By Lizette Alvarez, NYT
Miami — It was a scene right out of a juicy telenovela, one of those Spanish-language soap operas that unfold one betrayal and love affair at a time on television screens all over the world.
Pablo Azar, the green-eyed Mexican telenovela star, stepped out of a limousine and walked down the red carpet at an awards show here last year amid the usual celebrity mayhem. Cameras flashed. Fans shouted. Azar, 34, smiled broadly and walked inside.
But after the awards show, Azar did something his army of admirers would never have imagined: He changed out of his suit, climbed behind the wheel of his car and started his shift as an Uber driver, a job he relies on when he’s between acting gigs to pay his bills.
“At first, I was ashamed of this,” Azar, a Miami-based actor who is often recognized by telenovela lovers here and abroad, said from the Wynwood studio where he also paints and sells his art. “Our fans from Latin America who watch novelas, they think we are millionaires and that we drive Ferraris and live in Beverly Hills.”
Despite their devoted worldwide following, Azar and many other working novela actors who shoot their shows in Miami struggle to make ends meet between jobs. This is not because they work for a foreign company: The novelas are produced by Telemundo, a Spanish-language network owned by NBCUniversal and based in Miami (Univision, its rival, imports nearly all its novelas from Televisa, a Mexican company).
And it is not because Telemundo, once an underdog, is financially ailing: Its ratings have climbed so high that this summer it billed itself as the fourth major network, and it now routinely beats Univision with the coveted 18-to-49-year-old viewers in prime time during the week. What’s more, telenovelas are blockbusters for Spanish-language network television.
The difference is this: Telemundo’s television shows are produced in Spanish, not English, making it easier for the network to argue that the shows are different from others produced in the United States. As a result, it has been easier for Telemundo to sidestep the pressure from the television industry’s union, SAG-AFTRA, which is pushing the network to come to an agreement.
In fact, Telemundo is the only large network in the United States that hires professional actors but does not produce its shows under union contracts. Telemundo stars say their pay is generally not as high as their counterparts in U.S. soap operas.
Now it is facing a push by many of its actors to work under the protection of the union at a time when Telemundo is reimagining telenovelas — a kissing cousin, so to speak, of the American soap opera, only on steroids. Unlike American soaps, which have run for decades, the novelas often stay on the air for only a year or two, or on Telemundo a little longer if they are successful.
Telemundo has shaken up the telenovela by making it hipper, edgier and more diverse. It sets some of them in cities like Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles — not just places in Latin America — and plumbs the worlds of drug cartels (they call these shows narconovelas), border crossers, immigrant families and truck-driving empires.
This has attracted more men and younger audiences in the United States and elsewhere, including the recently captured Mexican drug kingpin known as El Chapo, JoaquínGuzmánLoera. He was so enamored of “Reina del Sur” — “Queen of the South” — that he secretly met with its star, Kate del Castillo, who played a powerful drug kingpin.
Another occasional telenovela face was Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe who was derided by Donald Trump as being overweight. Machado worked mostly for Telemundo’s rivals, including Televisa.
But unlike American soap operas, whose viewership has plummeted in recent years, telenovelas remain immensely popular. And unlike American soap opera actors (or most any television actor) in the United States, the Telemundo actors in Miami, most of whom are legal United States residents or citizens, do not work under union protection.
This means they do not get health insurance, residuals for reruns or the sizable international market, or coverage for accidents on the set, which are far from uncommon. There is also no set minimum-wage guarantee, although that tends not to be as great a problem.
Some of them already belong to SAG-AFTRA because they have worked on English-language shows. But once they utter “tequiero” instead of “I love you,” their union protection — along with residuals and health insurance — goes out the door.
“It’s a double standard,” said Steve Sidawi, the union’s national director for organizing. “This is something that is fundamentally a social justice issue for us.”
Some Telemundo actors who work in Miami are pledging to sign union cards and vote in a union election, if given the chance. They said that the lack of union protection for them in Miami, where Telemundo is building a large $250 million facility, defies common sense in an industry where the next job is always a hustle and schedules can be grueling.
In a statement, Telemundo said that its performers were free to join the union and that SAG-AFTRA could organize a secret ballot to have them do so, a process established by the National Labor Relations Board.
“We remain committed to making Telemundo a great place to work for our employees and continue to invest in them to ensure their salaries and working conditions are competitive,” said Alfredo Richard, the senior vice president for NBCUniversalTelemundo Enterprises, adding that the network had created hundreds of jobs in Miami.
Telemundo also offers “exclusive” contracts to a few of its biggest stars, which gives them more generous benefits and longer-term contracts with the network.
But Sidawi said a much faster way forward would be for the company to meet with union officials and come to an agreement on union membership. Even an election requires negotiation on who would be eligible to vote since Telemundo actors come and go, work short-term contracts and are scattered around Latin America and the United States, he said.
Working with unions is nothing new for Spanish-language actors, or Telemundo. When the network shoots a novela in Mexico, where Telemundo sometimes goes on location, the actors are covered by an actors’ union there. The same is true in several other Latin American countries.
“In telenovelas, they can kill your character off in the middle of the shoot and you are paid that day, and it’s over,” said Katie Barberi, 44, a member of SAG-AFTRA who has appeared in 20 telenovelas, including most recently “Eva la Trailera” — “Eva the Truck Driver.” “It isn’t guaranteed on any level.”
Actors everywhere struggle to find work in a fiercely competitive field. But what is unusual is that many novela actors are famous, with an enormous and devoted fan base around the world. Barberi, for example, has a jewelry line, Mariposa Katie, which carries the nickname of her “Doña Bárbara” character.
Between acting jobs, though, some of these actors in Miami are selling real estate, designing T-shirts, driving for Uber or heading back to Latin America where working conditions are better. Azar said it is a slice of their personal lives that actors seldom divulge; they do not want their fans to know.
“They don’t want people to see our real lives,” said Azar, who is now working on a new novela called “La Fan.” “It breaks the dream.”