I fell in love with Ricki Lake when I first saw her in the John Waters production of “Hairspray” in 1988. I saw that film over and over in Toronto’s second-run cinemas and even bought the all-too-brief soundtrack. What endeared me more than her performance was the way she seemed in real life when she appeared on talk shows, especially her initial appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman”. I loved how real she was, totally unaffected by fame, and she was in awe of Letterman as of the adoring attention she received from the audience. Close to a quarter century after the original “Hairspray” I still do not believe there is a phony bone in her body. What you see is what you get with Ricki Lake, and her memoir Never Say Never: Finding a Life that Fits (written with Rebecca DiLiberto) is an extension of herself:
“I can’t help but be honest all the time, wearing my heart on my sleeve. Even though I’ve been on this earth for forty-three years, I’m so naive that every time someone I get close to turns out to be two-faced, I’m shocked. Please do not think I’m trying to take any moral high ground here–I wish I were capable of being sneakier, of concealing my motives–but I’m incapable of acting like a convincing phony, and it never ceases to amaze me when people I think I know well turn out to be acting their way through real life.”I hate the idea of living in a world where everything I say and do is calculated rather than natural. Performing your way through life is exhausting and no fun at all.”
Lake shares her life story yet keeps the pre-“Hairspray” tale brief. The book’s focus before she was cast as the first Tracy Turnblad was her childhood ordeal of sexual abuse at the hands of a family handyman. Lake believes, as do most psychologists, that overweight girls who were sexually molested learned to view food as protection, as a way of making them deliberately overweight in order to seem unattractive to future abusers. The molester was never caught and Lake’s own parents did nothing to comfort her when the truth came out. Her parents hoped everything would go away, yet Lake remains crushed in that she was never given any support from her mother and father.
After enrolling in two performing arts schools, Lake gets her big break when she responds to an audition for a happy fat girl who can dance. She gives credit where credit is due, calling John Waters her “fairy godmother” and saying that she “wouldn’t even have a career if it weren’t for John”. Lake spends several chapters talking about the filming of “Hairspray” and of her loving but unfortunately brief friendship with her on-screen mother, portrayed by Divine. Divine died just days after the movie’s premiere.
Lake’s next big project was the TV movie “Babycakes”. I remember when this movie was being filmed because it was shot in Toronto and the media were all over Lake. I had even hoped to run into her downtown since I was attending the University of Toronto at the time. Lake however errs in the photo captions (if in fact she wrote her own captions) for although she does tell the story about shooting the movie in Toronto, the caption in the photos section reads “With Craig Sheffer, my love interest in Babycakes, on a New York City subway platform.”
It was after shooting “Babycakes” that roles for loveable fat girls dried up. Lake could no longer find work in a leading role. Throughout her life Lake battled her weight and when there was no longer good work she decided to reinvent herself in an attempt to remain in show business. She writes:
“My need for personal reinvention had never been this intense. This time, it wasn’t about being healthier, or happier, or finding some other sane, emotionally sound reason to lose weight. It was about taking care of myself financially. I knew I needed to get a job, and soon.”
I remember seeing Lake’s first appearance on “Letterman” after she lost well over half her body weight. When asked what motivated her, Lake replied that she at first lost all the weight to try to attract a guy, but then confided that she really did it because she got so sick and tired of having to rest in order to catch her breath after climbing a flight of stairs. She had thus lost the weight for herself, not for another person. In Never Say Never, Lake tells the background of the guy part of the story:
“It’s a teensy bit disingenuous for me to claim that 100 percent of my motivation in finally losing weight was financial. I also did it to get this guy to like me.”
The guy though was not interested in Lake because he was gay and in the closet. Lake did not need to diet in order to please a man, and she learned to appreciate her body for herself. When she learned the right motivation to embark upon a drastic weight-loss program, she writes:
“Truth be told, I should really be grateful that Aidan was gay. It was because he wasn’t sexually attracted to me that I finally decided to lose weight.”
Lake looks at her life’s disappointments as learning points and no matter how tragic the circumstances, she finds the lemonade within. Even her third-place finish in “Dancing with the Stars” was a triumph. She looks at herself now, and imagines her former fat self squeezing into some of those dresses and being lifted aloft by another man on the dance floor. That show gave her a confidence boost like no other. With an attitude like this, none of Lake’s brain space is used to hold on to negativity or grudges:
“How could I so easily forgive someone so inconsiderate? When I think about what my ex-husband Rob and I had to go through with our divorce–how hard it was–I just think life is too short to hold on to negative feelings.”
This is one reason why I love Ricki Lake. We both do not hold grudges. I am all too willing to give people second chances, and to forgive those who have wronged me. Why pollute my mind with negative feelings, and allow poisonous thoughts to live rent-free in my mind? Go Ricki!
In Never Say Never Lake seems to discuss her milestones as a series of rebirths: her new self as a movie star; as a wife; and as a mother and filmmaker. The latter two could be considered one and the same, for Lake used the occasion of the birth of her second son as the starting point behind a campaign for the rights of all women to choose the method of birth best suited for themselves. Instead of looking at pregnant woman as patients and at the birthing process as a clinical procedure, Lake regards childbirth as natural, primal and earthly, an event that should be made with educated choices versus being made to feel like a pawn in the medical establishment, going through the motions at the convenience of doctors and pharmacists. Lake used the birth of her second child in her film “The Business of Being Born”, a documentary which analyzes all birth options and supports the right of a woman to have the education to choose the best birth option for her.
Ricki Lake has triumphed in Hollywood, in the dog-eat-dog world of daytime talk shows, and in her battle with remaining thin and being healthy. Ricki has the loves of her life in the form of her two sons, Milo and Owen, and at the time of writing she had just become engaged. (Ricki has since remarried.) Ricki’s smile, her giggles and her honesty are traits that made me love her for over twenty years, and I am thankful that she opened up her life with no holds barred to her fans in Never Say Never. She would never consider herself as a role model, but she is, for she is living proof that you can realize your dreams.