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Respect earns Ricki Lake success on TV

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ricki Lake has had easier evenings.

The 25-year-old actress is standing under hot lights in the Manhattan studio of her "Ricki Lake" syndicated daytime show -- the one that Mediaweek proclaims is "breaking out of the freshman talk-show pack" and she's standing her ground against a guest considerably more formidable than the twentysomethings who fill the stage for topics like "My Best Friend Betrayed Me," or "Your Turn-Ons Turn Me Off."

The uncharacteristically hard-edged subject is "Crusades Against Gays." And the first guest is a Topeka, Kan., minister who pickets the funerals of AIDS victims, refers to gays as "fags" and seems to relish provoking audience members with the chillingly smug assertion, "You'll be going to hell."

Now these are hardly sentiments shared by the host -- an AIDS-activist actress who made her film debut as the star of "Hairspray," the 1988 cult satire of the Twist era in which one of the gay community's most beloved performers, portly cross-dresser Divine, played her mother.

But Ricki Lake's byword is R-E-S-P-E-C-T. She invokes it in nearly every show, whenever participants start calling names or talking out of turn. So she responds to the minister's invective with calm, to his vicious statements with even-toned inquiries -- until the good minister sternly turns on her, unleashing beration that concludes with the astonishing affront, "You worship your rectum."

"I guess he was talking about me like I was a gay man or something, I have no idea," she was saying the next noon over lunch in a Greenwich Village cafe. "I didn't know what to say, I was so dumbfounded." She kept her composure on-air -- but lost it during the break when she went offstage to her producers.

"You didn't see me on the other side of the wall!" she blurts. "I'm like, 'Don't send me back out there!' . . . We've done many issues. Like "Stay Away From My Black Man" -- that was a hugely controversial and passionate and just angry show. That was a piece of cake compared to talking to him."

What so upsets Ms. Lake about his wrath was that it seemed so personal. "He didn't give me respect. He just didn't respect me. And it's just me out there," she says plaintively. "When we're actually doing the show? It is, like, me. And part of me is, like, I'm only 25!"

That's exactly what makes "Ricki Lake" so likable. In a year of talk-hour overload in national syndication, bulging with freshman competitors like comedian Bertice Berry and motivation expert Les Brown, Ricki Ms. Lake is breaking through the clutter with her youthful outlook, her engagingly up-front personality and the kind of vulnerability that marked her performances in "Hairspray" and TV's "China Beach."

Like her talkfest hero Oprah Winfrey, Ricki is an open book -- accessible enough to be on a first-name basis, familiar enough to be the girl-next-door -- and she uses that rapport to get to the emotional heart of personal matters. She never comes across as an exploitative voyeur, or as a ringmaster who's got a personal agenda. She controls her show with equanimity, refereeing emotional discussions so that heat gives way to the clarity of light.

But unlike the always-together Oprah, Ms. Lake hasn't developed a professional face to protect her personal one. She's still unsettled about that tough taping, even after a night's sleep and one of her thrice-weekly 90-minute workouts with a personal trainer.

If she has matured a lot from the shy, fat, blushing and giggly teen-ager of "Hairspray," she now is simply a confident, slimmed-down -- and still blushing and giggly -- adult. "Ricki is really young," says Gail Steinberg, the show's co-executive producer. "She's very comfortable with being 25 -- that's who she is. But she's also equally comfortable with having sort of an old soul."

Ms. Lake doesn't hesitate to talk about her own life on the air, whether it's admitting to being in an abusive relationship or revealing how tortured she felt when she weighed 250 pounds and guys would shout "Hey, big mama!" Growing up in Westchester, N.Y., she was forever taking singing lessons and dancing lessons, and attended Professional Children's School so she could get a line on auditions. She found work, too, as a guest on TV shows like "Kate & Allie" and "Fame." But who'd have thought a frankly chubby cherub could be a movie star in the perfection-obsessed '80s?

John Waters, that's who. A shock-and-fetish-movie maven, with cult followings both underground and gay, the director was preparing to go PG in 1988: "Hairspray" would be an energetic musical evoking the '60s Baltimore of his youth by focusing on a chubby teen underdog. An affectionate (if still somewhat deranged) comedy, it made Ricki Ms. Lake a star.

In the next two years, she was cast in a raft of feature films -- "Last Exit to Brooklyn," "Cookie," Waters' "Cry-Baby" -- and got -- her own TV movie, "Babycakes" (a remake of Percy Adlon's German film "Sugarbaby"). She even took a regular TV role, as Holly Pelagrino on ABC's Vietnam drama "China Beach." Ricki Lake was a hit despite her weight. Because of her weight.

But by the time she played Holly "The Donut Dolly," however, she had pushed her weight up to 250 (on a 5-foot-4 frame). When the TV role ended in 1990, "Suddenly, I hit bottom, and it all sunk in. I had reached a point in my career where it wasn't working anymore. The fat thing was over. 'You know Ricki, she's not right, she's too fat.' "

Over the next two and a half years, she lost 115 pounds -- although she doesn't speak much about how, "because I did not lose my weight in the healthiest of ways." However, she's more than happy now to boast that the dress she wore for the previous night's taping was "a size 8! I was like freaking out! I was soooo psyched."

Now that she's in charge of her life, it is returning to her the kind of bountiful satisfactions food alone could never provide. "Ricki Lake," syndicated to 151 markets, has been rising in the ratings each week since its September premiere.

And she's hardly given up acting: Before starting the show this summer, she juggled two feature films on opposite coasts -- the Baltimore shoot of Waters' latest, "Serial Mom," with Kathleen Turner playing her mother ("a Doris Day-Donna Reed type," she says, "who's also a serial killer"; it should be released in February); and the Los Angeles shoot of the Tim Burton-produced fantasy "Cabinboy," starring "Get a Life" eccentric Chris Elliott (look for it next year).

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