Ricki Lake’s life story reads like the headlines from some of the more dramatic episodes of her iconic ’90s talk show. She had to deal with more than the average woman has to deal with, but we had no idea what was going on behind closed doors when we watched her every day on her famous talk show, or when we saw her on the big screen in the movie Hairspray.
Lake’s career has been unorthodox, to say the least. From a curious student to getting on stage and becoming a household name, Ricki Lake’s career has been as eventful as her personal life. But she kept an infectious grin while having to bear it – from the struggles with her weight to the toxic criticism to her lifelong battle with hair loss, and worst of all, the tragic loss of her husband.
See what Ricki Lake went through in her life and what helped her climb through all the tragedy with her spirits intact. And she thanks her dog for a lot of it…
Ricki Pamela Lake was born on September 21, 1968, in Hastings-on-Hudson in New York, to a secular Jewish family. Her mother, Jill, was a homemaker, and her father, Barry, was a pharmacist. Ricki was, however, mostly raised by her paternal grandmother, Sylvia Lake, for the first ten years of her life until Sylvia died in 1978.
Ricki released a book called ‘Your Best Birth: Know All Your Options, Discover the Natural Choices, and Take Back the Birth Experience,’ in 2009 (with co-author Abbey Epstein). The 7th chapter of the book discusses the time when, at the age of six, Ricki was sexually assaulted. She stated: “I’m not telling that story to sell books. I’m telling that story because you can feel violated.”
This is her story…
It took some time, but after becoming a household name and gaining the experience and confidence to be open about herself and her past finally, 51-year-old Ricki Lake has opened up about the tragedy of her personal life, and importantly how she was able to make it out stronger. She truly believes that talking about trauma is an essential part of recovery.
Ricki decided to tell the story of how she was sexually assaulted by a worker at her parents’ home when she was a young girl. “My childhood was stolen because I was sexually assaulted in my home, but my parents never spoke about it! Tragically, she felt utterly alone as her parents never adequately dealt with it…
While her parents did end up firing this man who abused Ricki, they never discussed the assault with her. “This was the late 1970s, and it wasn’t talked about. You push everything under the rug,” she explained. Having to deal with the shame and depression as such a young girl, Ricki – like many other girls in her position – turned to food for comfort.
“It’s funny because that experience of being taken advantage of as a little girl is what caused me to turn to food, which is what caused me to be obese, which is what caused me to get the biggest break of my life in Hairspray. So again, trauma, I ended up turning it into a gift and a positive,” Ricki said. But she also stated, “Obviously, I wished that never happened to me.”
Even after the early abuse and the lack of support from her parents, young Ricki Lake wanted to be an actress for as long as she could remember. When she was seven years old, she saw a production of the musical Annie. It was at that moment, then and there, that Ricki decided that she somehow and at some point, she was going to be a performer.
Ricki grew up in Hastings-On-Hudson, a wealthy riverside town 40 minutes north of Midtown Manhattan by train. She started taking classes at the prestigious Professional Children’s School on the Upper West Side. It’s the same school, by the way, that Uma Thurman, Christopher Walken, Scarlett Johansson, Diane Lane, Christian Slater, and Sarah Jessica Parker all studied at.
Weight has always been an issue for her. In true yo-yo fashion, Ricki’s weight went up as often as it went down. While studying at Ithaca College, she weighed 200 pounds. She tried out for many of the school’s theater productions, but her weight was making getting the roles difficult. She was simply too heavy to get the parts she wanted.
But when she was 19, she got a big break that would eventually make her career. Ricki has said that starring in the 1988 movie Hairspray was the “biggest break of my life.” It happened after she ran into director John Waters on campus, who happened to be there looking for a heavier actress to play Tracy Turnblad in his upcoming film.
Lake ending up getting the role, and at just 19 years old, she made her film debut as Tracy Turnblad, the lead character in the cult classic Hairspray. The success of Hairspray pretty much validated her size. Lake later recalled how “Being fat worked, and I think that was what was confusing for me for a long time in my career,” she told ABC News.
