Last year, during a wardrobe fitting for Days of Our Lives, Patrika Darbo burst into tears. The 200-lb. actress couldn't believe that the elegant black tuxedo being pinned to her size-20 frame had been stitched just for her. "She said she never had anybody make her clothes like that," recalls Richard Bloore, the NBC soap's costume designer. "He created all these little dickeys for the V neck in different colors," says Darbo, 51. "I guess when I cried, it said something about my self-esteem."

A year and a half of strutting across the screen as hunky Dr. Craig Wesley's scheming wife, Nancy, has given Darbo a booster shot of confidence. Add to that the awards she has received from Soap Opera Digest as Outstanding Female Newcomer and TV Guide as one of "TV's Sexiest Stars," and Darbo is downright giddy. "When they first told me, I was like, 'What?' " says Darbo. "But I know I'm sexy. My husband [Rolf, 58, her manager] tells me I am. I feel sexy. Sexy comes in all different sizes and shapes."

Still, Darbo's figure is a rare sight on soaps. "It's one thing to be a plus-size woman like Camryn Manheim-and be cast in a slice-of-life drama [like The Practice]," says TV Guide soap columnist Michael Logan. "But it's another thing to be a woman like Darbo and be cast as a sexpot vixen in the still fairly prehistoric world of daytime, where everyone is a size-2 traditional beauty."

"Are you sure they know who I am?" Darbo recalls asking her agent when she was offered the role of Nancy without an audition. But Days producer Tom Langan had said the character could be a size 12 or bigger. "I knew Patrika would be perfect," says casting director Fran Bascom. "We had both worked on Evening Shade," the early '90s show on which Darbo, a sitcom veteran (Step by Step), did a guest turn as a shop clerk. On DOOL, says Bascom, "she's won everyone over"—including studly costar Kevin Spirtas (Dr. Craig), 37, who admits he had misgivings. "Because I'd never been intimate—acting or not—with someone this size, I did wonder about how we'd make it comfortable," he says. But with Patrika, "the chemistry works."

Certainly, the actress had no problems tackling the complicated plots of daytime TV: Her own childhood was filled with drama. Born in Jacksonville, Fla., the oldest of three, Darbo saw her parents, Chubby, a nightclub manager, and Patricia, a restaurant host, divorce when she was 6. Her brother Danny went to live with their dad and his new wife, while Patrika and sister Peggy moved in with their maternal grandmother. Patricia would visit on her Sundays off, "but then she would go back to her job," says Darbo, who found comfort in her grandma's fried pork chops and fruit pies. And more. "You know those kids who eat big bags of M&Ms under the covers? Well, that was me," she says. "I was on a diet from the time I was 12."

When she was 11, her mother married Donald Davidson, traveling secretary for the then-Milwaukee Braves and a dwarf. His ability to overcome various obstacles "inspired me," says Darbo, who took up acting in the third grade. "Because of that and my sense of humor, I ultimately found that I could fit in anywhere."

After attending the Atlanta School of Drama, she moved to L.A. in the early 1970s, working as a credit manager while performing in community theater in Bur-bank. It was there she met Rolf, then a film-production manager for Disney. She was a "bombshell," he says. They married, and Darbo began building a resume that took her from plays to small film roles (1992's Leaving Normal) to a star turn as comedian Roseanne in the 1994 TV movie Roseanne and Tom: Behind the Scenes.

Her active career keeps Darbo from fretting about her size. "As a character actress, I know I'll always have work," she says. Though she tries to eat a healthy menu and exercises doing Tae Bo, "I enjoy the fried foods and stuff," she says. As for slimming down, "I've tried pretty much every diet there is. I lost 70 lbs. on Weight Watchers, and I've fasted three times. But then when the fast was over, the pounds started creeping back up." She'd rather focus on the antique-filled L.A. condo she shares with Rolf and their 10-year-old cairn terrier Rocky. Darbo also enjoys reading the up to 50 letters a day she gets from DOOL fans of all sizes. "Young girls say things like, 'Oh, good, I don't have to throw up anymore!' " she reports. "It's like they look at me and realize it's okay to be big. They say I give them hope."

Sophfronia Scott Gregory
Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles

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