“In the 25 years I’ve been bowling, I’ve never seen that happen before,” says Barry Lake, marveling at his daughter Ricki’s last ball. During a Saturday afternoon match with her parents, some friends arid her brand-new husband, Rob Sussman, at the Bowlmor Lanes in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the 25-year-old talk show host had been working on a spare in the first frame when her second ball dribbled into the gutter. Then, defying every known law of physics, it suddenly jumped back onto the lane and knocked down the two pins she needed. “Did you see that?” exclaims Ricki, leaping into the air. “Am I lucky or what?”
In fact, there’s no “or what” about it—and her luck is by no means confined to bowling. In her short career, Lake has had more than her share of good fortune. Before hosting Ricki Lake, her Emmy-nominated syndicated show, which has soared in the ratings since its debut last September, Lake got her first acting break when campy filmmaker John Waters cast her as an overweight high schooler in his 1988 film, Hairspray. What would have been an insurmountable handicap for any other actress, her 5’4″, 250-lb. frame, also landed her a role in Waters’ next film, Cry-Baby.
But by 1991 Lake realized that being megachubby was beginning to wear thin with producers. To salvage her career and, more important, her self-esteem, she spent the next three years dieting, and shed 125 pounds. But when job prospects continued to prove leaner than she was, that luck thing happened again. First, on the strength of her effervescent personality, Columbia Pictures Television offered her a chance to host her current show, aimed at the Generation X crowd too young for Donahue and too hip for Oprah. Then she got her first role as a thin person, in Waters’ newest film, Serial Mom. These days, Ricki Lake may be a svelte size 8, but she’s living large.
A couple of hours before her bowling match, Lake stretches out on a bed in the sparsely furnished sunny Greenwich Village studio apartment she shares with Sussman, 27, a freelance illustrator and part-time bartender. “I’m blissfully happy at this lime,” says Lake, stroking Annie, one of two cats competing for bed space with Lake’s cockapoo dog, Dudley (who, Lake insists, bears a passing resemblance to Dudley Moore). “I never thought I would be this happy this early in my life. A year ago, to know that my show would be a hit, that I’d be married and that I’d be living in New York…all these things have taken me by surprise.”
Especially the part about being married. Lake and Sussman met each other at a party last Halloween and “we fell in love that night” she says. Three days later they were discussing marriage, and two weeks after that he moved in. Their passion must have clouded their memories, because they can’t agree on exactly where Sussman proposed.
“Don’t you remember you were over there, near the bed?” Lake tells him.
“Was it over there?” he replies. “I thought I was in the bathroom.”
Fortunately, their difference of opinion doesn’t seem to have cooled their desire. At the bowling alley, Lake and Sussman, who married two months ago in Las Vegas, find it impossible to keep their hands off each other. After one prolonged necking session near the ball rack, Jill Lake, Ricki’s 47-year-old mother, in town to shoot a Makeover Your Mom segment on Ricki, observes, “I think it’s too much, if you want to know the truth. But when you say something, she says, ‘But, Mom, we’re in love.’ ”
Which doesn’t mean, Lake insists, that she should be confused with other celebrities who have rushed to the altar. “We’re not like Shannon Doherty and Drew Barry-more, who got married as a publicity stunt,” says Lake. “We’re not about getting attention. This is just the way it happened. It’s so powerful. It just made sense.”
Between frames, Jill Lake, a housewife who lives in Vegas with Barry, 50, a soft-spoken pharmacist, pulls out a wedding card that one of Ricki’s uncles had sent to her, addressed simply “To Ricki and ‘Darling.’ ” “Can you believe it?” asks Jill with a laugh. “They’re married such a short amount of lime, her uncle doesn’t even know Rob’s name. At breakfast today, Rob and Ricki realized they had been married three weeks and began kissing a lot in celebration. I was like, ‘Can you come up for air?’ ”
Ricki, who grew up in New York’s Westchester County, says she was never without boyfriends, even at her peak weight. But would Rob have become so enchanted if he had met Ricki’s previous incarnation that Halloween night? “I don’t know,” he says, looking at her. “I mean, if you gained 60 pounds, I would still love to roll around with you every day.”
“But if you met me at 250 pounds,” answers Ricki, “you might not have approached me. That doesn’t hurt my feelings, though. If you were 250 pounds, I don’t know if I’d have been attracted to you either.”
Actually, there are weightier matters to contend with. “Our biggest issue is money,” says Lake. “It’s weird. My financial situation is so abnormal for someone who’s 25, and for Rob, being a struggling artist, it’s hard for him to compete with that. So we have to keep our heads straight and be secure with ourselves.”
“I’m sort of coming to terms with it,” says Sussman, who will be bartending that night at a Village pub. “For a while, I was cranky about it, but this is going to be the deal from now on. I have to figure out a strategy for remaining sane. She could support me, but that just seems really unhealthy and emasculating.”
Sussman, who bowled a 90, can at least take comfort in knowing that he’s a better bowler than Ricki. At game’s end, Ricki is the low scorer with 73, much to her dismay. “I suck,” she says, after turning in her bowling shoes and giving a waitress her autograph. “If I had been on Bowling for Dollars, I’d wind up owing them money.”