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A soap opera actress who won a Daytime Emmy this year for her supporting role on “As the World Turns” is not a celebrity for the purposes of dividing marital assets in a divorce proceeding, a Manhattan judge has ruled. The actress, Lesli K. Sterling, who performs under the name Lesli Kay, and her former husband, Mark J. Sterling, were divorced last year. In the discussion of equitable distribution that followed, Mr. Sterling argued that through her role on the show Ms. Sterling had attained celebrity status that qualified as a marital asset reflecting enhanced earning capacity. And he asserted that he was entitled to half of the value of the asset. But New York Supreme Court Justice Marylin G. Diamond disagreed, concluding in Sterling v. Sterling, 310833/99, that Ms. Sterling is merely an “average entertainer” who has not achieved true celebrity status. “[S]he has not risen to the top of her field, has not attained a significant level of fame and has not established an ability to consistently obtain lucrative work over an extended period of time,” the judge wrote. Kay and Mr. Sterling, who are distant cousins, began living together in February 1991 in California, where Kay was pursuing her acting career and working as an assistant to a television producer, and Mr. Sterling was employed as a tennis instructor and ran a small T-shirt business. They were married in November 1992. During the first three years of the marriage, Ms. Sterling occasionally received small television and film roles, but reported limited earnings from her work as a waitress and bartender: $1,203 in 1993, $6,863 in 1994 and $6,774 in 1995. Mr. Sterling showed income from his tennis instruction and T-shirt business of between $45,000 and $56,000 for each of the three years. In 1997, Ms. Sterling won the role of Molly Conlan on “As the World Turns” and relocated to New York, where the show is filmed. Ms. Sterling earned a total of $188,049 in 1997, while her then-husband made $56,769. Mr. Sterling refused to join Ms. Sterling and continued to live and work in California until early 1998, when he received a $200,000 cash inheritance and quit his job as a tennis professional. In August 1998, Mr. Sterling moved to New York, but the couple separated in February 1999. Ms. Sterling began divorce proceedings later that year. In his bid to be awarded a share of Ms. Sterling’s enhanced earning capacity, Mr. Sterling relied on three cases: New York decisions involving the opera singer Frederica von Stade ( Elkus v. Elkus, 169 AD2d 134) and the actress Marisa Berenson ( Golub v. Golub, 139 Misc2d 440), and a New Jersey case involving the comedian Joe Piscopo ( Piscopo v. Piscopo, 557 A2d 1040). Justice Diamond noted that “in the annals of matrimonial litigation,” those are the only cases in which courts have found that a celebrity career is marital property for the purposes of equitable distribution. And she found that the careers of the entertainers at issue in those cases were significantly different from that of Ms. Sterling. Notably, the judge pointed out that Ms. Sterling is not even the lead actress on “As the World Turns,” and that the role of Molly is the first high-paying acting job she has held. “Although soap opera tabloids regularly carry photographs and stories about the plaintiff, there is no evidence that she has obtained any notable recognition outside of the soap opera community,” Diamond wrote. “Certainly, she has not achieved that level of enduring celebrity that assures her a high income for an indefinite number of years.” Alternatively, Mr. Sterling argued that, even if Kay had not attained celebrity status, she had nevertheless acquired an enhanced earning capacity of which he was entitled to a half-share. But Diamond rejected that contention as well. First, the judge noted that there exists no case law to support a finding of marital property out of the mere fact that a spouse found a better job during the course of the marriage. Second, Diamond criticized Mr. Sterling for confusing a simple increase in income with an increase in earning capacity. “In this respect,” the judge wrote, “the defendant has failed to prove that the plaintiff will be able to translate her present role into a long-term, lucrative acting career.” Finally, even if the value of Kay’s career were to be considered a marital asset, Diamond concluded, Mr. Sterling’s contributions were not of such a direct and concrete nature that they would have entitled him to a share of the asset. “In all, he provided the plaintiff with what can be characterized as nothing more than the normal emotional support which one would expect from a spouse,” the judge wrote. Kay was represented by Bernard E. Clair of Manhattan’s Rosenman & Colin. Mr. Sterling was represented by Manhattan’s Robert S. Michaels.

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