Living Life Large

Camryn Manheim (B.A. theater arts, Porter '84) won Emmy and Golden Globe awards for her role as attorney Ellenor Frutt in The Practice

Television actress Camryn Manheim surprised even herself at the 1998 Emmy Awards ceremony. She'd planned to give a traditional thank-everyone-you've-ever-met acceptance speech upon being named outstanding supporting actress in a drama series. Instead, she held the Emmy aloft and shouted, "This is for all the fat girls!"

The statement--more than the award itself--triggered a tidal wave of publicity. Its force carried her to nearly every major television talk show and brought her story to the pages of a number of national newspapers and magazines, including People, Parade, and even the New York Times.

Through it all, she untiringly described how she learned to accept herself and her weight in a thin-obsessed culture. She also detailed her 30-year struggle to build an acting career in spite of hearing at nearly every turn that she wouldn't "make it" as a performer because of the extra pounds.

Manheim, who has received both the Emmy and a Golden Globe award for her role as attorney Ellenor Frutt on ABC's quirky courtroom drama The Practice, says she feels like she's won the lottery--only better.

"It's a miracle that (A) you get a show, (B) the pilot gets picked up, (C) in a crappy time slot you survive, (D) you get moved to a beautiful time slot, and (E) you win an Emmy," Manheim says. "If I had to choose between winning $200 million or being on The Practice, I would take The Practice, hands down, any day."

Lottery or not, Manheim doesn't attribute her success to luck. Becoming an actress is something she had dreamed about and worked diligently toward since childhood.

As a child, Manheim practiced for her future fame by accepting awards in front of the bathroom mirror and conducting bathtub interviews with the likes of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore.

That youthful enthusiasm carried her from Long Beach, California--where she spent her teenage years--to Santa Cruz. She learned about the town from UCSC alumni Ivan and Dmitri Karamazov (a.k.a. Howard Patterson and Paul Magid), a popular juggling and theatrical team known as The Flying Karamazov Brothers.

In Santa Cruz, Manheim found her mecca. She earned an associate's degree at nearby Cabrillo College before enrolling at UC Santa Cruz. During her four years in the seaside town, she ran a theater company, bought a house, and taught acting. "The sky was the limit in Santa Cruz," she remembers. "Anything was possible."

It wasn't until graduate school at New York University (NYU) that Manheim's cherished dream of acting professionally suddenly seemed not so possible.

At NYU, Manheim was continually "encouraged" to lose weight. Comments like "We'd like to see a lot less of you in the fall" were common, Manheim says. In response, she took crystal methedrine and lost 80 pounds, but after nearly overdosing, she stopped the drugs and gained back the weight.

After earning her master's in 1987, Manheim struggled to find an agent and supported herself as an interpreter for the deaf.

But she never gave up on acting, securing small roles in the feature film Bonfire of the Vanities and in an off-Broadway play, Hydriotaphia, written by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and fellow NYU alumnus Tony Kushner.

Those successes--and years of therapy that taught her self-acceptance--were enough to keep her dream alive.

"It was all I had my sights on," Manheim says. "I knew if I didn't give it the good old college try, I would regret it the rest of my life."

Ironically, Manheim's break finally came when she wrote a one-woman, autobiographical show, titled Wake Up, I'm Fat! as a showcase for her talents. She began performing it off-Broadway in 1993. An open, unabashed look at "what it was like to grow up fat in America," the show brought Manheim national recognition and led to parts in several feature films including The Road to Wellville, Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, and Happiness. The play also spawned a best-selling book of the same title.

What comes next? Manheim has already committed to playing the part of Snow White in an NBC miniseries due to air during February sweeps, and she certainly has no shortage of ideas.

"I'm starting a production company; I'll be making my own movies; I hope someday to run for office; I'd like to have a family. Maybe I'll start a foundation of some kind or lecture."

On the other hand, Manheim doesn't want to get too far ahead of herself. "I don't want to look back years from now and say, 'What happened to me during those years?' I really just want to be sure that I'm absolutely present for all of this magic right now in my life."

–Francine Tyler

photo: james sorensen

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