Soap Opera Actress Sues Over Not Being Considered for Reemployment

Victoria Rowell says she went to "Herculean efforts" to reprise her role as Drucilla on "The Young and the Restless," including communicating with Leslie Moonves and Michael Lynton.

Victoria Rowell, who played Drucilla Barber Winters on The Young and the Restless for 14 years, has filed an entertaining if seemingly challenged lawsuit over the way that producers and the broadcaster of the soap, plus sister soap The Bold and the Beautiful, allegedly rebuffed her attempt to get rehired.

The legal claim against Sony Pictures Television, Bell Dramatic Serial Company, Bell-Phillip Television Production Inc. and CBS Corporation is retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, and Rowell says the motivation for refusing to cast her again was that she's advocated to increase the presence of African-Americans both in front of and behind the camera in soap operas.

Rowell says she appeared in over 2,000 episodes since she won a role on Y&R, has "rewritten thousands of lines of dialogue" on the show on an uncredited and unpaid basis, and won numerous awards including Daytime Emmy's.

During her time on the show, she says her advocacy work included campaigning to have black actors in the front row for press photos, urging that black journalists be included in the show's press corps, and lobbying for a black hair stylist. She says she began winning press attention for her efforts for change around 2003. She's also written a memoir.

The complaint details some of the problems she had as an actress on the show, like unsuccessful efforts to officially become a writer on Y&R or to direct episodes. She says white actors got the chance, while she was rebuffed. Then, there's the time one actress wore an "oversized Afro wig to mock Ms. Rowell's Afro-styled hair," the time "producers reinforced the hair-mocking incident by depicting Ms. Rowell's hair as falling out on camera," and the time where producers "suddenly created a storyline wherein Ms. Rowell's character became insane ... placed in a straight jacket on camera and dragged to an asylum."

Rowell says she couldn't take rejection and abuse any longer and left in 2007.

But years later, after she says a Y&R blog asked which actress fans wanted back on the show, and after defendants allegedly solicited other actresses who looked like Rowell who could play Drucilla, the plaintiff says she approached the defendants to obtain reemployment. "But despite her Herculean efforts as set forth below, she has been unsuccessful," says the complaint.

Those efforts are said to have gone as high up as CBS CEO Leslie Moonves. "Mr. Moonves responded that he no longer was involved in programming or casting for those shows, and suggested that she seek help elsewhere," states the lawsuit. "The suggestion that CBS was not involved in decision-making was not true."

Rowell says that Samuel L. Jackson advocated for her, and that she even had an "impromptu meeting" with Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton, who supposedly said, "I won't overstep anyone I put in charge," putting her on what's called a "wild goose chase to Screen Gems, an arm of Sony that produces and releases films oriented toward racial minorities, among other genres."

In the lawsuit, Rowell cites all sorts of statistics about racial discrimination behind the camera like the lack of African-American head writers on soap operas or that "fifteen of [Sony's] 17 most highly compensated personnel are white," but whether or not Rowell raises fair points about the discrimination she's personally seen or heard about through media reports, she still figures to face many big hurdles before winning the case. For one thing, does retaliation include actions against an ex-employee who wishes to get rehired? For another, has she even shown that the retaliation was due to her activism and not some other possible reason?

Plus, there's obviously the First Amendment roadblock, best illustrated by a judge's opinion over alleged racial discrimination on The Bachelor. "Casting decisions are a necessary component of any entertainment show's creative content," wrote the judge in that case. "The plaintiffs seek to drive an artificial wedge between casting decisions and the end product, which itself is indisputably protected as speech by the First Amendment. Thus, regulating the casting process necessarily regulates the end product. In this respect, casting and the resulting work of entertainment are inseparable and must both be protected to ensure that the producers' freedom of speech is not abridged."

Rowell's lawsuit seeks an order to re-employ her "or at least to consider her seriously for reemployment," plus back pay and an award for mental anguish. It was filed in New York federal court by attorneys at Valli Kane & Vagnini, Hadsell Stormer & Renick, and Mehri & Skalet.

CBS says in a statement, "We were disappointed to learn that, after leaving the cast of The Young and the Restless on her own initiative, Ms. Rowell has attempted to rewrite that history through lawyers' letters and a lawsuit that has no merit.  We harbor no ill will toward Ms. Rowell, but we will vigorously defend this case.”

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner

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