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Suddenly Susan

After almost three decades portraying Erica Kane, Susan Lucci has—finally—won that elusive Emmy. But the actress still has other roles to conquer.

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Nine months after her debut as Erica, Lucci got married. She had first met Helmut Huber when she was 17 years old, and he was 29 and divorced. "I was working during the summer at the Garden City Hotel," she says, "and he was the executive chef. Right after that he became the director of food and beverages for the hotel chain. But he was there that summer, and I thought he was the smartest person in the entire hotel. I used to stand in the back of the cocktail lounge and listen to him speak German--he was born in Austria--to two German hostesses. I thought they were so worldly, so sophisticated, so attractive. And I thought Helmut was just a great, attractive older man. He thought I was a pretty little girl, but clearly I had not been around the block yet, and he had been several times. His friend told him to stay away from me, that I was too young. And he did."
That is, until a few years later. "He happened to be in the hotel the same evening my parents were giving my engagement party--I had become engaged to someone else--and my parents knew him through the hotel and they invited him to join us. He sat across from me all evening and I remember thinking that he's really very attractive, even more so now, and that I shouldn't be feeling like this if I'm engaged. I didn't know it at the time, but that evening Helmut leaned over to my mother and said, 'This thing between Susie and this boy is never going to last.' And he was right. I broke my engagement a couple of months later."
But it still took a while for she and Helmut to get together. "I started going out with a friend of his," she says. "One day Helmut and his friend were having lunch, and Helmut asked, 'What's new?" and the friend said, 'Well, did you hear about Susan Lucci? She broke her engagement.' My [future] husband excused himself from the table. He didn't know I was going out with this guy. He went to the telephone and called me. I wasn't home, so he left a message with my mother that he'd like to talk to me. When I called him, he asked me out for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. He was very decisive and funny and he made me laugh. But he came on too strong, and I was scared because I was newly free, so I told him I wouldn't go out with him anymore.
"So he went back to Europe for a couple of months. And when he came back he called me again and asked me to a black-tie dinner-dance. Now, this is going to sound so superficial--it's not the reason I married him--but when he arrived he looked so handsome. And that night he was speaking French and Italian and German with everyone. And there was a Viennese orchestra playing beautiful waltzes, and he taught me to waltz. And I thought, maybe I'll reconsider what I feel about him."
These days, Huber manages Lucci's business affairs, particularly the hair products. Lucci has a new product coming out this fall--a fragrance called Invitation, in both eau de toilette and eau de parfum variations. It will make its debut on the Home Shopping Network and on the Internet the weekend of September 26.
In addition to their Garden City home, she and Huber have a ski villa in Colorado and a 13,000-square-foot house in the Hamptons, on the eastern end of Long Island. "We built it for entertaining," she says. "By Hollywood, or even Hamptons, standards it's not enormous. It's just a nice house." They have two children, Liza Victoria, 23, and Andreas Martin, 19. "Andreas has just finished his freshman year in college," Lucci says. "Liza graduated from college with a degree in film production. She was going to be on the other side of the camera, but we encouraged her to try her hand at acting. And after a few weeks she landed a role on a new show called 'Passions,' on NBC."
Lucci and her husband enjoy traveling, and they are especially passionate about skiing. "The city I really love is Vienna," she says. "Of course, I'm with an Austrian who speaks the language and has a lot of friends there. But we also love to ski in wonderful places. One that's little known in this country is Ischgl, on the Austrian-Swiss border. The skiing is gorgeous--it feels like you're on a lemon-meringue pie. We also go to Lech in the Austrian Alps. And we go to a place outside of Salzburg called Hohe Tauern. That's great in the spring, because it's very high up and the snow comes very late."
It was in the Austrian Alps, almost two years ago, that Lucci first tasted a cigar. "I had been wanting to try a cigar for a long time," she says. "We were at a beautiful hotel, and we walked into the cocktail lounge and sat at the bar next to four men. My German is pretty good, but I'm in a dangerous place with it. But I knew the men were flirting, and they were smoking cigars, and I said to my husband that I think one of the men just offered me his cigar. I thought about taking it. Finally, I said no. But the bartender saw what was going on, and he came over with a humidor and opened it up. And because we were in Europe, all the cigars were Cuban. I could take my pick. So I took a Cohiba. And that was my first cigar."
