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My Date with Susan Lucci
I'm standing on the corner of Sixty-seventh and Columbus Avenue in Manhattan waiting for a meeting that will change my life. It's December 11, 1987. I'm nineteen years old and about to have my first encounter with a celebrity. Not just any celebrity. The Queen of Daytime, and my first diva: Susan Lucci.
I fell in love with Erica Kane the summer before my freshman year of high school. Like all red-blooded teen American boys, I'd come home from water polo practice and eat a box of Entenmann's Pop'Ems donut holes in front of the TV while obsessively fawning over All My Children and Erica, her clothes, and her narcissistic attitude. My sister Em and I even got my mom into the show. Which was a coup because Evelyn Cohen doesn't suffer fools: She gets the New York Times—not Soap Opera Digest—delivered to our house in St. Louis. And in general, Jewish women don't tend to sit around watching soaps. Don't ask me why.
Dinner "conversation" at the Cohens' meant my sister, mom, and I relaying in brutal detail the day's events in a state of amplified hysteria, while my father listened to his own smooth jazz station in his head. After dinner, my dad would rejoin the living, and I would inevitably hear the three words I dreaded more than anything else: "Wanna play catch?"
No, I did not want to play catch. Ever.
I would turn to my mom for a reprieve, who would instead give me a look that was simultaneously threatening and begging. "Just humor your father and go TOSS THE DAMN BALL!" I got out of it most times by just making a run for it and sliding into my home base, in front of the TV.
Susan Lucci was the biggest star in the daytime galaxy, and she served it up hot and fresh and chic five days a week. Before there was Joan Collins's Alexis Morrell Carrington Colby Dexter Rowan on Dynasty, there was Erica Kane Martin Brent Cudahy Chandler Montgomery Montgomery Chandler Marick Marick Montgomery on All My Children.
A few months earlier, the professor in my Boston University news writing and reporting class assigned us a feature story and challenged us to nab an interview with one of our idols. He said if we got someone good, we could get our article published in the BU newspaper. Finally, my ticket to something big—a byline—and a chance to meet and interview one of my two idols: Susan Lucci or Sam Donaldson.
I didn't say Sam Donaldson just to impress my professor, either. I really loved him. During the Reagan years, he was the only member of the White House press corps who actually asked the man a direct question and held him accountable. (To this day, when I'm interviewing someone, I try to channel Sam. Of course, today my hardest-hitting interviews are usually with Real Housewives.) My admiration for Donaldson aside, when you give yourself two celebrity options on an assignment like this, you can bet that the one without the weird hair system is going to win every time.
I wrote Lucci's publicist an impassioned declaration of love, which secured me an interview, which was then postponed . . . multiple times . . . until this day. Fearful that I was one more postponement away from cancellation, I woke up at 7 a.m. and began calling that publicist's office to nail down the details and get my instructions for the day. All I knew was that I was supposed to meet Susan Lucci. The rest was a mystery, and I wanted it solved. I dialed and dialed and the phone rang and rang. By 9 a.m. I was convinced this interview, like the others, wasn't going to happen. But I was already in New York City! I couldn't go home empty-handed. Ruefully, I decided that Sam Donaldson's publicist never would have blown me off, if Sam Donaldson indeed even had a publicist. Probably not. Sam Donaldson was too down-to-earth, and there's no way a publicist would have just let that hair thing go.
Three hours after I'd begun, I deliberately punched in the now memorized sequence of numbers in a last-ditch effort. One ring. Two rings. Three, four, five, six, seven . . . and then someone, an assistant I guess, finally picked up. I was told to report to the ABC studios on the Upper West Side at 12:30. And that's how I learned that people in New York don't start working until 10 a.m. How cushy.
I get momentarily dizzy when I see the marquee that says, "In Pine Valley, Anything Can Happen." Of course, I've arrived outside the studio an hour early wearing bar mitzvah attire: button-down, paisley tie, sport jacket, and a trench coat that could have been from the Mini-Dan Rather Collection. My hair is more awkward than normal, as I'm in the midst of growing it out to Deadhead perfection. I tamed the Jewfro when I woke up, but its stability is threatened by the humidity of an unseasonably warm December day.
But I haven't shown up with sixty minutes to spare just to stand around and gawk like a tourist. I have something else on my agenda. In addition to the Lucci interview, I'm working on a creative writing paper examining whether Pine Valley is an accurate representation of society. (Just the sort of deep topic my parents expected me to be exploring when they signed my enormous BU tuition check.) I've brought my tape recorder to nab on-the-street interviews with actors from the show.
