It was a gesture writ large. On Sept. 13, when Camryn Manheim thrust her best supporting actress Emmy overhead and declared, “This is for all the fat girls!,” she not only served notice that she had arrived, but also expressed her determination that others like her will follow. Seen by millions each week as pantsuited attorney Ellenor Frutt (the defender with 12 earrings in one ear) on ABC’s The Practice, the sassy Manheim has become the self-described “poster child for fat acceptance” in an industry that worships the lithe likes of Jennifer Aniston. Manheim’s triumph: She portrays large ladies with the same faults and desires, the same complicated love lives, as their thin sisters. “I’m a passionate woman,” her homicidal character announces in the film Happiness. Manheim, too, is fiery. “I’m not just going to acquiesce to the pressures or restrictions our culture has put on us,” she says. “Given the images we are bombarded with our entire lives—in every magazine, on every television—if a woman has any self-worth, it’s a miracle.”
She should know. The youngest child of a Long Beach, Calif., college professor and a grade-school teacher, Manheim battled a diet-related amphetamine addiction—and endured countless audition rejections—before her feistiness persuaded David E. Kelley, creator of The Practice, to sign her. “I was really taken with her personality and charisma,” he told USA Today. Now the 37-year-old actress, who dates dancer-actor Gregory Hines “on a casual basis” (“If there were anything to report, I’d say, ‘I have a boyfriend; let’s have a parade’ “), is a hot commodity. She even snagged a six-figure advance for her autobiography, to be called Wake Up, I’m Fat, after her 1993 one-woman show.
“What I love about her,” praises Practice executive producer Jeffrey Kramer, “is that she is proud of who she is. She struggled, and she’s never going to forget that struggle.” And her Emmy triumph makes her a terrific role model, says Michele Weston, fashion and style director of Mode, a magazine for full-figured women: “Camryn is a woman who feels great comfort in her own skin. Women want to emulate her, no matter what their size.”