From Radiance Winter 2001.
s the camera pans across the front rows of the audience at the daytime Emmys, it pauses for a few seconds on the smiling face of Patrika Darbo, a radiant redhead in a sequined turquoise gown who plays Nancy Wesley on Days of Our Lives. The screen flashes to one of her recent scenes, a confrontation between her and her lost-then-found birth daughter. “You have to tell your husband,” says the teenager with tangled brown hair. “Don’t worry about anything,” Nancy says, a tense look gathering between her brows. “I’ll take care of Craig.”
The camera moves on to other actors nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category, but the announcers must wait for the cheers of Darbo’s fans to die down. As it turns out, Darbo’s name is not in the envelope. But if it had been, those rowdy admirers might have made Darbo pause for a long moment before beginning her thank-you speech.
As Darbo tells it, her arrival in May 1998 in the town of Salem (the fictional setting of Days of Our Lives) was a surprise for everyone concerned. From the beginning, the producers were looking for a “real-size” actress to step into the role. They knew of Darbo’s work in TV and the movies, and gave her the gig without an audition—a fairly rare occurrence in show business. Costar Kevin Spirtas reportedly was taken aback, but since has come to appreciate Darbo’s sexiness as a big-and-beautiful woman. And critics quickly warmed up to her, applauding both the casting decision and Darbo’s subsequent portrayal of the scheming socialite Nancy. Darbo won Outstanding Female Newcomer in 1999 at the Soap Opera Digest Awards, and last year TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly agreed that she is one of TV’s “16 Sexiest Stars.”
All that press is good for Darbo in her role as Nancy Wesley, who is determined to push her handsome husband Craig (Kevin Spirtas) up through the surgical ranks at the local hospital. Initially, the conniving couple only lurked on the periphery of the soap opera. But media coverage and fan attention converged to push the Wesleys into the spotlight as supporting characters with their own strong story line.
It’s the acclaim of her audience, in all its diversity, that Darbo loves best. “They are probably the most hard-core fans you will find anywhere. We come into their homes every single day. . . . I have had people write me fan letters, but I have never experienced anything like this,” she said in a recent interview from her home in Southern California. “I get letters from kids who are eleven and grandmothers in their eighties. I hear from husbands who watch with their wives at night, and kids who say they’ve been watching the show since their mothers were pregnant with them.” She receives up to fifty fan letters a day, many about how wonderful it is to see a large lady in Salem. “My viewers are very emotionally involved in the fact that I am not your typical soap opera woman,” Darbo said earnestly. “‘I don’t have to be invisible anymore,’ my fans say. ‘You have given me a voice. Thank you for being a role model.’”
Like many celebrities who become role models, Darbo is not entirely comfortable with the expectations implicit in the phrase. “I don’t want to carry a banner,” she explained. “I get a little scared. It’s a responsibility I’m a little afraid of.”
The funny thing is, her character isn’t exactly a model citizen. “Kevin and I have always contended that as our characters, we aren’t evil or bad, we’re just manipulative. We don’t cause people to do the things they do: we just make sure that they get found out.”
Normally on soaps a manipulative character is a slender, sly-eyed nymphomaniac or a cruel, unnaturally tight-skinned mother-in-law whose plastic surgery presumably hides the evil within. But at five-feet-three-inches and two hundred pounds, the robustly energetic Darbo is not your typical “Babe in Soap Land.” She’s more of a mini–Mae West: same figure, same attitude. She also resembles the luscious singer and actress Lillian Russell (who was about Darbo’s size), who made mincemeat out of some of society’s leading men more than one hundred years ago.
hen the rare full-figured female does appear on the daytime screen, she is usually a maid, a waitress—or pregnant. When an actress on the soap Another World (now canceled) didn’t lose a few postpregnancy pounds, the writers wrote it into that show’s story line: the character pursued weight loss and eventually became addicted to diet pills.
