By Michael Fairman
Originally published on Advocate.com October 09 2009 11:15 AM ET
One Life to Live’s Robin Strasser is the really smart gay man’s greatest daytime diva. As Llanview’s Dr. Dorian Lord since 1979, Robin has played one of soaps’ all-time greatest bitches (with a dash of joie de vivre) for all she is worth. With Robin now celebrating her 30th year in the role, how do Robin and Dorian plan on whooping it up during the big 3-0? First, by having Dorian marry her female campaign manager in her efforts to step up her vendetta against her lifelong rival, Viki, in Llanview’s mayoral race. You see, when Dorian learned that the Llanview Gay and Lesbian Alliance (yes, soapland has one too!) was throwing its support around Viki, she had to come up with some way of combating it. So what is a good bitch to do? Pretend she is gay, hold a press conference, and announce she is going to marry Amelia, her campaign manager! And like everything Dorian does, her nuptials will be on a grand scale! The women will take part in a same-sex commitment ceremony featuring 22 couples in upcoming episodes. Second, Robin, who has been a huge supporter of the gay community, will be part of Saturday night’s big celebration at the National Equality March in Washington, D.C., where she has been named the honorary chairperson for the drag ball Marching for Equality ... in Heels.
But Robin’s journey to these landmark events has not been without controversy. Over the summer contract renegotiations broke down between ABC and Strasser when she was asked to take a hefty pay cut. On her famous hotline the very outspoken Strasser detailed her thoughts, frustration, and despair about the situation. Meanwhile, gay men around the country were holding their breath till they turned purple over the possibility they could lose this daytime gem. Luckily, things worked out.
But with that comes another issue looming in the wings. Will the LGBT audience give Strasser and One Life push-back for her portrayal of someone lying about her sexual persuasion for her own gain? As this story plays out, Advocate.com can tell you to watch closely! There are some high emotional stakes and hilarious moments, and the brilliant Robin Strasser at the epicenter of it all that make this must-see gay TV.
Advocate.com: Tomorrow night you are the honorary chairperson for the drag ball Marching for Equality…in Heels, which honors the 40th anniversary of Stonewall and benefits the Matthew Shepard Foundation. How did this come about?
Robin Strasser: They asked me if I would go, and then they made me the honorary chairperson! The power of yes. [Laughs]
So, as honorary chairperson you lent your name to the event, but will you actually be in attendance?
It’s interesting you should use that phrase because I get particularly sensitive to “lending your name.” I never say yes unless my bod is going to be there! I think if you put your name on the committee with the invitation to an event, there is an obligation to show up, short of swine flu.
You know that both you and Dorian Lord are hugely popular with the gay audience. Thus, the fine choice in honorary chairperson!
All my best friends are gay [big smile], and not kidding at all, the best relationship in my experience is my two male friends who have been together for 25 years. If I want to be cheered up, I call these guys up and I go, “Can we go out to dinner? What’s up?” They are everything you want to see when two people are in a partnership.
Will you be in drag at the drag ball?
Excuse me? I guess I am going to have to direct you to the article I wrote three years ago when the Imperial Court of New York knighted me and made me a Dame of the Court. And my article’s opening line is, “Yup. I am a drag queen.” The article discusses the difference between Robin morphing into Dorian as more and more time goes by. It takes longer and it takes more attention to detail to create the kind of majestic divahood that Dorian aspires to. Mostly, because of my own bad experiences with small bad plastic surgeries, I would not do what I would believe Dorian might have done. If it needed trimming it was lypo’d; if it needed pulling, it was tucked, baby. She would be cutting-edge on that whole issue of how to defy time. So, in order to support that as an actress, I started to abdicate over the last five or six years as our production schedule has speeded up to get the production people to give me enough time in hair, makeup, and every detail of my costume, from the earrings, the necklace, and to be as perfect as possible ... and baby, that takes time. Finally I got this inspiration. I come in sweats or clean jeans and loose and comfy with no makeup on and I go, “Look at me? I have to turn into Dorian. I am a drag queen. We need time to get ready. Give me two hours.” [Laughs]
One of my favorite Dorianisms, is the way in utmost diva fashion, she puts emphasis on certain vowels. Like when she says “Car-lo-ta” for Carlotta or pronounces her mansion “La Boulaie.” Speaking of Carlotta, Patricia Mauceri was recently fired from the show for taking issue with a small story point in the Kish story line that she refused to play. Thoughts?
I can’t speak to that. I don’t know Patricia very well at all. Don’t hang with her or talk to her on the phone. Frankly, when the story was told to me, I did not feel to act any further. I have great respect for our executive producer; Frank Valentini’s judgment calls in these circumstances. In full-disclosure spirit, Carlotta existed because Robin Strasser years and years ago would get frustrated over the whole mansion thing and I had no servants. Dorian had the worst luck for hiring help. So I started experimenting with names. So I experimented with different personalities, and Carlotta stuck. People would ask me to say it at fan club gatherings, “Robin, would you please call Car-lo-ta!” Then one day I looked at the cast list and suddenly there was a real Carlotta, and that is when I met Patricia Mauceri for the first time. In actuality, a lot of us do not know each other beyond the cordial. I do know Saundra Santiago, who took over the part. We don’t go to the mall together, but I knew her years ago. Whatever may have happened with Patricia Mauceri, if I see Saundra Santiago anywhere, my arms are open and I would give her a big hug.
Robin, we almost lost you there when you were going through intense contract renegotiations. Looking back, how do you feel about the situation now?
