of dollars in revenues needs to be a part of the conversation. It is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. It started on radio — soap opera selling Oxford Soap for Procter and Gamble to housewives.”

A lot of shows have gone off the air, stalwarts like “All my Children” or “One Life to Live.” But as you say, it carries on in other forms. Do you think eventually you'll be back on a soap? 

“I really don't think about that. You know, there were folks that called me the Sojourner Truth of CBS, because they would bring their grievances to me, and I would bring them forth. This is not a hobby for me. I saw injustice in foster care, and it is a part of who I am. And it's not just for me, it's for hundreds of other people whose careers have been stunted due to racism.”

What can we see you in now? 

“We have the podcast ‘Secrets of Soap Opera Diva,’ which is a lot of fun. It's behind the scenes and the history. And we talked about economic inclusion in daypart television. 

I would be remiss if I didn't mention my do-it-yourself reality show that launched this summer on Amazon Prime and UMC, ‘Trash vs Treasure,’ where I reimagine very tight spaces for working mothers living below the poverty line. It seems to have caught fire. People really love the show and I'm really proud of it.”

— Written by Erin Senne and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

Credits

Guest:
Victoria Rowell - actress, creator and host of the podcast “Secrets of a Soap Opera Diva”

Host:
Madeleine Brand

Producers:
Sarah Sweeney, Michell Eloy, Amy Ta, Rosalie Atkinson, Brian Hardzinski, Angie Perrin, Caleigh Wells