The Return of Ricki Lake: A Long Road Back

Ricki hosts a TV pajama party on the New Ricki Lake Show

Ricki Lake became a name in 1985, when she was just 18, after snagging the leading role in John Waters’ “Hairspray.”  She’s back in the entertainment headlines with a new autobiography and  daily TV show.

Ricki left TV in 2004 after 11 years hosting a daily talk show, and returned this past September with a new syndicated talk show after escaping the limelight for eight years.  To fill-in the timeline, after “Hairspray,” Ricki did one-season  as a regular on the short-lived, but critically acclaimed series, “China Beach.”

Her career then really stumbled for several years. She was a broke, depressed and disillusioned resident of Low Budget Hell.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she was invited in September 1993 to host the first “Ricki Lake.” This was supposed to be a simple “me-too” knock-off of the popular gossipy daytime talk show genre of the time that featured mainly topics on infidelity, over-sexed teens, and men who were cads—but with a twist—a host who was an outspoken young, single woman who was kind of a celebrity, but also an outcast because of her large figure.

Ricki joined the ranks of the older generation that included Jerry Springer, Montel Williams, Geraldo, Jenny,  Maury Povich (still on today and specializing in cheating men), and Sally Jesse Raphael who leeringly exploited the assumed foibles, mores, weaknesses, and frequent live combat of their “trailer trash” guests/victims.  Instead of the 25+ target age range of the older generation, Ricki’s producers felt high-schoolers and college-age kids wanted new, edgier topics that focused on birth control, pre-marital sex, prejudice and racism,  LGBT issues, and even amateur talent shows.  It aimed to be positive, supportive, and understanding, not combative.

Ricki didn’t have many professional qualifications for the role.  She wasn’t a journalist or psychologist, but did have the real-life chops of a nobody-weight-challenged-teen who overcame extreme prejudice to become a movie star and therefore a heroine of  her generation.  She was the classic chub, compensating for her low self-esteem by trying to be everyone’s “fat and jolly” friend– and it worked.  The Gen-Xers, flooded by the cultural tsunami of baby boomers had found a long-lost teddie bear that had floated to the top, and they hugged her tightly.

After leaving “Ricki Lake” in 2004, to “spend more time with her family,” Ricki became more respectable, a steady mother to her two children, wrestled with a difficult divorce, slept around (courtesy of her fame), and finally found the love of her life.  Seeking legitimacy after her talk show had descended into the most tawdry topics at the end of its run, she partnered with a respected documentary filmmaker to make a serious political documentary about modern childbirth, and wrote her revealing auto-biography, “Never Say Never.”

I remembered Ricki very well from her role in “Hairspray,” and inspired by a barrage of news clips about her new show, I bought the book, with a foreword by John Waters.  Though published in 2012 by a division of Simon and Schuster, I found a brand new hardback copy on-line for just $.99.

About “Never Say Never,” Waters gushed to anyone who would listen that Ricki immediately and forever became one of his best friends in the world, after he “discovered” her as the perfect 18-year old ingénue for “Hairspray.”  Waters proclaimed he especially loved Ricki because she was the most honest celebrity he’d ever worked with.   They told each other every secret.  He knew everything about her, her ex-husband, children, current husband and past lovers.  It sounded a little off, so I decided to find out more myself.

Although the book lavishes endless praise and respect for Waters, and her undying gratitude to him for giving her a first break, my memory of Ricki’s involvement in “Hairspray” and her experience during the filming differed somewhat.

As line producer of “Hairspray,” I was closely involved in the trials and tribulations of casting the role of Tracy, a fat, naïve, and racially progressive teenager from West Baltimore who just happened to be a superb dancer.

Ricki was not a shoe-in for the role.  Given the esthetics of the time, when the only movie ingénues were thin as rails, very few hefty young women had the nerve to presume they could be popular actresses.

John’s cultural contrarianism, and twisted irony made a fat ingénue heroine a logical choice that synced with his themes like gay is good, straight is bad, crime is beauty, ugliness is gorgeous, dying for art is a good career move, and tacky is truth.  The rotund Ricki would fit right into that list.

The real irony was that, at age 18, Ricki took herself extremely seriously and saw herself as a talented performer.  She did not take the role so she could be mocked like Edith Massey and many of John’s other psychotic performers.  She had gifts to give the world, if it could just see beyond the different shape of her body.  However, Ricki was desperate to be a successful performer.  And though “Hairspray” appeared to mock her through the impossibility of the situation, she had the drive needed to make Tracy on her own terms.

