'Beauty Shop': Soap Operas, Idols and Mental Illness

Originally published on April 20, 2011 4:07 pm
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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, you're poetic tweet of the day.

But first it's time for our visit to the Beauty Shop where we tackle stories that we think could use a woman's touch. Joining us in the shop today, Danielle Belton, author of the blog The Black Snob and she's also managing editor of The Loop 21. That's a black-oriented news website. She's with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Also with us, Galina Espinoza, editorial director for Latina magazine. She's with us from our studios in New York, along with Mary Elizabeth Williams, a staff writer for Salon.com. She recently wrote a tribute to "All My Children's" leading lady Erica Kane calling her a feminist pioneer. We certainly want to talk about that. Welcome, ladies, thanks for joining us.

Ms. DANIELLE BELTON (Blogger, The Black Snob): Hello.

Ms. GALINA ESPINOZA (Editorial Director, Latina Magazine): Great to be here.

Ms. MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS (Staff Writer, Salon.com): It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So, I think we should start off with - I understand some of you are in mourning. Daytime TV is going to look very different come September. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of TV broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: The first Erica Kane wedding.

Ms. SUSAN LUCCI (Actor): (As Erica Kane) Finally getting married again.

Unidentified Man #1: Without Erica Kane.

Unidentified Man #2: She just vanished.

Unidentified Man #1: Runaway bride?

Unidentified Man #2: Be with me.

Unidentified Man #1: Or victim of foul play?

Unidentified Woman: My mother's life could be in danger.

Unidentified Man #1: "All My Children."

MARTIN: Now, I wouldn't call myself a huge soap opera fan, but I'm hearing more and more people who are, who said that they are stunned that ABC is canceling two of its long-running soaps, "All My Children" and "One Life to Live." So, Mary Elizabeth Williams, first of all, what do we know about why and is this the end of an era?

Ms. WILLIAMS: It's not really the end of an era, it's the beginning of something else and it has been for a long time. The tropes of daytime television have now been so deeply assimilated into so much of what we see on reality television, that we almost don't need them anymore. And the audience in daytime has changed. But the appetite for sex and scandal and deception, that absolutely has not gone away.

MARTIN: Now, you wrote this - this is - just looking over the piece just made me laugh. I have to be honest that, now, Erica Kane, the leading lady in "All My Children" has been played by Susan Lucci since 1970. Her character has been married 10 times, battled drug addiction, had an abortion. You might say she's the ultimate contemporary woman, at the very least she's tired, I would say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: She has a very full life.

MARTIN: She has a very full life. Well, why do you say that?

Ms. WILLIAMS: Her iCal is jam-packed. It's like going off to the next wedding at any given moment. You know, in a lot of ways, especially because she was one of the first figures on daytime television to be young. That was very different. When Agnes Nixon was first writing soap operas, the fact that she created these characters for a younger audience and really wanted to drive young people to daytime TV was completely revolutionary.

You know, we think a lot about the Luke and Laura era, but that was actually 10 years after the debut of Erica. And Erica, when she first debuted was a teenager. And to have this very pouty, scheming, difficult diva-like teenager who has since become - she was a model, she was a mother, now she's kind of this grand dame, you know, we've seen her progress as a woman and a character. But she's always been interesting. She's always been focused and always very, very sexual. And it's still different even now to see a character like that.

MARTIN: You know, another favorite on "All My Children" was the couple Jesse and Angie.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I love Jesse.

MARTIN: Angie came from a privileged African-American family. Jesse, who's also African-American came from quote, unquote, "the wrong side of the track." You know, one of the things, Danielle, that's been interesting to me in the last couple of days since this news emerged is how many people I know told me that they organized their class schedule in college around watching "All My Children."

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And I'm still wondering - I didn't. How come these people got better grades than I did? But I'm, like, but tell me more about that. Do you - were you a fan?

