On Her Toes

updated 02/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

Given away by her mother, the soap star has left rejection behind her

GET A KICK OUT OF WATCHING PEOPLE'S FACIAL EXPRESSIONS when they find out that Maya is my daughter," says Victoria Rowell, nodding toward the energetic 3-year-old who shares her three-bedroom, hilltop condo overlooking downtown L.A. Mother and daughter do draw their share of double takes. Rowell, who plays troubled loner Drucilla Barber on CBS's top-rated daytime drama, The Young and the Restless, is the daughter of a white woman and a black man. Her own skin is light brown, but her blond, blue-eyed daughter looks as Caucasian as her father, Rowell's estranged husband, Tom Fahey. "We once were on a flight from New York to L.A., and the stewardess assumed that Vicky was the nanny," says Fahey. "She refused to believe that Maya was her daughter. Vicky almost lost it, she was so pissed off."

Not that anger is her natural state. "Listen," she says, "I've had to have a sense of humor about my life, or I would have been lost long ago." Now, finally, Rowell, 29, has plenty to smile about. Besides her Y&R role (last month she won an NAACP Image Award as Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama), she made her screen breakthrough as Eddie Murphy's lobbyist girlfriend in The Distinguished Gentleman.

But Rowell's route to the cusp of Hollywood celebrity was full of emotional trials. "The rejection I faced as a child," Rowell says, "surpasses anybody telling me at an audition that I stink."

Born in Portland, Maine, Rowell was 16 days old when her mother, Dorothy Rowell, gave her up. Victoria was the third daughter from Dorothy's out-of-wedlock relationship with the father; immediately after giving birth, Dorothy placed all the girls in foster care. Previously she had borne three sons by two other fathers. (All the boys were raised by their fathers.)

Dorothy, whom Victoria saw three times in her life (the last time when she was 15), died eight years ago. Victoria has never seen her father, nor does she know his name. She says she "never asked" her mother about why she chose not to raise her. "She might have been pressured by her white family," Victoria says. "I knew she loved me, and I didn't want to make her feel guilty."

Victoria didn't meet her two sisters until, at age 2, she left her first, white foster family to join them in a black foster family, the Armsteads. Sheree, now 36, is a clerical worker at an Air Force base outside Denver; Lori, 35, is a Boston police officer. Their three half brothers—Norman, 49, David, 40, and Keith, 32—are all blue-collar workers still living in Maine. Victoria didn't learn of their existence until she was a teenager. Then, with information supplied by Dorothy, she tracked them down, and now they are in regular contact.

It was her second foster mother, Agatha Armstead, who provided Victoria with a home life, in little Lebanon, Maine (pop. 4,263). Armstead, who died in 1984, encouraged Victoria's interest in dance. At age 8, Victoria received a Ford Foundation scholarship to study at the Cambridge (Mass.) School of Ballet and left Maine to spend the next few years living with three foster families in the Boston area. She was treated well but went through moments of heartbreaking loneliness. "At times I felt unwelcome," she says, "but...I did whatever I had to do to keep my ballet scholarship." That meant starving herself. Her instructors demanded that the 5'7" Rowell keep her weight below 100 lbs. (she now weighs 120 to 125). "They didn't want you to have breasts or bullocks," she says. "You'd be surprised how some of us could go all day eating nothing but string beans."

After graduating in 1979 from Boston's private Shaw Preparatory School, where she had a scholarship, Rowell won another scholarship to attend New York City's prestigious American Ballet Theatre School. She became a member of the ABT II troupe but left in 1983 after three years. ("They had pigeonholed me to do all the ethnic pieces.") Rowell switched to modeling for Seventeen ("I was their stock black model"), returned to Boston to teach performing arts and then, in 1985, went back to New York City to try acting.

Rowell had some success in commercials, earning up to $30.000 a year. Eventually she landed a role in Bill Cosby's 1987 film flop, Leonard Part 6, and then began showing up on The Cosby Show as the mother of Raven Symone. That exposure, and her emotional range, earned her a spot on The young and the Restless. "She could be tough one minute and tender to the point of tears the next," says executive producer William Bell.

Nowadays the onetime foster child lobbies in Washington, D.C.. for the Child Welfare League of America, which aids abused or orphaned children. (Her real-life work "came in handy" as background when preparing for her Distinguished Gentleman lobbyist role.) In 1990 she organized the Rowell Foster Child Fine Arts Scholarship Fund for children studying classical ballet, under the auspices of the Portland School of Ballet and the Ballet Theatre of Boston. Her celebrity friends, including Cosby, the Beach Boys and Christopher Reeve, have been enlisted to donate autographed paraphernalia for the charity's annual auction. The proceeds haven't been huge, but they do allow eight students to attend weekly classes.

About the only thing missing in Rowell's life is a steady man. In 1989 she married Fahey, an airline pilot. They have since separated. Although she is guarded about the reasons for their breakup—"We are still trying to work things out"—Rowell says Fahey "is a good father to Maya." They share custody.

Rowell isn't dating anyone at the moment, but her onscreen romantic life is certainly busy—especially in her steamy on-camera relationship with her Y&R costar Kris-toff St. John, who plays cosmetics executive Neil Winter. "I am extremely attracted to her," says St. John, who adds teasingly, "I haven't let it get the best of me yet—but who knows?"

For now, Rowell is just happy to get on with her career and motherhood. As Maya comes back into the room, she is holding a white Barbie doll in one hand and a black Barbie in the other. Rowell smiles fondly. "Maya," she says, "is going to have a wonderful life."

ART DURBANO
VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles

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