After starring for years on the soap opera “The Young and the Restless,” Maine-born actress Victoria Rowell is now making films and TV shows of her own. Photo courtesy of Victoria Rowell

Victoria Rowell’s life story has the sort of dramatic plot lines one would expect from the soap opera and TV dramas she’s starred in.

Born in Portland to a white mother and a black father, she was raised in foster homes after her mother was hospitalized for mental illness and her mother’s family declined to take her in. She does not know who her father is. She lived on a farm in the York County town of Lebanon, became devoted to dance and earned scholarships for it, but eventually became an actress. The height of her fame came in the 1990s and early 2000s, when she starred on both the CBS soap opera “The Young and the Restless” and the prime-time mystery drama “Diagnosis Murder” with Dick Van Dyke.

Then, around 2007, she left “The Young and the Restless,” and several years later filed a lawsuit saying she was pushed out because she was too outspoken about the treatment of black actors and characters on the show. The show’s producers denied the charge and the suit was settled in 2017, but Rowell never regained her starring role. Instead, she has used her own production company to create films and TV shows, including a soap opera about the soap opera business called “The Rich and The Ruthless,” with a largely black cast. The series’ third season launches in May on the Urban Movie Channel and Amazon Prime video.

While becoming a star and then rebuilding her career, she’s spent much of her life searching for information about her father by scouring genealogy websites, newspaper clippings and any resources she can find. She also remains determined not to forget her past, nor the obstacles so many foster or abandoned children face. She has been an outspoken advocate for children’s causes, returning to Maine often in support of them. During a February visit to Portland, she visited with the Sisters of Mercy, who cared for her as an infant, as well as a group of youngsters from Good Will-Hinckley, an organization in Fairfield that houses and educates many foster children.

“I feel a lot of what I’ve accomplished in business comes from my foster-care experience, growing up on a farm in Maine,” said Rowell, 59, from her home in Los Angeles. “Planting and pulling potatoes, wrapping pipes with electrical tape, you had to learn to get things done. It prepared me to live and to do business.”

THE WOMEN WHO RAISED HER

Rowell was born in 1959 at Mercy Hospital in Portland, the fifth child born to Dorothy Collins Rowell, who was schizophrenic and had been in and out of psychiatric institutions, according to Rowell’s 2007 memoir “The Women Who Raised Me.” When she arrived at the hospital to give birth, Rowell’s mother left three other children under age 7 at home alone, prompting the state to investigate and eventually take the children from her. Two older boys went to live with one of their fathers, leaving the infant Victoria and her two dark-skinned sisters with nowhere to go. Her mother’s family, who can trace their lineage to the Mayflower, refused to take the girls, presumably because of their race (one of her aunts referred to them using a racial slur, according to her memoir), and they became wards of the state.

Victoria Rowell reads from her book ” The Women Who Raised Me” at Good Will- Hinckley in Fairfield in 2015. Photo by David Leaming

Before she was placed with a foster family, Rowell lived as an infant at Holy Innocents Home in Portland, run by the Sisters of Mercy. Later, she spent much of her childhood living with her sisters in the care of Agatha Armstead, an African-American woman who lived on a farm in West Lebanon and had already raised 10 children of her own. Rowell kept in contact with her birth mother, who died in 1983, but met her “no more than three times,” she says.

It was while living with Armstead that Rowell became interested in the arts, especially music and dance. With Armstead’s help, she won a Ford Foundation Scholarship to study ballet in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At 16, she earned a scholarship to the American Ballet Theatre school. She was supported in her artistic pursuits by her Maine-based social worker, Linda Webb. Rowell lived with various host families while studying dance away from Maine. But Armstead, who died in the 1980s, was her primary caregiver, and Rowell always came home to Maine.

