Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Go Ricki

Irish Independent haven't managed to post my Ricki Lake cover story from last Saturday's Weekend mag, so I'll add the online link when they sort that out. In the meantime, here's the interview...

IF Ricki Lake’s life at 40 was to be encapsulated by one of the famous catchphrases from her cult chat show it would be, ‘She’s all that’.
She’s a mother to two boys, “madly in love” with her English boyfriend, a prominent campaigner for childbirth education and still a force to be reckoned with in TV. Her documentary expose on the childcare system in the States, The Business of Being Born, has stirred debate and controversy in medical, federal and media circles. It’s for this reason the Irish Home Birth Association have invited her to be their keynote speaker at their annual conference here next weekend.
Not forgetting her roots in guilty pleasure TV, she’s also the new host of VH1 reality show Charm School, taking over from Sharon Osbourne. Girlfriend’s got it going on.
“I’ve got much more I want to do,” she says firmly down the phone from her home in LA. “I’m about to turn 41 but it’s strange because I don’t feel 41. I have amazing children who are going to do amazing things in their lives, I love where I am living in sunny California, I get to make art that’s getting people to think and I’m madly in love right now.”
Delighted for you, Ricki. In truth, the woman has earned her stripes. It is hard to reconcile her relatively young age with the fact that she has been a staple in popular culture for over two decades. She was only 20 when she played the “pleasantly plump” Tracy Turnblad in the original John Waters Hairspray movie alongside music icons Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry.
Waters evidently adored Lake, giving her roles in other movies like Cecil B Demented, Serial Mom and Cry Baby where she played Pepper Walker, sister to Johnny Depp’s title character. Ironically, pregnant teen Pepper with her great line in street banter – “The first thing a Cry-Baby girl learns: our bazooms are our weapons!” – was a torch-bearer for the kind of folks who would later populate Lake’s talk show.
Lake was only 24 years old when Ricki Lake, the chat show, first aired in 1993. Of all the ’90s ‘trash TV’ talk shows, Ricki Lake became one of the most memorable, partly because each episode was hooked on a catchy title like ‘Lose That Zero and Get Yourself A Hero’. It attracted a wide audience, being neither as sensationalist as Jerry Springer nor as po-faced as Sally Jesse Raphael.
Unlike some of her contemporaries whose shows were axed because of dwindling audiences, Lake threw in the towel five years ago of her own volition.
“I wanted to leave New York,” she says. “I did it for 11 years and I wanted to do stuff that was more socially relevant.” Perhaps it is because she moved on of her own accord that Lake doesn’t seek to reimagine the show as some sort of cultural monolith.
She does think though that she learned something from it, even if some of her guests didn’t appear to. “I got that vantage point of looking at people and their relationships with each other that made me a bit of an amateur psychologist,” she says. It wasn’t Jerry Springer, she laughs, and she is proud of some of the issues it tackled. “Some of the shows we did on teen pregnancy or drug abuse, those were rewarding. But now I have made a political documentary that’s changing the system. I know what’s important to me, and I want the work I do to be what I love.”
Charm School 3 doesn’t really fit into that category. The show takes some fairly lairy female contestants from two other reality programmes – Rock of Love Bus and Real Chance of Love – and tries to put some manners on them in a Ladette to Lady type academy. Ricki is the school’s headmistress, a sisterly figure to the girls.
Lake is refreshingly candid about the Charm School job. She, like everyone else, has bills to pay. “It was a challenging job for me, it was not my favourite. When they hire you to be yourself, you have to go along with these protocols and you make sacrifices and choices that you wouldn’t make otherwise. I got so used to doing what I want making my own films that it was strange when you don’t have that control.” She won’t be doing another series.
Her heart is in the job that pays her nothing at all: her advocacy of a woman’s right to information about the childbirth facilities available. She was executive producer of The Business of Being Born, the documentary that looks at the benefits of midwife-led births versus the more dominant doctor-led and drugs-assisted model in hospitals. America, like Ireland, has a very low rate of home births at one per cent or under.
Lake is so passionate about getting people to consider their options that she financed the documentary. It has not even covered its own costs yet, says Lake, but she doesn’t worry. “In every way,” she says with conviction, “I feel this is my life’s work, to educate people about their choices and that there are benefits and risks to all ways of giving birth.”
Critics have accused the documentary of being biased in favour of home birth advocates, although Lake insists that she is not “anti-hospital” at all, but “pro sending women the message that they can trust their bodies and that the model of care that midwives can provide is not being utilised to the fullest”.
Her palpable passion for the subject stems from a very personal place. She became “obsessed” with birth after bringing her first son, Milo, now 12, into the world. She had planned to give birth in a birthing centre but was given medical intervention and moved to the adjoining hospital because her labour was long. Ultimately Milo was born healthy and she found it to be the most “incredible miracle” but she felt that she had been made subject to the hospital’s timetable.
“They had protocols, if you didn’t progress to their liking you had to follow their rules. Looking back I thought, ‘I didn’t need that drug’, I felt it made me paranoid. When I was pregnant for the second time I went searching for more information and when I got that I was determined to have a home birth.”
A home birth she had – and viewers of The Business of Being Born know all about it. When the doc started to play at festivals and on TV, much attention focused on footage of a naked Ricki having a water birth in her bath-tub.
Just as she begins to tell me about why she okayed use of the home video of son Owen’s birth, she has to go answer her ringing doorbell. She comes back all apologies. “Sorry about that. It was my water delivery.” The sentence hangs in the air for a split second before she realises what she has said and laughs. And then, straight back to business.
“My birth video was meant to be my own home movie, you know, get the video out, ‘Let’s watch Owen when he was being born!’ twenty years from now. If I had thought then that other people would see it I would have worn a shirt! I would have had a dimmer on my lights and Enya playing in the background and candles all around!” she deadpans.
But when she and director Abby Epstein, whose son’s birth is another of those documented in the film, decided to team up, she said she felt it was necessary to connect as closely as possible with viewers. To put her experience where both her money and her mouth already were.
Even though it was first released two years ago, the film is frequently repeated on the American network Showtime. When we speak, Ricki is raging that NBC’s ‘Today’ news programme has used a clip of the documentary in what she calls an “irresponsible” segment called ‘The Perils of Midwifery’, without calling her for a comment.
I ask her how much of her life is now taken up with this labour of love of hers. “A lot,” she says. “Most of it.”
But she doesn’t sound unhappy or stressed out. She’s planning to coincide the trip to the Irish Home Birth Association conference with a mini-break with Milo - “Owen got a Beatles tour in England last year, so it’s Milo’s turn” - and her boyfriend, playwright-musician Ryan J.W. Smith. Mr Smith will be the perfect tour guide in Dublin: the English native spent four years studying here in Trinity College. They will spend a few days here, also visiting with her nanny’s sister who lives in Gorey, Co Wexford and a few in London.
“His plays were at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival,” she says proudly, “He’s known for writing in Shakespearean verse and he won Pick of the Fringe twice. He’s brainy; we’re talking about serious intelligence here,” she says. Lake was divorced from the boys’ father, artist Rob Sussman, in 2003 after 10 years of marriage and they are all now in a good place. I find her unexpectedly open about being “madly in love”, and it makes her really likeable.
If this is 40, bring it on. Ricki Lake is loving life, loving work, loved up – and looking hot. Her weight issues over the years have been well documented but people who only recall her in voluminous ’90s skirt suits will be surprised to see the sleek, fit creature she is now. “I feel like it’s old news,” she sighs. “I’ve maintained my weight for years and I work out, hence playing tennis.” She’s in her whites, ready to go out and play a few sets when we finish our conversation. “I think at this stage it’s more about taking care of yourself anyway, keeping your heart healthy.”
However, her next project is another documentary she is passionate about. “It is a take on childhood obesity, which has a really great potential to be a pandemic in the States where kids are getting fatter and fatter and we now have this horrific situation where our children’s life expectancy will be shorter than their parents’ for the first time.”
This is something she feels passionate about “as a mom” and she won’t stop until she gets the message across.
Go Ricki.
• Ricki Lake is keynote speaker at the Home Birth Association of Ireland’s annual conference, entitled Joy of Birth, which is being held at the Hilton Hotel, Charlemont Place, Dublin 2 next Saturday, October 3, from 10am to 5pm. Ricki will also attend a screening of her documentary, The Business of Being Born, at UCI Coolock, on Thursday, October 1 at 7.30pm. For more information, call 087 7533303 and check www.homebirth.ie

