On this sunny November Sunday, the main hall of the Raleigh’s Progress Energy Center looks more like Genoa City, Wisc. There’s really such a place, but the scene resembles the fictional home of The Young and the Restless, a burg filled with ruthless billionaires, romantic rivalries and the occasional evil twin.

A line is already out the door filled with fans of The Young and the Restless (Y&R) and its fellow CBS daytime soaps. The people here have paid $150 a pop to mingle with the best, the brightest and the shirtless-est of the small screen at the “Soapstar Spectacular.”

The crowd is large and diverse, but I do get the sense that I’m one of the few heterosexual men who came here without coercion.

The group of 10 soap stars who show up around noon are a crew whose collective daytime experience spans more than a century, and fans have driven hundreds of miles for the opportunities to take pictures and get autographs from them. Some fans tell me they got up at early as two in the morning to drive down in time for the signing.

For many in the crowd of 2—300, the characters these actors portray are as much a part of their daily lives as getting up and going to work. And in many cases, the stories of the fans are just as compelling as the outrageous lives of the characters they love.

Of course, cable TV, DVRs and online streaming (not to mention increasingly poor writing) have cut into this tradition. Soap operas are on the decline these days—the past two years alone have seen the cancellation of Passions, As the World Turns and Guiding Light, the last of which pre-dated the medium of television, originating on the radio. Two stars from those shows, Maura West and Kim Zimmer, are both here. These days, they’re cast as characters on other soaps.

Actors from Guiding Light and other soaps (including Kim Zimmer, in attendance at the Raleigh event) offer their take on lines their characters utter over and over.

Even the new distribution options are dwindling: The all-soap cable network SoapNet has gone off basic cable packages to digital-only, with the network itself scheduled to end to make way for another kids’ channel. In the eyes of many, daytime soaps are a dying medium.

And yet, those who love the soaps still love them dearly—many of the die-hard fans packing this room have watched these shows longer than I’ve been alive. Mary Hignutt of Wendell has been watching The Young and the Restlesssince it premiered in 1973, and this is her first experience meeting any of the actors.

“They feel like my family,” Hignutt says. “I feel like I know them.” She expresses sorrow for the other soaps that have gone off the air: “You love what you’ve grown up with. It was like part of the past was gone.”

But now she’s in line to meet The Young and the Restlesstroublemaker Phyllis, aka actress Michelle Stafford, with a group of other Phyllis fans she met online. These fans all support Phyllis’ romance with a character named Nick by wearing matching bracelets.

Several “Phick” fans flew down from Syracuse, N.Y., and brought a gift of onesies for Stafford’s new daughter. “My husband died a year and a half ago, and this is the first—and only—thing I’ve been excited about since,” Hignutt says.

Stafford, clad in a silver-sequined shirt with a gray knit cap and scarf, exults a hearty “Here comes trouble!” to the group, several of whom she recognizes from past events. She offers profuse thanks for the gift before one of her fans chimes in with, “Whatever situation you’re in, I’m for you!”

Some fans have been fans of soaps even before there was television, like 97-year-old Viola Barger of Blountville, Tenn. Barger, decided to attend the event while in Rolesville, N.C. visiting her granddaughter Amy Gupton, who was named for the star of an older soap whose title Barger cannot recall. Barger has been a fan since soaps were on the radio.

“I was married in 1950, and my husband died in 1996,” she says, recalling how she spent the days of her marriage following such shows as Search for Tomorrow.

Gupton says her grandmother never misses a day of The Young and the Restless, which she’s watched from the beginning.

“I hear her talking on the phone and saying things like ‘the funeral is tomorrow,’ or ‘so-and-such is pregnant,’ and it takes me a while to realize she’s talking about the people on TV,” Gupton says.

For many fans, soap characters can seem as real as friends or family. The videotape format and emphasis on extreme close-ups, combined with the daily new episodes and lack of reruns, gives the storylines a strange sense of immediacy. Veda Lydon of Fayetteville became hooked on The Young and the Restless back in 1984, when she moved to North Carolina from outside St. Louis with her husband, who was in the military.

“I was nursing, and working evenings, and the show came on at 12:30, around lunchtime,” she says. “I could watch while I got ready for work.”

OK, it’s time for a perhaps unsurprising confession: I was a bit of a soap addict myself in high school and college. I’d watch one or two for a few months, switch to another when they bored me, and read recaps online or in checkout magazines. And I liked reading their storied histories online. At their best, they were compelling, character-driven tales that incorporated contemporary social issues and rich backstories; at their worst, they at least had pretty girls.