While still in her teens, she danced professionally with the American Ballet Theatre in New York and then began modeling and acting. In the late 1980s, she had guest roles on TV hits like “The Cosby Show” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Then, in 1990, she landed the role of Drucilla Barber Winters on “The Young and the Restless” and remained on the show until 2007. During that time, she received 11 NAACP Image Awards for her portrayal of Drucilla. Around the same time, she started a foundation to help foster children, and its mission included providing dance scholarships to Maine youngsters. During the 1990s, she also appeared in movies, including “Dumb and Dumber.” In 1993, she began an eight-year run on “Diagnosis Murder,” playing a doctor who helps a fellow doctor, Van Dyke, solve crimes. She was prominent outside of entertainment as well. She hosted the Maine inaugural party in Washington, D.C., for President Bill Clinton in 1997, and she narrated a PBS documentary on foster children, “Take This Heart.”

‘RESTLESS’ AND REINVENTING

In 2007, producers of the “Young and the Restless” made Rowell’s character go insane, she said, as retaliation for her complaints about black characters being treated like “second-class” citizens on the show. In 2010, she attempted to get back on the show but was rebuffed, according to a lawsuit she filed against CBS and the show’s producers in 2015. Shortly after filing the suit, she told the Press Herald she felt she had to take legal action to continue her career. “I have exhausted all my avenues of seeking employment, and I had to do this. This is an attempt not only to regain my own employment, but to help others in the soap opera industry get in front of and behind the cameras.”

In the lawsuit, she asked to be at least reconsidered for a role on the show and for “reasonable damages,” including back pay. CBS and Rowell settled the suit in 2017, and Rowell said she would not discuss the terms. But she’s satisfied that the suit and settlement helped to curb “the disparity” between white and minority actors and crew on daytime TV.

“I’ve suffered the consequence of that disparity, but I’ve moved on and reinvented myself,” said Rowell.

Part of her reinvention is producing her own shows and films to star in, under the banner of her Days Ferry Productions, named for a picturesque village in Woolwich that Rowell happened to drive through one day. One project is the series “The Rich and the Ruthless,” which is a soap opera about the only black-run soap opera on TV. She plays soap actress Kitty Barringer, who stars on and co-owns the soap with her husband, played by Richard Brooks, best known as a prosecutor on NBC’s “Law & Order.” Rowell, who produces and directs the series as well, calls it a “dramedy” because it mixes melodrama and comedy.

In 2018, she produced and starred in a movie and six-part drama series called “Jacqueline and Jilly,” which  can be seen on UMC and streaming services. It’s the fictional story of a young woman who becomes addicted to painkillers after an accident and how that affects her family, including her Washington lobbyist father. Rowell, who plays the mother, said she got the idea to film a story about the opioid crisis after reading and hearing almost daily about the harm it has caused.

“I’ve seen and read about so many people lost to this, including lawyers, doctors, grandparents, actors, ” said Rowell. “I’ve been in this business for 30 years, and if I can’t make something that spotlights this, then I’m doing something wrong. I’m in show business, but it has to about more than making a buck.”

On her recent trip to Portland, she screened “Jacqueline and Jilly” at the Portland Museum of Art. She invited several Sisters of Mercy, who have been helping her as she searches for records of her birth and her father, as well as students and staff from Good Will-Hinckley. Begun in the 1880s as a home for needy boys, Good Will-Hinckley has some 250 children living and-or going to school on its Fairfield property. Rowell started visiting the organization more than a decade ago and goes back often to talk to the children.

“She’s had such a positive impact on our kids, and we are so thankful for her time,” said Robert Moody, president and executive director of Good Will-Hinckley. “The kids can relate to her, because she went through similar things and was able to rise above the chaos. Her message is always dream big, never give up.”

Rowell, who lives in Los Angeles, has two grown children. Her daughter, Maya, works in Hollywood for a company that recycles and reuses the materials used on film and TV sets. Her son, Jasper, is a composer and painter.

Rowell said now that she’s heading her own company, she’s constantly pitching ideas. She’d like to make a movie based on “The Women Who Raised Me,” and she’s also in discussions for a lifestyle and design show.

After acting for many years, she now has to run the business side of things as well. She not only has to find stories that will work well on screen, she has to figure out how to finance them and turn a profit. She says her Maine upbringing was good training for that.

“I’m a farmer from Maine,” said Rowell. “I’m from a tradition of Yankee frugalism, and I know that when you’re doing anything, you’ve got to turn over every stone.”

Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:

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