Darlene Vogel:
Riding the Waves of Pacific Blue

by Michelle Erica Green

She's a cop on a bike on Pacific Blue, but Darlene Vogel didn't have to do any training to play Chris Kelly: she used to bicycle 80 miles along the beach during weekends. "I read the script and I thought, 'This is me,'" she said recently during a break from shooting the show's fourth season. Vogel didn't know then that the character was supposed to be a martial arts expert and a top gun pilot, but Kelly's strength and independence reminded her a lot of herself.

Kelly, a tough, no-nonsense former Navy officer, is one of the returning characters this season: four new characters have joined Pacific Blue, while two older ones have left. The series has consistently been one of USA Network's more highly-rated shows, but the recent shake-ups and the new wrestling lead-in have caused the ratings to shoot up. For Vogel - who had considered leaving the series to pursue a relationship on the East Coast, then made the decision to stay in Los Angeles and stick with the show - it's been a tough but rewarding season of transitions.

As for Chris Kelly, who married Sgt. T.C. Callaway (Jim Davidson) at the start of this season, the changes mean increased strain in her personal relationships. "T.C. and I never fought before in any of the other episodes, and now we fight all the time," Vogel laughed. But she's very pleased with the character's development. Unlike some of her bikini-clad peers, "Kelly is tough, independent, matter of fact, and athletic, in-charge...a strong female character."

Vogel noted that "even though I'm blonde, California-looking, I would always steer away from that typecast; when they were casting this role, they said everyone played her too vulnerable, more like a victim. I played in your face, really strong, and that's what they wanted. They wanted her to be a real strong character and a good role model."

Series director Michael Levine believes that Vogel fulfills the role perfectly. "Darlene is excellent at playing the emotional demands of her character," he said when asked about the actress. "Chris Kelly has been through some very dramatic storylines. Darlene has ushered her through those stories with poise and great performances."

Getting this part was a happy reunion with several people Vogel knew in the business. She first learned of Pacific Blue at a boxing match in Las Vegas, where she ran into producer Bill Nuss, for whom she had auditioned when he was working on Jump Street. "He said to me, 'Darlene, I'm writing this part - it's you,' but I didn't take him seriously because he'd never hired me before. I was so green when he first met me, and everybody says that in this town: 'I've got a part for you!'" At the time, Vogel expressed disinterest because she was doing a pilot for Disney co-starring Rick Rossovich, who ironically also ended up on Pacific Blue.

A couple of months later, Vogel talked to actress Paula Trickey, whom she knew from several auditions where they had competed for the same roles. "We were up for this Aaron Spelling pilot together and we were up for a movie - I actually got the movie - but we'd always been friends. So she called me and asked if I was going on the audition for Pacific Blue. Paula said, 'I got the part of the brunette, but they're looking for this tough blonde, they've seen hundreds of girls, they can't find her! It's you!' So I called my agent. I auditioned for it on Monday and I had it on Wednesday."

Vogel's agents were hesitant about her taking a role on a cable show since she was getting network pilots. But dozens more network pilots are filmed than are picked up for broadcast, so Vogel had not been a regular on a series with a long run. "I got sick of auditioning," the former beauty pageant winner recalled. "I wanted to be on something consistently; we never knew that it was going to go this far."

Not that she's complaining: in addition to its rising ratings on USA, the show is widely followed overseas, so Vogel is now marketable all over the world. Though she's not fond of the tight clothing and bathing suit shots to which the cast is occasionally subjected, the Danbury, Connecticut native appreciates the visibility the series has given her.

"I knew that girl on Voyager, Jeri Ryan, from auditions, and I saw her in that costume and I went, wow! But people love that," Vogel pointed out. "If she can look sexy like that and play a strong character, great. That's our audience, too." Still, Vogel is a little concerned that, like Voyager, Pacific Blue could become associated with images of women in tight costumes rather than for their characters. "This year on our show, they have the new blonde girl posing for Playboy - it's called Playpen on the show - and I'm just like, ugh. There are all these montages of girls in bikinis, and I don't like that."

Vogel emphasized that Pacific Blue's audience is not just high school and college-age men, but a wide range of ages and professions; her brother knows a federal judge who adores the show. Still, she acknowledges that the core audience has been critical to the show's success. "We made all the newspapers last week; we had four million people watching our show because one of the wrestlers was on. It's great for the network."

The demographics are the reason for the increased conflict on the series this year, and for the addition of four new young cast members -- Amy Hunter, Mario Lopez, Shanna Moakler, and Jeff Stearns. "They wanted to turn the show in a new direction, they want to make it younger. I'm a little concerned about the older fans...it's always hard for people to get used to new characters, and they were used to our little family," the actress said. "I love the new actors, but it's hard, because it's a completely different show now - it's all young, talking about college and drugs and hookers and this and that."

Personally, Vogel misses Marcos A. Ferraez and Rick Rossovich, who played Victor Del Toro and Lt. Anthony Palermo respectively for the past three years. The cast was very close, and the actors still socialize. "We're a very close cast, but this year's a little different because of the new people. The first day when we were doing promotion stuff, the young ones were all talking about Hallowee-type movies, and we all used to talk about building houses and gardening. Some of these kids, they're ten years younger than us! But now we're all starting to gel." Rossovich and Ferraez "still hang out with us," and Vogel believes they were both ready to move on anyway. "It's hard work, sometimes fifteen-hour days; this year since we have more characters, our schedules are a little more lenient."