A fond high school memory, from Days in Our Lives in the mid-1990s: Marlena is possessed by Satan and has an exorcism. Yes, this happened. Ratings went through the roof.

Though real life and bad writing has long since driven me away from regular viewing, I admit I’ve tuned in from time to time to see such antics as James Franco’s brazen “performance art” on General Hospital. (I also turned in when the original Lucky came back, but it just wasn’t the same.)

My own fandom was more geared toward the ABC soaps, though I casually watched some of the CBS ones spotlighted here in Raleigh. CBS has long been first in the daytime ratings with The Young and the Restless. though with the cancellation of Guiding Light and As the World Turns, it and quasi-spin-off The Bold and the Beautiful are now the only two remaining CBS soaps, bracketed in the local lineup by game shows and a View knockoff called The Talk.

Many of the stars are ones I recognize from my misspent youth, though few of them seem to have aged in the past decade (“It’s Botox, honey,” says one fan, who admits to some regular injections herself). In person, they seem almost tiny, though it might just be the lack of body fat. “I have never been in a room with so many good-looking guys!” squeals one fan during a Q&A, to which the actors react with good-natured modesty. They seem used to it.

The promoter, Michael Gold, announces before the VIP signing that the oldest of the stars, original Y&R cast member Jeanne Cooper (Katherine Chancellor) was forced to stay home because the 85-year-old actress came down with viral pneumonia. Gold says Cooper offered to come with her doctor in attendance. Mercifully, her offer was refused.

Cooper was a big draw for many of the fans I’ve spoken with, but they’re sympathetic to her situation. They’re less sympathetic when a clearly irate Gold explains that another Y&R actress, Sharon Case (Sharon Newman) isn’t here because the actress refused to fly coach on a last-minute flight. Gold’s barely able to contain his anger at Case, and makes sure to mention that two of her co-stars, Stafford and Michael Muhney, took the coach seats.

Several fans later offer me their opinion on Case, none of them printable here.

A possible press event with the actors doesn’t materialize, and it’s not exactly easy to interview people with long lines of enthusiastic fans. Wandering the room introduces me to a behind-the-scenes veteran of the soaps, Adam Reist, who’s directing an interactive segment where fans act against the soap actors from show scripts at the event.

Reist spent two decades working on Guiding Light until its cancellation last September. A Triangle native, he graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, where he created the campus soap General College (cast members included future film and stage star Billy Crudup).

Billy Crudup stars in this 1987 episode of General College.

Reist turns out to have worked with a high school classmate of mine, Aubrey Dollar, who played Marina Cooper on Guiding Light for a few years. He’s started his own production company now, and shares details about how Guiding Light, in its last years, filmed on location in the small town of Peapack, N.J., with one “show house” serving as exteriors for five different houses. Later, in an audience Q-and-A, he says his least favorite work on the show involved a storyline where a plane crashed in “the snowy alps of a remote Caribbean island.”

The longest line for the stars is for Christian J. LeBlanc, a Fort Bragg native who plays reformed sleazy lawyer Michael Baldwin on Y&R and who is emceeing the event. My efforts to get face time with him fail miserably.

Next-longest is for LeBlanc’s Y&R co-star Billy Miller, who plays the character Billy Abbott. Virtually every female I speak to expresses a desire to meet him; some actually swoon as they say his name.

Several blond women of a certain age clad in heels, designer clothes and jewelry mill about Miller’s table discussing his attractiveness; after he’s left, one steals a straw from a glass he was drinking from. I’m not sure I want to know what she’s going to do with it.

Later, while I’m backstage with a local TV crew, a few stars join us before heading out for a fan Q-and-A, including Miller. Up close, Miller makes me feel genetically inferior, but otherwise comes off as a relaxed, laid-back person.

I ask Miller if he’s got any crazy fan stories. “Nah”, he says. “Everyone’s pretty normal.”

I mention the stolen straw. He takes a moment to consider.

“Interesting,” he says. “Glad I missed that.” He heads on out to answer fan questions.

I look into the audience from backstage, wondering how long many of these people have been watching these shows, what they’ve meant to them over the years, and if they’ve been company during times when they were sick or lonely.

Even in their twilight, daytime soaps represent something meaningful to those who love them, a daily escape to a stranger, heightened reality, where the problems of the real world seem small and insignificant by comparison. And for certain people, that can mean a lot—a group of fictional people as dear to them as anyone in the real world.

The questions begin. “So,” asks one fan, “I was wondering—in a contest, which of you could get your shirt off the fastest?”

Well, yeah. There’s also that.