Soap and Glory

It was the kind of day when even a quick dash across a parking lot means a sticky, sweaty shirt and glistening hairline. Despite the heat, Shelly sat in her car, her hands gripping the steering wheel, her heart pounding. For 30 minutes, the blond, beautiful woman sat shaking. The former actress didn't know what she might have to do next, but she knew it wouldn't be easy: Shelly could catch her husband in bed with another woman or discover her evil twin. Perhaps she'd be told she'd die from a flesh-eating bacteria or, worst of all, find her dog had been cruelly murdered by a vengeful neighbor. Perhaps at the end of all this trauma, she'd be blessed with amnesia.

Shelly wanted to be a soap star, no doubt about it, but actually walking into Gilley's, South Dallas' finest upscale honky-tonk, and getting an audition number from the producers of a reality show that pits would-be soap actors in competition? That part was hard. So she sat in her hot car and got herself "really psyched up."

Inside Gilley's, the process hadn't been quite so difficult for the 50 other daytime television hopefuls vying for a walk-on role on Days of Our Lives as part of the Soap Network reality show I Wanna Be a Soap Star! Only 30 would be picked to improvise a dramatic monologue for the celebrity judges: Days' Julie Pinson, Soap Star's Michael Bruno and General Hospital's Greg Vaughan.

Vaughan, a North Texas native, left our city years ago to make a living out of being hot. You may remember him from 1997's Poison Ivy: The New Seduction, about which the Internet Movie Database gushes: "The plot synopsis is empty." It was all uphill from there, though, and Vaughan went on to roles on Charmed and Will and Grace before landing the part of Lucky, spawn of deified soap couple Luke and Laura Spencer on General Hospital. And yes, Vaughan says soap actors are well aware that the whole thing is kinda lame.

"I try to bring more truth and reality to storylines that are very daytime," Vaughan told me in a phone interview before the Soap Star event. See, Lucky Spencer has had some trouble with "chemicals and drugs" over the past few years, and Vaughan has had to "put more colors on the canvas" in order to build on a classic, much loved and even more lusted-after character.

General Hospital happens to be my mother's soap of choice, and I have fond childhood memories of trying to stay up late to watch the episodes she has taped daily since the advent of the VCR and now, TiVo. As a result, I have a healthy appreciation for the addictive nature of soaps but was unprepared for the skyrocketing elevation of hormones inside Gilley's when Greg Vaughan took the stage.

The crowd, a mixture of stay-at-home moms and aspiring actors plus a fat, gray-haired insurance adjuster named George who said he'd "been watching GH since the day it aired," had been properly responsive to the host, an overly enthusiastic buff guy in a tight baby blue T-shirt and faux-distressed jeans. He said cheer, they cheered. He said jump up and down, they did so. But when Vaughan, who accessorized his angular jaw and close-cropped hair with a casual brown T-shirt and jeans, took the stage, every dormant sexual feeling that had been hibernating in the long-unattended nether regions of Dallas' homemakers suddenly jolted awake. They didn't cheer, they screamed. They didn't jump, they leapt.

After the excitement died down, contestants came to the stage in groups of 10. Each was given a couple of minutes to improvise a monologue after a brief prompt: Your husband-to-be left you at the altar; you've been sentenced to jail for embezzlement; you've been accused of murdering your plastic surgeon, etc. Pulling off this kind of dramatic improvisation would be hard for trained actors. For nervous soap fans, the results were frequently nothing short of disastrous.

A tall brunette was asked to pretend she'd just caught her husband cheating with her best friend. Gripping the microphone with all the other soap hopefuls looking on, she stammered, "I'm so mad I can't even be mad! You are my husband! And you are my best friend! I am so mad I can't say how mad I am!"

Sadly, Shelly's psyching-up attempts out in the parking lot didn't seem to help her much, either. Though she used to work with the Kim Dawson acting agency before getting married, shooting out four kids and moving to Denton, her acting chops seemed rusty. Looking every bit the part of a soap opera goddess with rail-thin legs, bouncing breasts and a long, blond ponytail, she couldn't get the talking part down. Just above a whisper, she spoke a variation of the sentence "Oh, John, how could you do this?" for 30 seconds.

"I choked! I was horrible!" she repeated over and over afterward to anyone who would listen. I sympathized; my own turn had been equally unnerving, though since I was auditioning with the blessing of Soap Net's publicity department, I wasn't going to win the thing anyway. No pressure. My scenario, given to me by the hunkster Vaughan himself: I meet my evil twin. In the five seconds I had to prepare, I decided the bitch is stealing my boyfriend. An entire realm of soap operatic possibilities, ranging from murder to organized crime to cancer, and I picked boring old boyfriend-stealing.

"You may be as hot and sexy as me," I announced to my invisible identical twin, "but you will never get your hands on my man!" Halfway through my tirade, I realized I was speaking in a classic "Oh, no you didn't!" daytime talk show voice, not in the velveteen lilt of a soap opera seductress. But I couldn't backpedal, so I added lots of snapping and hand-waving before making a dramatic 180-degree turn to the back of the stage.

"We'll have to put you on Passions," scoffed judge Michael Bruno, a professional acting coach and soap aficionado. I was shamed beyond shame; Passions features witches, elaborate dream sequences and numerous references to pop culture. It is a self-aware, goofy soap opera aimed at school-aged kids who want to laugh more than cry. I felt as though I'd let my mother down. How could I have watched so many years of GH and ended up totally unable to imitate Port Charles' ladies of note: Brenda, the Latina seductress, or at least the painfully whiny Emily Quartermaine? I can only hope it is merely my own tragic flaw and not a reflection on the years of quality soap instruction I received from my mother.

As the Fray's ubiquitous lite-rock hit "How to Save a Life" played on repeat over the Gilley's speakers, the crowd anxiously awaited the announcement of the winner. Fittingly, Dallas' Soap Star champ, who'd be making a trip to Los Angeles for the final competition, was a young woman named Vendetta. She'd produced a screeching performance of being left at the altar, delivered specifically to Vaughan at the judge's table. "Lucky! Don't leave me!" she had shouted, and we knew at that moment she had captured his heart.

Glassy-eyed and shaking, Vendetta contemplated the possibility that she might, maybe, if it all works out, win a walk-on role on Days of Our Lives: "This has been my dream, like, forever." Barely hiding her disappointment, Shelly repeated her new mantra, "I just choked up there," and made for the door. No convenient amnesia here. It just wouldn't be a real soap event if everyone lived happily ever after.