EXCLUSIVE: Actress Victoria Rowell on the untimely death of ‘Young and the Restless’ co-star, Kristoff St. John, blasts soap execs for racism: ‘They could have done better by him ‘
The world is still reeling from the tragic loss of actor, Kristoff St. John who was found dead at his home in Woodland Hills, California on Sunday at the age of 52.
TheGrio spoke to Victoria Rowell, who starred alongside St. John as the beloved power Black couple, Neil and Drucilla Winters on The Young and the Restless from 1993-1998 and again from 2003-2007. The pair remained close friends and confidants even after their successful run as one of the show’s most well-loved couples (if not in all of Soap land.) The actress, who is mourning the loss of her friend, describes the legacy St. John leaves behind.
“Kristoff was a joy. He lived for the day. He loved to work and he loved working on “The Young and the Restless.” In addition to that, he cared about preserving the African American legacy that has been built in terms of Black actors and actresses. He was always about preserving our legacy on the show and not being pigeon-holed into a Black storyline. Obviously, we coveted the Black family on ‘Y&R,’ but we also coveted that we were crossovers. We pulled in a huge audience, and a huge Black, female audience. We understood the gravity of what we were responsible for and he took that very seriously,” she says.
“I believe he won over 10 NAACP Image Awards. He’s also an Emmy Award winner, but he didn’t rest in that. He always sought to do more, which I loved about him. He was inspired to do more. He wanted to write for ‘Y&R.’ He was a filmmaker. He wished he could have done more.”
Rowell learned of her friend’s passing while at her home from her sister. “That was the best possible way I could find out about it, from a family member and not on social media,” she says.
After an autopsy was completed on Monday, it was determined that St. John’s cause of death would be deferred pending additional investigation, according to the coroner’s office and Rowell would not speculate on exactly what led to his untimely death.
“We loved each other. We stayed in touch over the years and we cared about each other. I can’t discuss confidential matters that our beloved Kristoff may have shared with me. I will tell you that he took mental health issues very seriously, especially given the well-reported tragic incident of the loss of his and Mia’s son, Julian.”
Instead, Rowell chooses to focus on the path he helped carve for Black actors on daytime television.
“It’s unfortunate that tragedy brings people together but yesterday I was speaking with Shemar Moore and Adam Lazar-White, both characters on ‘Y&R’ and our goal is to preserve the African American cast that Kristoff heavily influenced and built up with me to over 12 contracted and recurring Black actors and actresses. He was very proud of that,” she explains. “That will be his legacy. It’s not about collecting the check. It was about diversity. It was about family. He was a trailblazer.”
In 2007, Victoria Rowell left the role that earned her 11 NAACP Image Awards after raising concerns about the lack of diversity on the series’ team. She says that she and Kristoff St. John spent over a decade trying to reunite their beloved characters on the show.
“We tried collectively for almost a decade to reunite on the ‘Young and the Restless.’ The reasons that did not happen are political, which is regrettable for our audience and for us. For me, the death dies twice. The person and also our aspirations to be reunified on the show,” she explains.
“It was a crime that SONY and CBS did not honor our request to be reunited on the show for the sake of the fans and each other. They denied us that because we spoke out on lack of diversity behind the camera. They punished us. The show has been heavily supported by African Americans for decades, and were it not for the Black audience, they would not be Number 1, but we could not get those corporate players to turn the corner,” she continues.
“Plain and simple, they punished us for speaking out on it. If we were a white couple with this level of popularity, this denial never would have happened. In my opinion, and Kristoff agreed, the powers that be at SONY could not bare to see an African American leading actor and actress pull up the ratings. Though counter-intuitive to business; that is what racism looks like.”
Rowell insists that Kristoff St. John spent lots of energy fighting for more agency on the series he helped make a success.
“He strove to be a writer on the show and to have his stories incorporated. He opened up to me as recently as last year about how these stories were rejected. It pained him that after more than 25 years, he was still being rejected in this way. As a confidant, there are things I won’t share, but everyone in the corporate strata could have done better by him,” she says.
“What we’re talking about is repeated diminishment of talent value. It’s called control. We knew our power though we were led to believe that we were powerless. Kristoff never bought into that.”
Even though their attempts to reunite on “The Young and the Restless” were not successful, the pair continued to work together on other projects and recognized the value of their undeniable chemistry. She shared a photo of their “last kiss” from their recent film, A Baby for Christmas.
“He encouraged me to cultivate my own content. He will forever be a part of my life. It’s part of his inspiration. His friendship and us collaborating, we continued to mine out ways we could continue to work together as thespians,” she says.
“I pitched him almost wherever I worked. I pitched him for ‘Diagnosis Murder’ and they brought him on the show. I pitched him for a recent Christmas movie that I was a producer on called ‘A Baby for Christmas’ and they brought him on as my love interest. I just kept pitching him because we knew that we had gold in terms of chemistry that you can’t put a price tag on.”
Rowell also spoke about the traits she will remember the most and what made Kristoff St. John such a successful actor.
“His authenticity, his natural and organic approach… I want people to understand that Kristoff was a feature film and primetime star before he came to ‘Y&R’ and one of those rare actors who could navigate feature films, primetime television, and daytime. Not everyone has the capacity to do that,” she says.
“He was loved not only by his fans but by his family. He was a family man. I want people to honor the website that I believe Kristoff and Mia posted after the untimely death of their son, Julian. I believe Kristoff would want that legacy to carry on in terms of people educating themselves.”
Cortney Wills is the entertainment director at theGrio.