It seems like half a lifetime ago. And it was. Joanna Johnson was 25 when the CBS daytime soap The Bold and the Beautiful debuted in 1987 and she quickly emerged as one of the show's brightest and most romantic stars, first as doomed heroine Caroline Spencer, then as her identical twin Karen. Johnson later had big success behind the camera — she created the Kelly Ripa-Faith Ford sitcom Hope & Faith and has written and co-exec produced ABC Family's Make It or Break It and USA Network's Fairly Legal — but now, at age 50, she's back on B&B in a startling story about how Karen has been living a secret life as a lesbian. Here, for the first time, Johnson is ready to admit that she went years harboring the same secret. Yep, she's gay, too.
TV Guide Magazine: With this announcement you seem to be the only officially "out" star currently in daytime soaps, even though the shows are loaded with gay actors. What's up with that?
Joanna Johnson: Daytime is a whole different world than primetime or theater or film. There's a greater intimacy between the viewers and the characters. They think you are your character. And that creates a lot of fear. Fear of rejection. I was so worried I wouldn't be employable as an actress if people knew I was a lesbian. Or that I wouldn't be believable in romance stories. I had to deal with a lot of self-loathing.
TV Guide Magazine: How bad did it get?
Johnson: After I started playing Karen, I remember doing a fantasy scene that showed what life would have been like if Caroline had not died of cancer. She was married to Ridge [Ronn Moss] and had two kids and a wonderful life. When we finished shooting, I ran to my dressing room and just cried and cried because I knew I was never going to have that kind of life.
TV Guide Magazine: Yet you did!
Johnson: I did! I'm married to [L.A. club promoter] Michelle Agnew and we have two beautiful children, Julian, who is five, and Harlow, who is two. And now we're finding out that Karen is married to this great lady Dani [Crystal Chappell] and together they have raised her daughter Caroline [Linsey Godfrey]. So times have certainly changed. I guess that's why I'm ready to open up. It feels weird and wrong to play this revelation about Karen's life and not talk about my own. I used to hang out with Ellen Degeneres, k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge back in the day and thought it was so beautiful they were out, even though I didn't have the nerve. When I realized I was gay in my early twenties we didn't have role models like Ellen. I'm not anywhere near as famous as those ladies, but I guess it's my turn to do my little part. It's time to live a fully authentic life.
TV Guide Magazine: Did you feel any pressure to come out when you were around all those open women?
Johnson: I never felt any pressure from them. I think they understood my professional concerns because those concerns were very real. When Ellen came out she took a big hit. It certainly hurt her career as an actress. When Angelina Jolie said she was bi, it was sexy. The industry wanted her even more. It's quite another thing to say you're a lesbian. Back then anyway. I really admire the courage of people who have been out and noisy. I had to struggle to become proud.
TV Guide Magazine: If you could go back in a time machine, what would you say to your younger self?
Johnson: Have the courage to embrace who you are. Don't project your own fears and low self-esteem onto others. Let your light shine!
TV Guide Magazine: What were your thoughts when you found out Karen is gay?
Johnson: When [exec producer-head writer] Brad Bell called and pitched the story I was kind of thrown. I just said, "Oh." And there was this very long pause. Then I said, "Where'd you get that idea?" He laughed. I laughed. And I said, "Just make sure you get me a hot wife." And he did!
TV Guide Magazine: There's a scene coming up where Karen's a--hole brother Bill claims Dani is coming onto him. Knowing Bill, it's probably all in his mind, but would the show have the nerve to make Dani bi? Or would that be a PC nightmare, considering this is the first gay storyline in B&B's entire 25-year history?
Johnson: We shouldn't feel pressure to make Karen and Dani some paragon of virtue. I think the gay community would love to see us portrayed just like any straight couple, flaws and faults and all. I wouldn't be offended if Dani strayed with a guy. Not at all! Brad should look at that movie The Kids Are All Right and do something like that because it was fabulous. I want to play the truth of life. [Laughs] Who knows? Maybe Karen should make a play for Brooke! It's a soap! There's no drama in playing the perfect gay couple.
TV Guide Magazine: How are things going with you and Crystal?
Johnson: [Laughs] She's straight and she's more comfortable playing gay than I am! When we first met up at the show we had to shoot some photos — vacation-type snapshots of Karen and Dani to put on the mantel — and I felt kind of nervous and awkward. I think Crystal thought I was a little crazy but when I explained that I hadn't yet come out publicly, she got it and has been very lovely and supportive.
TV Guide Magazine: How long have you and Michelle been a couple?
