The hit soap opera “All My Children” is set to make its next great stride in LGBT television visibility with the wedding of lesbian characters Bianca Montgomery and Reese Williams the week of Feb. 16.
The wedding is the latest in a series of daytime-TV firsts for the Emmy-winning show, which has also been nominated for numerous GLAAD Media Awards in recognition of the its LGBT-positive storylines.
Eden Riegel debuted as Bianca on the show in 2000 and, ever since, the 28-year-old actor has portrayed the character coming out to her mother, Erica Kane, famously played by Susan Lucci, and, in 2003, participated in the first lesbian kiss on an American daytime soap to the character’s then-girlfriend Lena.
And those were just a couple of the tamer episodes in Bianca’s life.
Some of the more controversial events for her (and gay and straight fans alike) have included being raped and having the baby, which was stolen from her and returned amid a large fan outcry. She also had a brief romance with a transgender lesbian rock star.
And the next chapter in Bianca’s story is set to make history.
Riegel said the creators of the show have always tried to keep it edgy and topical while staying true to the characters.
“It’s what ‘All My Children’ has always done,” she said. “The show was created by Agnes Nixon and she’s always been extremely devoted to doing not just your everyday soap story, but using the medium to push the envelope and show people that we’ve always been on the cutting edge of social issues. The show had the first abortion ever shown on television and we kept going with that legacy of getting people’s stories that are maybe more challenging than what they otherwise might see on soap operas. Also using the unique medium that we have, we have the opportunity to get into people’s living rooms every day, to reach middle America and reach people who maybe wouldn’t be exposed to all sorts of types of people in their lives, including people who don’t know an actual gay person. We’re saying here’s this person, letting them invest in that character, letting them fall in love with them, seeing them as a human being and therefore opening people’s minds. It’s a great opportunity and I think the show has always prided themselves on taking advantage of it.”
Riegel added that after playing Bianca for so long, she feels very protective of her character and is happy to see her evolve to this momentous point in her life.
“When I started the show, I was a teenager,” Riegel said. “I’ve seen her through many, many struggles. She’s certainly a character who’s had her hardships and I was excited when they offered me [the chance] to come back for this story where Bianca would be in a real committed relationship with someone who wanted her 100 percent. I was told that it would be a lesbian romance. We would deal with all the issues that would be unique to a lesbian couple but, really, we’d be dealt with in the same way as any heterosexual couple on the show. That was important to me.”
Riegel added that Tamara Braun, who plays Reese, is equally passionate about the two characters and their on-screen relationship.
“The depth of our actual feelings for each other is palpable when we’re on screen with each other,” Riegel said. “We really love each other and it’s not hard to fool myself into thinking I’m in love with her.”
Considering the salacious and sensational story lines that pop up in soap operas, it can be hard to imagine why something like a lesbian wedding hasn’t been done before now. But Riegel said that when it comes to gay characters and issues, soap operas have always had to walk the line between turning audiences on and off.
“Gay marriage as an issue has only recently become an important one in our national identity and conversation,” she said. “It hasn’t, unfortunately, been an issue that has been on the forefront of the world. I applaud ‘All My Children’ for taking it step by step because they really never turned the viewers off. Everyone acknowledged that it was a risk with having a gay character on this traditional soap opera. Housewives are our target audience. When people first found out that Erica Kane’s daughter was going to be a lesbian, there was an absolute outcry. So when the kiss happened, there were a few affiliates that didn’t broadcast it because they were afraid of a backlash. Those were in very conservative areas of the country.”
According to Riegel, the powers behind the show anticipated the controversy surrounding these events in Bianca’s life.
“When I first took the job, I had to have a top-secret meeting with the executive producers so that they could drop the bombshell on me that my character was gay and give me an opportunity to back out,” she said. “Nobody was more surprised than me that everybody was taking it so seriously. I have gay family members and friends. Of course I wouldn’t have a problem with it. I think everybody wanted to handle it with the utmost sensitivity. To me it was no big deal. So I was surprised when it became a controversy at first.”
Now that time has passed, Riegel said she has been pleasantly surprised at how the show’s audience has embraced her character, which allowed the show to go farther with the lesbian couple than they had dared to go before.
“We couldn’t be as free as expressing physical love on the show at that time, but now things have changed,” she said. “We kiss on the show practically daily. We caress and speak lovingly. Bianca and Reese are shown in bed together not clad in very much. I feel like people are getting used to it. Just the fact that we can do a gay wedding on daytime television shows that we’re making great progress in this world of ours. I hope it’s no big deal at all. People might go, ‘That’s nice,’ and then move on.”
Riegel said because Bianca’s story was told gradually over the course of years, the audience was more willing to accept her and her orientation.
“I think the only reason we’re seeing two women getting married is because the fans are ready for it — clamoring for it, actually,” she said. “Because the show has painstakingly told the story step by step, it’s allowed the audience to be open to this young woman. Because she’s Erica’s daughter, they’ve invested in her. They’ve grown to love her just like any other soap-opera heroine. It’s come to the point where people are rooting for her. When her baby was stolen from her, they were rooting for a lesbian woman to get her baby back. Now, they are rooting for her to have happiness and finally walk down the aisle, which not everyone in this country agrees should happen, but for people who watch ‘All My Children,’ it should open their minds and hearts to the possibility.”
It may have taken a while for the housewives of America to accept Bianca, but she has become an icon in the gay community — a role that Riegel, who is straight, takes very seriously.
As a California resident who has a gay sister, Riegel said she makes every effort to portray Bianca as a three-dimensional character. She also said she was devastated when Proposition 8 passed in November, overturning the rights of same-sex couples to marry in the state. And while Prop. 8 isn’t directly mentioned in the wedding episode, it did have an influence.
“I think it’s timely,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’re telling this story now and have been telling it since Prop. 8 was still on the ballot. Pine Valley is in Pennsylvania, so we haven’t dealt specifically with the issues in California. But we have talked about how we want to have a wedding in Connecticut, where it is legal for same-sex couples to be married. I’m very glad the show decided not to just have a commitment ceremony but have an actual, legal wedding.”
Riegel said the issue of gay marriage was one of the factors that prompted her to return to the show. The actor left “All My Children” twice since debuting as Bianca: once in 2005, returning in 2006, and leaving again in 2007. She said she feels very fortunate that the show has left the door open for her and the character of Bianca to come and go.
“It is my family,” she said of the show. “It is my home. But I’m a young actress and I’ve been on the show for a long time. I want to experience other things and roles. So being away from the show affords me other opportunities that I’m dying to take advantage of. I think ‘All My Children’ will always be a part of my life, but there’s a lot out there. That’s why I left last time.”
Given the nature of soap operas, the chances of Bianca and Reese (or any character/couple, for that matter) living happily ever after are slim. But Riegel has faith that these two will be able to endure whatever crazy plot twists the show’s writers dream up for them.
“They are two women who love each other,” she said. “It doesn’t mean their relationship will be without struggle. I believe they share a connection that Bianca hasn’t been able to have in past relationships. She’s older now. She’s wiser and she knows a little bit more about who she is. She’s past this drama that has been crowding her life and now she can really focus 100 percent on her relationship and family. So I think they will get through anything that the soap-opera world throws at them.”
Wedding bells ring for Bianca and Reese next week on ABC’s “All My Children.”
Larry Nichols can be reached at [email protected].