Riegel didn't need to worry. Since starting in the groundbreaking role as 16-year-old Bianca Montgomery last August, she has been popular with critics and fans alike. She even won praise from leading gay groups for her complex portrayal. Not gay herself, Riegel had little trouble developing the role. She turned to her half sister Tatiana, 38, who is gay, for advice. "I had never heard her coming-out story," says Riegel. "She had been through a very similar situation as Bianca. She was trying to deny it to herself and to everybody else that she could be gay."
Their discussions brought them closer. "She told me how she felt and what she went through," says Riegel, 20. "She was so open about it." For Tatiana, a Los Angeles film editor, seeing a lesbian character on daytime TV is almost as important as seeing her sister in the part. "When you have more gay people on shows, you begin to see that great variety," she says. "You begin to lose the stereotypes."
Although the two sisters share a father—Kurt, now 62, a retired environmental scientist—they grew up in different cities with different mothers at different times. Tatiana was graduating from high school in Los Angeles at about the time Riegel was born in Washington, D.C., where her father was working at the Pentagon and her mother, Lenore, now 53, owned a daycare center.
Riegel got her first professional start in acting when she was 7 after seeing her brother Sam, then 11, in a local production of Les Miserables. When the musical cast actors for a touring version, both she and Sam got parts. A year later she moved up to the Broadway production. "I wasn't nervous," she says. "When you're that young, you don't have to think about paying rent. You have parents to think about that. You just do it."
She lived in Manhattan with her mother (her parents split when she was 8) and attended the Professional Children's School, where her classmates included Macaulay Culkin and Christina Ricci. She also worked a lot: a recurring role on New York Undercover and appearances on Law & Order, As the World Turns and in the 1999 hit American Pie.
In 1998 Riegel enrolled at Harvard University, where she planned to major in social and political theory and put acting on the back burner. "I just thought, 'I am going to become a lawyer,' " says Riegel. "It is hard to succeed in the acting business, and I thought I would appreciate something that was more of a sure thing." She did well in school. "I loved college," she says. "You have so much to do, sleep becomes secondary, and it's all about working hard and playing hard."
At the end of her sophomore year she landed a job as a White House intern. Then executive producer Jean Dadario Burke gave her the part of Bianca, and she decided to drop out of school—at least for the moment. "I do want to finish my education," she says. "But this is what I love, and I don't think I could be happy doing anything else." Her TV mom, Susan Lucci, has become something of a mentor. "She is thoughtful and sensitive and also fun," Lucci says.
Riegel had been living near the World Trade Center when terrorists struck last month. Displaced, she has been staying temporarily with a friend while searching for new digs with her brother, now 24, a film producer. Still single, she hopes to make time for a boyfriend. "Most of the guys I date don't have a problem with my playing a lesbian," she says. "If somebody is going to get uptight because I play a lesbian on television, they are not somebody I really want to be with anyway."
Rebecca Paley in New York City