11/16/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
RICKI LAKE, WHO PLAYED A LOVABLY chubby teenager in the 1988 cult comedy hit Hairspray, was famous for being fat. Then a not-so-funny thing happened: She got fatter. Early in 1991, tipping the scales at 250 lbs., the 5'4" actress could hardly fit in to a restaurant booth. Shopping had become an exercise in frustration. Lake would buy hats and more hats, she says, "because they were the only thing that fit me." Worse, "It was hard to move. I'd walk up stairs and be breathing heavy." Then Lake got what an actress might consider the ultimate wake-up call: Her phone stopped ringing. At 24, she had apparently passed the point at which casting directors found her pleasingly plump.
That was 20 months and 105 lbs. ago. Today she sits comfortably at the Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood, Calif., dressed in a body-skimming black-and-white dress. Her career is going as well as her fitness regimen. She recently appeared in Where the Day Takes You, a gritty film about L.A. street kids. Early next year she plans to start Serial Mom, a true-crime parody directed by Hairspray's John Waters. After that she will begin taping Ricki, a syndicated TV talk show. Then there's her love life—a "happy, healthy" one with actor Tom Booker, 28, currently starring in The Real Live Brady Bunch in L.A. "This is the first relationship I've been in," she says, "where I don't even look at another guy."
Lake's dramatic weight loss, she says, is the key to her current happiness. "It's the most gratifying change in my life," says the actress as she nibbles on Chinese chicken salad. "I'm a size 11, which to some people is still big. But the first time I went shopping at this size, I started weeping in the dressing room because I could not believe a medium fit me."
Ricki's turnaround has no moment of blinding epiphany. "One day something just snapped," she recalls. "I said, 'I'm sick of it.' Nothing was going on in my career. My relationship wasn't working. I thought that the only thing I could control was what I put into my mouth."
Lake's weight-loss plan was simple. She dropped her first 50 lbs. by drastically cutting back on sugar and fat and by "making the obvious healthy choices." Only after slimming down to 200 did she begin a daily two-hour workout, combining step aerobics with sessions on the Stairmaster and treadmill. In time, she added bicycling and swimming to her regimen.
Lake stresses that she doesn't think heaviness necessarily equals unhappiness. She has been overweight for years, she says, and for a long time she had plenty of boyfriends and plenty of work. Her problems started when she began to assume that since she was already heavy, more weight wouldn't hurt. "I thought, 'Wow, I'm big and I'm successful, so I can eat anything I want,' " she explains. "But when you're 200 and gain 50, you're huge."
Lake's active lifestyle represents a return to her childhood ways. Growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., the older of two daughters of Barry Lake, a pharmacist, and his homemaker wife, Jill, she took to sports naturally. "In ninth grade I was on every team," she says. Then in her junior year she transferred to the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, where she concentrated more on auditions than athleticism—and promptly ballooned from 160 lbs. to 200. Still, Lake insists that her heft "was never an issue. I was always popular." Says her mother: "Healthwise, I was concerned. Now I'm just pleased to see her happy and looking so beautiful."
Of course, Ricki's rosy glow is due in part to romance. Since meeting Booker five months ago, when she guest-starred in his Brady Bunch show, she seems totally smitten. "I can't imagine my life without him," she says. Booker is equally effusive. What does he love about Lake? "Everything," he says. "We like the same things—bowling, bad movies, dogs—I could just go on and on."
One looming problem is that next spring, Ricki will go on—back to New York City to work on her talk show, a kind of Oprah
for the twentysomething set. "We'll work it out," she says. "We can handle a long-distance thing."
For now, the couple shuttles back and forth between Booker's Westwood apartment and Lake's one-room guesthouse in Van Nuys, Calif. And Lake continues to work off those last 20 lbs. she hopes to lose. Not that the director of Serial Mom cares. "It really makes no difference if she weighs 800 lbs. or 80," says Waters. "I'd still have a part for her. She could play anything except mean."
Lake has a slightly sexier goal in mind. "I will get to the point," she promises, "where it's, 'Hey, Winona Ryder—look out!' "
LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Westwood