If Genie Francis feels like a member of your family, maybe it’s because you’ve been watching her grow up on General Hospital since she was just 14 years old! Her off-screen life has taken a few soap opera-style twists and turns of its own. She successfully battled a drug and alcohol addiction that began in the early ’80s, but overcoming dieting issues took a lot longer.

“I’m in a business that wants me to be that toothpick-figure girl, and I’m not,” Genie, 56, exclusively admits to Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “All girls start to freak out about their bodies when they’re 12 to 14, but what intensified the experience for me was my character [Laura] being put on a diet, and then me taking predigested liquid protein, which people died from. That was my entrance into the dieting world!”

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Though it took nearly four decades, Genie finally found a healthy relationship with food thanks to Nutrisystem, losing 40 pounds and gaining some peace of mind. Now she’s opening up to Closer about her 30-year marriage to actor Jonathan Frakes, 66, being a working mom with two kids (Jameson, 24, and Elizabeth, 21), what it was like to face her General Hospital co-star Anthony Geary’s departure and her recent return to the soap that made her a star. Scroll down to read our exclusive Q&A interview with Genie!

How did it feel to get the phone call that you’d be returning to General Hospital this fall after you left in January?

I didn’t know it was coming. They wanted to reduce me to doing only 20 shows a year which basically means you show up at a wedding or a funeral or something. I said no. There’s no acting there, and it wasn’t worth it to wait by the phone. I felt that was maybe going to be the end of my career.

Wow. What turned things around?

I got such a nice, big response on social media. It was a surprise that made me feel great, and it had never happened before. [The producers] met with me two months later — they realized that the fans were upset and this wasn’t going to work for the show. ABC basically said it was a mistake and asked what they could do to fix it. I said, “I want a story.” We talked about ideas and then it was like, “You’re coming back to work!” I was very excited.

So are we! What was your first day back on set like?

I had a lot of trepidation. I worried about the way I looked and if I’d forgotten how to act because I’d been away from it for a while. But when I walked up to my stage and saw that it said “Laura’s apartment,” I gasped. I was like, oh my God, they’ve built me a set, and it’s gorgeous. I said, “I’ve never had an apartment before!” It was so big, I knew they were keeping me. It was just this awesome feeling that I was really being welcomed home.

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Like a family reunion. Which co-star have you been the saddest to see leave?

Oh, there have been so many. I have to say the biggest, most important one was Tony [Geary]. That hurt. I cried because he was a big chapter of my life. He was the backbone of the show, and when he left I really felt the vacancy. It was like Elvis [Presley] had left the building. It’s starting to feel better now, and he’s happy where he’s living and doing what he’s doing. I wish him well, but I’ll always miss acting with him.

You said you were nervous about how you looked. Did that start with playing Laura?

It might have been before, actually, like trying out for the role of Wonder Woman’s sister when I was 13. I had to wear supertight shorts and a tight-fitting bathing suit top because they wanted to see the girls’ figures. For some reason, I got the idea that it would be OK to only have ice cream for lunch and then not eat dinner. [Laughs] I’ve always tried to fit into what I thought [Hollywood] wanted from me, and it’s just made me crazy.

Did it take a toll on your self-esteem or self-confidence?

Yes, everything. And I think it took a toll on my health because I did terrible things to my body. Then it got to the point four years ago where I thought, I can’t suffer or do this in an extreme way anymore. It was like a surrender moment. I wanted to find [a program] that’s about feeding yourself — where you can eat some damn spaghetti and lose weight! And you can with Nutrisystem, and you do.

How did it improve your outlook on everything?

I think, with women in particular, a lot of our self-worth gets tied up in feeling attractive. When you don’t have that going on, you want to hide away. For example, I would not have gone back to General Hospital four or five years ago if I was not able to take off those [first] 30 pounds. And if I hadn’t gotten nice and thin, there’s no way I would’ve quit smoking like my doctor told me to, because God forbid I should put on more weight on top of my highest weight. And I was too depressed to even care.

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It’s great that you’re feeling better.

Honestly, if you just take that step into positive motion — and it has to be motion, it can’t just be thinking — it tends to start to snowball, and all sorts of positive things seem to cling on. Our actions define what happens in our life, more than our thinking.

Well, one guy who’s stuck with you through thick and thin is Jonathan. What’s the secret to your marriage?

Just not giving up and being willing to go through some really awful times. I also think we have a really big emotional bond that has sealed the marriage. We needed each other, we still need each other, and when we had children, we needed to be there for them. And he’s really, really, really funny!

How did you balance your career with raising two kids?

When my son was four months old, I said, “I can’t work anymore.” The producers said, “How about you do two mornings a week, and you’ll be out at 10 a.m.?” But they didn’t say I’d be doing two or three episodes on those mornings. I was tired all the time, trying to do the women-can-do-it-all thing. Which you can, but are you happy? Women have to make harder choices than men. I wish I’d stayed home with the kids.

Jonathan Frakes and Genie
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What are the benefits to your life now?

I’m more authentic to myself. I used to engage in an awful lot of people-pleasing. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t have time! I want to enjoy my life, so I’m making choices where I’m kinder to myself.

If you had to rate your life now from 1 to 10?

Ten! Right now, it’s good! I’m very happy, and I’m very grateful.

For more on Genie Francis, pick up the latest issue of Closer Weekly, on newsstands now — and be sure to sign up for our newsletter for more exclusive news!