Ms. BELTON: I was. Although I was more of an "Y&R" person. I was all about "Young and the Restless." I was all about Drucilla and, you know, Neil, Malcolm, all Mamie's kids there.

MARTIN: But do you think that they were kind of groundbreaking too in their own way?

Ms. BELTON: Oh, definitely. I mean, when you're looking for images, like glamorous images of African-Americans on television, you can't get much more glamorous than a soap opera because all it is is sex and drama and intrigue and excitement and people wearing really nice clothes living in really cute houses. So to be able to see that and have that escapism there to kind of escape with it, and you want to visualize yourself in it, and it's a lot easier to do that if it's someone who looks like you.

MARTIN: You know, Galina, what do you think about this? And, you know, I also understand that telenovelas are still going strong even as, you know, this particular genre on English language television seems to be on the wane. Tell me about that.

Ms. ESPINOZA: Yeah. To build on a few things that Danielle pointed out, the idea is that you want to see yourself portrayed on television. And although we do have Eva Longoria starring on a nighttime soap opera, "Desperate Housewives," she really is, you know, one of only a handful of Latinas on television in primetime.

And so I know for my audience what's interesting is that even though Latina magazine and our website Latina.com are produced in English and are aimed at first, second, third generation Latinas who were born here, educated here, speak English like myself, the draw of the telenovela, which is in Spanish, a language that I did not grow up speaking, is that the characters are identifiable. The women look like me, they look like women in my family. The current reigning telenovela is "La Reina del Sur," which features a woman who heads a drug cartel.

Now, not exactly the role model that you would want, and yet the qualities that she has she's strong, she is breaking down barriers and being portrayed in this very strong and yet sexy Erica Cain way, is something that my audience has really latched onto. And I think it speaks to this bigger idea of just not seeing ourselves portrayed in that way, hardly ever, in the mainstream media.

MARTIN: And you say that she looks like you and all of us, I don't - have you really ever worn that much mascara in your life?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No, I mean, really.

Mr. ELVING: No. But I can tell you that the number one beauty product my readers love is mascara. We tend to be a little mascara obsessed. And, of course, it does tie in, as Danielle said, to that whole idea of the over the top, the fantasy. Obviously, you're never going to wear that much makeup, but it's just the idea that she can do it and get away with it and there's something kind of empowering about that.

MARTIN: You know, moving on to the story of, you know, very beautiful women dealing with some really serious things, Catherine Zeta-Jones, the Oscar-winning actress in her own right also married to Oscar-winner Michael Douglas, has announced that she's entered treatment for bipolar disorder. Clearly, this is not something that emerged overnight and I'm very interested in what you think about her decision to talk about this publicly. I think a lot of people know that her husband, Michael Douglas, has been battling cancer, seems to be successfully battling it.

Danielle, what do you think about this?

Ms. BELTON: I was really impressed by it. I mean I know this is a chatter that she possibly do to get ahead of the story just kind of getting out in the press and the gossip rags. But the reality is the way that she did reveal it in the kind of casually like hey, you know, my husband's been sick. I decided to check into a mental hospital to get treatment for my bipolar disorder. I like the way that it was just presented as if, you know, my diabetes got out of whack and I, you know, I need to go to checked in. The casualness of it was what impressed me. Because I struggle with Bipolar Type II disorder and so it meant a lot to me to see someone who is successful and accomplished talk about their issue of bipolar disorder, because it's often a stigma that if you have a mental illness you can't do anything. In a lot of cases it's really just a matter of medicine and therapy and trying to find the right combination of that that works for you and you can live a fully functioning full life.

MARTIN: I appreciate your being able to talk about that, you know, here. The question I have is do you feel like you have to? I mean just when you said, look, well, you know, she wanted to get out in front of the tabloids, I mean do you feel that you have to?

Ms. BELTON: On one hand I feel like I do because I always told myself that once I got well I would be open about it, because I wanted to bring a normalization to it. But when I was going through it, naturally I didn't want to talk about it. I was not well enough to deal with any of the negativity or the criticism that could come from someone about it. So I could understand both the need to be private and keep that to yourself, because your health is the priority.

