Wednesday, September 21, 2011

insights: what I learned from susan lucci

Susan Lucci stars as Erica Kane on the ABC daytime drama "All My Children"
Ernest Borgnine. Please.”

I was looking up at the handler who was staring at me holding her clipboard amidst the organized whirling chaos backstage in the QVC Studios.

“You want Ernest Borgnine? Tova’s husband?” She asked.

“Yes, Ernest Borgnine. Please.” I nodded my head at her emphatically.

She scrolled her finger down the list of celebrities who were on hand for this big night.  “Okaaaaaay. Um, we have a long lost of celebrities joining us tonight. Should I bring you Marie Osmond? Richard Simmons? Tommy Tune?”

I nodded my head “Yes, later” I whispered but right now to keep on schedule we needed Ernest Borgnine.

The handler spoke into her headset. “Ernest Borgnine backstage to MSN Live please. Someone please find Mr. Borgnine.”

We were in Pennsylvania backstage at QVC hosting a live event with the celebrities who had products featured on the shopping channel. On this cold winter’s night a plethora of celebrities were on hand to celebrate the grand opening of the new QVC complex.

The MSN Live set was positioned just off stage where the stars would swing by to chat with fans worldwide just after they stepped off stage where they talked with the QVC hosts about their latest hair product, album, workout video, or perfume.

Earlier that morning our team had arrived in Pennsylvania and we were given a tour of this well organized gigantic space. A QVC team was dedicated to us that day as we determined a good place to host the live celebrity interviews. We had a set that included  a backdrop, a table, chairs and signage. While there was extensive media backstage, MSN Live would be the first media the celebrities spoke with as they wrapped their segments. L. (my husband) was the executive producer on this night and worked closely with the QVC Talent Handler as I (as Dish Diva) hosted the live chat with several of our Live moderators. Typically MSN Live featured one guest per show (Jennifer Lopez, Mr. Rogers, Matthew McConaughey) as we took questions live from fans around the world but on this night we were a packed show executed with military precision.

This evening was surreal. Richard Simmons spotted us as he exited the stage and came running over to our set, dewy from having just led a live workout routine. He hugs BIG. He means it. Tommy Tune was tall and elegant. Ernest Borgnine was infatuated with his wife, Tova. We all watched smiling as ‘Ernie’ was backstage glued to the monitor watching his wife Tova promote her perfume. My grandfather (a WWII veteran) was a big fan of “McHale’s Navy” and as I was sitting onstage with Ernest Borgnine next to me I know my grandfather would have been tickled pink seeing us together. I imagine he would have said smiled at me, shook Ernest’s hand and said to me “Good job, kid.  Good job.”

Everything, however, was leading up to Susan Lucci, the daytime star of “All my Children.” Of the thousands of live questions coming in for the night’s celebrities (from fans around the world), over 75% were for Susan. Our team carefully watched the monitor as Susan was on set with the QVC host as I chatted with the fans about what was happening backstage and posed Susan Lucci trivia. As Susan wrapped her segment. L. gave me the ‘we’re rolling’ sign and I started typing the intro we had prepared. I looked up and saw that all the photographers who had been milling about backstage were now focused on Susan as she walked towards our set.

The first thing I noticed is that Susan is tiny. She is really tiny but a powerhouse. A force. With the handler and L. accompanying her on either side, Susan walked towards us surrounded by photographers and flashbulbs. She glides like a movie star, effortless. She sat next to me, shook my hand and smiled, her eye contact genuine and happy.

Here is what struck me next: Three feet in front of us crouching down were at least a dozen photographers and flashbulbs. I looked up and I felt literally like a deer in headlights. I couldn’t think with this much distraction. Photographers were calling her name “Susan! Susan! Susan look this way! Susan over here!” Susan, however, wasn’t fazed. She rested her hand on my wrist and said my name “Taylor?” I looked to my left and blinked. I saw stars. Susan said “Taylor” and looked me straight in the eyes and smiled. It was as if the two of us were having tea in her living room settled in on her Chintz sofa looking out at Long Island Sound. There were nothing but she and I. The photographers, the lights, the publicists, the heat, the organized chaos--all were gone. This was baffling to me. Even throughout the interview there were still media calling her name but she never once blinked at the sound of her name. She never once looked beyond us to see what or who was next on her list of interviews. Susan Lucci was present. Totally, completely, absolutely present.

Have you ever been to a party or in a bar or you run into one of your company’s VP’s in the cafe at work or any event really where you are talking with someone one-on-one and during the entire conversation they are looking over your shoulder to see if someone more important is coming their way? This has happened to me and I feel so belittled that I want to stop the conversation and say something like “And then I finally understood Super String Theory and created a wormhole. This weekend I was in the year 2076.”

What I learned from Susan Lucci is something I have carried with me since that winter’s night. Susan is present in a situation. She is able to focus on the task at hand without being distracted by the flashbulbs or the paparazzi or what will happen next. She makes you feel important, that there is nowhere else in the world she would rather be than with you at that moment. Susan Lucci makes you feel special. It is amazing being on the receiving end of this beam of sunshine.

After this evening at QVC we had the opportunity to interview Susan a number of times at the Daytime Emmy Awards and the ABC Super Soap Weekend at Walt Disney World and that night at QVC wasn’t an anomaly. As we stopped by Susan’s autograph booth at Disney’s MGM Studios we saw that Susan took time with every fan who stopped by for an autograph. Even with hundreds of fans screaming her name and taking her picture, even if it was just for 30 seconds, each fan was on the receiving end of Susan Lucci’s extraordinary high beam smile focused just on them. Remember what it was like to have your favorite teacher smiling at you and patting you on the shoulder after handing you your A grade term paper? Or your grandmother being the enthusiastic person standing clapping at your high school graduation? Or the first moment you locked eyes with your partner across a loud room of sorority sisters at that fall fiesta party? It’s like that. It’s a gift.

As “All my Children” signs off the air this week, from one happy girl to another I’d like to thank Susan Lucci for teaching me how to be present, for showing me how to make someone else feel like they are important, that they are truly the light of my life even for one brief happy moment.

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