Sitting and waiting for Ricki Lake is surprisingly nervewracking. Surprisingly, because she’s not an intimidating personality -- in fact, she’s made a name for herself as a kind of America’s Girlfriend, or maybe America’s Crunchy Aunt Who Wants You To Have Your Baby In a Birthing Pool, since the release of her critically acclaimed documentary on natural childbirth, “The Business of Being Born.”
[More backstory than you may care about: When Emily was heading up to Rockefeller Center (is that where it was?) to meet Ricki, I gave her a list of notes from my couple-decades-long acquaintanceship with RL. It started with "She is super down-to-earth." Then went into how she made my very bad TV talk show into a good and successful one when she started hosting in the mid-nineties. Talked about how excited I was when she made that enlightening documentary. How she bought Courteney Cox's old house in LA and how I loved that house and wonder if she still lives there (she does!). And some other notes about how much I admire her personally and professionally. It started with, "I love her." Don't you? ]
Actually, no, there’s nothing crunchy about Ricki Lake. In person, she is quite glamorous, and very sex-oozy in a tight black dress, despite having yes, the demeanor of your best girlfriend, showing me pictures of her beautiful beach wedding from the previous week, tugging up her skirt to show me her awesome Spanx-like body-firmer that she unfortunately can’t remember the name of and (highlight of highlights!) pulling up and allowing me to read an email from Jon Waters congratulating her on the aforementioned nuptials! And, when I mentioned the new baby, as I am wont to do these days, she basically DEMANDED to see photograph after photograph of the little dude. Ricki Lake cares exceedingly about your baby, ya'll!
But as open as she is in person, she’s even more open in her just-released memoir, "Never Say Never," in which she is forthcoming on such topics as childhood sexual abuse, big Ds, the boyfriend who told her she was “too fat to fuck,” and of course, her fluctuating weight. As a fellow big-again-small-again yo-yo dieter who aspires to have my weight triumphs and struggles scrutinized by the emphathetic masses, I started there.
What's the craziest thing you did to lose weight?
Ricky: I had to be given fluids on a movie set. I was absolutely too obsessed with the weight and scale and wanting it to go down. I wasn’t really eating when I was on "Dancing With the Stars." I was on this train, seeing my body change and I would get really wrapped up in it. It's about balance and I definitely have gotten out of control sometimes.
You are so honest about that, does it bother you to hear Hollywood actresses say, “Oh I eat whatever I want I never work out”? It seems almost better to say “I had to be really hungry!”
Ricki: I have to be really authentic. I feel like I owe it to the public, who have seen me grow up. First, the celluloid doesn’t lie. When I was 260 pounds, you can see it, on episodes of "China Beach" and in "Cry Baby." You can see me pretty emaciated in certain films as well, with my cheek bones sticking out and my collar bones sticking out.
I’m in a healthy place right now. It’s a process. I just try to keep it all in check and to love my body as much as I possibly can today. I think thats why people relate to me, because I am just true to myself. Flaws and all.
It's easy to say that we should all resist these societal norms, but it's hard to be the person who has to do that.
Ricki: On the one hand, I don’t want to perpetuate this obsession that we all have, but I’m implicated. I read the magazines, too. When Jessica Simpson has her baby and loses all that weight, I want to know how she does it. Is there a magic pill? What is the secret? I will love it when we come to the day where we don’t talk about it as much as we do.
Do you feel somewhat contradictory because you promote women being so natural during the birth process but still have this attitude toward weight loss?
Ricki: I say in the book, more than once, that I am a walking contradiction. Yes, I am. At least I’m honest with it all. I have come a long way. I went back to "Good Morning America" today, and four months ago I was there for "Dancing with the Stars," and I’m not in the shape that I was back then. It's like I’m giving myself a pep talk in the morning. “I’m not fat, I didn’t let myself go;" It's impossible to sustain what I did for those three and a half months.” I’m a size six. I’m not fat. So I just have got to give myself a break. I look OK.
What draws you to that subject of childbirth?
Ricki: Have you seen "The Business of Being Born?"
I haven’t! I’m kind of scared.
Ricki: You have to! First, I think birth and being pregnant is miraculous. I never felt more special or more beautiful than when I was pregnant. And then when I had my second son at home, it was life-changing. I was a superwoman. I was in charge on that day, and look what I was able to do! We as women need to feel like that.
Is there anything about the process that really freaks you out, though?
Ricki: I don’t like the sight of blood. So I couldn’t actually become a midwife. I really dreamed of that. But I think it's miraculous. You have to see the movie! Promise me! It will alleviate the fear.
I’m so scared! You poop, your skin rips...
Ricki: Nonono. First of all none of that happened to me. There was no blood because I delivered in water. It's in my film. Please please promise me. And you have to tell me what you thought. The movie alleviates a lot of the fear and misinformation that is out there. Women are taught to fear this experience, as opposed to being psyched.
It sounds like you are very accepting of other people's choices.
Ricki: I dont judge. We want to give people access to the correct information, so that they can make the choice that is best for them. It’s a woman’s reproductive right. We as women need to express what we believe for ourselves, and no judgment to others. We need to support each other.
Is it strange to identify so strongly as a mother and not really have a relationship with your own mother?
Ricki: Its really strange. It's unfortunate. I wish it wasn’t like that. Last night, I was with my partner Abby, and I see her mom and she gives me a hug and she reminds me physically of my mother. When her mom comes and supports what she is doing, and my mom is not there, it definitely stings a little bit. There has just been so much history. You have to make choices to have healthy people around you.
I don’t think she is a bad person, I don’t know whether she would have chosen to be a mom; she is not the most nurturing person. She did the best she could. I did try to change the history with my sons and make different choices. But I also know more. It’s a different time.