Even though her biggest film role was as Tracy Turnblad, it was her appearance Cry-Baby that cemented her status as a cult icon. Two years after Hairspray, in 1990, she starred in another John Waters comedy film called ‘Cry-Baby’ (with Johnny Depp and Susan Tyrrell). At that time, Lake was at her heaviest, weighing about 260 pounds (at five feet and three inches tall).
In Cry-Baby, the rockabilly musical comedy that’s like Grease and The Rocky Horror Picture Show all in one, then 22-year-old Ricki Lake played Pepper Walker, the loud-mouthed, leather-wearing sister of Cry-Baby. Much later, in a blog post interview with Bravo’s Andy Cohen, Ricki revealed that she actually lost her virginity while filming that movie.
“I lost my virginity on the set. I’m not gonna give his name because he went on to have some success. I was definitely not his first; I know that. It was a positive experience, and of course, it made the making of the movie so positive for me. Everyone on set knew, from Johnny Depp on down.” After this revelation, fans were left to wonder if the actress slept with one of the actors or somebody in production. But in a 2018 appearance on Watch What Happens Live, she made it clear it was “a really handsome actor,” but not Johnny Depp.
By the time she made it to having her own talk show on TV, Ricki had lost a ton of weight. When she landed the gig of her career in 1993, the one that made her a household name, as the host of her own daytime talk show, Ricki Lake had lost more than 100 pounds. She was 24 at the time.
Being only 24 and hosting a talk show meant that she made history as the youngest person at the time to host her own talk show. Throughout its run (until 2004), all kinds of guests represented all kinds of different beliefs and subcultures. One time, there was a reverend who came on the show, and she spoke about it in an interview much later…
As a host on such a talk show, Ricki had her fair share of, let’s say, “Interesting” characters. In an interview with News.com.au, Ricki Lake recalled having to chat with a reverend named Fred Phelps on her talk show. “He was this disgusting reverend that would picket at people’s funerals; people that had died of AIDS. I just lost it. I said, ‘You know, you may be a reverend, but this is still my show, get out!’”
“I was shaking, I was so upset,” Ricki described of that time on her show. As it turns out, there was a genuine reason why Ricki Lake was so appalled and disgusted by this reverend’s actions. And it has to do with her own grandfather and how he died.
Ricki Lake has been a part of many causes throughout her career. Her documentary (which we’ll talk about soon) tackled all kinds of issues like child safety and breast cancer awareness. But the cause closest to her heart is funding and promoting research for HIV/AIDS. As it so happens, her grandfather died in the late ’80s from AIDS.
Tragically, this was a time “when a blood transfusion in a hospital could give you HIV and AIDS. So I’m personally, obviously, connected to this disease and wanting to find a cure,” Ricki told CNN. Lake even admitted that she admired Charlie Sheen’s disclosure of his HIV battle, saying, “It was incredibly brave of him. It’s important to know that this disease is still spreading. It’s not a death sentence anymore, and the stigma needs to be taken away.”
It took some time and experience, but Ricki Lake eventually got the hang of her show’s format and continued to pursue open and genuine conversations on sensitive topics. For the most part, her guests were the ones who got the most flack. Then again, it was during her first year as the host that Lake was on the receiving end of public criticism. It was following an episode called “I’m Angry Because People Think I’m Gay.”
According to Entertainment Weekly, after the taping of the show, an audience member (who identified himself as a homosexual during the taping) was attacked while waiting for an elevator. One of the participants on the show believes that the thing could have been avoided if only the ratio of gay to straight people on the panel (two out of 13 were gay) had been more balanced. “When I said that I was gay-bashed, the audience cheered; [Lake] didn’t respond at all to what was going on,” the participant said.
Ricki Lake has been both married and divorced twice. Her first husband, Rob Sussman, an illustrator who worked for The New York Times, The Nation, and LA Weekly, married Ricki in 1994. Early on, he voiced concerns that his “modest” salary was going to put him in a submissive role next to his celebrity wife.
