My grandmother introduced me to soap operas when I was a child. Once exposed to “The Edge of Night,” there was no going back. I found my way to Pine Valley on my own. There, an emergent youth storyline concept developed that would become a cornerstone of the soap genre. It featured the good-girl/bad-girl juxtaposition of Tara Martin, who looked like Ali MacGraw, and Erica Kane, who looked like, well, Susan Lucci. My early goody-two-shoes allegiance to Tara soon crossed over to Erica. Conniving opportunist, true, but Erica was smart, pragmatic and above all, proactive. When she wanted something — career, lover, an enemy’s demise — she went for it. She got things done. You had to admire the spirit and the style. I was converted young and stayed devoted, somehow managing to keep relatively current through decades of full-time employment. In 2011, when ABC canceled “All My Children,” I mourned the loss of Pine Valley and its star resident.
News of Lucci’s foray into apparel, a line of activewear for QVC, reported by WWD last month, prompted me to request an audience with one of television’s greatest goddesses. She agreed, arriving at our photo studio in all her Susan Lucci glory, hair and makeup perfect, Manolos punctuating her dressed-down look of fluid boho top over white jeans, the green Hermès bag for an additional color pop. As expected, she looked impeccably pulled together. Conversely, our catering plan to meet Lucci’s low-key request for hot-water-and-lemon and healthy snacks didn’t quite materialize. Thank God for Starbucks. “Susan, would you like something?” “Only if everyone else does. Don’t make the trip for me.”
Told that that sounded rather antidiva, she offers, “I’ve never respected that in a celebrity or a woman.” Also offensive: “When someone has that combination of arrogance and ignorance — that drives me crazy.” What impresses: “Authenticity.”
That, Lucci muses, has been the key to her longevity. The celebrity persona she has projected for all of her adult life (Lucci was cast to play the 15-year-old Erica fresh out of college) and to which generations of fans have related is in fact who she really is. She credits a solid upbringing and the advice of a wise college mentor for helping ground her. Ron Weyand, the head of the drama department at Marymount College, “made me aware of staying real and staying connected,” she says. She also took notice of celebrity behavior from an early age, often via Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show.” She loved Sophia Loren, who projected “an effortlessness and a joy.” But when an actress “got too ‘dahhling,’ and it was all about the jewelry and all of that and not the work, I never liked that. Although I love jewelry, I love it all. Don’t get me wrong!”
Lucci makes a fabulous argument for her own authenticity; her innate graciousness disarms. Over the course of several hours, she seems right at home, not only on set, as one might expect, but while engaging with people involved with the photo session. She talks Portugal and packing with a young p.r. leaving for vacation later in the evening, trades Catholic school stories with me, and voices equal excitement about the prospect of an upcoming personal trip — “I’ve never been to La Scala!” — and the royal wedding. And she’s very open to being shot in an unexpected way — in fashion.
Style Director Alex Badia and I want her to feel comfortable, but we’d like to tweak preconceptions and pass on the body-con dress motif. (Most of the clothes were pulled from Saks Fifth Avenue. Like many celebrities, Lucci isn’t sample size. Unlike many, she goes the other way; samples are too big.) Other than a giant shirtdress she fears getting lost in, she’s completely game. Comme des Garçons, Rick Owens, a cozy-bejeweled Antonio Marras sweater — she delights in it all. “I love fashion,” Lucci says, while claiming to have been apprehensive at the thought of the shoot. Her anxiety proved misplaced.
Post-shoot, Lucci settles in for an interview. Although she has a project to promote, she doesn’t immediately launch into Pilates-pants chat. She doesn’t bring up the QVC line at all; I do. Rather, she talks easily about a life of outward contradictions: soap-star-turned-cultural-icon by day, Long Island mom — and now five-time grandmother — by day and by night. Unlike her famously oft-married small-screen alter ego, Lucci has been wed but once, to Helmut Huber, whom she met while still in college and married shortly after graduation. Asked for what makes a strong marriage over the long haul, she qualifies her advice upfront. “Everybody’s dynamic is different,” she says.
“I got lucky because what attracted me in Helmut in the beginning has remained and grown. He’s so smart and funny. And very sure of himself. Those things have stood us both in very good stead. I think not losing sight of what attracted you to your husband or wife in the first place — don’t let too much time go by before you admire those things again.”
