By Peter Castro
November 21, 1994 12:00 PM

AS HOST RICKI LAKE ENTERS THE MANHATTAN studio where her syndicated talk show is taped, 200 fans—mostly young, mostly female—greet her with a chant of “Go, Ricki! Go, Ricki!” It’s five minutes till showtime, and Lake is both very relaxed and very much on their wavelength. “Hey,” she asks the audience, “who knows what happened on Melrose Place last night? I missed it. What happened to Sydney?”

“She slept with Jake!” a score of voices yells back, almost in unison.

“And what’s with Billy?” Lake wants to know.

“He’s doing it with the new girl!” a young woman shouts.

“Wow! Thanks. Hey, guess what, everybody? I lost 7 pounds,” boasts Lake. “I’m so psyched!”

More applause. “Ready, Ricki?” interrupts her stage manager.

“Yeah, let’s start,” says Lake, 26, turning to face the TelePrompTer. “I can do this blindfolded by now.”

Lake’s self-confidence is not undeserved. Only a year after entering the talk show swamp—a morass into which legions of adventurers from Joan Rivers to Bertice Berry and Jane Whitney have disappeared without a trace—Lake has blown the competition out of the water. Simple fact: Thanks to her rapport with younger viewers, Lake has surpassed Donahue, Geraldo and Sally Jessy Raphael in the ratings and is now second only to the Big Kahuna of daytime, Oprah Winfrey. The Queen of Talk is in no immediate danger—her syndicated program draws an estimated 9.4 million viewers daily to Lake’s 5.8 million—but the gap is still narrowing. “What’s happening here,” says Jim Benson, who covers TV for Variety, “is that Oprah is going down and Ricki’s going up. I wouldn’t put it past Ricki to be No. 1 someday.”

Ricki’s topical heat wave of teenage and twentysomething issues helps distinguish the show from the rest of the pack. On this particular day, Lake is taping three episodes, which bear the wonderfully resonant titles “Mom, When My Boyfriend Gets Out of Jail, I’m Taking Him Back,” “He/She Says He/She Is Bisexual But I Don’t Buy It” and “I Have the Hots for a Coworker and I’m Going to Tell Him.”

Meet the Press it ain’t. “Look,” says Garth Ancier, Ricki’s, creator and executive producer, “our audience is more interested in dating than marriage. They like issues about teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, topics that affect people their age. You’re not going to see an episode on our show about menopause.” Indeed, as Lake and a team of her producers discuss the day’s scripts and other ideas, a bulletin board behind them heralds themes of forthcoming shows including “I Want My Guy to Cheat” and “Marry My Daughter or Get Out.”

Perhaps the most telling gauge of Ricki’s clout is that it has already spawned imitators. Chatty Gen X-ers Carnie Wilson (of Wilson Phillips fame), former Cosby kid Tempestt Bledsoe and Melissa Rivers (Joan’s daughter) all have talk shows currently in development. “It’s so funny,” says Lake. “I went to high school with Tempestt, and I’ve known Carnie and Melissa for years, and now I’m helping them land jobs. I mean, when we came on the air, everyone was trying to be the new Oprah, and now everyone’s trying to be the new Ricki.”

The new Ricki, in fact, is an apt description for Lake herself. Once the massive mascot in such campy John Waters films as Hairspray and Cry-Baby, Lake has in the past three years lost 125 pounds, landed a talk show all her own and gained a husband. She and Rob Sussman, 28, a freelance illustrator, live in a rent-stabilized, inexpensive (by New York City standards), one-bedroom apartment in a lower Manhattan high-rise.

Like the pace of her show, Lake and Sussman’s romance proceeded at breakneck speed. They met at a Halloween party last year, fell in love that night (“We were naked two hours later,” she told David Letterman and his nearly 7 million viewers earlier this year), moved in together two weeks later and married in Las Vegas five months after that. “We didn’t waste any time,” says Lake. “We didn’t have cold feet. He’s definitely not my Stedman.”

She regrets only the Vegas vows. “The chapel was tacky, and this woman minister who married us was really creepy,” Lake says, sitting at her dining-room table with her pet cats Mollie and Annie nearby. “I was crying the whole time because I was so surprised I was getting married. I always thought I’d be the old spinster.”

Now, though, she could be an expert panelist on a talk show segment titled “Women who can’t stop kissing their men.”

“We’re still gooey in public,” says Lake. “But I just adore him. I’m closer to him than anyone else. Sorry, Mom. This is an issue with my mother because she feels I’ve replaced her, but that’s a part of growing up. Rob’s the primary person in my life right now. I just wish there was a more powerful word than love for what I feel.”

But even indescribable ardor comes with problems. Lake credits couples’ therapy, which she and Sussman have been attending once a week since September, with helping her juggle her white-hot career and her marriage. “Money’s a real discrepancy in our relationship,” she says. “I make a lot of it; he doesn’t, and he feels weird about that. But what’s mine is his and vice-versa.” Right now, says Lake, “we’re working on getting him a credit card so he can pay for dinner every now and then.”

Will that make Sussman feel better about the disparity? “Whipping out a credit card occasionally might make things more comfortable,” he says, laughing, “but I have a pretty poor credit rating at this point.” Sussman, who does work for small, left-of-center political publications such as Lies of Our Times and Covert Action Quarterly, lacks a steady income. “I’m comfortably resigned to this financial imbalance between us because as long as I’m working really hard too, we’re a team,” he says. “I don’t want to become ‘Mr. Ricki Lake.’ The pay scale may be different, but I feel as passionate about sitting at a drafting table and drawing as she does about her job.”

