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Redefining Beauty

A tradition of social justice fuels Camryn Manheim's fight for acceptance.


by Naomi Pfefferman

June 21, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Four years ago, Camryn Manheim walked into David Kelley's office, feeling glum. She knew the executive producer didn't want her for his new ABC drama, "The Practice." After all, Hollywood typically ridiculed women who were 5-foot-10 and a size 22. Kelley practically yawned throughout her interview. "It was disastrous," she told The Journal.

But slinking out of his office that day in 1996, the Jewish actress spotted a cribbage board -- and felt a spark of chutzpah. "Why don't we f--- this audition and I'll play you right now for the part?" she said. "If I lose, you'll never see me again. But if I win, I walk out of here with the script."

Kelley suddenly lost his bored look. "You don't understand," he warned. "I play the computer."

"No, you don't understand," she retorted. "I play for money."

Kelley didn't play Manheim that day, but he was impressed enough to create a "Practice" role just for her: the gutsy, no-nonsense lawyer Ellenor Frutt. "When I got the phone call from my agent, saying that I had gotten the part, I sat down in the middle of my kitchen floor ... and wept," Manheim wrote in her 1999 memoir, "Wake Up, I'm Fat!" (Broadway.) Her sense of victory was sweet. It came after a bitter, 20-year battle for acceptance in a business that worships svelte actresses -- a battle that nearly cost Manheim her life.

When her NYU drama professors strongly suggested she lose weight or leave the program in the late 1980s, she began taking speed and accidentally overdosed. "For the longest time, I hated myself because I was fat," she says. "I let just one thing define me. Then I decided I wasn't going to conform to a standard that wasn't developed with me in mind."

Manheim's campaign against the beauty myth culminated with her accepting an Emmy for best supporting actor in 1998. Wearing a low-cut black Emanuel gown, Payless shoes and Target earrings (12 in one ear), the "Practice" star thrust the award high over her head and declared, "This is for all the fat girls!"

The self-professed "poster child for fat acceptance," says she used the f-word deliberately in her Emmy acceptance speech. "If you say a word enough, it robs it of its power," she explains. And the show offered the perfect opportunity to advance her cause. "It's abhorrent to me that women hate themselves so much for being overweight. I want to do everything in my power to fight that."

Fighting injustice appears to be genetic for her. Born Deborah Frances Manheim, she grew up in a culturally Jewish home in Long Beach. Her Polish-immigrant grandfather was an early organizer of the millinery workers union. Her mother, Sylvia, attended the Yiddishist-socialist IWO schools and worked as a switchboard operator for the Communist Party. Manheim's Uncle Bill organized the New York taxicab drivers and eventually became secretary-treasurer of local 840 of the Teamsters Union. Her father, Jerry, a math professor, picketed segregated restaurants in the 1950s, and was denounced as a communist by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. "He was blacklisted," Sylvia told The Journal. "He lost his job, and I went to work selling freezers door-to-door. It was a difficult time for our family."

Nevertheless, the Manheims continued to equate their Judaism with social action, toting young Camryn to rallies to protest racism and the Vietnam War. When Camryn was arrested at a pro-choice rally in the early '80s, she called her parents from jail. "Mazal tov!" Sylvia shouted into the phone.

Manheim quips: "For my family, protesting injustice is like 'mitzvah therapy.'"

During her childhood, Manheim, now 40, felt that her parents supported every kind of underdog save one: the fat person. When Manheim began gaining weight at age 11, her parents shlepped her to a series of psychiatrists and hypnotists. They even tried bribery. When Camryn was a preteen, she signed her first contract: "If you lose 15 pounds by March, we'll buy you a brand new bike."

"We thought Camryn would have more boyfriends if she were thinner," Sylvia says sheepishly.

Manheim's self-esteem plummeted. She tried to hide her body with baggy Levis, which she even wore into the shower. At the age of 13, she says she missed all her friends' "baruch atah adonais" because mom wouldn't let her wear pants to bar mitzvahs.

A few years later, she found respite working summers at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where big, busty wenches were de rigueur. More acceptance followed at UC Santa Cruz, where the actress wore Birkenstocks and protested against the Miss California pageant. During a post-graduation trip to Israel, an empowered Manheim decided to change her ho-hum name to something more stylish. "Some people get to the Wailing Wall and have a vision; I heard a voice," she writes in her book. "Camryn ... Camryn ... Camryn."

But when Manheim enrolled in NYU's esteemed graduate drama program in the 1980s, she ran smack into size discrimination. Professors hounded her to reduce. "They said 'You are never going to work if you are a big girl,'" the actress says. "The subtext was, 'We don't want that black mark against our school.'"