Here is what I want to impart: It was extremely painful for me. I was never for a moment trying to manipulate a reaction from the fans that might generate a different reaction from ABC and the stated immovable offer they were giving me. Then I had a moment of sanity that suffering was optional and that I never made the decision to become an actor to be rich and famous. Somehow the universe was in alignment with that, and I said, “OK, whatever. You can cut my salary, but you can’t cut my enthusiasm.” I still love what I do. And I have been doing it a good long time. I decided it was not about the money. I just got busy doing what I had to do, which is keep being connected to the part and keep being connected to the show because I love it. It does not matter that we take pay cuts, we are still telling stories. I want everybody to back off that whole “it’s fair or not fair” because I will leave the room. I do not want to hear that opinion because it does not serve me as an actor. I am fortunate. I found life so scary as a child, and all I wanted to do was dress up and pretend I was somebody else and hide in plain sight. That is all I wanted. I have been able to do that all my life. There were times I had to take a day job, but not that often. And when I was selling clothes at Henri Bendel’s I was a great salesgirl because I acted the part.
And yet there was more controversy for One Life to Live over the last few weeks when cancellation rumors began circulating, that All My Children’s move to L.A. left OLTL vulnerable as the only ABC soap still filming in New York. Are you concerned?
Speaking for myself, I don’t know the source of that rumor. I decided not to carry it around with me as another thing to be worried about. I think the bigger issue is how to contribute to making our show the best kind of storytelling anybody can see on their TV. Scripted story has production challenges and budgets involved that have to make sense. It has to have everybody involved that watch and make the show aware that this is a special entity. If this concern of fear, to defining the show, brings about more audience participation and activity, then that’s all to the good, isn’t it? One thing you do not want is complacency on any level. Nothing should be taken for granted.
Gay fans were concerned over the part of the cancellation item that had Kish’s story line potentially being shifted over to AMC if OLTL gets the ax. We can’t let this show fade away!
I don’t have a crystal ball, but if our show did not make sense financially, and if our show did not have the edgy audience and wasn’t this good and didn’t have the passionate audience that it does, then maybe we wouldn’t have survived. Our cast is so diverse, so edgy, and so unpredictable to be filed into a pigeonhole. I mean, we might adapt if need be to a move to Los Angeles, if needed. The cast is as wild a mix of the city of New York itself. If one of the ABC entities has to be branded or rightfully branded in a New York moment paradigm, there is no question it would have to be our show.
Since you are gay-friendly, how do you think the Kish story line is being told?
I think it’s a slippery slope to critique your fellow actors. But in this case all three men are doing such beautiful work that maybe that is why the Internet rumors that the three of them were going to be stolen from One Life to All My Children probably was so upsetting.
Coming up is Dorian’s big gay wedding! The special episodes will air on October 30 and continue on November 2. To set the stage for this twist of twists: Dorian hires a gay female campaign manager played by Tia Dionne Hodge, who has been popping up to Dorian since the OLTL anniversary episodes!
Yes, and she played the angel Mel previously. You will notice the name Amelia has the word Mel in it. This is just Robin speaking, who would literally give up half of my liver, but I would love to have Stephen Markle come back as Mel. Whether they drag him out of a prison camp where he has been held hostage or whatever, I would love to see that character come back!
Me too! So what was your comfort level reading that Dorian was going to say she was gay to sway the gay vote in Llanview in her battle for the mayor spot against her enemy, Viki?
I immediately went to the source and said, “Now, is she just saying she is gay? Or, is she actually going to experiment with it?” They said, “No, no. She is just saying she is gay because she wants to get the gay vote. She hears Viki has a gay constituency, and she wants to co-opt that and get even more votes.” That made me uncomfortable because you are talking about the character that I play that I have to love, even when she is massively messing up. I have to find some way to forgive her and stay on that track. Dorian thinks she’s right and right-minded when she hires a gay woman and then introduces her to the public as “I would like you to meet my new campaign manager,” which by the way happened because David refused to help out Dorian by saying he was gay. Huffy-puffy Dorian is like all in her own stuff. She hired a gay woman, an out gay advocate, and here she is standing there in front of the press and motormouthed she psychobabbles, “She is my campaign manager and she is my ... fiancée!” Good heavens! It definitely is out there. It’s so wacky-doodle that Dorian went that far. Later, in our representation of this commitment ceremony, Dorian and Amelia are standing there, but Dorian is there putting on a facade. But the three men, Oliver, Kyle, and Nick, have an emotional journey that is so beautifully acted out. I looked on and went, “I am so glad that these young men are doing such a fantastic job with such beautifully written material.” It just took off and went to another level!
You get the script that says “she pretends to be gay,” and it must have bothered you making sure that it did not offend the LGBT audience while at the same time trying to entertain?
We get the scripts five days before we have to say the words. What disturbed me was taking a cause that I love and believe in as Robin and portraying Dorian using it, because what we would put out on the TV screen has an impact. I wanted to be certain what I wanted to do as an actor in a story but yet protect the character. It became obvious there was no other way to play it but a kind of momentary -- well, it does last a while -- sort of narcissism run wild. Her mouth was just ... “I am gay; this is my partner, yes, yes.” Starr and Langston look at me and go, “You are so not gay!”
Will Dorian’s charade continue after the same-sex ceremonies?
We shall see. Dorian’s family knows it’s all smoke up everybody’s piñata! [Laughs]
Erika Slezak [Viki] and you have been the true supercouple of Llanview. Your historic battles are the backdrop from which all things spring. When you got the scripts that it’s Viki versus Dorian for the mayor’s race, what went through your mind?
Hooray! Ka-ching! Anytime they write “There is a look of understanding between the two,” I go, “Oh, no, no. There goes my career!” We have to keep that heat going underneath, and that’s a good thing. I like it best when we are adversarial and then my need for her approval is the counterpoint to that, and that is what I bring. I just gave away a recipe to how I play Dorian ... a secret ingredient!