She liked what she tasted. "It seemed a perfect choice," she says. "It felt great. It was a surprisingly wonderful experience. It was much smoother than I thought it would be. I liked it a lot."
Lucci has since, she says, become an aficionado of the atmosphere of smoking cigars. "I've always been really fascinated by men's clubs, and men's camaraderie," she says. "I love the repartee among men, and I love being around them. I like watching men smoke cigars. The aroma in the room is wonderful. Now, of course, women are smoking cigars, too, so I thought I'd try it. But I still prefer to be around a group of men and enjoy all of what they're doing. I can go to a great place like the Grand Havana Club, which is made for it, and have fun."
About 5 million people daily watch Lucci play Erica Kane on "All My Children." The program used to rank No. 1 among the daytime soaps, but these days it's No. 5 or 6, depending on the week's A.C. Nielsen numbers. The numbers, and the ratings, have gone down in recent years, as have the ratings of the other daytime dramas, because of competition for viewers from the tabloid-television talk shows, cable networks and the Internet. This past June, "Another World," a soap opera staple, was forced to end its run after 35 years and 8,891 episodes.
Another major reason for the decline in viewership was the murder trial of O. J. Simpson, a real-life television drama that for months dominated the nation's TV screens and preempted many of the afternoon soaps. Viewers, television executives say, learned to live without their daily dose of daytime drama; after the O. J. verdict, they filled their days with other activities.
And, of course, there are fewer housewives to tune in on weekday afternoons. More women work today than in the years after the Second World War, when the soap opera medium was born on television. And many of today's women are busy making deals in the boardroom.
For Lucci, this evolutionary process has its pluses and minuses. "After all," she says, "the ratings for prime-time network television are down as well. It's across the board, because of all that competition. But as an actress, it's not bad news. It just means the work is all spread out, that our horizons are broadened. And what's good news for our show is that in terms of demographics, we do very well with the 18- to 49-year-old audience, the most desirable one."
Those broadening horizons permit Lucci to consider her future as an actress. She plans to continue as Erica, she says, at least for the foreseeable future. "As long as I'm happy," she says, "I'll stay. And playing Erica has given me the opportunity to do many other things."
One of those things has to do with helping others, and plays an important role in her life. She devotes considerable time to raising funds for Little Flower Children's Services of New York, which covers Long Island and New York City, taking in abandoned children at its home in Wading River, on Long Island, and placing AIDS babies for adoption.
Lucci has appeared in a slew of television movies, such as French Silk (1994) and Blood on Her Hands (1998), once hosted "Saturday Night Live"--where she self-deprecatingly poked fun at her yearly Emmy misadventures--and guest-starred in the final season of "Dallas," playing a scheming seductress. And, of course, there are the commercials, the hair-care products and the new fragrance. There is also the new Erica Kane collectible doll from Mattel, called Champagne Lace Wedding, featuring one of Erica's series of bridal gowns.
But, she says, what she would very much like to do is act in a feature film, and perhaps star in a Broadway play. "That's always been in me," she says. "That's where my dream started. I listened to Broadway albums as a little girl. I learned all the lyrics. I acted all the parts. My heart is really there. I still think Tennessee Williams is one of the great writers for women's parts. I'd do Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof tomorrow."
A reporter once asked Lucci if Erica Kane would ever become old and gray. "She may," Lucci replied. "I won't."
Yet, Lucci cautions against our youth-obsessed culture. "I think people make a mistake when they look only at youth as the judge of attractiveness," she says. "Some of the people I admire most are the women and men who have gone before me. If you ask me who my idol is, I'll tell you Sophia Loren. This woman is gorgeous, and womanly, and warm, and fabulous. I can only hope at some point to possess the qualities she has. And I think Sean Connery is spectacular. And I don't know and I don't care how old he is."
Yet, she is idealized by a legion of fans for the way she has seemed to discover a personal fountain of youth. So how has she managed to keep looking good? "I think that for everybody the gene pool plays a huge part," she says. "My mother is a beautiful woman who still looks wonderful. I've watched her take very good care of herself. She set a very good example.
"I believe we are born with certain things, and it's up to us to take care of them. And I think if you start very young, and just take care of them every day, pretty soon those days add up."
For Susan Lucci, those days have added up to international stardom and a successful family life. 
Mervyn Rothstein, an editor at The New York Times, is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.
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