Like a kid in a candy store does not suffice. Like a kid in the world’s largest candy store, on cloud nine, on his birthday would best describe my day on the set of The Bold and the Beautiful at CBS studios in Hollywood.
I confess to being a die-hard soap-opera fan. Of just one, actually. The Bold and the Beautiful had me at its opening credits depicting the show’s setting (Beverly Hills) and characters (dreamy-eyed hunks and heroines) set to a catchy saxophone theme song.
Ten years old and serendipitously home from school with a cold, little did I know that the March 23, 1987, premiere would mark the start of a 25-year love affair. The show’s premise – two stunning families linked by love triangles and rivalries – tweaked my unfound appreciation for drama. The Forresters and Logans embodied what I one day wanted – beauty, wealth and mainly love – but was uncertain I would ever realize as my immature mind grappled with my confusing sexual identity. I came to idolize cousins who lived in Los Angeles, attributing the B&B lifestyle to them.
I followed the B&B’s engagements, weddings, marriages, betrayals, divorces, remarriages, fashion shows, company takeovers, returns from the grave and catfights. The unusually named characters – Ridge, Thorne and Storm – became my secret preoccupation and extended family through my tweens and teens.
Where’s the gay?
When I came out of the closet in my mid-20s and took stock of all things gay around me as a means of self-identifying, B&B missed the list. Despite the sexual diversity in West Hollywood and the American fashion industry, the daytime drama based on both was an exclusively heterosexual storyline. Through major events such as Ellen’s coming out, Will & Grace, the murder of Matthew Shepard and Proposition 8, a strictly straight series of characters soldiered down the runway of B&B.
The omission of a gay character and story line persisted until last May, when a bold move occurred in the show’s 25th season. Joanna Johnson, an originating and popular actress, stepped back into the role of Karen Spencer and came out. Her off-screen coming out accompanied the event.
I eagerly accepted the recent invitation from CBS to visit the set during the show’s silver anniversary year to assess the range of reactions from the cast and executive producer Bradley Bell.
I got a chance to speak with Johnson. The encounter was admittedly part interview, part gush-fest. Johnson’s original character, Caroline Spencer, was a publishing-company heiress who captivated the two Forrester brothers: Ridge and Thorne. Her integrity and fine Grace Kelly features earned the character a strong fan base, myself included.
I was awestruck by what appeared to be the life of a journalist: dressing to the nines, telling a secretary to hold all calls while you necked with your fiancé and long lunches at the Café Russe (the realities of the newsroom once I arrived were, needless to say, harsh in comparison). At 13, I experienced heartbreak when Spencer died of leukemia in Ridge’s arms (after which Johnson returned to the show as Caroline’s separated-at-birth twin sister, Karen).
For Johnson, the B&B set had been a source of both isolation and confusion for years. Closeted, she remained silent out of fear. “As a little soap-opera star, I was scared that the Bells [producers] would fire me,” she says. “I was also still figuring out my sexuality and my parents were not very supportive, and here I am on set making out with all these men. It was confusing.”
In one episode, Johnson shot a dream-sequence scene where she played a mother of two toddlers. Wrapped in doubt that her homosexuality would allow her to realize this personal goal, the moment was devastating. “It was really emotional for me, and after the scene I ran to my dressing room, and I just sobbed and thought I would never have that,” she recalls.
Leaving the show to pursue a career behind the screen, Johnson created TV sitcom Hope & Faith, starring Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford; she is currently producing Emily Owens, MD on the new CW network. She has found comfort beyond the public eye, where she came out to friends and colleagues, married a woman and had two children.
When Bell asked her back to the show as a lesbian character, Johnson felt that coming out publicly needed to go hand-in-hand. “I’m not a famous person, but everyone needs to do their part and help the cause,” she says of the decision, made at a time when same-sex marriage was an American election issue. “I’m hoping that people who loved Caroline or Karen and who find out that the actress that plays her is gay will say, ‘Oh wow, that seems more familiar; she’s not weird or anything’ and that it becomes more standard.”
To her credit, Johnson’s performance earned the show a 2013 GLAAD Media Awards nomination in the category of Outstanding Daily Drama.
However, her coming out, which made national news, had repercussions. “The worst part is that it has caused a problem with my father again, and that’s very sad for me,” she says of a turbulent relationship in the absence of her mother, who died in 1986. “We had come a long way with him accepting . . . my family, and now we’re a bit estranged again, and that’s the price I’ve had to pay. I don’t know what I can do.”