Ricki Lake’s talk show years coincided with an explosion of similar eponymously-named programmes, but all had their roots in The Phil Donahue Show, which first began to push the envelope with controversial issues in the 1970s. It wasn’t long before other programmes began to ape his winning formula…
SALLY JESSE RAPHAEL (1983-2002): The bespectacled Sally J.R. (real surname Lowenthal) translated early success as a popular talk radio host into a TV show for NBC. She hated the ‘trash TV’ tag maintaining that she tried to help real people with real problems. The show was eventually axed because of falling viewing figures. The now 74-year-old Sally has retained a podcast talk show on the internet.
GERALDO (1987-1998): Geraldo Rivera was a journalist and former lawyer who broke the story that Elvis Presley died of a drugs cocktail rather than a heart attack in 1977. He had his nose broken when his talk show guests brawled onscreen in 1988. Geraldo was cancelled a decade later but Rivera remains a controversial news journalist, covering the war in Iraq, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
THE JERRY SPRINGER SHOW (1991 - present ): Springer, the former mayor of Cincinatti, continues to host one of the most raucous of the tabloid talk shows, which always ends on the ironically caring catchphrase of “Take care of yourself, and each other.” It started out as a political talk show but quickly morphed into a ratings-grabbing cocktail of chair-throwing, fisticuffs and topless female guests.
THE JENNY JONES SHOW (1991-2003): Born Janina Stranski, Jones’s show ran into trouble with a 1995 episode featuring gay Scott Amedure, who announced his crush on his straight best friend Jonathan Schmitz. Schmitz killed Amedure three days later and Jones had to testify at a case taken against the show by Amedure’s family. The show was axed for poor ratings and Jones is now a philanthropist.
MAURY (1991 – present): The 70-year-old Maury Povich is still going strong with a show that is most famous for its ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ segment in which men get the results of paternity tests on TV. A promo for the next episode of Maury features a man caught cheating on tape, a paternity test and an adulterous wife.
THE MONTEL WILLIAMS SHOW (1991-2008): The most high-profile African-American chat show host after Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams went against the grain of most tabloid TV talk shows by moving his away from more controversial subjects as its run progressed. Latter-day shows features inspirational stories, family reunions and a much derided psychic slot. It was cancelled last year.

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