She stepped off the elevator precisely on time, and why wouldn't she be prompt? She was wearing two watches.

She was perfectly turned out in a well-orchestrated symphony of red, black and gold -- black blouse, red blazer and slacks, gold around her wrists and neck and gold earrings with black stones framing her face. Every auburn hair was in place. She was petite, trim and fit. No one would guess she was 56.

But anyone who watches daytime TV would instantly recognize her as Lisa from "As the World Turns," Eileen Fulton in the real life that lies just over the often-thin line between reality and the soaps.

"I'm sorry I'm late," she said needlessly, since she wasn't, her accent betraying roots long ago pulled from Southern soil.

Over eggs benedict at the Ritz Carlton -- "Oh, this is sinful -- I'm so glad we got it" -- she was hardly the Lisa who made "bitch" a household word long before you could say it on television. She was a charmer -- the Lisa, or Fulton, who has been a guest in millions of homes for 30 years. This spring is her anniversary.

The recollections came easily, like the three times she walked off the show "forever" -- "The third time, I really meant it" -- coming back each time, of course. And there were times when her impetuosity as Eileen Fulton seemed to match her spontaneity as Lisa Hughes Eldridge Shea Colman McColl Mitchel, veteran of 37 love affairs and about a half-dozen marriages.

Like the time she and a husband -- there have been three -- were looking at property in New Mexico, thinking of acquiring a second home. "But then," she said, "we decided to get divorced instead."

Fulton is no stranger to Washington, D.C. Among her charitable interests is Martha's Table, a Washington organization working for poor and homeless mothers and children. And Washington is also a convenient stopover when she's on her way home to Asheville, N.C., to see her 83-year-old mother.

"She's the most incredible woman," said Fulton. Her mother was on her way to New York five years ago, Fulton recalled, when she had an accident and called from an emergency room. "She called and said, 'I don't want you to get upset, but are you sitting down?' Then I heard her tell someone in the emergency room, 'Don't you dare cut that dress. It's new.'"

Last year, "she came to New York and watched me get married," said Fulton, "then comforted me three months later when I got divorced."

Her mother is a regular viewer of the show, too. "And does she get bugged when they interrupt the show for a news bulletin," said Fulton. "She knows they'll never see that part of the episode again, and the news will be on later ... Okay, say it's a tragedy," she said, "but to pre-empt the show for a sporting event!"

Fulton is the daughter of a Methodist minister who moved the family to various churches while she was growing up. Her quest for the spotlight started early, like the time, she recalls, at age two when she interrupted church services with her rendition of "Shortening Bread." The spanking did not deter her.

By the time she finished a college music major, it was clear that the job her father had found for her working with a neighboring church choir just wouldn't do. Nothing but New York would do.

"I dreamed of being the greatest actress on Broadway," she said. There were voice lessons and acting lessons. Once, in acting class, the question was asked: Would an actor be prostituting him- or herself by taking a job on a soap opera? The answer, she recalled, was: "No, you prostitute yourself when you don't do a good job, when you're not believable."

While Fulton's portrayal of Lisa is one of the longest-running roles in TV history, she has found time for other professional work. She has done theater work when her schedule on "As the World Turns" permits -- or during periods away from the show. And she loves to sing and can be found touring the country in her own cabaret show or working closer to home in the East Village of New York.

"I love to sing," she said. She especially likes to alternate upbeat tunes with the down, the sentimental with the bouncy. "I love to make the audience cry," she said. "Of course, then I have to cheer them up."

But what she does mainly is take "World's" CBS audience through the ups and downs of Lisa's life -- the many romances, the spates of illness and other near-tragedies and personal conflicts.

In her time, Fulton has seen the soap opera assume increased importance on the TV landscape. Daytime drama is a highly profitable form of programming and has inspired viewer loyalty often bordering on the obsessive and spanning generations. The soaps have given rise to a separate industry of soap-related magazines.

"The audience is more sophisticated," said Fulton. There was a time, she said, when some viewers thought they were watching real people live real lives. "Now they know we're actors ... that we don't have cameras in our houses taking our pictures as we go about and live."

And back at least as far as the '60s, she recalled, soaps became widely viewed fare on college campuses. "They even have courses on soaps" at some schools, she said. "It began in the late '60s, because the students grew up with them in their homes. At school, if you were a little homesick, it reminded you of home."

The business has become lucrative enough, and Fulton's been part of it long enough, that it afforded her the opportunity to invest in the New York Stars women's basketball team a decade or so ago. And that afforded her an interesting encounter with Warner Wolf, the flamboyant, somewhat diminutive former Washington sportscaster who then held forth in New York.

In 1980, Fulton recalled, the Stars won the league title, only to have the story upstaged by the settlement of a bus strike. They may as well have pre-empted "As the World Turns," Fulton got so mad. About that time, she was dining at a restaurant, looked across the room and spied Wolf. She pounced on him like a cat.

"I went right over, and I said, Warner, you stink! You totally ignored my women and their incredible feat." As she was berating him, Fulton recalled, "I wondered why he didn't stand up. I'm still torn between the ERA and the whole thing of men being gentlemen ... Then it occurred to me -- he was standing up!"