Dana Kennedy
April 22, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

For 24 years, Susan Lucci has reigned supreme over daytime as Erica Kane, the superbitch of ABC’s All My Children, and carved out thriving secondary careers as a movie-of-the-week queen, a Ford pitchwoman—and the world’s most famous Emmy loser. Yet while any story line written for Erica would undoubtedly end in triumph, with her finally clutching the statuette, real life has not been so kind to Lucci, whose failure to be nominated for a Daytime Emmy this year, after 13 straight nods and losses, has sent soap watchers scrambling for the story behind the story.

Though no one in the industry believes Lucci, 45, has lost her touch, her absence from the ballot may indicate the difficulty of aging on the soaps and the shows’ need to replenish themselves with younger blood. An unusually high percentage of names on the Emmy slate this year are newcomers, while both Lucci’s longtime costar David Canary, 54 (who has won the Outstanding Lead Actor award four times), and three-time Outstanding Lead Actress winner Erika Slezak, 47, of ABC’s One Life to Live, are missing. ”There’s always a concern with older characters-they worry about being pushed to the background,” says L. Virginia Browne, former head writer for Another World and The Guiding Light.

Reports from the AMC set suggest Lucci may indeed be less than sanguine about reaching middle age. In fact, some say All My Children could be renamed All About Eve. Since the introduction to the series last year of Sarah Michelle Gellar, 17, as Erica’s long-lost, bad-seed daughter, Kendall, some say Lucci has begun to act a bit like Eve‘s threatened Margo Channing. Gellar, a Lucci look-alike with the same flair for venomous scenery-chewing, is apparently vexing Lucci: At one point, she did not appear in scenes with the teenager for six or seven weeks.

Gellar’s arrival underscores the power-and frailty-of that soap-opera staple, the wicked diva. Soap bitches often begin as ingenues and the transition to maturity can be a rocky one. Eileen Fulton, 60, has played the soaps’ original bitch, Lisa, on As the World Turns for 34 years-but quit three times before reconciling herself to the fact that she was no longer the show’s superstar (her contract once contained a clause that Lisa would not become a grandmother). Fulton has been back on the show since 1984, but says she is sometimes ”annoyed when the writers don’t see the importance of me.”

Lucci still dominates AMC, the No. 2 soap, but her rumored insecurity could not have been eased when Gellar was nominated for an Outstanding Younger Actress Emmy this year. (To make matters worse, Lucci’s costar Julia Barr was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress.) Sources say the friction with Gellar began shortly after her arrival 13 months ago-when, at the conclusion of a rehearsal, a director told Gellar to punch up the scene. No one communicated this to Lucci, who became upset during the taping, accusing Gellar of trying to upstage her.

Even though many of Lucci’s highly charged acting exchanges with Gellar are deemed some of her strongest work in years, Felicia Minei Behr, AMC‘s executive producer, says she has refused to send out any clips of the pair together for publicity purposes because she was afraid it might diminish the story line. Behr, to whom an AMC publicist referred calls regarding Lucci, denies any trouble between the two actresses and says Lucci is ”the most gracious woman who ever walked the earth.” Others believe it is Lucci who doesn’t want to promote scenes with Gellar. ”She is a very hot button at ABC,” says one soap-industry insider. ”She’s paid over a million dollars a year, and she’s pretty powerful.”

For years, Lucci was famous for not abusing that power, renowned for her ability to get along with the rest of the cast. But some of the glowing stories have been replaced by tales of feuds with costars other than Gellar and her role in the temperamental dismissal of the show’s hairdresser.

If Gellar doesn’t win an Emmy this year, she certainly deserves an award for diplomacy. She’s well liked on the set and believed by some to be getting a raw deal from Lucci. While skirting the issue of tension, she says she owes her nomination to Lucci. ”It was because of her-it was the work we did together,” she says. ”She’s a superstar. I could never take Susan’s place. I have no intention of doing so, nor could I ever hope to.” But would Lucci think that sounds just like something Eve might say?

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