May 07, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Wake Up, I'm Fat!

Current Status
In Season
Camryn Manheim
Television, Memoir
We gave it an A-

Exultantly collecting her Emmy as Best Supporting Actress in a Drama last year for her work as Ellenor Frutt on The Practice, a radiant Camryn Manheim raised her gold statuette like a torch and concluded her acceptance speech with a whoop: ”This is for all the fat girls!” It was a moment of liberation, of humor, of triumph — thrilling theater even for viewers unfamiliar with the energy force field that surrounds the motorcycle-riding 38-year-old actress with the 12 holes pierced in her ear.

Wake Up, I’m Fat! is the liberated, humorous, triumphant back story of how she got there. It’s about little Debi Manheim (no nice Jewish family named their girl Camryn in the 1960s — she did that herself), who moved as a kid from Peoria to Southern California and somewhere along the way went from thin to fat, in the worst place on the planet to be so. It’s about how her nice Jewish family tried to help, but often only made life worse for their headstrong daughter as she struggled to make a truce with her body.

Wake Up is also about discovering the vitality of acting and sex and loving her flesh, most of the time, except when she felt lousy. About her extremely conflicted experience at NYU drama school. About the roles she didn’t get because of casting directors with limited imaginations. And about how, apparently, she wasn’t too fat after all, not even for movies or network television. (Rent The Road to Wellville and fast-forward through the more ludicrous bits to Manheim’s breakthrough role as an early-20th-century sexually liberated woman — a big step up from the movie parts she was usually offered as ”a nurse or a prison warden or the best friend next door.”)

The writing is as fresh and as friendly as the Emmy winner’s speech — a grab bag of conversations, soliloquies, asides, set pieces, verbal snapshots, and lists. You’ll want the author to come over to your house to gab. You’ll come to believe that if you invite her, she will, especially if you promise to introduce her to potential boyfriend material; she’s been burned before, as only a woman who bravely risks the final frontier of personal ads and singles events can be.

The attention-getting title and many of the stories in the book come from a one-woman show Manheim staged in 1993, when she was active in New York City’s thriving Off Off Broadway and experimental theater community. (To pay the rent, she also worked regularly as a sign language interpreter.) But it’s also a distillation of the author’s extremely funny, creative, and open approach to communication: Her form of activism for self-acceptance is in — as they say on network TV — sharing freely.

And, oh, sister, does she share. Manheim wildly cheers those she loves (her theater pals, Kathy Bates) and efficiently disposes of those who have bugged her (ignorant NYU teachers, insensitive guys, a critic who called her ”a frump”). She readily reflects on early sexual experiences: ”I wanted to be a lesbian. I tried to be a lesbian, and God knows I would have been a great f—ing lesbian. I mean, after all, I lived in Santa Cruz, I had a motorcycle…I love women, they love me, fat and all, and my sister always said I would be one. I even gave it the good old college try…. But no, I had to settle for heterosexuality….” She bemoans the fat person’s hell of going to the beach. (”We all know a tan makes you look thinner.”) She says ”f—” the way other people say ”very” — and it’s very effective.

Describing her day-of-the-Emmys routine, Manheim distills TV stardom to its essentials, e.g., how to discipline kvelling parents and how to behave in the limo. Behavior lessons from rambunctious Camryn Manheim? Anyone could benefit from her lessons in living large. A-

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