MARTIN: How is that since you've decided to talk about it? You were an on-air reporter, actually, when you first entered treatment. You didn't talk about it then on the show.

Ms. BELTON: No. No. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So since you decided to go public, how's that going?

Ms. BELTON: It's going really, really well. I mean by and large most people have been very supportive and very understanding. What's been most touching for me are people who had a negative perception of mental illness or just never known anyone openly with a mental illness, and once they realized that that was something I was dealing with and was able to talk to me about it, they were moved to realize that I'm, you know, I'm a real person, I have, you know, loves and triumphs and successes and failures like everyone else. I just happen to have, you know, this mental health issue alongside with it.

When you're first diagnosed, you truly do believe that I will never accomplish - there was a point in my life where I thought I would never be doing what I was doing now, because I thought my disease was so debilitating. Being able to see someone like Catherine Zeta-Jones, who found love, who has a great career, has wonderful children, is thriving and doing well, I mean that means a lot to a lot of sufferers.

MARTIN: Galina, can I ask you about this, because you know, you've, Latina has reported on, you know, health issues that particularly affect certain communities, particularly the Latino community, and access to healthcare is one of those issues. Does it help when somebody like Catherine Zeta-Jones comes out or do people just say, well, she's rich and famous, what does this have anything to do with me?

Ms. ESPINOZA: I think there are always going to be people who have that kind of reaction. But I think that any time someone is willing to go public and break down the stigma around mental health, which particularly in minority communities remains a huge issue, and to have her say this is something I struggle with I think helps lift the veil even further off an illness that we really should be able to talk about and to be encouraging people to get help for.

MARTIN: Mary Elizabeth, can I ask you the skunk at the garden party question?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Which is do you think that her career will in fact be affected by this revelation?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I imagine it will actually be affected very positively because it is such a big issue for so many people. I actually wrote about the story as well last week for Salon.com, and aside from the bipolar issue, the thing that spoke most to me about her story is the fact that she's a cancer caregiver and so many people, especially so many women, so many parents have to deal with people who are dealing with very serious illnesses, and I imagine moving forward she'll be better equipped. I think she's going to be an absolute powerhouse moving on.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having a visit to the Beauty Shop. Danielle Belton is with us. She authors the The Black Snob blog, and she's also managing editor of Loop 21. It's a black interest news site. Galina Espinoza is also with us. She's editorial director of Latina magazine. And Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon.com.

One more thing we wanted to talk about. People are talking about Jennifer Lopez as a judge on "American Idol." It's still America's most watched television program.

(Soundbite of TV show, "American Idol")

Ms. JENNIFER LOPEZ (Talent Judge): I'm so afraid to say anything about any of the girls because I don't want any of the girls to go home. I fell like all the girls are getting voted off and I don't like that. I really want we have strong girl singers and I feel they deserve to be here.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Ms. LOPEZ: Yes, girls, go.

MARTIN: I'm not going to lie and say like I'm a student of "American Idol," okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But the truth (unintelligible) I hadn't really even thought about it until she mentioned it. The last singer to be voted off was Paul McDonald. But it is true that five women before him went home. So I just have to ask. Danielle, do you want to start? Like, what's up with that?

Ms. BELTON: Well...

MARTIN: What's going on here?

Ms. BELTON: I don't - you know, "American Idol" is just so random. You know, I don't really think there's like anything necessarily going on more than usual. I mean most of the complaints I've heard lately, that the talent field isn't quite as deep as it's been in past years. But I mean it's a popularity contest.

MARTIN: See, some people say the opposite. They say the talent pool is deeper than it has been in years. Other people say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Look, I really (unintelligible)...