Like Divine, Ricki wanted to be taken as a serious person and actress, but was willing to be used by Waters as an object of scorn and derision to get there.  The months it took to unite her with the role showed that very few overweight Gen-Xers were willing to take it on the Waters role.

In her book, she tells of being torn between this drive to be loved by an audience, but shackled by her dreadful experience of being sexually assaulted when a pre-teen by the family handy man.  Her reaction to the abuse caused her to hate her body and gain so much weight that she would be unappealing and never have to suffer unwanted sexual attention again.  As she continually reveals in her book, she had to stifle a considerable sexual drive, which compounded her misery and confusion.

From a very young age, Ricki wanted to sing and dance and act– to be the center of attention, but failed due to the discouragement she received about her weight.  In the seventh grade, she was cast in a low-rent children’s cabaret that performed weekends in Manhattan.  It gave her a sense of stage presence and rudimentary dancing and singing, and boosted her hopes for a showbiz career until another sexual predator producer came on to her during a “casting session.”

Ricki attended a noted private school for young performers in New York City, not so much because she showed great talent, but because she could escape from the suburban school where she faced constant insults due to her weight.  The performing arts school was an undemanding “diploma mill,” and rarely took attendance, which Ricki loved.  Its main admission requirement was affording the $6,000 per year tuition fee, which her parents grudgingly paid.  But it was populated by off-the-wall talented youth who didn’t subscribe to the closed-minded suburban archetype, and Ricki felt comfortable among them.

After high school graduation, her parents sent her to Ithaca College in upstate New York, because it had a reputation for performing arts.  She found it depressing and discouraging when the closed-minded head of the drama department typecast her as a fat and therefore hopeless candidate for the glamorous, sexy entertainment industries, where thin was a non-negotiable ticket to entry.  It was back to the suburbs again for Rickie.  She was miserable, and was on the verge of dropping out.

This is where I became acquainted with Ricki.  Having worked with Waters since “Female Trouble” in 1973, I got involved in “Hairspray” when he called to say he had potential investors from Wall Street, but needed a budget that came in for less than $1 million dollars (about three times the amount of John’s previous film “Polyester”).

Would I do it for him?  It had been nearly five long years since we produced “Polyester,” and John had made no progress toward making another film.  I was busy making good money shooting TV commercials in Baltimore with David Insley, who had also been with John since “Female Trouble.”

Ricki in “Hairspray”

“Hairspray” was a period musical film, not a cheapo underground movie.  Given the cost of original music rights, choreography, the early 1960s props and sets, period wardrobe/makeup/hair requirements, and big name cast reserve, it was a difficult, maybe impossible task, I warned.  John had been shut down for years, and was desperate to make another movie or possibly face the end of his movie-making career.

New Line, had become a big Hollywood studio, and had rejected “Pink Flamangos II” as well as “Hairspray” for being weird Waters money losers.  In a way, this was his last chance, and he pleaded with me to make the numbers work, even if they included a bit of fantasy.  Being sympathetic, and not  optimistic that it would ever get made, I went along.

Flash forward six months, and there I was in “Hairspray’s” production office in Baltimore’s Fells Point, with the title of Line Producer and on the phone with New Line’s Production office in LA and the casting director in New York.  Suddenly, New Line had had a change of heart, and funded the production, funneling in a bit more cash than my whistling-in-the dark budget, but nowhere near what it deserved—or needed.

We were just weeks away from the first day of shooting, and the role of Tracy had not been filled.   Even the top agents on both coasts came up empty-handed, because there simply were no young, fat dancers with the nerve or charisma to do the role.   The executive producers were pressuring John to re-write the role for a svelte blonde with contemporary sex appeal, and had given him a deadline to do that, or they’d pull the plug.

The big names were set, a shooting schedule was written in stone, hundreds of thousands of dollars had already been spent, and John was sweating bullets.  He hated, above anything else, anyone messing with his scripts—and with incredible insight, stuck to his guns, implying that the big name casting directors weren’t taking their job seriously enough.   Tension and insecurity flowed through the management in what was becoming a poker game.

In the midst of this came the incredible fluke.  An assistant from a Manhattan talent agency had been visiting Ithaca College, just to watch a friend’s daughter appear in a student production.  It was a totally non-working visit.  After the curtain, they visited backstage to congratulate the daughter.  Hanging out along the edges talking to some of the performers, was Ricki Lake.  She was not in the play, but at 250 pounds, she was hard to miss.  The casting assistant recalled the deluge of urgent faxes swirling through every Manhattan agent’s office about the need for a fat dancer and approached Ricki.

