"Divine taught me to walk in high heels," she says. "He said, 'Honey, I'm gonna show you how to walk in those things.' He wasn't very nice to me in the beginning, but that was the one thing he taught me."
That was when she burst onto the public scene at 18, chubby, a bit frumpy and perfect for the role of Tracy Turnblad in John Waters' 1988 "Hairspray," the original — and edgier — vehicle that later spawned the glossy stage and movie musicals.
Walking lessons from her costar, legendary drag queen Divine (nee Harris Glenn Milstead), were just one step in her metamorphosis into the chic reigning princess of 1990s talk shows. For Divine it was the untimely end of a long career (he died of an enlarged heart shortly after the film's release). But for newcomer Ricki Lake it was just the beginning.
After a few years and a few more roles in Waters' films and grittier 1980s movies such as "Last Exit to Brooklyn," she was, improbably, chosen to host her own syndicated talk show — this in the era of Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael and the upstart Oprah — at only age 23. But the producers worried that viewers needed to develop trust in their very young host.
"They took a look at Sally Jessy Raphael and decided to copy that and put it on me," Lake says. "So they put me in a yellow 'Big Bird' blazer and helmet hair."
Eventually, Lake says, they began to realize that the look was too matronly for her age and, over time, the wardrobe evolved to choices that were more youthful.
A look back at clips of the show seems to often show her in a fail-safe black blazer or neutral top, dressed like countless other young women in Manhattan of that era, since her show was taped in a pre-gentrified Chelsea neighborhood studio. But the look was definitely an improvement.
"In her third season, former heftyweight Ricki has gone sleek and sporty, trading in that dowdy college-girl-on-a-budget look," the Los Angeles Times reported in 1995. "Now it's miniskirts, pantsuits and sexy dresses in velvet, wool and satin."
Besides changing her sartorial image, Lake moved from the edges of the spotlight to the brightly lighted center stage of American pop culture during her 11-season run with a signature mix of hot-button topics, oversharing from cajoled guests and the wail of amped-up audiences.
Now after eight years away, she has a new weekday syndicated talk show ("The Ricki Lake Show," on Fox 11 at 3 p.m. in Los Angeles), based in Culver City, that starts Monday, and with it a newly discerning approach, taken from her own life in the interim, she says.
"Like a lot of women my age, in my 30s I had a lot of ups and a lot of downs," says Lake, now in her early 40s. Divorced, remarried, the working mother of two teenage sons, she thinks women will relate to her life and share her issues. And she wants them to have some fun in the process.
"I want it to be like my living room," Lake says as she looks around her set, "and the audience is part of the conversation."
While giving her visitors a preview of her new domain, she's also showing off her new on-air wardrobe, with her costume designer Dina Cerchione hovering by her side, her hair and makeup glam squad a step away, and press and personal assistants scattered in the seats, trying to extricate her from an unnamed engagement that evening. "It has to be cancelled or it's gonna ruin my mood," she mock-whines. "Just say no."
Cerchione most recently was credited with briskly refashioning Howie Mandel in dark suits and sleekly outfitting his identically dressed, short-skirted army of model-bots on "Deal or No Deal." She and Lake show off a couple of outfits from the new show that seem, at first glance, to borrow more from Lake's past than the present.
"I love black," Lake exclaims. "I'm a New Yorker." So it's no surprise that she's dressed in a Milly black leather circle mini and the YSL pumps that show off her great legs along with a matching black sweater top with crisp collar and cuffs made of white leather. She looks trim and daytime-sexy with a bit of whimsy that simultaneously evokes downtown '80s Manhattan, rock 'n' roll Tracy Turnblad and perhaps a star pupil on the first day of school.
Later, she changes into a black Rachel Zoe kimono-style belted wrap vest over a thin cream turtleneck and a black pencil mini ("either Theory or Helmut Lang") paired with knee-high black boots from Lake's own closet. With its more workaday leanings, this seems closer to Lake's life now.
"I was looking for clothing that represents my everywoman persona," she says. "I'm not a 'fashionista' — but I aspire to be."
One reason for Lake's newfound delight in clothes is, as she puts it, "I love that I'm a quote normal unquote size." Lake's weight has been all over the place in the almost 25 years of her very public life: "I've been a size 4 and a size 24." Nowadays, she says, she's either a size 6 or 8 depending on which designer she's wearing.
Last fall's stint as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars" was definitely a personal turning point. Paired with star dancer Derek Hough, she at first struggled with the idea of his signature athletic lifts but threw herself into the daring moves and the spangly barely there costumes, glorying in the robust conditioning and weight loss. She ended the season as one of the top three finalists, running up the highest scores but losing to audience favorite J.R. Martinez. However, she gained so much more, she says: "I really did start to believe I had become a beautiful dancer."
She's also a woman who's quite visibly in love again, excitedly showing off wedding pictures on her iPhone from her beachy April nuptials with jewelry designer Christian Evans, where she wore flowers tucked in her updo and a softly flounced ivory chiffon gown that was custom-designed for her by head "Dancing" costumer Daniella Gschwendtner.
Just back from a vacation to Ibiza, she extols "an amazing new designer" she found there and the hippie-chic cum romantic style she says she currently favors in her personal life, exclaiming, "I love teddies!"
"Very boho," the glam squad chimes in.
Off hours will be few and far between as she launches her show and, when she's not in production, makes personal appearances all over the country to meet the demands of syndicated show promotion. (In a coincidence that couldn't have been scripted, her old buddy John Waters called in the middle of our interview to make a dinner date when she passes through Baltimore.)
She's bubbling over about future style-oriented guests on the show, mentioning "those young 'fashionista' people" from L.A.-based Who What Wear, the online celebrity and trend magazine, and local vintage-guru-turned-author Cameron Silver, as well as friends she's had since back in the day, like New York designer Todd Oldham.
And, in the end, she's betting on her audience, mostly women her own age who have grown up with her and followed her over the years, hoping that "people can see that I'm authentic. And that I look good in the process."