At the beginning of her risqué comic monologue, "Sugar Happens," Rachel Bailit struts onstage wearing a tight black corset, a skimpy skirt, garters, thigh-highs and an attitude.
"I know what you're thinking: Big boobs ... big lips. Bimbo. Starlet. Slut," she says. "But don't judge me; you don't really know me. I'm just a nice Jewish girl from Needham, Mass."
While laundering her costume at her rent-controlled Santa Monica apartment recently, the cheery actress says she intends her introduction to confront the bimbo stereotype and to declare, "I'm a lot more than that."
Bailit, for example, grew up in a WASPy New England town but attended Reform synagogue and camps. She achieved a lucrative journalism career before switching to acting in 1995; trained at the Lee Strasberg Institute; studied at the University of Judaism; taught at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and wears a Star of David, even to auditions. She had a good experience playing a naive screenwriter in Henry Jaglom's "Festival in Cannes."
"But my body confuses people," she says. "In Hollywood, I'm considered sexy from the neck down, but with a character face. So they [often] have me play trashy or over the top."
Bailit portrayed a Whoville resident in a tiny nurse outfit in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"; "Nose Job Girl" in a vinyl dress and dog collar in "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion," and a hooker wearing "really whory makeup" on "NYPD Blue." "In many films, I'm wearing a bikini for no reason," she says.
Then, while pitching a sitcom about herself as a non-clichéd Jewish woman, a producer suggested she try standup comedy and asked writer Sherry Coben ("Kate & Allie") to help.
"So I went to Rachel's Web site and immediately dismissed her as another starlet bimbo," Coben told The Journal. "But then I met her and I thought, 'She really is this nice Jewish girl.' I was intrigued by the image she projects vs. who she is and also because I was so quick to label her as something she wasn't."
After conducting interviews, Coben decided a one-woman show, rather than standup, would best dramatize the actress' roller-coaster life story. In the play, Bailit's musings range from finding JDate guys "a little too nice" to working product testing jobs in which "I exercise 45 minutes, then drink Gatorade ... and repeat. For six hours."
Coben also wanted to capture Bailit's unflagging optimism.
"I really believe that all these [negative] things are leading to something better; that sugar happens, not 's--- happens,'" says the actress, who declines to give her age.
Workshop performances of "Sugar" run through June 21 at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. For information, call (323) 650-7777.