He went so far as to tell People magazine (the same years as their marriage!) that being supported by his wife “seems really unhealthy and emasculating. I don’t want to become Mr. Ricki Lake.” Talk about unsupportive and jealous! The two share two sons together, Milo and Owen. Ricki and Rob eventually got divorced as a result of the trauma she suffered in New York on September 11, 2001.
Like many other New Yorkers on that devastating day in 2001, Ricki Lake saw the planes fly into the World Trade Center. She watched the second plane flew into the building with her own eyes from the roof of her home in the West Village as she was cradling her then four-year-old son, Milo. That moment ended being a real game-changer for Ricki.
“We had a full view, and I saw the other plane coming down the Hudson. You see it in slow motion, really thinking you’re going to die. I thought it was the end of the world, and I had a real moment of clarity where I said, ‘If I live through this day, I’m leaving New York and leaving my job and leaving my husband.’ It was very clear. It took a while to make all of those things happen.”
As she was basically watching the world end before her eyes, she made a promise to herself. She was going to change the projection of her life, and a significant part of that was going to involve leaving her resentful husband and getting out of their toxic marriage. It took a couple of years, but they finally ended it by 2003.
When they filed for divorce in 2003, it was revealed that the wage gap as a continual struggle for the couple, who began couples therapy soon after they tied the knot. Long after their marriage ended, Sussman still lives in the $6.5 million home in Los Angeles that they purchased as a couple.
Sadly, this wasn’t going to be the only trauma she was going to have to face…
The two started dating in 2010, several years after leaving her first husband. By 2012, she and Christian Evans, a jewelry designer, were married. “He was the funniest person,” Lake said of her second husband, who she said was open about his bipolar disorder from the beginning. “He had a lot of self-esteem issues and a lot of demons. But I understood him, and he was someone that I think a lot of people misunderstood.”
At first, things were going smoothly, but their marriage became strained in 2014 when Evans had a particularly manic episode. By that point, Ricki hadn’t witnessed this side of him. She described the incident: “He thought he could fly. He thought he could cure cancer with his hands. It was horrific. He just wasn’t the person I had been with for four years.”
Evans had to be hospitalized as a result of his manic episode. As difficult as it was already to have to witness your loved one in such a debilitating state, what the therapist in the hospital told her while he was being treated made things even harder for her. The therapist advised Ricki to end all contact with her husband until he got better.
And so although she was trying to be supportive, the couple got divorced in 2015, while he was being treated for his disorder. Despite the split, they reconciled and moved back in together after he was released from the hospital. “I was still in love with him, so there was something romantic about it,” Lake admitted. “I wanted to save him.”
Christian Evans eventually died from an apparent suicide in 2017, after struggling for years with bipolar disorder. Ricki would refer to this as a “really complicated, confusing illness.” He was found in his car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound two days after having emailed a suicide note to his sister. He was only 45. Ricki has only recently decided to talk about Christian’s death.
“Christian had two episodes while we were together,” she explained. She gave an authentic and intimate look into what it was like to see him in a manic state. “It just keeps going higher and higher and higher to where he thinks he can fly. He left his Range Rover on the side of the freeway because he could time-travel, and he didn’t need it anymore.”
“What goes up has to come down… I didn’t know what to do, and the second time I had to save myself. It was so outrageous. And yet he was my favorite person I ever knew; he was so gifted. They say genius and madness go hand in hand. I was never happier than when I was with him; it’s just a tragedy that I don’t think I’ll ever fully recover from.”
A part of her dealing with this trauma is her aim to “get rid of the judgment and stigma” around suicide. As she puts it, it’s out of their control – like cancer. It’s not their fault. “I know in my heart I did everything I could. I know in my heart by sharing my story, I’m helping other people. I don’t want him to have died in vain. I would love to help others by being honest and transparent about what I’m going through.”
