Ricki Lake is an American film actress and television host best known for her starring role as Tracy Turnblad in the original Hairspray and her daytime talk show, Ricki Lake. Her success with Hairspray in 1988 prompted her to move to Los Angeles where she continued her acting career and underwent a tremendous physical transformation. Her talk show debuted in 1993 to phenomenal ratings. It remained on the air for 11 seasons.
Actress and talk show host Ricki Lake was born on September 21, 1968, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Her parents, Jill and Barry Lake, a homemaker and a pharmacist, sought to protect Ricki from the potential disappointments of show business when she decided, after seeing a production of Annie when she was 7, to be a singer and an actress.
As a chubby little girl with braces, Ricki was not the most typical candidate for a glamorous acting career, but she pursued it wholeheartedly—attending, and eventually getting kicked out of, the Professional Children's School in Manhattan for acting. Lake was always confident and popular in high school. In 1997, she took her ambition to Ithaca College and fought for roles in campus theater productions; but weighing 200 pounds proved to be an extra challenge.
However, during her freshman year a remarkable twist of fate changed her life. Director John Waters, known for his "campy" films, happened to be looking for a young girl with a large girth and dancing skills to star in his offbeat comedy, Hairspray. Lake auditioned, got the part, and proceeded to light up the screen with her quirky and inspired performance as Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenage girl with shellacked hair who finds a loophole to the outside world and personal and political empowerment through a television dance show.
Her success with Hairspray prompted her to move to Los Angeles, where she continued to land some small roles in Cookie (1989), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and another John Waters film, Cry-baby, alongside Johnny Depp. She also played Holly Pellegrino for one season on the ABC TV series China Beach. However, Lake was soon having a hard time finding roles, later telling Interview magazine, "in Hollywood, you need a gimmick, and my gimmick was that I was fat. And when I stopped getting roles because of that reason, it was really hard." She found herself in need of a major personal and professional overhaul.
Lake then embarked on a strict diet and exercise regime, and by 1993 she had lost 40 percent of her original weight, trimming down to 150 pounds and a size ten. Control over her weight was accompanied by a new professional direction, and in 1993 she auditioned for a television talk show created by Garth Ancier and Gail Steinberg (former producer of Geraldo and Donahue). The producers wanted to create a talk show for young women, which would focus on dating and relationships (as opposed to marriage and families).
As Ancier put it, "where Sally [Jessy Raphael] had done 'My Daughter Dresses Like a Tramp,' we did the same topic and called it 'My Mom says I Dress Too Sexy for My Own Good.'" Lake, with her characteristic enthusiasm and spunk, blew past competitors Melissa Rivers and model Veronica Webb. At age 25, she got the job and became the youngest host in talk show history.
Talk Show Success
Ricki Lake debuted in September 1993 and, in its first season, skyrocketed to the top of the charts, second only to seasoned veteran, Oprah. The show's unprecedented success seemed to derive from Lake's no-holds barred take on such heated issues as teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and infidelity, as well as her skillful provocation of the emotionally charged audience. The show also featured hip music and a youthful set, with extra perks like surprise guests and pop quizzes. Lake seemed to take the talk show forum through a new evolution, gearing it up for the next generation.
Although producers were delighted with Lake's bold slant on the talk show medium, many more conservative critics were offended by such in-your-face titles as "Mom, When My Boyfriend Gets Out of Jail, I'm Taking Him Back," and "Girlfriend, I Slept With Your Man and I'll Do It Again," and believed Lake was purposely picking topics for the inevitably ugly confrontations that would ensue. There were even rumors that Lake went backstage to get her guests riled up before going out on stage.
Lake admitted that she does pick audience members who seem to hold strong opinions when she fields them for questions, but she staunchly defended her show against claims that it is exploitative and insists that all of her guests and their stories are real. She told Mark Marvel of Interview, "what we are basically doing is offering a stage or an arena where people can talk about what interests them and what bothers them and where they can be heard and have a little fun."
Although Ricki Lake significantly bolstered Lake's career, she still seeked a return to her true loves, acting and singing. Though the demands of the show made it difficult to seriously pursue acting opportunities, she did make time to appear in a third Waters film, Serial Mom, in 1994, and an unfortunate box office flop, Mrs. Winterbourne, in 1996. In 2004, the show announced it was coming to a close after 11 seasons.
Lake married illustrator Rob Sussman in Las Vegas in 1993, after meeting and falling in love with him at a Halloween party only six months earlier. The two have collaborated on a children's book entitled Sophie's Revenge, as well as an anti-fur protest in 1994, for which they were both arrested. Lake currently resides in New York City with her husband and baby boy, Milo, who was born in 1997.
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