Johnson: We've been together nine years and had our wedding in 2008 during the two minutes when same-sex marriage was legal in California. When we realized Prop 8 was going to pass, we thought we should try to get in under the wire and be part of the movement. So we ran down to the Beverly Hills courthouse in our workout clothes to get the license, only to hear it might be really hard to find someone to marry us before the election. There were all these other gay couples there, too, and somebody from the court comes out and says, "We're picking straws if there's anyone who wants to get married right now!" And Michelle and I won!
TV Guide Magazine: Well there's a sign from the universe!
Johnson: I know, right? We called our nanny to bring over our son, who happened to be in a pirate costume because it was Halloween, so there we were getting married in our workout clothes in this bizarre little room with a pirate and a male British nanny. It was all so surreal. Michelle had just bought a new iPhone so she took photos at the wedding, but then she decided to return the iPhone because she didn't like it and forgot our photos were in it! So now we have nothing. It was crazy! [Laughs] Someday maybe we can do it right.
TV Guide Magazine: Tell us about your kids.
Johnson: Our children are adopted and multiracial and so happy. They don't notice difference in skin color or nationality, or that some kids have two mommies and some two daddies and some have a mommy and a daddy. They only see human beings and that's a beautiful thing. This is the generation that will some day run the world.
TV Guide Magazine: Any worries about coming out now?
Johnson: Of course! I would be very sad and hurt if the B&B fans were disappointed I'm a lesbian, or somehow feel betrayed that I kept it secret. There is already a backlash from some unhappy people on Facebook about Karen being gay. They don't understand how she could have dated guys but then ended up with a woman. I certainly don't think it's unrealistic. I tried dating guys. [Laughs] I lived this story! It used to be that daytime was so much racier and progressive — soaps used to lead the way — and then all of a sudden things shifted, maybe because they feel the audience is more conservative than it used to be. So, yeah, I'm nervous. I hope the viewers will give this a chance.
TV Guide Magazine: Have you been open about your sexuality as a producer and writer?
Johnson: Absolutely. It's so much easier to be gay behind the scenes. As an actress I was always lying and avoiding. I never even told my agents. Back in the early days of B&B, I told nobody except for my good friend Susan Flannery [Stephanie]. I'm sure others in the cast suspected but I kept a distance because I feared their response. I'm sure [B&B creators] Bill and Lee Bell knew. They weren't stupid. Now I realize the Bells would never have held it against me. They hired a lot of gay and lesbian actors over the years.
TV Guide Magazine: Caroline had an epic love affair with Ridge. Karen had romances with Thorne and Connor. Ever have trouble playing the boy-girl stuff?
Johnson: Never. I've always been able to respond to men. I don't think I was cast on B&B because of my acting. It was my screen test with Ronn Moss where I turned bright red and was just smitten! He was so beautiful and charming back then — he still is! — and I would get downright giddy around him. [Laughs] I had a huge crush on Ronn, which only confused me more! I love men. I'm just not in love with them.
TV Guide Magazine: Did the rest of the cast eventually learn the truth about you?
Johnson: Gradually, but only after I came back to the show as Karen. I was the most nervous to tell Katherine Kelly Lang [Brooke]. She and I started out as the two ingénues of the show and we looked so much alike that people got us confused. In magazine photos they were always ID-ing her as me and vice versa, so much so that we started calling each other "Twin." Maybe it was hard for me to tell her because I felt she was what I was supposed to be — the beautiful girl with the great body, married to a guy, a mom. I don't know. I really struggled with that one, but it was all in my head. Katherine had no issues with me being gay whatsoever. She's a good dame, but I didn't know enough to trust that. When your own parents reject you, as mine did, you think the rest of the world will do the same.
TV Guide Magazine: So you came out to your parents?
Johnson: I told my mom when I was 23. She was the first person I ever told. It was the first time I ever said it out loud. This was before I'd ever had a relationship with a woman. Both she and my dad were very hard on me. Their response just broke my heart. My mother once said, "Can't you just be celibate?" I told her, "It's not so much about the sex. I don't want to live my life without love and partnership." Why would you want that for your child? Why would you want that for anyone?
TV Guide Magazine: Did it ever get better with your folks?
Johnson: Unfortunately, my mom passed away before we were able to come to peace with it, but my father did come around. He and I didn't speak for three years because of this. But, to his credit, he struggled through his beliefs and prejudices and came to realize I didn't do this to hurt him. He loves me and wants to be in my life. He loves Michelle and our children. It would be nice to say I didn't need that approval in order to love myself. But I did and that's my story. I'm here. I'm queer. [Laughs] And I'm just getting used to it!