Was she an actress?  Why yes, as a matter of fact.  Could she dance?  Of course, she’d been on the stage since 7th grade.  The assistant gave her a card and told her that a movie about to go into production needed someone like her for a lead role, and she should give a call if she was interested.

Interested?  Ricki didn’t bother to call, but drove the next morning straight to Manhattan and appeared at the agent’s office.  She had no credits since the kid’s music review in 7th grade, or formal training as an actress.  She wasn’t in the Screen Actors Guild, but she had the right shape, spoke well, and said she could dance.  She even had a pretty, balanced face, sparkling eyes and great smile—someone the camera could love—and she was available right that minute.

Urgent calls went down to the Baltimore production office saying a good possibility for Tracy might have been found, and the next day John and his Baltimore Casting Director, Pat Moran, were on a train to Manhattan.

John and Pat needed just one look, then a quick call back to confirm their first impression.  Ricki was rough around the edges, and certainly untested.  She could move well for a 250 pounder, though without the grace and speed of a trained, athletic dancer.  Above all, she was comfortable with the role— it had been her life for the past ten years.

Ricki was whisked down to Baltimore to join the dancing boot camp run by choreographer Ed Love out a mobile office trailer parked in the production office lot.  The make-up and wardrobe people did their tricks, and Rickie floated confidently into Dreamland.

Not having a famous name in the lead role was a stress for the film’s executives.  Ricki would be fighting for attention with celebs like Ric Ocasek, Debbie Harry, Jerry Stiller, Pia Zadora, Sonny Bono, Ruth Brown, and of course the larger than life Divine.  Couldn’t they have gotten a name with a good movie resume who could really dance and be a sexy box office draw?  Wouldn’t  they be better off with a script re-write where  Tracy was an ugly duckling with buck teeth, bad hair, flat chest, and pimply skin that could be easily fabricated and then shed by the make-up crew?  Would Ricki’s attempt at great dancing and sex appeal really work?  The cameras soon rolled, and it was too late to change direction. Besides, Ricki was doing a fine job of working hard, learning the dances, delivering the lines, and endearing everyone to her.  And John was happy.

Ricki’s obvious crush on one of the camera crew was unrequited, at least as far as I knew—and I knew quite a bit.  He took a lot of ribbing from other crew who weren’t so convinced that big was beautiful.

As an unknown with a very short resume, Ricki seemed to be a risky last minute choice who didn’t command much respect from the other cast or crew.    It was felt that the real stars were the cameo names, Divine, and some of the hunky young males.  Colleen Fitzpatrick, the tall, thin, good-looking blonde who played Tracy’s nemesis, Amber Van Tussle, was a well-trained actress and dancer, seemed to be the star who would make a splash with her standard issue sex appeal.

Ricki occasionally came up to the production office for short visits.  She was so young and naïve.  She’d ask for things like a refrigerator in her hotel room, or to make long-distance calls on the office phone, or get a ride somewhere, or ask if she could get a blow dryer for her room– real teenager stuff.  New things swirled around her so much that I think she came up to chat just for a different perspective and not have to worry about how well she was doing in comparison with the other tall and beautiful young boys and girls.  I remember thinking that she could end up as a hoot, a laughable freak, and object of derision, no matter how hard John and the choreographers worked to make her inner beauty shine through.  Nevertheless I was always friendly, sympathetic, and encouraging.  And I don’t recall any other cast member coming to the production office unless they were really cheesed off about something.

About ten years later, when Ricki was a big TV star, I saw her at a distance in her grand booth at a TV programming convention in New Orleans, where she was one of the hottest names.   She was posing for photos.  Bucking up some courage, I walked up, and said, “Hi Ricki, remember me?”  sure that she wouldn’t .  But she ran up, gave me a big hug and said “Of course I do.  Bob!”  She dragged me into the middle of the photo shoot, to the great surprise of my partner who was pushing her own talk show ideas.  We spoke for a very few minutes, and posed cheek to cheek for a Polaroid before the Columbia publicity people whisked her away.

Photo of Ricki and me meeting by accident at a TV Programming Convention around 1998 when she was a huge TV talk show star; she signed the publicity photo wallet on the left.

I kept the photo on my desk for years, and people marveled that I really knew Ricki Lake who was one of the biggest TV stars of the time.  Most didn’t know John Waters from Muddy Waters and no memory of “Hairspray,” but Ricki Lake was huge.

Eleven years later, she’s back with a respectable, popular show and a huge following.  It’s amazing to see her face every day on billboards along Interstate highways and city buses.  Maybe she’ll even read this article and invite me to her new show.  Ah, showbiz!

Oh, and don’t forget her book, “Never Say Never.”  It’s a great read.

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