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Marissa Jaret Winokur

The voluptuous performer dishes on being big in Hollywood, hosting a reality-TV competition and why motherhood has changed her moves.

Marissa Jaret Winokur host of Dance Your Ass OffMarissa Jaret Winokur, host of Dance Your Ass Off

Photo by Robert Trachtenberg

You can imagine the pitch meeting from the title Dance Your Ass Off—"It's Biggest Loser meets So You Think You Can Dance!"—but Oxygen's decidedly cheesy reality competition, which premieres Monday, June 29, at 10pm, is surprisingly addictive. Sure, it trots out all the usual clichs of the genre (weepy backstories, last-chance dreams, tons of product placement), yet there's something truly moving and, for us full-figured folk, inspiring about watching hefty hoofers cut it up on the dance floor with the dual goals of losing weight and winning money. Host Marissa Jaret Winokur can certainly relate to the participants' journeys: The zaftig star won a Tony for her turn as Tracy Turnblad, a cherubic teen who loves to dance, in the Broadway musical Hairspray, then went on to national fame as a semifinalist on season six of Dancing with the Stars. Since then, Winokur's been super busy...as a parent. Her son, Zev, was born via surrogate in July 2008, and she took time off from performing for her new role as mom. Time Out Kids talked with her about balancing her professional and personal commitments, being big in a thin-obsessed business (just this week she launched a weight-loss blog with the goal of appearing in the pages of People magazine in a bikini), and when we can expect to see her back on the Great White Way.

Why did you sign on to emcee Dance Your Ass Off?
I’m a musical theater Broadway actress, not an entertainment host. There are people like Tom Bergeron who are so good at that. But the minute [the producers] told me the show was going to be a dancing competition where they all get on a scale at the end, I said, “I'm absolutely in. This sounds perfect for me!” I wouldn’t even have said that about [the role of] Tracy Turnblad.

Will you be performing on Dance You’re Ass Off?
At one point [the producers] said, "You should dance with the contestants.” If they had asked the first episode I would have said, “Bring it on!" But by the time they asked I realized the show wasn't about me; it's about the contestants. If I came out and danced it would be very weird. I was so invested in their stories that I didn't want to say, "Now look at me!"

Do you feel pressure to lose weight in Hollywood?
It’s so funny: I’m actually friends with every large actress in Hollywood! Every big character actress and gay man was at my wedding [to television writer Judah Miller]. I don’t so much feel the pressure because it’s never played into my career. I think I actually gained weight after coming to Hollywood. When I was on [the sitcom] Stacked I was at my heaviest. That said, after Stacked I lost 45 pounds on my own because it was just time. I was like, “Wait, this is getting out of hand. I want to have a family; I want to be healthy." But it wasn’t about my career.

Where are you in terms of weight now?
During Dancing with the Stars I lost another 15 pounds. Then along came my son. I didn’t even carry Zev! I had a surrogate, but I gained 25 pounds just through life and stress. When you become a mom, your hours are so crazy. Whenever he’s awake, I’m awake. I eat because I’m just trying to stay awake. And while filming Dance Your Ass Off, I didn't have time to work out. So during the last episode, I was like, “Oh my gosh, what am I doing? I need to take care of myself.” Since then I’ve lost 15 pounds and went back to dance class.

How are you managing to balance motherhood and your career?
Zev was only four months old when I went back and closed Hairspray. That was so hard to do with Zev so young. It’s very hard to be a mom and work. When I’m at work I want to be home, and when I’m at home I want to be working. I don’t know how my mother did it. She had four kids! Luckily, the schedule for Dance Your Ass Off was perfect for a mom. I worked two days a week. I was so grateful. It wasn’t a crazy drama set. I even brought Zev with me sometimes, and he was completely entertained. There was loud music, dancing, great costumes, audiences applauding—the perfect setting for a baby!

You grew up on the East Coast and spent many years in NYC working on Broadway. It is strange for you to be raising your son in L.A.?
New Yorkers hate hearing this, but the transition was easy. Sorry! We have a home with a big backyard...but my husband and I talk all the time about going back to New York. A lot of my family is on the East Coast, and when I think of home I still think of my house in Bedford, New York, where I grew up.

What do you do with your family when you're in NYC?
Sad to say, we hit every tourist sight possible. We came at Christmastime last year and did all that stuff: The Rockefeller tree lighting, the windows. But Zev was only four months old and it was freezing. I’m excited to come back in September so we can go to Central Park.

Do you see yourself returning to Broadway anytime soon?
Oh my God, I hope so! I miss it so much. There's this series at [gay bar] Splash in NYC called Musical Mondays. They play all these Broadway clips and have Broadway performers. The other week they did it in L.A. and I performed. I had forgotten how much I loved doing that! When I was in New York doing Hairspray again, there was no question that that is what I’m meant to do.

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick just welcomed twins via a surrogate. Do you relate to their journey?
Totally. I think some people believe, Oh well, Sarah didn't want to carry a baby and get fat, or that she chose the easy way out. I don’t think people realize that when you have someone else carry your child, it's a last resort. I would have loved to carry my son. I would have loved to get fat. I wish I could have been pregnant...but it wasn’t an option. I’m sure it was the same for Sarah.

Were you unable to get pregnant because of your bout with cervical cancer?
It changed me in such a dramatic way. It was right before Hairspray. Before Hairspray and before I had cancer, I was like, “I want to be a star!” I had no real perspective on anything. Then, after I had cancer, I didn’t care about any of that; I just wanted to perform and sing, and Hairspray represented all of that. My husband and I knew each other before I had cancer, and I was undateable. I was just a crazy person. If it weren't for being sick when I was 28, I wouldn't have my husband or Zev, so I wouldn’t change anything that’s happened in my life.

You sound very Zen.
Obviously, when it happens you're like, “Why me? Why is this happening?” But for me, Zev is the reason why.

Do you plan on having more children?
If you had asked me three months ago I would have said, "One's good. We're golden!" But lately I've been thinking he needs a sibling. That’s definitely a long, long, long conversation with my husband. We can't get pregnant by accident! It would have to be a very planned pregnancy.

Would you go the surrogate route again?
There are so many options. I’m definitely not opposed to trying a surrogate again, but I’d also consider adoption. Babies are babies. My sister is actually going through adoption right now. I think if you want to be a mom, there's always a way.

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