Usually when you see actress and comedian Mo'Nique in front of the camera, she's laughing it up.
But yesterday Mo'Nique stood in front of hundreds of cheering, chanting, adoring women in Baltimore, ignored the cameras, brushed away the assistants trying to fix her streaking makeup, and cried.
"All of me is because of all of you," she said, sobbing, as the throng of admirers - there to audition for Mo'Nique's F.A.T. Chance, a soon-to-be-televised beauty competition for full-figured women - screamed, "We love you, Mo'Nique!"
"I'm here to say to y'all," Mo'Nique continued, "and it feels so good to be home, I ain't nothin' but a fat girl from Baltimore."
At that, the hotel ballroom erupted in a roar of solidarity. And of appreciation. Because Mo'Nique says "fat girl" the way other people say "beauty queen."
And, in fact, this Baltimore-girl-done-good sees the two synonymously.
"People make fat such a bad word, and it's not a bad word," she says. "Fat is fabulous and thick. Fluffy and tender. Full and tasty."
It's that stereotype-busting sentiment that inspired Mo'Nique to create F.A.T. Chance, which will launch its second season on the Oxygen channel in July.
For too long, she says, women who wear a size 14 and larger have been made to feel ugly and undesirable. She felt it was up to her - a confident and beautiful size 22 - to help change that.
So Mo'Nique set out to find other plus-sized women who feel the way she does - women who are happy to never use the word diet. Out of 10 finalists who make it onto her show - purely for their inner and outer beauty, confidence and style - one will be crowned Miss F.A.T. and be awarded a $50,000 prize.
A five-city search for the next Miss F.A.T. brought Mo'Nique to Baltimore, where she grew up.
'She is the truth'
The homecoming was emotional for the vivacious celebrity, who now lives in Los Angeles. But it was even more meaningful for the 600-plus women who bombarded the Best Western on O'Donnell Street, dressed to the nines and fresh from the makeup counter.
"She is a Malcolm X for big women," said Latisha Brown, 22, of Newport News, Va., her silver eye shadow gathering in teary pools under her lower lashes. "Even if I don't make it [on the show], she is the truth."
Women like Brown had been piling into the Best Western since the wee hours of the morning for the two-day audition that ends today. So many had stayed the night - to be among the first to try out - that the hotel had been sold out for almost two weeks. Parking was a circus.
They came from here, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware. At least one woman came from as far as Tennessee. They left behind small children or dragged their babies with them. Mo'Nique was giving them a chance to prove to the world their worth, and they weren't going to miss it.
"She gives them hope. She makes them feel good about themselves," says Jamie Foster Brown, publisher of Sister 2 Sister magazine, a popular chronicle of the world of black entertainment, who was interviewing Mo'Nique at the tryouts. "In this world, you have white men determining how all women should look. And that means no chest. ... They look like 15-year- old boys. That's not normal. We're women."
And at size 16, 20 or 24, that's just more woman to love, the contestants say.
These hopefuls came with their mile-high boots and glittery heels, their leopard-print capes and huge hoop earrings. They came with cherry-red highlights and flowers in their hair, ponytail weaves, long, dramatic braids and honey-colored Afros. They came with sheer shirts and sexy-slit skirts.
From early in the morning until well into the afternoon, they sat near other full-figured women and shared their stories.
I always knew I was beautiful. Or I never thought I was. Until now.
Angela Trotter, 21, drove 3 1/2 hours from Portsmouth, Va., with her best outfit, her cousin, a container of chicken she fried at midnight, and a wrong to right.
"I was told, 'You can look at Miss America and Miss USA and all that, but you'll never be that because you're not skinny,'" the size-22, beauty-school student says. "And this was coming from my dad. People think you can't be pretty and big. You have to be either-or. So I had to come, because I'm the whole package."
'My golden ticket'
Just like Mo'Nique - who remembers being "that chubby little girl in the fifth grade" - the contestants say they longed as children to see images of themselves on television and in pop culture. That's why Mo'Nique's career - on the series The Parkers, the Queens of Comedy tour, Showtime at the Apollo, Def Comedy Jam and in several movies - means so much to them now as women.
That's why Trotter called her invitation to the second of three rounds of cuts "my golden ticket."
"How many years did we watch all those little skinny girls dancing around [in pageants]?" Trotter says, indignantly. "I ain't never seen no fat Barbie! Barbie ain't even got no fat friends!"
For Washington residents Carol Cox and Shernita Spriggs, the day's audition turned into an impromptu reunion.
The two women were gang members as teenagers and often fought each other. Life's hard knocks periodically threw them together as the years went on: as single mothers. As victims of homelessness, once, in a D.C. shelter.
Now, though, Spriggs and Cox shared something else: a coveted red wristband, indicating their confidence and life stories were good enough to get them invited to the second round of cuts.
They two women hugged each other and screamed. Spriggs could not stop crying.
"I was always in fights because of how I looked. I was always called Miss Piggy," Spriggs, 30, says. "One day I looked at Miss Piggy and I said, 'Miss Piggy is fat and fabulous!' Miss Piggy had diamonds! So I said, 'I can be called Miss Piggy because Miss Piggy is on point.'
"I was always big," she went on. "And [Cox] was always big. We [were] two fabulous big girls in the same neighborhood, and we did not like each other. But I'm comfortable with myself now. So when I saw her today, I was so happy. Because I knew that we had proved to people that women can get along."
Mo'Nique and the F.A.T. Chance producers have three more cities to search for contestants. They started in Miami; they'll leave today for Seattle, Los Angeles and New York.
Only 10 will make it. And only one will win.
But before she left the podium, Mo'Nique told the women in the crowd to hug themselves and then to hug the woman next to them.
Each of the women are fat girls, she told them, and that makes them all beautiful, valuable, worthy. Winners.