During her marriage to Christian, her family had to deal with a major trauma when, in 2010, her Malibu beach house burnt down while she and her kids were in it. And Ricki admitted that the fire was her fault. “I accidentally started the fire. I was lighting this decorative indoor flame, and it blew up. It lit the couch on fire and the whole house was gone in 15 minutes.”
Obviously, Ricki is thankful that she and her two sons were able to escape the house once it caught on fire. She recalls having to “run of the house with my two children and my dog at seven in the morning, with the clothes on our back. I had no bra; I had no shoes on. It was incredibly traumatizing.”
She and her kids were enjoying a vacation in a rented home on the beach in Malibu when a fire erupted after she spilled oil when refilling a portable space heater. The blaze spread quickly through the whole property. With flames going up to 30 feet, it took 20 minutes before the fire was put out by firefighters. Even parts of the highway were closed for two hours.
The home was left a burnt-out shell, and Ricki Lake was left to face the legal ramifications of her mistake. The homeowner, Hovsep Kousouyan, filed a lawsuit. In the legal reports, the owner claims that Lake admitted liability when she spoke to the emergency personnel on the 911 call. The house sits on prime real estate in Southern California, worth millions of dollars.
It doesn’t surprise me that Ricki found love again, being such a positive and outgoing person. Nonetheless, two years to the day after the death of her second husband, Ricki Lake went public, saying that she found love again. She moved on to meet and fall in love with an eco-fashion designer, Jeff Scult, after a mutual friend introduced them.
“I thought I was asexual at this point. Honestly, I was like, ‘There’s nobody I’m interested in.’” But time heals all wounds, right? She described their first meeting: “He walked in, and he reminded me of my husband. There’s an essence and a quality about him. And it took him a little while to see me that way, but I wore him down.”
According to Jeff Scult’s website, his purpose is to “celebrate and elevate well-being for the earth, us, and self.” I don’t really know what that means, but one thing is for sure: Lake is smitten. She gushed over Scult on Instagram, and opened up about their relationship during an appearance she made on the UK’s ‘Loose Women.’
She mentioned how similar Jeff is to her late ex-husband. Ricki admits that she has a “type,” but Jeff wants her to find love again. When Ricki was in England to compete on ‘The X-Factor: Celebrity,’ she told the panel that she would never really get over losing Evans. She saw him as part of her life plan and losing him meant losing the future she thought she had. But there is always life after loss.
Ricki Lake has herself dealt with thoughts of suicide as a result of a life-long struggle she has been dealing with in secret. As you know, being a celebrity means being judged continuously. Clearly, Ricki didn’t feel safe enough to open up about this issue. Until now… On January 1, 2020, Lake shocked her fans when she posted a picture of herself on Instagram, rocking a dramatic new look. She gave herself a buzz cut.
As per her caption in the post: “Liberated and Free, Me. First things first, I am not sick. (THANK GOD.) I am not having a mid-life crisis. Nor am I having a mental breakdown, though I have been suffering. Suffering mostly in silence off and on for almost 30 years. AND I am finally ready to share my secret.”
Her secret? Devastating hair loss…
Ricki Lake has been struggling with hair loss for most of her adult life. For Ricki, it has been “debilitating, embarrassing, painful, scary, depressing, lonely, all the things” There have even been a few times where she felt suicidal over it. No one in her life knew the level of deep pain she was experiencing. According to Ricki, not even her therapists over the years knew her truth.
Her goal in coming clean with this news is to help others, especially women in the same situation, to know that they’re not alone. As it turns out, it all started back in 1988 when she played Tracy Turnblad in the Hairspray. The process she went through with makeup and hair changed everything…
On set, they triple-processed and teased her then-healthy virgin hair every 2 weeks while filming the movie. But after that, her hair was never the same. But it was more than just the excessive amount of teasing and hairspray. As Ricki put it, “In my case, I believe my hair loss was due to many factors, yo-yo dieting, hormonal birth control, radical weight fluctuations over the years, my pregnancies, genetics, stress, and hair dyes and extensions.”
