The Divine baby grows up: Ricki Lake, the jumbo teen star of Hairspray, has slimmed down and lucked out with her own hit chat show, writes Bonnie Vaughan

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'A RRIGHT, cool] Yeah]' Ricki Lake is standing in front of her studio audience clutching her microphone, and today - like every day - she is grinning from ear to ear. The topic of her eponymously titled talk show is 'I'm About To Tell My Best Friend . . . Surprise] I'm In Love With You]' Sweet, homely Tara is sitting onstage beside her best friend, Chucker, a cute surfer who thinks he's been invited to the show to discuss the joys of platonic friendships between men and women.

Suddenly, a singing telegram boy arrives to hand Tara a bunch of flowers, which she then presents to Chucker on bended knee with a declaration of her love. Chucker freezes, his twitching grin indicating an overwhelming desire to have the studio floor open up and swallow him whole. Surprise]

Yes, it's just another day on the set of The Ricki Lake Show, which, after just a year, looks set to give the reigning champion, Oprah, a run for its yammering. Now in its second season, The Ricki Lake Show has tripled its audience and has nabbed the No 2 spot with the demographically desirable 18-49 age bracket. As host of the fastest- growing talk show in US television history, it's no wonder the 26- year-old can't stop smiling.

Ricki Lake's story is a typical American Dream come true. Today she stands beaming before her audience, looking as thrilled and perky as a high school cheerleader just voted 'Girl Most Likely to Succeed'.

Back when Lake was in high school, however, such a distinction was unlikely to have been bestowed on the aspiring actress from suburban Westchester County, New York, who threw herself into singing and dancing lessons from a young age. Cheerful, smart and upbeat she may have been, but she had another quality that made her stand apart. She was chubby. Chunky. Oh, heck. At age 18, 5ft 4in and 14 stone and rising, there's no point beating around the bush: she was fat.

In 1988 Lake was cast in her debut movie role specifically because of her girth, to play an overweight Sixties-era Baltimore teenager in John Waters's crossover dancefest, Hairspray. On screen, she was adorable - spunky, giggly, cute as a jumbo-sized button - but she was also a freakish spectacle. Frugging in her outlandish costumes, she was a larger-than-life cartoon character; a baby Divine (who, to add to the campy freakishness, played her mother in the film).

Hairspray made her a star and she won a healthy succession of roles, including a part in Waters's Cry-Baby; the lead in Babycakes (a remake of Percy Adlon's Sugarbaby); and a regular part in the Vietnam TV drama, China Beach. She embraced the opportunity to become a role model for other 'chunky' women - 'I was the first fat heroine, before Roseanne' - and invariably asserted that 'certain guys are attracted to people my size'.

But as the pounds continued to pile on (peaking at 18 stone in 1990), the roles thinned out. Lake was no longer glad to be gargantuan. 'I couldn't watch myself on screen,' she admits. 'I very rarely looked in the mirror.' So she set out to drop the excess baggage. Over the next few years she shed eight stone. After the weight had been off for a while, her big break arrived: a meeting with Garth Ancier and Gail Steinberg, television producers who were looking for a young, vibrant host to front their new talk show aimed at the coveted-but-elusive Generation X audience.

'Garth and I spent an entire summer looking for the perfect host for this project,' says Steinberg. So why Ricki Lake? 'She's very natural and down-to- earth,' says Steinberg. 'She really lights up the room when she enters - she has a warmth and a naturalness that draw people to her.'

And now, every day, Ricki Lake draws people to her - by the millions. Standing before her studio audience sporting her impeccable make-up, smartly flipped bob and designer outfits, she has the right degree of TV glamour but none of the superior attitude. She giggles with her guests, she goofs around, she occasionally flubs her lines or blurts out a double entendre, which has the audience hooting and the host demurely covering her mouth.

Lake speaks the same language as her young viewers, primarily college students and young women who are attracted to the sexy, voyeuristic nature of her topics. One day the show might be a barrel of laughs; in 'The Day I Fix Up My Single Staff', Ricki 'giftwrapped' a calendar hunk for her associate producer and hollered, 'He's a babe] Lookit him] Omigod]' The next day it's a sob story ('I Can't Live Down My Bad Reputation') or a near-riot-inducing extravangza ('Stay Away From My Black Man]').

Whatever the level of euphoria or outrage, Lake maintains an impressive control over the audience. At all times she remains concerned, attentive, engaging and sympathetic - the best friend of everybody's dreams.

Much of Lake's appeal can be attributed to her genuine enthusiasm for her new career. She has described her good fortune as 'a whirlwind, a fairy tale' and even 'a miracle of God', and declared, 'I really, really love going out and talking to those 2,000 people (in the audience), having that rapport with them, bantering, talking about what's happenin'.'

But there is another factor intrinsic to her success. With her weight problem and her professional ups and downs, Lake has been through the mill - publicly. As a recent US magazine article succintly described the state of celebrity in the Nineties: 'No pain, no fame.'

'In a way, she is flawed,' says Max Robins, television editor of Variety. 'She's not some Barbie doll. You know that she's had her own travails and so the audience connects.' And this is one of the key qualities that attracted Ancier and Steinberg. 'Having grown up a heavy adolescent,' says Steinberg, 'she has an empathy and an understanding that many people, far older than she, lack. She knows how it feels to be different, to be the object of ridicule and taunting.'

And let's face it, there are a lot of overweight Americans out there, chowing down on junk food while glued to the set. To the circumferentially challenged, Ricki offers something the dessert section in the supermarket doesn't: hope.

Once upon a time, Ricki Lake aspired to fill Divine's shoes. Today, it's more likely she'll be stepping into Oprah's size nines. Sure, her show may be just more trashy voyeur-vision in a market brimming with exploitative, sensational shows peopled by losers all too willing to bare their sad secrets on national television. But the surest sign that Lake truly has arrived is that three wannabe Ricki shows are under consideration, including one hosted by Melissa Rivers (daughter of Jane).

For now, Lake's not sweating it. She's far too busy with her dream job and her new husband, the artist Rob Sussman. Back in the studio, as Chucker squirms in spotlight of Tara's declaration of love, Ricki fills the awkward void with expert diplomacy. 'I think it's very flattering to be in his shoes,' she announces, 'and he should be so lucky to have a best friend like you]' The audience erupts in wild, whooping applause. Quite clearly, they feel lucky to have a best friend like Ricki Lake.

'The Ricki Lake Show' is on Channel 4 on Wednesdays at 5pm.

(Photograph omitted)

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