In the conventional soap opera context, Darbo has to be a role model. Her presence is in keeping with the grand tradition of presenting challenging societal issues in the course of putting on a good, gripping show. Drugs, anorexia, family dysfunction, interracial marriage: you name the issue, and it’s probably been done. “Our primary job is to entertain,” she says. “We’re not there to change something, but at the same time, while we’re entertaining, if we can put a thought out that will open your mind a little bit, that’s great.”
With Nancy/Darbo, it’s not what is said that will change people’s minds: it’s what is not said. By not making an issue of her size, the show offers a liberating view of size acceptance. Nancy’s story line has been completely free of weight issues. Nobody’s discussed her weight either on camera or offstage, as far as Darbo knows, and it certainly doesn’t affect her and her stage husband’s mutual attachment. Though their characters manipulate the other characters in Days of Our Lives, they are genuinely, honestly in love with each other. “Kevin’s character adores his wife, and she loves him,” Darbo says warmly. Later, in discussing her own love life, Darbo revels in a similarly intense devotion to Rolf Darbo, her real-life hubby and business manager. “I’m very much like Nancy, in that I would do anything for my husband, short of murder, probably.” Rolf has certainly earned that devotion: he’s been with Darbo since her days at a credit agency some twenty years ago, and he was right behind her when she gave that 9-to-5 job the big boot.
In her short time as a full-time actress, Darbo has turned in an extremely varied résumé of guest appearances and minor roles in everything from sitcoms to Speed 2. She’s been on Seinfeld, Sisters, Grace Under Fire, and Roseanne (as the store clerk in Dan’s sex fantasy). Darbo even played Roseanne in NBC’s unauthorized bio-movie about the sitcom star. On the big screen, Darbo has picked up juicy bit parts in Leaving Normal; In the Line of Fire; Corrina, Corrina; and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Her bio also notes that she may be heard in Babe as the third sheep on the left.
“I was a successful working actress before, but over the past two years, I have been a continuous working actress,” she says, with only a hint of triumphant emphasis on the word “continuous.” “I haven’t had two or three months off.” As long as her character remains central, Darbo probably won’t be able to take a break, even if she wants to. The production schedule for a daily soap can be grueling. There are seventy to ninety pages of new script that must be memorized and filmed every day. Because there are no reruns, cast and crew work fifty weeks a year.
From an early age, Darbo seemed destined for the role of Nancy. She had her share of childhood dramas, with a parental divorce that separated children from their parents. Darbo and her younger sister went off to live at Grandma’s house. Young Darbo found comfort in her Southern grandmother’s cooking: fried chicken, pork chops, and milk gravy. Around this time, she began gaining weight, which she attributes partly to the food and partly to genetic predisposition. “My father was nicknamed Chubby all his life, so believe me, genes do enter into this program.” Fortunately, around the same time (third grade), Darbo discovered her flair for humor and acting. She made it through adolescence intact, went to acting school in Atlanta, did some regional theater, and then headed west.
She tried to fit into the Hollywood mold, running through all the diets on the market. But for a character actress, extra padding turned out to be another good way to get gigs. “One time I fasted and lost a lot of weight. I got down to about 140 pounds,” she recalls. Then she went to try out for a pilot and the producer said, “Oh my God, I think you’re going to be too thin for this.”
“This was supposed to be ‘plump ladies out prowling,’ and they wanted me to be heavier. I still got the part, primarily because of my cheeks—I have chubby cheeks, even if I don’t have the double chin. I’ve heard, ‘We want her thinner,’ and I’ve also heard ‘We want her bigger,’ but that goes with the territory. Nobody’s ever happy in Hollywood.”
Darbo’s forthcoming book, tentatively titled Gaining Confidences, seems to suggest that one person in Hollywood is happy with herself. But Darbo is not comfortable with the assumption that she is fully self-actualized. “I don’t know if I am quite at that point,” she says. “We all have our demons, and we’re all dragging our steamer trunks of personal baggage. I’ve just finally started shopping for a little lighter luggage." ©
MARINA WOLF is a food and feature writer based in Northern California. She normally doesn’t write entertainment features, but her girlfriend is really into soaps and turned her on to Patrika’s powerful character. If there is a fat or fat-friendly famous person whom you’d like to see featured in Radiance, drop Marina a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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