Having worked so much on TV, she got used to wearing extensions. She would use all the different kinds of extensions; there were: are glued-on, taped-in, clipped-on, etc. She even wore wigs sometimes. The struggle came with the fact that she was feeling fake, self-conscious, and uncomfortable.
She had been to many doctors, got steroid shots into her head, took all the supplements available on the market. She said how her hair would recover only to shed again. Days after her big reveal on Instagram, Lake came on Good Morning America to discuss her journey. She was asked why she thinks so many women are scared to speak out about hair loss.
Ricki suggested that it’s due to unrealistic standards. “I don’t want to blame them, but these women that we emulate, whether it’s the Kardashians, all of them are using fake hair!” so now that it’s a new year and a new decade, it was the perfect opportunity for her to something radical. And she loves it.
Last year, in 2019, Ricki Lake was on the first season of The Masked Singer, a fun show where celebs dress head to toe in extravagant costumes and perform live for a panel of famous faces as well as hundreds of audience members. All of the judges have to guess who the celeb behind the costume is. Ricki Lake performed in a raven costume.
The only judge to correctly guess her identity was Robin Thicke, who went on to praise the former talk show host for all of her achievements. He said: “When I was young, and The Ricki Lake Show came on television, it was kind of revolutionary. I was a big fan of the show.” But even though he correctly guessed her, her performance wasn’t good enough to get into the next round.
After taking off her mask, she revealed that there was a deeply personal reason for choosing the raven costume. “The Raven is about metamorphosis; it’s about death, but it’s also about rebirth,” she told Nick Cannon, the host of The Masked Singer. “I went through the loss of my husband last year, and this really was an opportunity for me to sort of share my journey through his loss. He was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Evans’ death was still raw for her when they filmed that episode of the show, but she was also dealing with physical pain. If she didn’t have enough to deal with already, she told reporters that she was also struggling to walk due to a nasty bout of sciatica.
Ricki brought her Shih Tzu poodle, Mama, to an interview with The Sun. Mama is her legal therapy dog, who has been with her and travels with her everywhere since the death of her ex-husband. As Ricki puts it, “I rescued her, and then she rescued me.” She explained how her dog is basically like medicine.
“When I drive my car, she sits on my lap, and it’s like this calming presence, and it’s palpable.” Mama literally saved her when she was dealing with the trauma of Evans’ death. Ricki said that by having her dog, it forced her to get out while she was mourning, and she helped her carry on. She got her out into nature as they would walk on the beach every day.
These days, Ricki Lake is spending more and more of her time behind the camera, directing documentaries. Her first documentary was from 2008. ‘The Business of Being Born’ emphasizes the value of home births. It’s critical of the American healthcare system, which she claims is designed to treat childbirth as a medical emergency.
In 1900, 95% of births in the United States took place at home. By 1938, the number shrunk down to half. Today, that number is less than 1%. The film was actually well received. But Lake’s next documentary, ‘Sweetening the Pill,’ was highly criticized. It was about the dangers of hormonal birth control. Lake was said to be “wrong” to fight against “the greatest source of women’s empowerment of all time.”
Her son, Owen, was the baby that she gave birth to in her first documentary. As she explained, one in three women are sexually assaulted in some way, and a lot of those women eventually give birth. Lake spoke about how past trauma, especially sexual assault, can have real and highly adverse effects later in life when these women have babies.
Lake doesn’t directly equate her abuse to her body issues, but the feelings she has about her body image played a part in her decision to have her second child at home. “I think I’ve always been sort of modest about my body,” she explained. “In a hospital when there’s a lot of residents learning from other doctors, and they’re witnessing many things… In my personal opinion, for my body, I felt safer at home.”
I’ll tell you why it’s essential to talk about Ricki Lake’s hair – even though people may say, “So what?” or “Who cares?” The fact that Ricki has kept her hair loss as a secret for so many years and the fact that the stress she felt about how she might be perceived shows us just how much damage has been done by stigma.