Occasionally a Pine Valley "resident" walks out of the stage door and I first internally freak out ("OMG IT'S CLIFF!"), then attack them with my recorder. I see myself as a Sam Donaldson type; they probably see me as a John Hinckley Jr. type.
"IS PINE VALLEY AN ACCURATE REFLECTION OF SOCIETY?!" I yell at every familiar face in a high-pitched panic. They are all initially terrified and must take a moment to process what is happening: overly hyper kid with tape recorder and 'fro yelling stupid question. Once they realize I'm probably not going to shoot any of them to impress Jodie Foster, I get quick interviews with "Donna," "Cliff," "Ross," "Travis" (who has dried shaving cream on his ear), and even the man who plays Palmer's butler, "Jasper." Their answers are gripping—"Not really." "No." "Maybe."
At 12:30, euphoric after my journalistic ramp-up to the main event, I walk into the building and announce that I'm there as a guest of Ms. Lucci. "Susan Lucci," I say, triumphantly. "I am Andrew Cohen and I am here to see Susan Lucci."
The guard nonchalantly mumbles into a microphone, and his voice crackles over a loudspeaker, "Susan Lucci, guest in the lobby." I am stunned at his informality and offended by his lack of respect when summoning the actress who plays Erica Kane.
I wait in terror, convinced that something, yet again, will go awry: I've gotten the day wrong, or Ms. Lucci's changed her mind. Or it could go exactly as I'd imagined—a minion would appear to spirit me away to Erica Kane's penthouse lair. After a couple of minutes, the double doors open, and she glides toward me. Susan Lucci. Radiant. Confident. Really, really small. Like, child-sized, even. My moment of disconcertion at how this person who is larger than life to me could be so alarmingly pint-sized is short-lived, as she opens her mouth to speak.
"You must be Andrew," she coos.
She is wearing a red knit dress, red hoop earrings, black heels, a full-length mink coat, and massive sunglasses. Her hair is teased three stories high: a masterpiece of eighties glamour and engineering.
I finally stammer out something that sounds like "HI!"
"Well, I hope you like Mexican food, Andrew, because I'm taking you to lunch," she purrs.
In fact, I hate Mexican food. I have a lifelong aversion to beans, and I wanted to see the studio. On the other hand: Susan Lucci and I are going to lunch? On a date? Â¡Me gusta!
"Oh my god, I looooove Mexican food!" I scream.
The publicist shows up just as we're walking out of the building. She's tall, wearing a butter-leather jacket, with frosted hair pulled back, a smoker's voice, and an air of cosmopolitan authority. We walk a few blocks to a restaurant called Santa Fe. On the way, some nutbag on the street asks Lucci if she received his card.
"Your card?" she asks. She seems concerned. "Oh nooo, I didn't! I'll check with the guard," she says very sincerely, turning to me with a wink. She and I know she'll not be checking with the guard. I'm in on the joke with Susan—on the inside of inside. I marvel at her ability to be tolerant and kind with this weirdo, making him feel as if he really matters to her, treating him as nicely as she's treating me. As we get further down the street, a guy in a truck yells, "Erica Kane! We love you!" She waves. I imagine little cartoon birds fluttering down to pick up the hem of her mink coat so it doesn't drag on the ground.
At the restaurant, we sit down at the table, and Susan and her publicist start talking quietly about a photo shoot that's coming up, and Susan says that ABC "has finally gotten it right." Susan is happy. I can't believe how super-confidential their convo feels. There is a business behind this soap I've spent my life ogling from my seat on a sofa in the middle of the country, and it is fascinating. I zero in on what Susan said about ABC "finally getting it right." What was wrong before? I wonder. Was Susan unhappy with ABC? Perhaps, as our friendship deepens, she will learn that she can trust me enough to confide in me regarding these matters. Strictly off the record, of course.
By the time they remember I'm there and turn to me, I'm convinced that my hair has expanded at least an inch in diameter since Sixty-seventh Street.
They ask me about my major, my goals. I am absolutely bullish on my future, and tell them awwwwlllll about it, while they sit there, nodding patiently, smiling patiently, and agreeing patiently. I tell them that I'm a sophomore Broadcast Journalism major and I want to be the next Dan Rather. Then, hearing myself say that and realizing that Dan Rather barely ever goes through an interview blathering about his hopes and dreams, I abruptly start reading from a list of questions I've prepared about Erica Kane:
"Is Erica modeled after Kate in Taming of the Shrew?"