Not wanting to cash in on his wife’s fame, Sussman recently called a temporary halt to their joint plan for writing and illustrating a children’s book about an overweight girl who wins a part in a school play. “I’m wary of getting involved with any collaboration with Ricki before I do more on my own,” he says.

“We still intend to do it,” says Lake. “It’s a great story for overweight kids. I mean, when I was little I didn’t have any books to turn to other than Blubber, by Judy Blume. Our book would be beneficial for a lot of kids.”

Such a book might have relieved some of the anguish Lake suffered as an overweight child growing up in Has-tings-on-Hudson, N.Y. “I didn’t know until after Ricki lost her weight how dissatisfied she was with herself,” says Jennifer Lake, a creative projects assistant for St. Ives skin care products. Jennifer, 24, Ricki’s only sibling, adds, “She seemed happy, but she wasn’t always. I found out years later that she had a hat collection because they were the only things that would fit her. That was sad.”

But like the feisty protagonist of the book she still hopes to write, Lake persevered. At 9, she had begun singing the entire score of Annie into a hairbrush turned microphone, and by 13 she was making the 40-minute train ride to Manhattan to audition for Broadway roles, television shows and commercials. Her parents, Barry, a pharmacist, and Jill, a homemaker, tried to talk her out of show business, but little Ricki wouldn’t listen. “A lot of what Ricki has,” says Jennifer, “is due to her own tenacity. Mom was always making excuses, saying, ‘Wait until your braces come off’ or ‘Wait till you lose some weight.’ I think my parents were trying to protect her because they felt she wasn’t the typical ingenue.”

Lake’s determination paid off, and she began landing singing gigs at small Manhattan clubs as a young teen. But after only a year at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., she dropped out. “The theater group there didn’t cast me once in any of the plays,” she explains, not certain if her weight was a factor. Before leaving college, however, she received a call from her agent, who suggested that she audition for Hairspray, a film that director John Waters was casting. Lake won the part of a fat girl who steals the heart of the cutest boy in her high school, and became a media darling. In 1989 she appeared as Holly Pelagrino for a season on ABC’s China Beach. By then, though, the 5’4″ Lake had swelled to 250 lbs. and a size 24. “The fact that I’m forever trapped on celluloid looking like that is frightening,” she says.

So was unemployment. When the China Beach job ended and no other offers came through, Lake, all of 21, felt like a has-been. Reduced to borrowing “a tremendous amount of money” from her parents, she was still unable to keep up her mortgage payments and was forced to sell a $750,000 Hollywood, Hills house she had bought in 1989. “I will never ever buy anything impetuously again,” says Lake. “Especially a property worth nearly a million dollars. That’s the biggest regret of my life.” When she paid back her parents this year, she says, she added “$10,000 just to say thank you.”

Lake’s most grueling battle, though, came a year later when, tired of her chronic obesity and realizing that it was damaging her career, she began an intense makeover program. Being surrounded by reed-thin Hollywood starlets only emboldened her resolve. “It was hell living in L.A. during that period,” Lake remembers. Still, she found the will to cut way back on what she ate (even today very little food is allowed in her apartment) and started exercising with a vengeance. By early 1993, Lake had dropped more than 100 pounds, to 150, and could wear a size 10. “The weight change,” she says, “was a really big emotional growth for me. I took back control of my life and grew up. By the time I moved to New York, I was a different person.”

Still strapped for cash, Ricki Lite agreed to audition for a new syndicated talk show that Ancier and producer Gail Steinberg (who produced Donahue for six years) were creating for Columbia TriStar. “I did it strictly for the $5,000 they paid me for the pilot,” says Lake. Her competition, including Rae Dawn Chong, Melissa Rivers and megamodel Veronica Webb, proved no match for the new and improved Lake. “Ricki has an exuberance that none of the other candidates had,” says Ancier. “I mean, Oprah once left a message on Ricki’s answering machine, and she brought the tape in the next day, telling everyone, ‘Oprah called me!’ She’s such a kid.”

A year into her show, Lake is thrilled by her success—which is a good thing, given that she has six more years on her contract. At the same time, she is not convinced that the job is her true calling. “There’s a big misconception that being a talk show host is the be-all and end-all for me,” she says. “This is just something that fell into my lap. I always wanted to be a singer and an actress.”

Next spring, Lake, whose last acting role was in 1994’s Serial Mom, is set to star in Mrs. Winterbourne, a big-budget romantic comedy directed by Richard Benjamin (Milk Money). “What I like is that the character isn’t a loser who doesn’t feel good about herself, which is what I was getting a lot of. She’s a 19-year-old babe. This movie puts me in a different category altogether,” says Lake, who wants to be considered for the same parts as Winona Ryder and Marisa Tomei. For the Mrs. Winterbourne role and those other babe parts, she figures she needs to lose another 15 pounds, so she’s working twice a week with a personal trainer and sticking to a mostly vegetarian eating plan. Says Lake: “I can’t let 15 pounds stand in my way of being a leading lady.”

It is Halloween, one full year from the evening they met, and Rob Sussman has stepped out to buy his wife an anniversary present. Tonight he and Ricki plan to put on the same clothes they wore to that other Halloween party. They have reservations at the same Manhattan restaurant where they first locked eyes and—baboom!—fell in love. Waiting for her husband to come home, Lake looks out her fourth-floor window at the twilight and ponders her future. “Presently,” she says, “this talk show is my priority, and I’m damn lucky to have it. Before I’m 30, I’d like to have kids. And I want to continue acting.” Sussman’s key turns in the lock. “But for right now,” she says, “doing a movie a year, the show, paying my rent and having a nice life is all I can handle.”