Ebullient, plus-sized, big-haired actress and singer Marissa Jaret Winokur (b. New York City, February 2, 1973), after a promising startup career in series television (The Steve Harvey Show 1998, Felicity 1999, Moesha 2000, Dharma & Greg 1999–2000, Curb Your Enthusiasm 2000) and film (American Beauty 1999, Scary Movie 2000), achieved superstardom when she won the Best Leading Actress Tony Award® in 2003 for her performance as Tracy Turnblad in the hit Broadway musical Hairspray (“Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now”). She went on to score an unexpected triumph, surviving nine weeks of Dancing With the Stars in 2008 that solidified her icon status among the young, made her a producer, and enabled her to move to Malibu.
Youngest of four siblings, Jewish, the daughter of a schoolteacher and an established architect, a niece of both S.J. Perelman and Nathanael West, Winokur grew up in Westchester, a cheerleader and captain of her high school soccer team at Fox Lane High School. She graduated from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in 1993, first appearing on television as a “Dork Dancer” in Step By Step that same year. She toured with the national company of Grease in 1994 and ’95, and came back to debut on Broadway in that show as Pink Lady Jan. From 1998, having established her infectiously bubbling persona, she was very busy indeed, appearing in nine movies and sixteen television episodes before landing her signature role in Hairspray.
In the initial stages of this musical adaptation of the John Waters movie, Winokur learned that she had cervical cancer. Except for her immediate family, she kept the knowledge to herself, afraid she might be replaced in the part of Tracy; in the end she made a full recovery, stayed in the show, and besides the Tony® won the Drama Desk, Theatre World, and Outer Critics Circle Awards for 2003. She left Hairspray in August ’03, but returned for the very last month of its long run in December 2008.
Winokur then starred in a made-for-TV movie, Beautiful Girl (2003), of which she was also co-executive producer, following up with Fever Pitch (2005), Ultra (2006), Fugly (2007), and Betrayals (2007). In 2005 she joined the regular cast of the television series Stacked, with Pamela Anderson, filming nineteen episodes, five of which were never aired. One of the writers for Stacked was Judah Miller, who became Winokur’s husband in October 2006. Winokur and Miller’s son Zev was born July 22, 2008, by a surrogate mother, the parents aiding in his delivery.
On March 17, 2008, Marissa Jaret Winokur stepped up as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, Season Six, partnered by professional dancer Tony Dovolani. She approached it as a sort of lark, expecting to get the boot the first night. Instead, she lasted for nine weeks to the semifinals, competing in the Cha-cha, the Quickstep, Jive, Paso Doble, Samba, Tango, Rumba, Foxtrot, and Mambo. Declared Winokur, “I think I proved you don’t have to be a size zero to move on the dance floor.”
Starting in June 2009, Winokur hosted the first season of Dance Your Ass Off, a new competition series on the Oxygen Network: overweight contestants attempt to shed poundage as they work up their weekly performances, from hip-hop to pole dancing. The season premiere brought in 4.3 million viewers, making DYAO the most watched show in the history of the Network. Its second season began in 2010, but without Winokur as host.
During the summer of 2012 Winokur starred in the second season of the TV Land sitcom Retired at 35, but in December the network announced that the series was not to be renewed.
In March of 2012 Winokur learned from her doctor that her cholesterol was life-threateningly high, and that it was imperative that she lose weight. In seven months she lost 60 pounds “in the old-fashioned way,” counting calories and working out with a trainer three times a week. She lives in L.A. with husband Judah Miller and four-year-old son Zev (born July 22, 2008, via a surrogate mother).
Winokur’s voice has been heard on several cartoon shows (American Dad 2005, King of the Hill 2007) and her rendition of “Baby Face” is featured in the film Son of the Mask (2005).
Photo courtesy of The Everett Collection