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Gen-X Cinderella has the knack; Ricki Lake knows what it's like to be way outside the norms of beauty, and she knows what it's like to be down and out. And that's a large part of her talk-show appeal.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Here's Ricki Lake's take on her fellow mike-grasping milkers of daytime dysfunction: Jerry is "a perfect gentleman"; Leeza is "so articulate and so smart"; and Oprah, of course, is "the queen."

Lake, sitting in a sunny spot in the Garden Terrace Lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, has nothing negative to say about anyone or anything, except herself.

"I'm very neurotic about what people say about me, what I look like. It feels like a bigger deal now than it did back then," says Lake, 30.

"Back then" refers to her 200-pound-plus days caught on film in such John Waters flicks as "Hairspray" (1988), "Cry Baby" (1990) and "Serial Mom" (1994) and on television in "China Beach" (1989-1990).

"I look 10 times better than I did back then. I like to think I'm a lot smarter. In some ways, I'm extremely confident. My job comes very easily to me, and I'm a really good mother and I'm really proud of the job I'm doing raising my son. Then I look in the mirror and I see what's wrong in the mirror."

To a visitor's eyes, there doesn't seem to be much wrong with the reflection. Waters' post-Divine diva would have to be called attractive, and not just in that patronizing way reserved for former fat girls. Her glossy, short brunet hair is streaked with copper highlights that accentuate her Hershey Bar-hued eyes. In a waist-length black suit jacket, black top and tight black pants, she's chic and petite.

But her appearance is only part of the appeal. Her lean-forward familiarity has served her well as a talk-show host, a role she assumed in 1993, when "The Ricki Lake Show" launched.

The show, filmed in New York (seen on CBS and Fox affiliates in Baltimore), is a Gen-X's answer to daytime TV. It's got sassily titled programs such as "You Have No Friends and Today I'll Tell You Why" and "Back off, Boys, I'm a Lesbian -- You'll Never Have Me." It's got live bands occasionally thrown in. It's got gimmicks, like on-air lie-detector and DNA tests.

Add to all that the standard talk-show fare: makeovers, confrontations, grammatically impaired guests, and hollering and sometimes hostile audiences with the attention span of a barnyard animal.

"She takes regular people into an alien world and makes them feel comfortable," says filmmaker Waters, her longtime collaborator and friend. "John Waters and her talk show are very different alien worlds, but they are alien worlds."

Born in Westchester County, N.Y., Lake, a self-proclaimed ham, says she had the fame bug bad when she was growing up. She attended performing-arts schools and played multiple instruments. Planning for a singing career, she took private lessons and performed in cabarets.

She was attending preppy Ithaca College in upstate New York when she heard Waters was looking for rotund young women to try out for the role of Baltimore dancing queen Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray." She got the part and, at 18, came to Baltimore, a city she has grown to love (she considers herself an honorary Baltimorean).

Her acting career began to take off. After "Hairspray" made a splash, she moved to Los Angeles to further her career. She landed "China Beach," and continued to visit Baltimore to see friends and family and work on Waters films.

But in 1990 she was dropped from "China Beach," and her life took a traumatic downturn. On top of losing her job, she was broke, agent-less and had to give up her swank L.A. home. And she was dealing with an abusive boyfriend.

Her experiences, she says, make it easier to relate to her frequently socio-economically challenged talk-show guests, even though she now pulls in $10 million a year.

During her down-on-her-luck years, she decided to take control of her weight, because she had little control over anything else. She lost more than 100 pounds. In 1993, she was called out of the blue by a producer who had seen her on David Letterman. He was looking for a host of a new talk show aimed at the younger audience who considered Donahue and Sally daytime dinosaurs.

She landed the job, met her future husband, illustrator Rob Sussman, and so resumed her Gen-X Cinderella story. Her son, Milo Sebastian, was born in March 1997. They live in New York City.

Lake intends to stick with her show for several more years. Talk-show hosting, not acting, is her calling, she says. But she may do a film this summer, and says she'd come running to Waters if he needed her again.

Waters says he would love to make another film with Lake, whom he admires as an actress but who he also thinks is a natural as a talk-show host.

"It's the skill of making middle-class people be much more open-minded," he says. "She should be a politician."

Of course, being a politician wouldn't free her from the tabloids, which have made her weight into a perennial story. One reported last week that she hordes cupcakes in her fridge.

"I don't even have cupcakes. Oh, and they had quotes from me. It was absurd," says Lake, who doesn't remember which tabloid accused her. "I barely looked at it. I just threw the thing down. It serves me right for reading it."

Lake implicates herself for the media obsession with physical appearance -- she's concerned with it, she talks about it -- so she won't slam the supermarket scribes who crucify her.

"It's fair game. If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen. I clearly made this for myself," says Lake, "I'm not complaining. It just goes with the territory, and that's all right. I deal with it."

She admits that her show contributes to the pervasive voyeurism that both oppresses and sustains her. But she also feels her show, whatever critics might say, has integrity.

"This is not curing brain cancer or anything, but we have our own sort of rules that we follow," says Lake, who admits she's addicted to newsmagazines, reality-based shows and, of course, talk shows. "And I've always taken great pride in the show that we've done. I've never felt icky or weird about anything we've ever done."

On Lake's shows, the troubled guests are often referred to professional services for rehabilitation and counseling. On one show, featuring young teens determined to have babies, the wannabe mommies were required to care for virtual babies for a day.

No Springer-esque staging on her show, she says, not that she condemns Springer for his style.

"I think it's great that he's on the air, that he's as popular as he is," she says. "Because obviously there's an audience that is hungry for that type of show."

When Lake's show began, it quickly became second in the ratings only to Oprah, and spawned nearly 50 one-name-host shows striving to win over the young audience "Ricki" so successfully courted. Most of these shows, "Carnie," "Tempestt" and "Gabrielle" to name a few, have been buried in the great talk-show cemetery.

Currently, according to Nielsen Media Research, Lake is third in the ratings behind Jerry Springer and Oprah for women 18-34 years old, adults 18-49 and adults 18-34.

The birth of Milo has given her program more personal resonance, particularly in shows featuring headstrong young mothers with offspring but no husband.

"On my show, hearing about these children being neglected or mistreated in any way, it's just like a knife in me." she says. "I'm a very different person now. I'm so sappy now. Everything is from a mother's perspective."

And while Lake does take Milo to work with her, because she thinks it's a healthy thing, don't expect to see him in front of the camera.

"He's never been on television, and he won't be until he's old enough to decide for himself," she says.

And by the time he is old enough, Lake herself may no longer be on television. She says she could see herself as a schoolteacher. Or maybe getting her college degree. Or even being a midwife.

"I don't want to stay famous," she says as if it's the most obvious thing in the world. "I have other things I want to do with my life."

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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