July 14, 1986 12:00 PM

Soap Opera Digest, the arbiter of such things, recently noted that All My Children’s Natalie, played by Kate Collins, 27, is “fast becoming one of the most interesting characters on daytime.” This, of course, is a decorous way of saying that Natalie is a bitch—nasty, scheming, pure soap scum. Since her debut last fall, the tawdry blonde has attempted to kill her elderly husband (told he had a weak heart and mustn’t be excited, she walked into the bedroom in a black negligee), picked a vicious catfight with Erica (the redoubtable Susan Lucci) and, once widowed, quickly married her stepson (who was formerly a celibate Tibetan monk). As All My Children now grapples for the lucrative school’s-out summer ratings, Natalie is threatening to have an abortion—one of the remaining soap taboos. The character and her controversy are two big reasons why All My Children draws nine million viewers each day and has become (according to ABC) one of the most videotaped shows in America.

Run-of-the-mill soap vixens rarely last. As their one-dimensional personalities burn out, the shrews are either killed off or, like Lucci’s Erica, redeemed. But thanks to Collins, appetite for Natalie hasn’t dulled. A witty, intelligent actress, Collins has struggled to give Natalie—what’s the word, Mr. Stanislavsky?—motivation. “I won’t play her as a bitch,” Collins says adamantly. “I try to give her some justification for the things she does.” The audience is buying the act. When Collins started on the show, most of the letters she got warned: “Stay away from Erica, you bitch!” Now half of her voluminous mail reads: “Go after what you want!”

No relation to Joan Collins, Kate does have famous kin. Her father is former astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted Apollo 11’s command module to the moon with Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin in 1969. “I gave my first press conference when I was 10,” says Kate. “I talked to the reporters on our lawn about the need for a woman in the space program. I served them coffee with all the good silver and demitasse [cups]. Mom got a real kick out of that.”

Dad had a similar reaction when he saw Kate’s high school production of A Streetcar Named Desire in Washington, D.C. His stagestruck daughter, the oldest of three kids, was playing love-starved Blanche DuBois. “We were enjoying the show until Kate came out in a slip,” says her mom, Pat, a real estate broker. “I had to hold Mike in his seat. He said he was going up there and throw his coat over her.”

“All fathers are a little conservative,” says Mike, now an aerospace consultant in Washington. “But a 17-year-old Blanche? That was the first time I had to separate the real Kate from the stage Kate.”

After graduating from Northwestern University in 1981 as a drama major, Kate moved to New York, where she got her share of rejections from theater and TV producers. “They were looking for cheekbones, which I don’t have,” she says. To pay the rent she worked as a sales rep for a clothing manufacturer and as a free-lance secretary. The breaks came in 1985, when she was cast in Broadway’s Doubles and hired by All My Children during the play’s seven-month run. “The casting people asked me what I thought,” says Jean LeClerc, who plays her soap stepson-turned-husband, Jeremy. “I said she was it. Well, what I really said was that anybody would want to go to bed with her.” Though her All My Children salary brings her roughly $100,000 a year, Collins is still haunted by her lean days. She stopped taking secretarial jobs only three months ago.

Unlike brash, lavish Natalie, Kate is a shy, sometimes self-deprecating woman with simple tastes. She wears cowboy boots and jeans, and likes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and frozen lasagna. Home is a one-bedroom apartment in a fourth-floor walk-up on New York’s West Side. On one wall are photos of family and friends. “These photos keep me sane,” she says. “It’s nice to come home and see all of their faces.” What’s missing is that picture of one special guy. With her 12-hour daily work schedule, she says, “all I do is go home. If I’m lucky I might cook, have a glass of wine and read my script.” Scotch the rumors that she and LeClerc are having an off-camera affair (“We’re only buddies,” says Collins) or that she and Lucci are having off-camera altercations. “Our catfight onscreen was a ball,” says Collins. “If we disliked each other or didn’t trust each other, it would never have worked.”

And don’t expect Collins to start trashing the nefarious Natalie. “It makes me laugh that people think my character is such a bitch,” she says defensively. “Natalie’s guided by love and by her need for love. I see her as being, well, terribly misguided. I mean, she does do nice things. Let me think of one. Um, give me a minute, okay?”

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