“I remember telling my mom I wanted to be in Annie, and she told me, 'You’re not the starving orphan type,’ ” says Lake

By Patrick Gomez
November 15, 2016 08:00 PM

Ricki Lake didn’t grow up thinking she would ever play an ingenue.

“I remember telling my mom I wanted to be in Annie, and she told me, ‘You’re not the starving orphan type,’ ” the actress says in the current issue of PEOPLE.

But at 18 years old, Lake won the starring role of plus-size optimist Tracy Turnblad in John Waters’s 1988 hit film Hairspray.

The part made Lake, 48, a star, but she had no idea her Tracy would inspire the young Marissa Jaret Winokur, who would go on to win a Tony for playing the character in the 2002 Broadway musical based on the film.

“I remember seeing the movie for the first time and thinking, ‘She’s doing it. I can do it too!’ ” says Winokur, 43.

In a full circle moment, Winokur would in turn serve as inspiration for Nikki Blonsky, 28, who starred as Tracy in the 2007 movie based on the musical, and now newcomer Maddie Baillio, 20, who will star in NBC’s Hairspray Live! on Dec. 7.

“I think Hairspray is just as relevant today as it would have been in the ’60s, with segregation and body positivity,” says Baillio. “That’s a huge thing now. I think this is a really great time for the show to come back.”

  • For more from the Hairspray stars – including why Ricki Lake’s hair “never recovered” after playing Tracy – pick up the Sexiest Man Alive issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

While the role of Tracy introduced Lake to the world, Winokur says she’s grateful that it opened doors for women of all sizes to play all kinds of roles.

Hairspray dealt with weight issues, but, Ricki, you went on to roles that had nothing to do with that,” says Winokur. “I remember seeing Mrs. Winterbourne, and I was like, ‘Okay, now she’s just the lead.’ It had nothing to do with [your body type].”

“I was on a diet for that entire film, though,” responds Lake. “Still, I love the fact that I’ve been able to reinvent myself. Being an actress is difficult enough, and being able to play the ingenue when you don’t look like the typical ingenue is incredible.”

Winokur — who will cameo in Hairspray Live! alongside Lake — says that before the role of Tracy, she felt there weren’t a lot of options for her on the Broadway stage.

“I left Broadway in ’98 because I was like, ‘There are no roles for me. I’ll come back when I’m 50 and can play Mama Rose [in Gypsy].’ And now every high school is doing Hairspray,” she says. “It’s amazing that there are young girls everywhere who have had to play Jan in Grease or the old lady, and now they get to be Tracy Turnblad. In reality, there are more Tracys in every high school than there are Rizzos. And now there’s Melissa McCarthy — there are people who we can look to. It’s inspiring.”

“I wonder if Tracy started that,” says Baillio.

“I feel like she had something to do with it, for sure,” replies Lake. “Absolutely.”

Hairspray Live! airs Dec. 7 on NBC.