By Peter Ames Carlin
May 24, 1999 12:00 PM

Camryn Manheim is the first person to admit that she likes to eat. But as one young man learned recently in a New York City restaurant, unsolicited diet advice is not on her menu. “I had ordered some crème brûlée for dessert,” she says. “And I was eating it when this kid—he was all of 24—leaned across the table and said, ‘You might not want to eat so much of that. It’s just filled with fat.’ I said, ‘You’ve just insulted the wrong person.’ ” She chuckles. “I read him the riot act. But after I completely emasculated him, I felt like I needed to educate him.”

And he’s not the only one. Although Manheim, 38, recently collected an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for her portrayal of formidable defense lawyer Ellenor Frutt on the ABC drama The Practice, she knows that some people still believe that any big woman is simply too much of a good thing. “Our culture is incredibly offended by the heavy population,” Manheim says. Which is why her candid new autobiography, Wake Up, I’m Fat! (Broadway Books), focuses on her struggle to be both fat and happy. “I’m fighting for fat acceptance,” she says.

That message appeals to friend Rosie O’Donnell, who wrote the forward to Wake Up. “I love that Camryn’s so honest and forthright,” says the talk show host. “And the book is really a beautiful journey of self-acceptance.”

You don’t have to look further than the cover of Wake Up—which features the swimsuit-clad author bedecked with a beauty pageant sash reading ‘Miss Understood’—to see that Manheim has learned to appreciate herself. “I was looking for an in-your-face book cover,” she says. “I knew that with the right photograph I could dispel the myth that fat people aren’t beautiful.”

Along with its revealing cover, Manheim’s book (which is adapted from a one-woman show she performed Off-Broadway in 1995) uncovers some raw corners of her soul. “I really wanted to tell what happened,” she says. And though she recounts many of the casual cruelties that were dispensed by friends, teachers and even her parents, Manheim labored hard to avoid sounding bitter. “I wanted to make people accountable for what they’d done,” she says, “but also learn about forgiving.”

She is especially thoughtful about her parents: father Jerry, 75, a retired mathematics professor, and mother Sylvia, 73, a former schoolteacher. Their well-intentioned attempts to encourage their daughter to lose weight—at times promising her a new bike and a puppy if she would drop 10 or 15 pounds—often ended up humiliating her. “My parents would have sold their souls if it, would’ve made me thin,” Manheim writes. Now, she says, she understands why they did what they did. “All they really wanted was for me to have everything. And they knew the world, as it was, would not offer a fat girl very much.”

Raised mostly in Long Beach, Calif., Manheim was the youngest of three children and says one of her earliest memories is of accompanying her parents to protest marches in the late ’60s. “They had a picket sign in one hand and me in the other,” Manheim says. But while her siblings (law professor Karl, now 50, and artist Lisa, 43) grew up relatively lean, Manheim became a chubby adolescent. “I attribute it to moving to Southern California, where people shop for groceries in bikinis,” she says. “I think I subconsciously put on weight to avoid any of that.”

Determined to make her own statement, Manheim courted outrageousness with multiple ear piercings (she now has 12 in her right ear) and by roaring around town on her brother’s motorcycle. (Later, in her early 20s, she even shed her original name, Debra, adopting Camryn because she thought it sounded strong.”) We were called to school quite often because she was extremely rebellious,” recalls Sylvia.

Eventually, Manheim channeled her outsize personality into acting. After graduating from high school in 1979, she studied theater at the University of California at Santa Cruz (taking her degree in 1984), then earned a master’s degree in fine arts from New York University in 1987.

Yet even as she excelled at school, Manheim felt crippled by her weight. Told by one NYU professor that she might be too heavy to have a career in acting, she took crystal methedrine to lose 80 pounds. But when she realized she was addicted—and after an accidental over-dose in the mid-’80s landed her in the hospital—she switched from pills to therapy. “I wasn’t going to make my body jump through hoops of fire anymore,” she says.

In the early ’90s, Manheim made ends meet by working as a sign-language interpreter for the deaf in the theater and in hospitals. But when she turned a series of journal entries into the first version of Wake Up, I’m Fat!, her career took off. After guest shots on TV’s Law & Order and New York Undercover, she won an Obie in 1995 for her role in Missing Persons, another Off-Broadway show. She lobbied hard for the role of Ellenor Frutt on The Practice in 1996, and after a shaky beginning, the show—and its irrepressible costar—have taken flight. “Camryn is great proof that if you believe in yourself and keep plugging, you’ll make it,” says her Practice costar Lisa Gay Hamilton.

True enough, the Emmy and Golden Globe statues in her New York City loft make a fine case for Manheim’s iron determination. Still, the single actress, who has dated Gregory Hines (she now calls him only a “friend”), feels incomplete. But Manheim isn’t just waiting for Prince Charming to gallop into her life. “I’m still looking for the father of my child,” she says. Along with her schedule of casual dating, she is taking applications (the form is printed in her book) from men who consider themselves boyfriend material. “Step up to the plate,” she declares. “My clock is ticking big time!” Just don’t try to talk her out of dessert.

Peter Ames Carlin

Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles