In 1978, the soap siren won her first Best Actress Emmy nod--and began a 20-year losing streak.

Her name was still a proper noun when Susan Lucci had the first of an improbable string of disappointments that would eventually inspire a new intransitive verb: ”to be Luccied,” i.e., to be passed over and over and over — for 20 years.

On June 7, 1978, when the All My Children star lost her first Best Actress Daytime Emmy for her role as the man-eating bitch goddess Erica Kane, it was hardly a headline-grabbing event. ”I’ve never had a lot of disappointment in my life,” Lucci said two months later. ”I wonder when I’m going to get mine.”

There were plenty of disheartening blows in store. Over the years, Lucci’s losing streak would not only come to overshadow the annual awards ceremony but provide pop culture with a favorite punchline. In 1993, alt-rockers Urge Overkill recorded the song ”Erica Kane” (”Erica Kane, another Emmy passed you by”), and in 1996 Jay Leno joined in (”Things aren’t looking too good for Bob Dole. In fact, the latest polls show, if the election were held today, Bob Dole would lose to Susan Lucci”). This May, Lucci, 51, suffered an unprecedented 18th nomination and defeat.

After reportedly pounding the table in 1982 and fleeing in tears in ’83, Lucci stopped preparing acceptance spiels and started turning misfortune into fortune. She ruminated on her fate in The Washington Post and spoofed herself on Saturday Night Live and in ads for the sugar substitute Sweet One.

In the process, Lucci attained a level of success unattainable for most soap actors. By 1990 she was reportedly earning $1.3 million a year, the highest salary in daytime. With a recurring Dallas stint in 1990 and several made-for-TV movies, she became the first daytime star to break into prime time without severing her soap ties.

Fortuitously, Lucci’s sow’s ear strategy may undermine her chances of ever snagging Emmy gold. ”There’s a lot of jealousy over her success,” says AMC creator Agnes Nixon. ”They figure, ‘What does she need the Emmy for?”’ And not winning would be no loss. As Emmy producer Al Schwartz has said: ”It’s better for her if she never takes the prize home.”