When your childhood isn't good, and you go into that mother role, all of a sudden it gets hard to understand how you parents could do some of the things they've done.
Ricki: That’s the thing! When I was abused sexually, I was six or seven years old, and I kind of dealt with it my own way, growing up and becoming an adult. It was when I had my children, and they were the age I was, that the idea of seeing them violated in that way and not getting help for them really sunk in. I cant even fathom not doing something.
Again, the times were different and that’s what they did. They pushed everything under the rug. Get on with your life. Forget it ever happened. I don’t fault them for it. My dad called me last night, and he had just read the book. I have the message he left in tears saying that he is mortified that he didn’t do more. He said he was so sorry.
Its heavy because we didn’t talk about it until I was 21 years old. I never really sat down and said "Why wasn’t I given some sort of treatment or therapy to work through it? He apologized, and I dont hold any sort of ill feelings towards them.
Do you take any special precautions with your own children?
Ricki: I did. My older son was very close to a coach on his basketball team and the coach wanted to take him to the beach. And I was like, "You are not going to the beach with the coach! He is a grown man! I don’t know what business he has on his off days to take you to the beach. There is no way that is happening." Other than that I’m not neurotic about it. Its something that is in the back of my mind, it has to be. Kids are so trusting, I was so trusting. I think it's our job to be vigilant, but not overly so.
What made you decide to be so open about the sexual assault?
Ricki: When you are obese for so many years, in my case my adolecent years, you have to look at why. I didn’t want to be attractive to men. I felt like it was my shield. It was very helpful for me to start talking about it. I found that by releasing that, it felt like, "Wow I’m not the only person who has gone through this." It has happened to a lot of us. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but it has helped in who I am today. Had I not been fat, I would not have gotten my big break with John Waters and I would not have the career that I have. So I have to be grateful for it all
What type of relationship do you have with John Waters? Do you guys like, call each other on your b-days?
Ricki: Yeah! His birthday is on Earth Day! We love each other. I'll show you what he sent to me. (She pulls out her Blackberry and shows me an email from Jon Waters reading, partly, “You sure look happy and pretty in all of your online wedding pictures ... Congrats...I send my reverend blessings.” )
What's the best advice he's ever given you?
Ricki: He sat me down before "Hairspray" came out. We had finished making the movie, and he knew it was going to get a lot of attention, and he said, “Always be true to yourself, always be humble, and if you are going to read the good press and believe it you are going to have to believe and read the bad press.” I think that is what has kept me from becoming an asshole and letting it all go to my head.
What was it like working with Divine?
Ricki: He hated me in the beginning. He didn’t understand why I was playing "his" part -- he wanted to play the mother and the daughter. Once we started working together, he was won over and he would give me advice and was so hardworking. I think it was work ethic that really stuck with me. He is such a good actor. And of course, he then died tragically at 42, eight days after the movie came out. It was such a loss, because his career was really taking off at that time.
Was that frightening to you, being overweight at the time?
Ricki: It was horrible. John took me aside and said, "I don’t want you dying like Divine." It was at time that I gained a tremendous amount of weight. I went from 200 to 260 in about a year-and-a-half. He was worried about me. He did pull me aside later and say, "This is not healthy." I had let myself go and I hit bottom and I’m glad I did at that time in my life.
OK, you mention several times in the book that you're only into "hot guys." I want to know what hot guys means to you.
Ricki: Dealing with being obese for a very long time, I was very concerned with how I looked with a certain type of guy on my arm. I wanted everybody to see, "Look who I attract." Which is so superficial and it's so unhealthy. So I did get obsessed with the physical attributes of a man. I was very caught up in my conquests.
And very critical of male bodies, while at the same time not being comfortable with your own.
Ricki: Yes, I was compensating. It was complicated. I got very caught up in dating online. My promiscuous days happened in my late 30s. It didn’t happen when I was in my teens, when its more appropriate. I sowed my oats later in life. And I went out with this one guy who happened to not be physically fit. I remember in my head I was like, “Hey I’m actually turned on by this guy. I’m changing! I’m growing! It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a body builder body!"
I cant even imagine what it would be like to date online as a celebrity!
Ricki: I loved it! They didn’t know it was me. I would have pictures of myself up that showed that I was a cute girl, but not that it was me. It was more of a profile shot, but it wouldn’t scream Ricki Lake. (She shows me the picture she used, in which I would not have recognized her.)
And you had a screenname that was not referencing who you were? You didn’t put like RickiLake6969?
Ricki: No one does that! I think my profile name was Sylviegirl or something. Because Sylvia was my grandma.
So what was the general reaction when you were like, "Actually I’m kind of famous."
Ricki: Well you have to be careful, because you don’t want to be presumptuous and assume that they know who you are. I would get something out of them first through emails and then say "Well, you might know who I am. I used to be on TV..." I would do it that way. It would always be a bit of a bummer when I had to tell them who I was.
Dating is really an art, it's not easy for a lot of people. I felt like I got to be normal. I always see myself as the unfamous famous person. I live a nice life and I have lots of stuff, and I can travel in style and I have a nice house, but I don’t have paparazzi following me. The private wedding is the perfect example. We want to have those private experiences and have them be for us. I’m not going to exploit those moments.
Do you think anything really changes once you get married?
Ricki: Just saying your "husband" is more substantial. I do think it is a deeper commitment. The title of the book, "Never say never," is not taken from Justin beiber's album. It's from the fact that two years ago, if you asked me, “Would you ever do 'Dancing with the Stars?'” I would have said “Never.” If you asked me if I was getting married again, I would have said there is no fucking way. I would never do another talk show. And now all those three things are happening.
It goes to show you that you have got to be open and life happens. If you are true to yourself and you embrace it all, you are better for it. I’m getting better with age.
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