We Love Soaps: On screen this past year, Barbara’s story has been bittersweet. I took issue with the way Barbara’s age had been used as comic relief. I did not like the way the way Katie and Vienna spoke about Barbara at the beginning of her relationship with Henry.
Colleen Zenk: I didn’t either. When you read it on the page, it’s one thing. But when the actor says the words, there is often a different take to it. I was a little put out too when I would see the show air and see that they were really slamming me. I took some offense to it, as a woman of a certain age. I thought they were a little hard on me. All the stuff with looking in the mirror and moaning about how old I’m getting, that’s not how I am. At all. That’s how they wanted Barbara to play the story. I had a hard time with some of that stuff. I got used to it, but in the beginning I really fought it. I said, “Are you kidding me? You want me look in the mirror at my wrinkled face? I don’t have any wrinkles!" [Laughs]
We Love Soaps: It was confusing as a viewer. I didn’t quite know where they were going. We just saw Barbara worrying about aging and other characters making fun of her. It seemed cruel.
Colleen Zenk: I thought so too. But what I’ve heard from a lot of fans is that it made a lot of women feel more secure about themselves. They said, “If Barbara feels that way, then it’s not so strange that I feel that way too.” I think the lesson is that no matter where we are in our lives we have to find a way to feel good about who we are, how we present ourselves, and what our real worth is. And that is not necessarily what you see in the mirror.
We Love Soaps: There was a turning point though. There was a horrible fantasy sequence in which Barbara imagined herself quite a bit older. It portrayed such a fearful and cruel image of aging. Then in the second half of the same episode she resolves not to give in to her fears, bought a hot red dress, and Henry couldn’t keep his hands off her!
Colleen Zenk: That was really fun. My cocteau Sydney was in one of those scenes but he would up on the cutting room floor. It was a turning point. She decided, “I’m not going to let this get to me.” She resisted the fears and embraced there was this young guy that was interested in her. Not her at 30, or 40, or even 50. He accepts her for who she is.
We Love Soaps: That seemed like such a beautiful way to tie up Barbara’s story.
Colleen Zenk: I am so happy about that. I didn’t even go in and beg them for this ending. The writers gave me this love letter of a storyline that was so amazing to play these last months. They loved it too. Right after we were cancelled, Jean [Passanante] said to me, “I just wish we had discovered the two of you three years ago.”
We Love Soaps: Barbara is one of the characters that have helped me get through problems in my own life. Especially when facing adversity and struggle, it has been helpful to see this woman go through some of the worst traumas life can throw at her, and still continue to rise up and go forward year after year. This is one of the reasons I love soaps, and why as a therapist I believe soaps can promote and contribute to mental wellness.
Colleen Zenk: I completely agree with you. I think it’s one of the ways we have had a great influence on people over time. A lot of my mail is about that. It’s about what Barbara has overcome, and in the parallel universe what I have been overcome. I also have learned from Barbara.
We Love Soaps: What have you learned from Barbara?
Colleen Zenk: I learned from Barbara how to be a stronger woman. I learned from Barbara how not to take shit anymore. I learned from Barbara how to stand up for myself. I learned how to say no, and how to be the kind of mom I need to be for my children.
We Love Soaps: In 2010 I have seen you embrace social networking such as Twitter and Facebook. I have seen more mainstream media attention focused on you than ever before. How has that been for you to be in such a public spotlight?
Colleen Zenk: I’m grateful someone’s still paying attention to me because I’ve got to continue to work. I was asked at a party recently if I’m planning to retire. I looked at him and said, “Are you kidding?” No, I have a family to support. I am not a trust fund baby with things set for me, I never have been. I’ve always been a mom who works. That will continue.
The attention has been interesting. It started over a year ago it started with Henry and Barbara. I think the fact that the writers breathed such new life into Barbara put me back into people’s mind as far as being vital as a character, and vital as an actress. Another writer said, “Don’t you realize you are a gay icon?” I laughed, and said, “No I’m not.” I got off the phone, called some of my other gay writer friends and asked, “Is this true?” They said, “Of course, don’t you get it?” I had never thought of that before. I thought, “Well I’m very grateful.” That was surprising to me.
We Love Soaps: Are there any disadvantages of being so public?
Colleen Zenk: (Pause) Well my kids don’t like it all the time, my younger ones. I think sometimes fans think they know more about you than they really do. They make presumptions about certain things in your life that are not true. You just have to overlook them. Just say, “Well, they don’t know. If they knew, they wouldn’t be saying this.” It’s hard when there’s only a certain amount of information about certain things that get out there and it might put you in a bad light because all the information is not known.
We Love Soaps: Will your one woman show incorporate your real life struggles?
Colleen Zenk: Yes. My one woman show is about opening new windows, and finding new life. It’s about changing in your world, and becoming someone you never thought you were. It’s about finding someone better than who you thought you were. It’s about rediscovery, not unlike what Barbara has recently been through. Only what I’ve been through has more heartache...and not as many kidnappings.
We Love Soaps: Any plans to write the Colleen Zenk book anytime soon?
Colleen Zenk: I will start to wrap my brain around that. I think there is a tale to be told on many many levels. I think there are lessons that I can learn along the way that as I put it down on paper for myself. We are all learning. It’s all a journey.
We Love Soaps: What do you do to take care of yourself?
Colleen Zenk: I have to get back to doing my nightly ballet barre. I use weights for my arms and try to keep myself as physically in shape as possible. The rest of it is what has been hard this year. And last year. And the year before. It’s been a rough four and a half years.
We Love Soaps: Yet you still continue to stand up, to dance, to shine. I think this perhaps is why people feel more drawn to you, and your “gay icon” status is sustained. You shine despite the hardships.
Colleen Zenk: Some people would say it’s my Pollyanna attitude. Or I’m an ostrich. I think it’s partly that I’m a positive person and I look for the joy. If you can’t find the joy in what you’re doing, then why are doing it? If you can’t find joy in every second, why are bothering? After cancer, that’s what you look for. I’ll tell you something. Cancer, and what I have been through in my own marriage, is what enabled me to play what I played with Barbara this past year. The freedom Barbara had was because of what Colleen was going through. I never would have been able to play Barbara and the joy that you saw in her these last few weeks. That never would have been the way I would have been able to play that, even a year ago. It’s had a tremendous influence on my work.
We Love Soaps: If you could go back to 32 years ago at this time and give yourself a piece of advice, what would that be?
Colleen Zenk: I can’t say, “Enjoy it while you have it,” because I always did. I will say that in the middle years, in my 30s, I wish I had not been ungrateful for my job at that point. I resented having to go into work instead of seeing it as a great joy. I continued to look for the grass being greener, and realized that it was bright green under my feet. It took me a number of years to come around to that. I also made a ridiculous statement early on. I said, “I will never turn into an Eileen Fulton.” In print I said that! What an obnoxious thing to say! An obnoxious young actor thing to say. If someone said that about me now I would slap ‘em [laughs]. It was not appreciating what all the actors there had done and what they had contributed.
We all affect each other. I have been living with this fictional character named Barbara Ryan for 32 years. I have had the great joy and privilege of portraying her all these years. Barbara has inhabited me as well. I have certain played her, but she has a profound effect on me in all the positive ways. I’m going to miss her.
CBS's "World" stopped turning this week, but yours doesn't have to! Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist specializing in Grief/Loss work and is now taking new clients in New York City at Mental Health Counseling & Marriage And Family Therapy Of New York. He is also the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve."