From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In their unending search for a bigger Nielsen and a brighter wash, soap operas have lately discovered a new type of damsel in undress. Teenagers, who used to worry only about prom dates on daytime TV, now regularly palpitate with passions once reserved for Mom and Pop and the nurse next door. Whether temptresses or victimized innocents, the soaps' precocious pubescents grow in number almost weekly—and that's no accident. With increasing numbers of U.S. women at work during the daylight time slots, college and high school students have become the new target audience and one not uninterested in the teen-sex issue. "We're after the kids," admits producer Gloria Monty, whose General Hospital on ABC has ridden the trend to the top of the ratings. "Most of the serials are going for a younger look, and we're no exception, "echoes Allen Potter, producer of CBS' The Guiding Light "We 're not saying that at 17 sex is okay. We're showing that most teenagers are not emotionally ready." For the young actresses cast in the roles, soap stardom has made them too sophisticated—or busy—to fall prey to the traumas they portray. Here are three of TV's loveliest cases in point:

Kelli Maroney: This Lolita wed her old man

"I'm pushing. I'm hungry. I want to try life. I want everything to happen right away," says 19-year-old Kelli Maroney, and that's her self-description on a slow day. Just after moving to New York from her native Minneapolis, Kelli was standing in an apartment-rental agency when she overheard that Ryan's Hope needed a nymphet. "I read for the casting director, then I had a screen test with the star John Gabriel," recalls Maroney. "They told me to be there the next day."

One year later, as Kimberly Harris, the series' manipulative minx, Kelli has been through two pregnancies (one faked, the other aborted) and a May-December marriage to Gabriel. She loves every minute of it, well aware that Ryan's Hope was the springboard to prime time for Kate (Mrs. Columbo) Mulgrew and Catherine (Marilyn) Hicks. "Eventually I'd like to represent standards of craftsmanship, beauty, elegance," says Kelli. "But let's face it. Right now I'm Lolita."

But mostly in daylight. "When I first got to New York," she relates, "a girlfriend and I went to Studio 54, waited 20 minutes in line on a freezing night and then discovered no one was inside. We decided we're just not disco people." As for romance, she's steady with a 30-year-old actor she met when his Irish wolfhound did a bark-on in Ryan's Hope. "What I'm looking for in a man," says Maroney pointedly, "is someone who has enough going for him to be at ease with himself."

Although the '78 yearbook from De La Salle High lists Maroney as the Catholic school's "biggest flirt," Kelli insists it was only a joke. Her mother, a Minneapolis bookkeeper (her late father taught high school economics and coached football), is sure she is nothing like her calculating soap character. "If I had any doubts, I'd be anxious," Mom admits. "But Kelli couldn't tell a white lie without it being written all over her face." She did know by 15, though, that she wanted to act. "But I was petrified—in the Midwest you don't just come out and say you're going to be an actress." She nabbed her first role, as a nun, in a Tyrone Guthrie Theater adaptation of Ibsen's The Pretenders, then spent a year studying drama at the University of Minnesota and at a Catskills summer Shakespeare workshop before venturing fatefully into New York.

"Everyone who makes it has a Cinderella story. I realize I fell into this," says Maroney, who says she's "trying to identify with friends and kids who are still fighting to find jobs." For now that means a small studio apartment and preoccupation with career over everything else. Kelli studies acting, voice and dance. She confesses, "At times, I'm almost baby hungry, but I'm not ready for marriage." Appropriately, this TV sex kitten likens herself to her own two cats: skittish, hyperactive Jennifer and plump, self-satisfied Max. "Jennifer is me as a struggling young actress," figures Maroney. "And Max is what I'll be like when I've really made it."