"How will the pregnancy story line affect her?"
"Who is the love of Erica's life?"
(These are all perfectly fine questions. What I won't know until years later when I re-listen to the interview—yes, I recorded every word—is that I interrupt her every answer to tell her what my mother and I think will happen. In fact, I talk about my mother constantly. Thank God, I got over THAT! My mother would hate it.)
The waiter comes. Lucci orders a cheese enchilada and a chicken enchilada. Her publicist orders the same. I order a beef taco, and, feeling very capable and adult, I firmly tell the waiter that I do not want any beans on the plate whatsoever, and the waiter does not question my decision.
Emboldened, I turn to Susan and ask her the worst thing Erica ever did. She says, "Kill Kent."
"BUT THAT WAS A MISTAKE!" I scream.
She giggles. "This is a man I can talk to!"
Susan Lucci called me a man.
We get into a great conversational rhythm. It's a real interview. I ask about the red knit dress she's wearing. It is her own, not Erica's, she says. I lament the injustice of her eight Emmy losses and question the legitimacy of the Daytime Emmy judges. She is humble and grateful, as though it is her first time discussing this travesty. Near the end of the interview, I ask her what her salary is. And quickly apologize, telling her my professor made me ask. (Asking a difficult question while simultaneously apologizing is a skill I will implement twenty years later with the Housewives.) I feel so triumphant about asking the question that it doesn't register that she never answered.
When all the enchiladas have been consumed and all of the questions have been asked, I give her a BU sweatshirt and she carries on like I've presented her with a diamond ring. "Oh, Andrew, you couldn't have brought me anything better. It is so soft! I can't get over how soft it is. I love sweatshirts!"
In my letter, I may have promised the publicist that this would be a cover story in the BU Free Press, not what it really is: an assignment for a class that I'll pitch to the paper. But post-lunch, feeling chummy and in the club, I am comfortable clarifying that the feature is not exactly locked. That comfort curdles, however, when the reaction on the publicist's face indicates this is the number one most wrong thing to say. Yet I can't stop myself, next telling them, "I'm such a huge fan that I probably would have lied about the story altogether just to get a seat at a table with Susan Lucci!" I'm a runaway train of misdirected enthusiasm and late-blooming honesty.
The publicist's face only grows more contorted.
I quickly change my story. "This is a guaranteed cover!" I assure them. Amazingly enough, this seems to get things back on track. They in turn assure me that they can provide "color art," which is a magical-sounding phrase that I later learn means "We'll send some slides to the paper." (The piece will eventually run in the Daily Free Press, saving me from my white lie.)
The check arrives. Susan and her publicist compliment me for being well prepared, and I realize our time together is coming to an end. I begin angling to go back to the set with them. Susan tells me—sweetly, pityingly, of course—that visits like these are set up months in advance, and it's not going to be possible today.
I'm devastated. I actually might cry. I've waited six years to get on the inside, and just as the door has opened, it's slamming shut again. I keep it together and refocus on Susan's radiance.
She asks where I'm from.
I tell her I grew up outside St. Louis.
"Oh, St. Louis! There are very bright people outside the coasts," she proclaims. Her publicist agrees! At any other time, at any other table, I would have been highly offended and preached from my soapbox about the spirit and intelligence of the Midwestern people, but because Susan Lucci said it, I feel . . . weirdly vindicated. Perhaps the St. Louis tourism bureau could use her words as a tagline—"There are very bright people outside the coasts!"
In front of the restaurant, we take photos and say good-bye. As I watch Susan Lucci disappear down Sixty-ninth Street, I wonder if I'll ever see her again. I wonder how my life will ever take me back to this place, where I can sit with an idol and talk about something I love. I feel the tears I pushed down moments before welling back up. I don't let them. Instead, I run to a pay phone on Central Park West so I can report the day's news to a string of people. Starting with my mother.
I didn't know it then, but I'd end up working at CBS News and having a front row seat for every pop culture and news-making event of the 1990s, meeting nearly every idol I'd had as a kid. I didn't know I'd go on to be ringleader to a fabulous galaxy of women starring in a real-life soap opera. And I definitely didn't know that this would not be my last encounter with Ms. Lucci. But sadly for me, none of our other meetings would go as well as our first. In the TV business, that's what we call a tease. So, stay tuned.
Copyright © 2012 by Andy Cohen