At NYU, Manheim was always cast as a middle-aged frump. "I was also Rebecca Nurse in 'The Crucible' -- she's at least 80," the actress recalls. "And Queen Margaret in 'Richard III' -- she's not just old, she's dead."

A desperate Manheim began taking speed daily to lose weight. When she dropped 80 pounds, her professors were jubilant. "But I was a wreck," she says.

After her near-fatal overdose on speed, she quit drugs and nicotine -- and promptly gained back all her weight. When she flew home to visit her parents, who now kvell over her, they couldn't hide their disappointment. After some unpleasant words with her father, Manheim packed her bags and didn't speak to him for almost a year, she writes in her book.

Back in New York, she immersed herself in liberal causes, took a job as a sign-language interpreter and worked on regaining her self-esteem. When leading roles didn't come her way, she wrote a hilarious, poignant one-woman show, "Wake Up, I'm Fat!" about being fat in a society obsessed with being thin. The monologue, filled with "fat survival" tips such as "stay horizontal on the beach," played to packed houses off-Broadway in 1995. When a casting director sent Kelley some videotaped scenes of the show, Manheim earned an audience with the TV drama king.

In 1996 she snagged the role of Frutt, who, like Manheim, is culturally Jewish and determined to fight for the underdog.

But her very first day on "The Practice," the actress discovered she was going to have to play an additional role: that of "Fat Police." When the director described her character's first shot of Frutt eating a doughnut, Manheim convinced him to lose the food, not wanting to reinforce stereotypes.

When the prop guy put a huge bowl of candy on Frutt's desk, Manheim again confronted the director. "Let me tell you a little secret. Fat girls don't keep candy on the desk. They keep it in the drawer," she said.

The bowl was moved.

When Manheim later learned that a love interest was in the works for Frutt, she lobbied Kelley to cast a hunk in the role. Not only did she get her wish (actor J.C. McKenzie), she also convinced Kelley to write her some juicy love scenes.

Off the set, Manheim continues to lobby against the beauty myth and to show that "big women can be sexy." The cover of "Wake Up, I'm Fat!" depicts the actress wearing a swimsuit and a beauty pageant-style banner reading, "Miss Understood." "I wanted it to be in-your-face," she says. "I also felt I needed to do something that was scary for me -- which was to be half-naked in public -- to show I was facing my fears."

In April, Manheim starred in and executive-produced the ABC movie, "Kiss My Act," one of the rare television programs in which the fat girl gets the cute guy. She says she's motivated by the self-hating letters she receives from overweight women. "They're heartbreaking," she says.

Since winning her Emmy, Manheim has been featured on the cover of magazines such as People, TV Guide, Mode (the publication for full-figured women) and this month's More.

When asked if her success has changed things for big women in Hollywood, Manheim sighs loudly. She points out that Julia Roberts is rumored to have been signed to play the overweight heroine in a movie version of the book, "She's Come Undone," Wally Lamb's novel about a girl's journey from fat teenager to trim adult. "I am going to lead the crusade against that," Manheim says, grimly. "I am desperate to see a big girl in that role, myself or someone else."

Meanwhile, the actress is continuing to enjoy her latest role: that of single mother. In March, the unmarried actress gave birth to a boy, Milo (named for the hero in her favorite children's book, "The Phantom Tollbooth"). And while she won't reveal the identity of his father, she will say she plans to raise Milo culturally Jewish, emphasizing social action.

Though Manheim doesn't belong to a synagogue, she supports Hadasssah and the annual Justice Ball, which benefits Bet Tzedek Legal Services. She believes Frutt would approve of the nonsectarian legal program. "Jewish charities offer opportunities for everyone, which is what I love about the Jews," the actress says. "You do not have to be a certified Jew to reap the benefits."

"The Practice" airs Sundays, 10 p.m. on ABC.


Favorite exclamation: Man-oh-Manischewitz!

On her old amphetamine habit:

"The scary thing about speed is that it works."

"Sure, it may kill you, but you'll look great in that coffin."

Worst confrontation with an NYU drama professor:

"You, Camryn Manheim, have a very bad attitude."

Camryn: "I have a fat attitude?"

How to stand up on the beach without looking fat:

"You have to maintain the camouflage of the towel while trying to slide the shorts on up over the buttocks region, and then you have to say something in a dramatic fashion to cause a diversion, like 'Hey, look, it's Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr making out in the surf!'"

Why she wrote her show, "Wake Up, I'm Fat!":

"I wanted to create the only role for which I would not be rejected."

On parents:

"[They] know how to push your buttons, because, hey, they sewed them on."

First question on Camryn's "boyfriend application":

Do you have an on-again, off-again girlfriend?

(If so, do not complete this form).

Excerpted from Manheim's 1999 memoir, "Wake Up, I'm Fat!"

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