In 1994, at the age of 26, “Hairspray” sweetheart Ricki Lake had one of the hottest daytime talk shows in the history of television.
With a daily audience of 5.8 million viewers after only one year on-air, “Ricki Lake” was second only to “Oprah” among all syndicated talk shows, and she was beating “Oprah” among younger viewers.
But today, the 43-year-old performer, who returns to talk TV this month with “The Ricki Lake Show,” looks back and says: If only she had been able to understand what she had and what she might have done with all her clout at the time.
“I didn’t know. I didn’t really appreciate it,” Lake said in an interview in Baltimore last week, the city where her career began as an 18-year-old unknown actress starring as Tracy Turnblad in John Waters’ film classic.
“My whole career,” she says, “has been about me sort of jumping into something and not really thinking it through or thinking where will this lead me.”
“For example, making my first movie here in Baltimore in the summer of 1987, I didn’t know who Divine was,” Lake says. “I never heard of John Waters. It was like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you. You’re going to change my life, and I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I’m going for it.’”
That spirit is one of the things that endeared her to Waters and led not only to more roles in “Serial Mom” and “Cry Baby,” but to a deep friendship with Waters now in its 25th year.
“Our relationship is way beyond a professional friendship,” he says. “Ricki is one of the few who knows everything about me, and I know everything about her. I know her parents. I know her kids. I know her ex-husband. I know people she slept with one night.”
Says Lake: “Just like ‘Hairspray,” that’s sort-of how I tripped into every opportunity — the talk show, too. I never imagined it would go for 11 days, let alone 11 years.”
The first two years of “Ricki Lake” were heady stuff, with Lake’s producers reinventing the genre with the first talk show targeting teens and young adults -- and the ratings going up, up, up.
But Lake and her producers also drank at the well of trash TV as the years went on with such shows as “I Slept With Your Man, and I’m Gonna Do It Again, and Again and Again.”
At the end, Lake wanted out. The production company had renewed her show for another year, but in 2004, when her contract was up, she left. She also left her husband and New York to embark on an eight-year odyssey that now includes a new husband, a new Los Angeles home — and the new talk show that debuts Sept. 10.
Lake says the moment of truth came in 2001 on 9/11. Her show filmed in New York, and she lived near the World Trade Center. Like many people in New York that day, she says she thought she was going to die.
“I saw the plane go into the building from my apartment downtown,” she says. “I just had my son there. I had given birth two months before, so I was really traumatized. And I felt like I needed to make some changes — and one of them was leaving my show. … I didn’t go off the air until 2004, because I had a contract I had to fulfill, but that day in 2001 is when it started.”
Lake says that process of reinvention included “looking back” at her TV talk career, and thinking, “OK, my ‘Hoochie Mama Makeovers’ and ‘Baby Mama Dramas’ — is this what I want to be known for? Is this what I want my legacy to be?”
The world of daytime TV talk is filled with narratives of reinvention — guests talk of losing 100 pounds and finding fulfillment. When a talk show host refers to life and career changes as “embarking on a personal journey,” as Lake does in the interview, it seems fair to wonder what’s authentic and what’s performance.
Moran, Baltimore’s Emmy Award-winning casting director and one of the straightest shooters in show business, vouches for Lake’s authenticity.
“With Ricki, what you see is what you get,” she says. “Ricki was very young and on her way to work for The Gap when I met her. And we keep in touch. ... She is as sweet as she’s ever been, and it’s like she never missed a beat. I mean it: There is nothing false about that girl.”
If it is performance, it’s a good one. Lake seems uncensored, open and totally into what’s happening in the moment of conversation.
During the interview, she talked about having dinner the night before with Waters and Moran at Rocket to Venus in Hampden.
“This is like family to me” she says. “I mean, I’ve known them since I was, like, 18 years old, when I was chasing after the crew guys when I was full of hormones and dying to lose my virginity. So, they’ve known me all that time.”
Lake calls the time spent filming “Hairspray” in Baltimore “the summer of my life.”
And, she says, “I continued to have amazing summers here making ‘Cry Baby’ and ‘Serial Mom,’” as she ticked off every apartment and hotel in which she stayed while working on a Waters film.
She speaks about Waters with deep affection and gratitude, describing her selection as Tracy Turnblad after an open audition in New York City as “one of those fluky, kind of meant-to-be experiences.”
“I guess he saw something in me, and thank God he did,” she says.
“He had me sign an audio copy of my book,” she said of their dinner this week. “And I just said, ‘To John, thank you for my career,’ because I really would not be here if not for him.”
Waters wrote the foreword to Lake’s “Never Say Never: Finding a Life That Fits,” which was published in April. Waters’ words alone are worth the price of the book — steeped not only in the filmmaker’s affection for Lake, but his keen satiric edge.
“Let’s get this right out of the way,” Waters writes. “I love Ricki Lake fat, thin, chubby, rich, poor, single, dating, married, divorced, engaged again; I love Ricki even when I have to watch her give birth in a bathtub in ‘The Business of Being Born.’ I guess that is unconditional love.”
In an interview last week, Waters said, “If I hadn’t discovered her, she would have ended up being famous anyway. Everybody likes Ricki. They’re willing to go with her anywhere she takes them. I jokingly call her my daughter. But Divine was her mother, because Divine taught her how to walk in heels.”
As to this latest act of reinvention as a more mature, socially conscious talk show host, “God knows I’ve reinvented myself 50 times,” Waters says. “It’s a tough thing to do, because she’s got a lot of competition this time. But none of them are going to be as real as Ricki.”
Lake says the catchphrase for her new show is, “You’re not the same person you were in the ’90s, and neither is she.”
She sums up the difference between her old show and the new one by explaining how they would treat the topic of “surviving infidelity.”
“The old show would be, ‘Yo, ho, back off from my man,’” she says with a ton of attitude and volume. “And now it’s like, ‘How do I stay in this marriage?’” she says in a softer, more thoughtful voice. “It’s the tone that changes.”
The tone and attitude.
“This time around, being 43 years old, it’s not about trying to be a star,” she says. “I feel like there’s so much we can do with this show to help people, educate people, entertain people in away we didn’t last time around.”
It is a tough field with Katie Couric on her own “personal journey” journal” from CBS anchorwoman to talk show host arriving Sept. 10 as well.
“I don’t aspire to replace Oprah,” Lake says. “No one can. ... I just want to do the show for a little bit of time, and hopefully we can do some great, great hours of television where we inspire people and I feel like I’m being authentic and my own true self — growing and connecting. That’s what I hope.
“And then when it’s done for however long it goes, if the audience doesn’t want to see me again on daytime TV, I will just as happily pack up my bags and move to Spain.”
Spain? For real, Ricky?
“Yes, Ibiza,” she says, smiling like someone who enjoys the thought. “I’m not looking to do that tomorrow. Clearly, I’m very passionate about the show. But I also have a backup plan. It’s good to have a backup plan.”
If you watch
“The Ricki Lake Show” premieres at 4 p.m. Sept. 10 on WNUV (Channel 54) in Baltimore.
Hometown: Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.
Lives: Los Angeles
Married: to Christian Evans (2012, second marriage)
Children: Milo (15) and Owen (11)
Selected film credits: “Hairspray” (1988), “Cry-Baby” (1991), Serial Mom” (1994), “Mrs. Winterbourne” (1996).
TV: “China Beach” (1990), “Rick Lake” (1993-2004), “King of Queens” (2000-2001).