After some coaching first season from a stunt coordinator, Vogel now does her own fight scenes and most of her own stunts, though she doesn't have to fly her bike over cars as Chris Kelly sometimes does. The crew trained for a day with the police on the bicycles, but Vogel said most of her research for the part happened on the job. Favorite episodes were about teenage runaways, an issue she feels strongly about, as well as a storyline where Kelly went back to the Navy and an episode in which the characters participated in an eco-challenge. She also cited a story she herself suggested about people stealing dogs for medical research.

"We pitch a lot, and sometimes they use our ideas," she said. "I like it when we have an episode with one strong storyline, because sometimes I think it's more confusing when it's more of an ensemble. They alternate a lot of the scripts: 'This is your storyline, this is T.C.'s storyline,' but this year they're concentrating on the new characters." She laughed that fans remember what happened in which episode better than she does sometimes: "It's kind of like Danielle Steele novels, they're all the same after awhile." While Vogel is particularly fond of comedic episodes, she thinks viewers respond to the episodes where T.C. and Chris are together.

"As far as writing goes, I have ideas, but I don't know how to put them down on paper," Vogel reported, adding that "I'm very passionate about the environment, about animals and things like that, and a friend of mine just said that I should run for something for the city because I'm so passionate about all the things that are happening where I live." She suspects she's more likely to move into public speaking than into directing or producing. "I need to do something, I need to speak out, but as far as the entertainment business goes, I like being in front of the camera and acting. That's fun for me."

Ironically, Vogel always thought she'd work on the other side of the camera in advertising, and attended New York's Fashion Institute of Technology to study cosmetic marketing. "I was working at an ice cream parlor once and a lady from Cosmopolitan magazine came in and said, 'You should be a model.' She gave me her card, but I never called her - I never thought that I would do it," Vogel recalled, noting that she devoured teen magazines and practiced commercials in the mirror in her youth, but was never involved in school drama clubs or theatrical productions. She took an acting class after winning a scholarship to the New York Academy of Theatrical Arts in a beauty pageant, "but I never took it seriously; I just thought that was fun. I always pictured myself walking down Fifth Avenue in New York with a briefcase in my hand, or behind the camera making ads."

She dropped out of school to begin modeling at the relatively late age of 21. Vogel's fresh-faced, clean-cut look appealed to advertisers despite the fact that at 5'8", she was considered too short to be a fashion model. After stints as an Ivory Girl and the first spokesperson for the "Milk Does a Body Good" campaign, plus about fifty national commercials "for every car, every beer, toothpaste, Crystal Light, everything," which got Vogel a manager and a theatrical agent, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. She had a harder time getting commercial work there, but after making Back To the Future II in 1989, she had enough contacts to feel confident in staying on the west coast.

"It's a nice way to live, as opposed to New York - I could live in a house with a yard and have dogs, in New York you have an apartment and a cat." Always sports-oriented, Vogel said she liked the weather which permits her to exercise outside year-round. Her first sitcom was Charles In Charge, which led to other sitcoms and more roles in features. One of her favorites was Doctor, Doctor, on which she played a character who "wasn't a dumb blonde, but she was kind of lost, naive, and I just had so much fun with it."

Are there shows she'd like to do? "Ally McBeal," Vogel responded immediately. "That is my favorite show. Those kind of shows, they're dramas but they have comedy. So the ideal thing would be a Friends-type show." She had some prospects, including a pilot she did which was by the creators of Seinfeld, "but the network came and changed it until it wasn't funny anymore, so it didn't go anywhere." Many of her features have gone directly to cable, which she described as discouraging: "You work so hard, and you want to be Cameron Diaz in There's Something About Mary, but they go for a big name. There's a lot of garbage out there, and it's very rare that you get to play the good stuff because they give it to someone huge."

Vogel hopes that Pacific Blue's huge overseas following will bring her to the attention of independent filmmakers. She doesn't particularly like to go on location, however, so spending her hiatus at home has been fine with her. The youngest of six children, with a family that she called supportive but also laughed that they don't even watch the show, Vogel noted, "I'm a real homebody - I have two dogs, and if I can bring them with me it's easy, but for me to be away for a month at a time on a film, I would lose my mind." The lulls between jobs have never discouraged her because she had money in the bank from modeling and a supportive family, and she actually likes having the time to herself.

Vogel commuted between the east and west coasts last year to spend time with her boyfriend, a professional hockey player, but is currently single. "I'd like to be married with a couple of kids and dogs, just settled in my life, where I can choose really what I want to work on, instead of saying I have to do it," she admitted. "And not living in L.A. - maybe north a little bit, in the Santa Barbara area. L.A. is just a little bit too much; I wouldn't want to raise my kids here. I'd like to continue to be successful and healthy and really happy in my career. I always dreamed of having this career, and thank god I was fortunate enough to make a good living and a good life because of it. So I'm proud of my success and I'm proud raised me independently so I had to make it because I had no one else to fall back on."

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