Ricki Lake: Hip-hop Oprah. Half hostess. Half referee. Half the size she was three years ago. An all-girl production with the most happening talk show on TV. Farewell, Phil. So long, Sally and Montel and Maury. She'll see you on the way down. Way down. This 5'4'' titan was 1994's most ambitiously ascending star. Boasting the most boisterous audience of its kind, and bolstered by a vast, previously untapped twentysomething viewership, Lake's eponymous syndicated talk show rocketed to No. 2 the fastest-growing talk show in U.S. television history landing solidly at the foot of Oprah's ratings throne. Even the titan of talk, David Letterman, has noticed. ''You know the deal with the Pope's book,'' he said a while back. ''It came on the list at about five, and then the Pope did the Ricki Lake show, and it jumped to one.''
Ricki's own rapid rise left the competition scrambling to simulate her formula. Whiners are out. Winners are in. Apologies not accepted not even if ''I Can't Live Down My Bad Reputation'' or ''My Girlfriend Hates My Baby's Mother'' or ''My Mom Says I Dress Too Sexy for My Own Good.'' But the real key to her ratings: At 26, Ricki is her young, mostly female viewership giggly and bawdy, sophisticated and awkward, perky in public, prickly in private. She'll French-kiss her husband, illustrator Rob Sussman, in front of a reporter. She prefers not to talk about how she shed 125 pounds, having admitted that ''I did not lose my weight in the healthiest of ways.'' On the air she can be starstruck, hunkstruck, occasionally dumbstruck, but almost always composed, even when her audience's enthusiasm threatens to drown her guests' discourse.
''It's much harder than filming a movie, that's for sure,'' says Lake, who in fact plans to star in the romantic comedy Mrs. Winterbourne, which begins shooting in May. Lake's need to act may be the only thing that outweighs her need to talk. At 13, she was commuting from her parents' house in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., to Manhattan to audition for Broadway shows. Seven years later, she swiped the movie Hairspray from such hard-to-miss costars as Divine and Sonny Bono, before going on to appear for one season on ABC's China Beach. She says she plans to continue appearing in movies during her Ricki Lake hiatuses, and to try her hand at producing (starting with a TV movie) and writing (a children's book about a little fat girl who learns to love herself you draw the parallels).
''From the time I was 2 years old, I wanted to sing and dance and be in front of an audience,'' Lake says. And so she does, even when the cameras aren't rolling. Her bravura performance during the November ratings sweeps extended to spending a night in jail for storming designer Karl Lagerfeld's Fifth Avenue offices with 13 other antifur protesters. Cynics cried publicity stunt, but her headlines cried much more loudly. ''I Was Raided By Ricki!'' We've seen that show before, and with a reported six more years on Lake's talk-show contract, Queen Oprah would do well to alert the palace guards.