Not to Be Taken Lightly, Ricki Lake Bounces Out of Hairspray with Body and Shine

updated 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Inside the Dine-O-Mat, a '50s theme restaurant in Manhattan, Ricki Lake jumps up between the blue formica tables and starts to dance. The mashed potato may be food to some, but Lake makes it a feast for the eyes as she shakes and grinds through the old '60s dance. "I'm such a ham," admits the actress. "I always wanted to be Shirley Temple, a little curly top. I dreamed of playing in Annie, but I'm not exactly the starving orphan type."

No, indeed. In fact, the star of director John Waters' coiffure comedy, Hairspray, is a good deal more than the average undernourished starlet. "I'd love to redefine the fat-girl-as-heroine," says Lake. Having filled out her 5'3" to 150-plus lbs. during filming, she has done just that. As Tracy Turnblad, an overweight 15-year-old who wins a spot on a local dance show, she leads a crusade against racial segregation and (sigh) lands the cutest boy in school. Along the way, she also wins the audience's heart.

Lake, 19, grew up in New York's Westchester County and was finishing her freshman year at upstate Ithaca College when her manager called about the Hairspray audition. Faced with a late-night, five-hour drive to Manhattan, the outsize ingenue wasn't terribly excited. Lake had never heard of John Waters, the jaundiced genius behind such gross-out classics as Pink Flamingos and Polyester, who was now breaking into the wholesome realm of PG. Said her manager: "There aren't that many roles that you're right for. Just go ahead and read for them." At the first audition, "I wore real baggy clothes, and John kept looking over his desk to see if I was really big or trying to make myself look bigger," says Ricki. "I finally said, 'It's all me.' "

Then Waters saw all of Ricki dance, and the part was hers. "I was confident with my dancing, but I never thought it was better than okay," says Lake, who dropped out of tap and ballet when she was 12. For Hairspray, her mother, Jill, tried to teach her the mashed potato. "But I still don't think she does it right," says Mom.

Once cast (as the daughter of Jerry Stiller and the recently deceased female impersonator, Divine), there was only a small snag for Lake: Waters insisted that her light-brown hair be dyed and teased. "I didn't want to dye my hair," says Ricki. "And it had taken me three years to get it all one length. I started crying, 'Why can't they get a wig?' and John was saying, 'The bitch better well dye her hair to keep the lead role in my movie.' " Lake acquiesced.

Packing eight bags of luggage and a coach-class ticket, she then boarded a train from New York to Baltimore, Waters' hometown and favorite film location. The studio had told her to meet her handsome co-star, Michael St. Gerard, at New York's Penn Station. "I thought, God, how did they describe me to him, a combination of Miss Piggy and Bette Midler?" says Lake. "I was very nervous." St. Gerard later told her: "I thought you would be much bigger." "I loved him for that," says Lake, who claims that since shooting ended last August she has burned off 35 lbs.

For the actress the move to movies was a rescue of sorts. The older of two daughters whose parents own a pharmacy (her sister is a college freshman), Lake had planned to quit college to pursue her dreams of stardom and had even applied for a part-time job at the Gap to earn money while auditioning. "When you don't get a callback from the Gap, you know you're in trouble," she sighs. "I knew it wasn't because I was overqualified; the only job I ever had was babysitting."

Lake says she was a class clown and, like Hairspray's Tracy, "always accepted" in school. Acting lessons were another thing. A student at the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, Ricki also was one of the youngest members of an adult acting class in the city—until she was kicked out. "My teacher said I wasn't mature enough or serious enough about my acting. I just do it my own way. When it doesn't work, I'll worry about acting lessons." Lake did win some TV bit parts and then enrolled at Ithaca College because "it was the only place that would take me." The timing wasn't quite right however. "I had my voice and movement class at 8 o'clock in the morning," she observes. "I can't open my eyes at 8 in the morning, let alone grunt like a pig."

Fortunately the new John Waters required nothing more bizarre of Lake than that she lick a TV screen showing St. Gerard's image. "People come up and say it was their favorite shot in the movie," reports Lake, frowning slightly. "It tasted of Windex." It has also given Lake a taste of success. She has recently started shooting a small part in a Susan Seidelman film, Cookie, and will soon get to dance with Harrison Ford in Mike Nichols' Working Girl. Ricki, who still lives with her parents, isn't dating anyone right now, but says she's met a lot of guys through the Waters movie. "I'm sooo happy," she says. "I hope Hairspray will be a breakthrough. But I'm not out to be like a Robert De Niro, lose 50 lbs. and be anorexic." What, then? "I think my absolute dream is to be a judge on Dance Fever."

Well, it's not a major aspiration, perhaps, but no doubt Lake will give it some weight.

—By Tim Allis, with Jamie M. Saul in New York

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