Spousal self-assurance must have mattered as Lucci skyrocketed to fame, hers an unusual ascent. She not only portrayed a single, career-defining character for decades, but one that became a unique hybrid of leading lady and character role. Along the way, Lucci crossed over from daytime diva to genuine cultural icon. Though that was never her goal, early on she recognized the power of Erica, and with it, the power of staying put in a genre that many actors viewed as a potential launchpad to film. “I realized that I had material and a character that were, for my taste and from the response of the audience, very, very special,” Lucci says. “It became hard for me to walk away. I already had what I considered one of the best parts ever written for a woman in any genre.”
Each time her contract came up for negotiation, Lucci reevaluated her situation in what she calls “the organic part” of her career trajectory. “I would think to myself, Are you happy? Yes, I’m wildly happy. I go to this studio every day and, in my inside voices, I’m giggling; I’m singing. Yes, it’s a lot of work, it’s a [huge] volume of material. It wouldn’t be for everybody. But I was very happy.”
From the start, Erica appealed to Lucci’s own inner bad girl — albeit one whose naughtier tendencies surfaced with discretion: “My friends all liked Melanie; I liked Scarlett. And the Stones over the Beatles.” Yet Erica quickly became more than a self-serving beauty. “Suddenly, I was being asked to do interviews [related to] feminism because my character became this representative for women speaking their minds and women standing up for themselves and women following their dreams,” Lucci recalls.
She attributes much of that impact to the other woman behind Erica — AMC’s legendary creator and long-term writer, Agnes Nixon. For all the show’s drama, divorcing and diva antics, Lucci reminds that it dealt with numerous issues of cultural currency, including a two-year arc during which Erica’s teenaged daughter Bianca came out as a lesbian. “I would read the scripts and they would take my breath away. I would think, oh my God, how does this woman know this? This is incredible.”
In real life, Lucci has two children. Liza, now a mother of four, is an actress-turned-businesswoman, founder of Sage Spoonfuls, a company of products intended to streamline making homemade baby food. Lucci’s son Andreas is an entrepreneur. Lucci and Helmut raised their family in her hometown, Garden City, never considering a full-on move into Manhattan, despite her intense schedule. Along the way, she seldom spent the night in a hotel, even when a shoot ran late or a winter blizzard raged. Garden City provided a sense of community and normalcy. Lucci planned the family menus and participated in carpool at the kids’ co-op nursery school. She took Liza to dance classes and riding instruction, and eventually, to equestrian competitions, clocking considerable barn time with the horses. Andreas “played every sport — karate, lacrosse, golf.” Hands-on though she was, it took a village, or at least some dependable backup. Lucci cites her “wonderful, wonderful housekeeper” as essential to the family dynamic. “She started as the nanny and then after, when the children got to be school age, took us all under her wing.”
Later on, Lucci found support of a different kind — Pilates. She has been a stalwart practitioner for more than 20 years, noting benefits both physical and mental. “It’s de-stresser,” she says. I bring up her gig as pitchwoman for the Pilates Pro Chair, an item she discovered shortly before her 2008 stint on “Dancing With the Stars.” She calls her formal endorsement of the chair, like most of her professional endeavors, “fan-driven:” When DWTS viewers inquired about her exercise regiment, she would reference it, which led to her deal with the chair’s maker, Life’s a Beach, and QVC.
That in turn led to queries about Lucci’s on-air workout wear, “and QVC listened.” When asked to front an activewear line, she agreed, hoping that “they would be able to represent what the audience loved seeing. In fact, it’s exactly what we said it would be. I am very, very happy,” she says. Lucci embraces such fan-facing enterprises, and would consider a broader range of products. Such as? “People ask me about my skin.”
But she’s interested in more than product-pitching. Lucci is, first and foremost, an actress. The cancellation of AMC thrust her into “a mourning period. It really was all those phases — disbelief, anger, crying, such sadness.” In short order, fans mused online that she should join the cast of “Desperate Housewives.” That show was also moving toward its finale, but its creator Marc Cherry took notice and offered her a role on his new show, “Devious Maids.” “To go from the hands of Agnes Nixon and then be in the hands of Marc Cherry, his incredible writing — the show was already good, it was all on the page, and it was cast so well,” she says. “I got so lucky I can’t even stand it.” That show ran for four seasons, from 2013 to 2016.
As for the future, Lucci is open and optimistic. “More acting, for sure,” says Lucci. Yet she’s drawn to whole new ventures within entertainment, as well. “Lately, and it’s because now there is a little space in my brain, producing is interesting to me,” she reveals. “I’m starting to look at things a little differently than I used to.”
On that note, Susan Lucci says her goodbyes, heading off for a long rush-hour drive home to Long Island, having stayed a good hour past her promised commitment. More than a lifelong fan could have hoped for. One question lingers: Do those Pilates pants come in my size?