Hollywood turns to more realistic body images -- Kirstie Alley, Kathy Najimy lead the way for full-figured stars

Is it hip to be hippy? Consider this big boom. On Veronica’s Closet, Kirstie Alley and Kathy Najimy play sexy, full-figured businesswomen. On The Practice, the show’s emotional core is often provided by zaftig counselor Ellenor Frutt, played by Camryn Manheim. The Drew Carey Show is about a guy who, as cocreator and exec producer Bruce Helford puts it, ”likes to eat.” (Not to mention his oversize rival, played by Kathy Kinney.) To host its stylish Fashion Emergency, E! tapped plus-size model Emme. Meanwhile, in development at UPN is Extra Sauce, about two chunky cooking-show hosts who refuse to see the lite. Viewers will see more than a soupcon of similarity to the Food Network’s Two Fat Ladies, where Brit hosts Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright get jiggly with it. Even Titanic queen Kate Winslet declared to a British tabloid that her ”generous proportions have returned.”

Why is everyone suddenly living larger? Eileen Opatut, a VP at the Food Network, believes it’s a ”new attitude” that has made Two Fat Ladies one of its top-rated shows. ”There’s a sense that it’s high time we all come to terms with who we really are,” says Opatut.

Even Madison Avenue types have concluded that Americans waif not, want not. In February, Kellogg revamped its ad strategy for Special K cereal after research concluded that ”women were tired of being asked to live up to unrealistic standards of body weight and size,” says Kenna Bridges, manager of product publicity. The previous campaign, which featured women admiring their ultra-svelte figures, was scrapped in favor of attitude-altering pitches featuring more realistic body types. ”We want people to realize that beauty is more than a dress size,” adds Bridges. The company also named Emme as spokesperson for this month’s national launch of its new cereal, Smart Start.

Of course, size has always mattered. What distinguishes this big bang is that most of today’s larger figures are no longer just misfits plagued by self-loathing. From Najimy’s upwardly mobile exec to Manheim’s sharp lawyer, these scaled-up characters are as full-blooded as they are full-bodied. Some of them even have — gasp! — sex lives. On Drew Carey, Nikki, Drew’s slim girlfriend (Kate Walsh), packed on the pounds. The twist? Drew ”loved her big or thin,” says Helford. ”Cool, huh?”

Linda Carilli, Weight Watchers International’s general manager of corporate affairs, notes that these changing images are ”probably related to the fact that women are more engaged in the corporate environment. They’re making decisions about what we’re watching.” The key now is to make the change in attitude an enduring one. ”Slow change is lasting change,” notes Emme. ”If we were just going to throw tons of full-figured women into all these things, it would be a trend, and I don’t think we want to be [merely] a trend.”

Then again, not everyone is ready to embrace fat chic. John Levey, a VP of casting at Warner Bros. TV who handles ER, agrees that Hollywood’s portrayal of different body sizes has been evolving. But he also says, for now, such casting will probably be limited to supporting players. ”Movies and TV are a fantasy world,” he says, so stars still need to be ”a little more delicious than the rest of [us].” Don’t tell that to South Park‘s Cartman.

(Additional reporting by Kristen Baldwin and Joe Dziemianowicz)