Overweight actress writes book and revels in her role-model status
By Debra L. Wallace
ROYAL PALM BEACH, Fla., May 2 (JTA) -- What if you could take the one trait in yourself that drives you crazy and turn that into an asset? Wouldn't it be heavenly if you not only accepted -- but actually celebrated -- your one major shortcoming?
That's the heart and soul of television star Camryn Manheim's new book, ``Wake Up, I'm Fat," which is scheduled to be released by Broadway Books on May 11.
``I have taken and used it to my advantage," Manheim said. ``I accepted my recent [Golden Globe and Emmy] awards proudly and with such great celebration."
But her acceptance of her weight has been gradual. ``For most of my life, I pretty much hated myself because I was fat," she explained recently from her Los Angeles home. ``It's sad that you can be a whole and good human being and hate yourself for one characteristic."
Manheim, the 37-year-old star of the popular legal drama ``The Practice," often sees women walking down the street and they instantly acknowledge that this radiant plus-size actress has positively changed their lives.
``When they recognize me, I see their eyes tear up and their arms begin to stretch out to give me a hug," she explained. ``There are no words that need to be exchanged. I am all too familiar with the suffering and battles that we all fought and are trying to overcome." On the show, Manheim plays the pantsuited attorney Ellenor Frutt, the sharp-tongued defender with 12 earrings in one ear.
Soon after her Emmy win last fall, Manheim signed a book deal for ``Wake Up, I'm Fat," a story of growing up overweight in America, which she admits is no picnic.
``It is really my story of going from victim to victor," Manheim said. ``It's not the whiny lamentations of the fat girl who never got asked to dance. Mostly, it's a celebration of ass-kicking."
Her struggle began in a non-religious Jewish household. In Peoria, Ill., she was a thin child, but that changed when the family moved to Long Beach, Calif. ``Perhaps as an allergic reaction to all that proudly exposed skin, I panicked and became fat, thereby avoiding the mandatory requirement of wearing a bikini in public."
Thus begin her sometimes witty and often self-deprecating chapters she calls, ``Conversations With My Fat."
``When my fat arrived in 1972, I had no idea that I was entering into a long-term relationship. And that was the year that my lifelong dialogue with my fat began," Manheim wrote.
``Like all dysfunctional relationships, my partnership with my fat is quite complicated. It has caused me great sorrow but also saved me from heartbreak. It has made me timid and given me courage. My fat became my teacher. It taught me not to be average, not to conform, not to go quietly. It made me a fighter. I had to equip myself with a vast arsenal to defend against my fat."
She said her mother, Sylvia, whipped up fabulous, rich Jewish foods -- only later, did her mother learned how to cook healthier.
A lonely teen-ager, Manheim found her first acceptance in the cast of the local renaissance fair and after college she was determined to earn a master's of fine arts. Since most members of the Manheim family, including her mother and father, hold doctorates, they did not take kindly to her career choice.
``The notion of being a professional actor was regarded as a non-sequitur and was sure to offend their Jewish tradition of success," Manheim wrote. ``Although I am still the youngest one at the seder, it is my mother who asks each year, 'Why is my daughter different than all other daughters?' "
While she was selected along with 28 others -- out of 1,200 applicants -- to attend New York University, there were many hardships to endure, including embarrassing discussions in front of her classmates about her weight.
One blunt professor asked, ``Now, Camryn, I have a question for you. What are you doing about your body?" She recalls that a wave of nausea engulfed her. ``By the end of the first year, I was possessed. It's all I ever thought about. I'm too fat. I've got to lose some weight, I'll never get a professional acting job if I'm that fat."
Despite the heartache and humiliation, Manheim refused to quit. ``I never believed it had anything to do with my talent. A lot of my friends, when they don't get a part, they question their talent. I always blamed it on my weight. It was my big excuse that I had the goods and they couldn't see past the weight. But I felt like I didn't have any other choice but to continue on the path to my dream. I just knew I wouldn't be happy doing anything else."
Last September, when Manheim thrust her Emmy for supporting actress over her head and declared, ``This is for all the fat girls," she knew she could make a bold and important statement that millions of TV viewers would hear.
Her family was right there to cheer her on, although there were earlier times that her parents nagged her to lose weight. ``My parents are kvelling, they are so happy for me," she said. ``In fact they walked up and down their Beverly Hills Jewish neighborhood showing off the front page of USA Today the day after I won the Emmy."
She had always thought that after she ``made it," she would want revenge on the people who caused her pain. But that hasn't been the case.
``The more I've achieved the more grateful I feel, and the less I feel like shoving it in people's faces and making them pay for the pain they caused. As I was writing my book I learned that all those experiences made me who I am. So it's hard to imagine who I'd be without surviving those difficult times," she said.
Her empathy for others has made her an activist for the disabled and she is working for equal accessibility in the acting community for all people. For her upcoming Lifetime TV movie she suggested that one of her children be deaf and that she talk to him in sign language.
Manheim said she loves her job on ``The Practice" and is thrilled with her recent opportunities. ``I feel like I've won the lottery. I'm embarking on a national book tour, plan to do some modeling for Lane Bryant and filmed a murder drama for Lifetime TV." She also has a popular Web site: www.camryn.com
Manheim said that just 10 years ago, had she been on ``The Practice," she would have been torn apart by the critics.
``The fact that I'm being celebrated right now for being an alternative role model for young girls means finally I'm making some kind of contribution to society, which I've always wanted to do," Manheim said. ``If a young fat girl is watching ``The Practice'' -- or reading my book -- and she sees that you can be professional, articulate, sophisticated, sexy and smart, and if she says 'I'm going to be just like that,' then I say 'Hallelujah!' ''