Cast members react
Heather Tom plays Johnson’s on-screen sister-in-law who encouraged Johnson’s character to come out. She appreciated that the story line didn’t spark a negative reaction from characters. “I’m glad [the writers] didn’t make it an issue as if it’s 20 years ago and we’re living in Kentucky,” she says from a grand dressing room that indicates her royalty status as a four-time Daytime Emmy Award-winner.
“This show takes place in LA. It’s 2012. We’re in the fashion business. We’re not living under a rock. Homosexuality and having a gay family member is not so unusual in this day and age. I’m glad that it was more Karen’s issue than the family’s because I think that’s a truer and more interesting angle to play.”
John McCook has starred as the Forrester family patriarch and head designer at Forrester Creations from the start. He’s waited a long time for a gay character, thinking originally that one would be written in as a foil to him. “Where is the gay guy with the measuring tape around his neck going, ‘We’re too late, we’re never going to get it done’?” he asks laughing, swaying limp wrists. “That’s the fun and energy of design.”
He is unconvinced by Karen’s coming-out-in-ease story line. “It would be good to have someone more prejudicial to explore that,” he says of the quickly accepting Spencer family. “It’s not that easy for a lot of people in an alternative lifestyle.”
An additional layer to the story line is the impact of closeted parents’ choices on their children. Linsey Godfrey plays the new role of Karen’s daughter, who is exploring unfamiliar family relationships after being isolated in New York.
The story line strikes a chord with Godfrey, who has a gay cousin. “I believe in equal rights and that you should love who you want to love,” she says. “I’m so honoured to be part of such a huge, life-altering decision for Joanna.”
View from the top
“It was time,” says Bell of the story line, noting that viewer reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. “I’d really like to do something that I’m proud of, that the gay community is proud of and that opens closed minds.”
At a time when soaps are competing for ratings and relevance against reality TV, daytime talk TV and specialty networks, B&B has proven itself to CBS and CTV in Canada with a slew of daytime Emmys and impressive ratings.
The reach-out to a gay audience through a character they can relate to brings risk for the soap, which has viewers around the globe, including in socially conservative countries in the Middle East. Given the one-year broadcast delay in overseas markets, Bell plans to monitor reaction from Middle Eastern networks that may continue to air the show but simply go to black during controversial scenes, such as Karen’s coming out.
“In our major markets, such as USA, Canada, Australia, Africa, France and Italy, my hope is that we’ve evolved to a point where it shouldn’t be an issue,” he says. “I’m sure it will be an issue for some people, but who needs them.”
Soap star Hunter Tylo attributes the B&B’s success to dynamic story lines that reflect current sensibilities. The iconic brunette is arguably the most recognizable star in Bell’s stable, given her headline-making personal life, which included a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Aaron Spelling in the 1990s after she was fired from Melrose Place because she was pregnant.
Her character, Taylor Hayes, reflects a shift in social pressure on women. “Usually actors are only looked at if you have a love interest,” she explains, occasionally touching my knee, which makes me consider hyperventilating. “I like the idea that Taylor is becoming the independent mother lion because women should be able to have their own jobs, their own life and not have to have a man to be strong in life.”
And besides, love shmove. My inner conflict-following busybody favours a tested-over-time Taylor versus Brooke catfight over any seduction scene. During our girl talk on her dressing-room sofa, Tylo discloses a technique she uses to nurture her oil-and-water dynamic with Katherine Kelly Lang (Brooke Forrester) that points to a frosty off-camera relationship.
“Katherine and I have known each other a long time and we respect each other, but I know it would be a problem if we try to become too close of friends,” she says. “It would kill that chemistry. The rivalry is not like a three-month movie shoot; we have to keep this going for a long, long time, and we know each other’s buttons really well.”
Before I skipped my way off the set, Bell insisted this story line wouldn’t be the last. “I’m committed to having more gay characters on the show,” he says.
Check out the first installment of Xtra‘s behind-the-scenes tour of The Bold and the Beautiful, in which Ted Flett heads into the closets at B&B. Check back to xtra.ca this week for part two (the hot men of B&B) and part three (the inside scoop on the famous lesbian coming-out scene).