Remember what she said in her post? “I am not sick. (THANK GOD.) I am not having a mid-life crisis. Nor am I having a mental breakdown, though I have been suffering.” Those heavy words alone reflect upon how we, as a society, anticipate negative conclusions when we see a middle-aged woman with a buzz cut.
Let’s face it – there’s always a reaction when a famous woman shaves her head. When the renowned woman is young, thin, and “beautiful” (like Cara Delevingne, Natalie Portman, Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, or Zoe Kravitz), such drastic haircuts are seen as edgy and even enhance their beauty.
But then when a female celebrity doesn’t seem 100% “together” (like Britney Spears in 2007) or isn’t one of the “fashion icons,” shaving her head doesn’t make sense and is seen as a sign of illness, whether physical or mental. I think it goes without saying that the same thing doesn’t happen with men. In Ricki Lake’s case, the need to meet society’s standards caused her major stress and pain, and that only made her hair loss worse.
In her Instagram post, she described how, after her last extreme diet, where she lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks, her hair started shedding again. Lake was 260 pounds before she started losing weight, and it wasn’t until she slimmed down to a size 4 that she ever felt wanted on the covers of magazines.
Although obesity is widespread in America and that hair loss is experienced by millions of Americans, neither is accepted by society in general, especially when it comes to women. Remember when the plus-size mannequins were introduced in Nike stores last year? They reflected the bodies of most people, yet many responded with disgust.
Ricki Lake isn’t the only famous celebrity who has to deal with hair loss…
Hair loss isn’t dangerous or life-threatening (as obesity can be), but wildly successful and talented celebrities other than Ricki Lake described their fear when they noticed their own hair loss. Viola Davis, for one, described feeling “desperate for people to think that she was beautiful.” Then there’s Jada Pinkett-Smith, who said it was “terrifying” at first.
Selma Blair, whose hair started falling out after she gave birth to her child, distressed how people just don’t talk about it. And it’s that silence that is so damaging. This is why Ricki Lake’s new look is so important. She’s setting a courageous example. And the advantage of doing it on social media is that she can control the narrative.
During an interview with Oprah Winfrey on her ‘Where Are They Now’ show, Ricki spoke about her never-ending weight conflict, saying, “I became famous for being a certain size, and I was a role model for so many young women. But, I loved it when I lost weight and felt good about my body. I loved telling the world!”
“But at the same time, I felt like I was perpetuating this obsession that we have with weight.” When she finalized her divorce with Christian Evans, she gained 80 pounds. But these days, Lake is enjoying a steady and healthy weight. “I can fit into my old clothes. It’s about balance. I’m now 51. I’m in a beautiful relationship with this amazing man; I feel very in touch with my body. I feel very liberated, my body works, and I don’t look my age. I haven’t had anything done to my face.”
Not everyone knows that there was a second round of The Ricki Lake Show (also called Ricki or The New Ricki Lake Show) that came on the air in 2012 only to be canceled before getting to its second season. The series marked her return to talk show television after leaving in 2004. After years of considering a return to daytime TV, Lake signed on as both the host and producer.
The second talk show was very different from the old one, which focused more on topics from the younger generation’s point of view. The topics also weren’t as sensational as the previous one. In March 2012, Ricki launched an interactive platform called “Friends of Ricki.” It gave members of the public direct access to Lake and the production staff.
On February 4, 2013, they announced that The Ricki Lake Show wasn’t going to return for a second season due to the low ratings, averaging only 926,000 viewers. The series aired until September 6, 2013. Despite the cancellation, Lake’s return to daytime TV was welcomed by critics. They saw her as the possible successor to Oprah Winfrey.
Of the five new talk shows that premiered during the 2012–2013 TV season, Ricki Lake ranked 4th, behind Katie, Steve Harvey, and The Jeff Probst Show, yet ahead of The Trisha Goddard Show. Katie, Probst, and Trisha have all since been canceled, leaving Harvey as the only lasting survivor. Lake was even nominated for Favorite New Talk Show at the 39th People’s Choice Awards, but she lost to Steve Harvey.