I used to resent soap operas.
Growing up in a black household meant you were bound to encounter what my grandmother’s generation referred to as “the stories”. For me, they were battles, with me on the frontlines defending the right to watch Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network or Kids WB. They were losing campaigns; whenever I turned my attention to something else, like an impromptu nap, the channel would change to CBS.
On that channel would be The Young and the Restless, the #1 rated daytime drama for longer than I’ve been alive. Once it was on, there was no changing back. Grandma’s stories had taken over for the next couple of hours and the only option was to sit back and try and follow along. By way of numbers, I became more familiar with the soap operas that she switched to on ABC after The Young and the Restless ended: All My Children (my personal favorite), One Life to Live, and General Hospital. However, those shows didn’t have what Y&R had: the Winters family.
Of course, as an adolescent trying to figure out how to get back to Rocko’s Modern Life before my mom picked me up to go home, I didn’t register their impact back then. As a teenager and young adult who fully embraced soap operas, and then moved on from them after they were gutted by creatively bankrupt television executives, I still didn’t. It wasn’t until the news of Kristoff St. John’s passing that, after the shock abated, I was able to process what it meant for him to even exist, even if I didn’t follow him as closely as did Erica Kane, or Tad and Dixie Martin, or Sonny Corinthos.
St. John began on The Young and the Restless in 1991 as Neil Winters, a promising young executive trainee at Jabot Cosmetics, one of Genoa City’s most prominent businesses. Neil was an upwardly mobile, overachieving, tightly wound black man; that alone made him revolutionary on Y&R and on soaps in general. He was professional, but had a street-wise sensibility that made him feel authentic. He was also condescending, misogynistic, and a hypocrite. In other words, he was as complex as Victor Newman and Jack Abbott, and played with St. John’s simmering charisma, utterly watchable. Neil was quickly thrown into the show’s only black love triangle, between Drucilla Barber (Victoria Rowell), her sister Olivia Hastings (Tonya Lee Williams) and Olivia’s husband Nathan (Nathan Purdee), as a fourth wheel. The chemistry between him and Drucilla, a wrong-side-of-the-tracks foil to the princess-like Olivia, was undeniable, and they soon evolved into the show’s first Black supercouple. The show built upon that foundation in 1994 with the introduction of Neil’s troublemaking brother Malcolm, played by Shemar Moore. Malcolm quickly developed an interest in Drucilla, and one night, after she took an overdose of cold medication, the two slept together. The storyline would’ve certainly and deservedly destroyed Malcolm today, but in 1994, it was a blockbuster, frontburner plot that resulted in a classic “who’s the father” story with devastating implications for the burgeoning family. The stakes were astronomically high when Lily Winters was born, and the mystery of her parentage was a low-boil pressure cooker that would take a decade to explode.
There were significant Black characters on soaps before; Jesse and Angie Hubbard were a minted supercouple on All My Children in the 80’s, and before becoming everyone’s favorite coroner on Law and Order: SVU, Tamara Tunie’s Jessica Griffin’s marriage to Duncan McKechnie was one of daytime’s first interracial unions. But the Winters family set a new course for what a Black character could be on daytime television. Throughout the 90’s and early 00’s, Neil, Drucilla, Malcolm and Olivia regularly drove A-plot stories. They weren’t segregated; they had plenty of their own drama, but they were also deeply involved in the machinations of the core Abbott and Newman families. When their companies went to war, so did Neil and Dru on opposite sides (Dru with Jabot, Neil with Newman). Their storylines were built on their unique strengths and weaknesses, instead of relying on tired tropes and stereotypes based on their Blackness. We got to see the Winters family be their messy selves, being unapologetically Black in the process (you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Drucilla cuss someone out, like she did her sister’s mistress Keesha Monroe). It was radical back then, and it still is.
To Y&R’s great shame, the Winters family degraded in the mid-00’s. Olivia was transitioned off-canvas. Malcolm was killed off in 2002 and brought back in 2005 for a disappointing run that culminated in the reveal that Lily was indeed his daughter. In 2007, the writers made the shocking and frankly unforgivable decision of firing Victoria Rowell and killing off Drucilla, leaving Neil a widower. Neil and his children Lily and Devon remained on the show, but they didn’t command story like they had in their heyday. Attempts to change that were half-hearted rehashes of old storylines (the less said about Sofia Dupre, the better). Through the ups and downs, St. John consistently delivered great performances, even when the material failed him (he was nominated for nine Daytime Emmys in his lifetime, winning twice in 1993 and 2008). In 2014, the tide turned and Neil was forefront again, with a new young wife Hilary Curtis who was in love with Devon, and suffering from blindness after being electrocuted. Hilary and Devon’s affair while Neil was blind was soap opera dynamite, and St. John was revitalized, turning in electrifying performances that landed him three consecutive Daytime Emmy nominations. It wasn’t the 90’s, but at least the Winters family was of real consequence again.
The Young and the Restless’ reign as the most successful daytime drama has gone unchallenged since 1988. For a key constituency, one of the reasons is both obvious and obscure. Neil Winters and his family were unlike anything else on daytime, and with few contemporaries on primetime as well. The Winters were a family of significance that could drive compelling story and use it to speak lovingly to the Black experience. For Black audiences, they affirmed our stories’ power and value. For others, they showed that we could be messy and complicated too, and deserved dignity regardless. For 27 years, Kristoff St. John lead a quiet revolution on television, advancing Black representation through his reliably impactful talent. His loss leaves a hole in the fabric of the genre that may not last long enough to be filled.
Wherever daytime goes from here, Kristoff St. John’s legacy is beyond value, for me, my grandmother, and millions of us who followed his “stories”.