Kristen Vigard: Innocence lost, Nielsens won

When she played out her big love scene on The Guiding Light last August, her grandmother cried all day about what was happening to her "little Kristen." That romance was just the beginning. No sooner had Kristen Vigard (as the show's troubled Morgan Richards) lost her virginity than she ran away from home and wound up in the thrall of Chicago pimps. "It's not that shocking," defends Kristen. "I'm just representing teen life. Kids my age and younger are sleeping with each other, though people try to pretend it doesn't go on," she continues. "And there are a lot of runaway girls who arrive at the New York bus station from mid-America and who don't understand when someone comes up to them and says, 'Would you like me to buy you a cup of coffee?' "

Kristen, whose apparent ivory innocence belies her sophistication, would be wise to that kind of two-bit come-on. For starters, she is the niece of the militant feminist artist-author Kate Millett. "I grew up with feminism," says Vigard. "It was a shock that people had to speak out for those rights." Then, too, she was a world traveler while still a toddler, trekking to Hong Kong and the Far East with her businessman father. But surely Kristen's most maturing experience was an operation last year to correct scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. "They make an incision from neck to butt, put two hooks in your spine, connect four-inch-long steel bars and then jack them straight," explains Kristen, who required five more painful months in a body cast. Although the surgery left her back rigid, she's able to skate, ski and ride horses. Her only complaint is that she now triggers airport metal detectors.

Vigard has had a similar effect on casting agents for years. A native of St. Paul, Kristen grew up in Manhattan with her mother, actress Mallory Jones, after her parents separated when she was 5. She made her debut with Off Broadway's experimental La Mama troupe at 6—playing a carrot. Scarcely vegetating, she since played the lead in the out-of-town tryout of Annie, made it to Broadway last year with Liv Ullmann in I Remember Mama and was memorable as Henry Fonda's granddaughter in the CBS movie Home to Stay.

These days Kristen juggles her soap work with classes at the private Baldwin School and, for fun, believes "there's nothing like going to a really good club and dancing like crazy." Except, perhaps, communing with nature. "My girlfriend and I just get on a bus and find a place to camp out," says Vigard, who rhapsodizes about once skinny-dipping under a waterfall at midnight.

Kristen would have the world believe that all parts of her young life aren't quite as idyllic though. "Ask anyone in the city—it's not easy to find a boyfriend," she observes. "But I'm not champing at the bit. I'm going to have enough problems with romance the rest of my life," she adds sensibly. "And when I'm ready to get married, I'm not going to take some neurotic New Yorker. I want a true Minnesota boy. They're genuine."

Genie Francis: Was it rape or seduction?

As the precociously passionate Laura Webber Baldwin, Genie Francis, 18, has given her all to resuscitate the once-ailing General Hospital. She had an early affair, fought with another lover who made eyes at her mother (he died in a fall), then ran off with the guy she says raped her in one of daytime TV's most argued-about scenes. In short, Laura should maybe have Genie's problems. "I simply never get a chance to meet men," sighs actress Francis. "I'm up at 7:30 and often don't come home until midnight. I'm worried about getting a date for Saturday night. I'm not kidding."

Apparently not. After four years on the show, says Genie, "the thrill is not there. It's not as intense as it was when I was 14 because, basically, I'm very, very tired." And, it seems, very concerned about slipping out of sync with her peers, while earning a reported $150,000 per year. "The only parties I ever go to are work-related," frets Genie, who now wishes she had "a normal youngster's education" instead of tutors on the set. "College kids will probably laugh at that, but when you realize you've missed your high school years it's scary. Those years are not only important educationally but socially."

Her parents, veteran character actor Ivor Francis and his model-actress wife, the former Rosemary Daley, could have warned her that a showbiz career wasn't going to be easy—and they did. Although Genie, who grew up in Long Island and then in Van Nuys, Calif., says, "I never felt pretty as a kid—my teeth went everywhere," at 14 she announced she simply had to act. Her father, desperate to dissuade her, enlisted the help of his agent, who promised to "scare the life out of her with a tough audition." Instead, Genie beat out dozens of more experienced actresses for a guest role on Family with Kristy McNichol. The agent made a sheepish phone call. "All I can do is apologize," he told her father. "She happens to be really good." Within four months, Francis was raising temperatures on General Hospital.

Genie would be the first to admit the job has some perks. She splurged on a racy Fiat two years ago and takes luxurious one-month annual vacations. When she moves out of her parents' home for the first time next month, she and a girlfriend will share a two-bedroom townhouse Genie bought in Sherman Oaks. She may still gripe that a good time means "getting up at 10 a.m.," but Genie hopes to expand her horizons in 1981. "I intend to go to college for some classes," vows Francis. "The producer has been very understanding up to now and knows that I'm serious."