Ms. ESPINOZA: Yeah. It's Galina here in New York. I just kind of want, I actually want to disagree with that a little bit, because I think that the fan base for these shows does tend to be young girls. There are many more girls watching these shows, and in a disturbing trend, young girls tend to vote more for the cute guys or the guys they like as opposed to supporting the girl singers. And this is true not only on "American Idol," but on other reality shows where you get to vote. Because it does seem like so often girls get judged for things that boys would not be judged for, like their outfits.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Yeah. It's Mary Elizabeth here. I have to agree with Galina because I've been following this very closely this year, and it's mostly young girls voting. They're going to vote for the cute boys. Or in the case of "Idol" this year, for that one 16-year-old who they, as we said before, identify with. But it seems to be that that...

MARTIN: But what about girl power?


MARTIN: Elizabeth, what happened to girl power? You know, really, honestly, I thought early on it was the other way, that the girls were voting for the girls and that's why the girls had an advantage.

Ms. WILLIAMS: You know, girl power, even though it's girl power, seems to kick in more when we get older and we're confident enough in our own accomplishments, like Jennifer Lopez, to say, hey, we need to support each other. I think when it's teen girls involved, you're still dealing with a lot of those dynamics.

MARTIN: Final thought about J-Lo, just named most beautiful in the world by People magazine. I'm interested in how people feel she's doing on this show, since you all are "Idol" enthusiasts. I'm kind of impressed that she's turned that over-the-top diva thing around. Because I think she was on the verge of just becoming unlikable with that. You know...

Ms. BELTON: Oh, she's a very driven woman. I mean she...

MARTIN: Well, I don't have a problem with that. I do have a problem with that whole, you know, carry my orange juice princess(ph) behind me thing.

Ms. BELTON: I believe she still is the tote my bag person. I think this is the role she's chosen to play as the judge on the show.

Ms. WILLIAMS: This is Mary Elizabeth here.

MARTIN: Okay, Mary Elizabeth.

Ms. WILLIAMS: I just want to say I also think, as she likes to say on "Idol," she's driving in her lane now. I think she's really found something that fits for her and fits very well. Although as a friend of mine said, it's got to really hurt when Jennifer Lopez is telling you how to sing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: But aside from that, I think she's got this maternal side to her and she's been giving actually very good advice a lot of the times. She's found something that is not in her usual realm, and it seems to be a really good fit for her. I think she's really flourishing there.

MARTIN: It is interesting, though, that - why it's still got to be the three men, if you include the host, and the one woman dynamic there as the judge. It's like student council all over again.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: You know? No, seriously, like it's like student council all over again because the girl always has to be the secretary. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Ms. ESPINOZA: Well, you know what? (Unintelligible) I'm glad that at least if there's going to be a girl on the panel, it's a 41-year-old mother of two. And I think to me that's the real inspiration as a Latina watching Jennifer Lopez, that this is someone who is not the 23-year-old bombshell. I mean she's gorgeous but she also has a strong voice, she portrays a lot of confidence. She has reinvented herself in terms of career success. I mean she's been in the business now for more than 20 years. She should be over and done. And I think a year ago a lot of people thought she was over and done. And the fact that she has reinvented herself and is now more popular, more successful than ever, I think it's a great lesson to other women in Hollywood.

MARTIN: Mary Elizabeth, final thought from you about J-Lo?

Ms. WILLIAMS: I'm completely addicted to the season in a way I never have before and I will definitely keep watching what she says.

MARTIN: Mary Elizabeth...

Ms. WILLIAMS: And what she wears.

Ms. ESPINOZA: And what she wears.

MARTIN: That's true. Send us your castoffs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: We'll look at them. I don't know. We'll squeeze like one leg each in...TEXT: (Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon.com. She was with us from New York, along with Galina Espinoza. Danielle Belton writes for TheBlackSnob.com. She's also managing editor of the Loop 21. She was with us in our studios here in Washington, D.C.

Ladies, thank you all much.

Ms. ESPINOZA: Thank you.

Ms. BELTON: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to read the pieces that we've been talking about in this segment, we will link to them on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.