"Ommigod, are you the new soap star?" squeals "One Life to Live" star Bree Williamson.
She's being introduced to the winner of Soap Net's competition show, "I Wanna Be A Soap Star," who's on the set of the ABC daytime series to meet with executive producer Frank Valentini and casting director Julie Madison.
At this moment, on a particularly rainy June morning, the competition has just started airing on the cable channel (the show started taping back in February) but the winner is already preparing to start work on "One Life" in a couple of weeks — the big prize.
There's a clandestine feel in the West 66th Street studio, much like a great soap opera cliffhanger, with publicists trying to keep the show's stars mum about the visitor.
But the excitement on the set is palpable, as one cast member after another takes time to meet and greet their newest player, who's visibly impressed by the reception.
"I've been dreaming about this moment for a long time," beams the new soap star.
Of course, we're keeping mum here, too, so as to not spoil the show's third-season finale, airing Thursday at 11 p.m. Eastern on Soap Net. Earlier Thursday, ABC will air a special recap of the competition, "Guess Who's Coming to Llanview," in the timeslot of "The View." And on Friday, the soap star debuts on "One Life."
Getting to this place hasn't been easy, and not just for the winner. The process has been just as difficult for the judges and the show's creative staff.
"We're looking for someone who has star quality, first and foremost," says Valentini. "The interesting thing about a show like `Soap Star' is that you're not only judging each individual actor on his or her abilities, but you're also throwing them up against the rest of the (`One Life to Live') cast."
And so far, the top "Soap Star" picks from the past two seasons have definitely had the right elements.
After his initial 13 weeks on "General Hospital," first-season winner Mykel Shannon Jenkins was signed to an additional 13 weeks. He's also landed commercial work and guest roles in prime time, including this fall's new ABC comedy "Help Me Help You."
Second-season winner Alec Musser ended up on "All My Children" and is now a series regular with a multiyear contract.
Now, for season three, it's down to New Yorkers Kelly McGarry and Mikey Jerome, both of whom have survived such rigorous soap opera challenges as kissing on cue — and doing it convincingly — to feigning amnesia and coming back from the dead.
The judges — including Madison, former soap actress Debbi Morgan and soap star manager Michael Bruno — agree that selecting the champion this season wasn't easy.
"As in daytime television — and television and film in general — there is no one voice in the casting process," says Bruno, "and the one I really like may not be the one who gets it."
For Madison, it wasn't necessarily about beauty or acting ability, but rather "finding someone that had something special."
"In the end," she continues, "it was painful to watch people that we grew to know, and get rid of them when maybe they should have been the one who won. It's just that day, with that challenge, they happened to do something that they shouldn't have done, and that was hard."
The most enjoyable job may have been for "One Life" head writer Dena Higley, who had to work the new soap star into the show's plot.
"It was kind of a challenge to me not to know until the competition was all over whether it was a guy or a girl," she says. "It was almost like solving a puzzle, how am I going to do this? But I love those kinds of challenges; it's fun for me."
At a restaurant near ABC's studio, the winner gets treated to a celebratory lobster lunch, courtesy of Soap Net, and on the way out a waitress nabs the winner by the door.
"Hey, aren't you on that show?" the waitress says. She had been keeping up with the early episodes of the competition.
The new soap star gives a knowing grin.
"I knew, I knew you," the waitress says, chatting wildly.
Already a soap star is born.