SEXY, SASSY AND SURE OF HERSELF; PATRIKA DARBO TURNING HEADS IN SOAP WORLD.
Patrika Darbo has all the assets of a soap opera diva: a thick mane of red hair, ivory skin, dancing hazel eyes, a coy smile, a hunky on-screen cuddle partner.
In fact, the Burbank actress, who plays conniving Nancy Wesley on NBC's ``Days of Our Lives,'' is one of the 16 sexiest people on television today, according to TV Guide and ``Entertainment Tonight.''
Oh, and one other thing: She's plus-size - and proud of it - in a field where most actresses are painfully thin.
Not Darbo, who tips the scales at 200 pounds on a 5-foot-2-inch frame and fits nicely into the size-20 candy striper's uniform she most often wears on the show.
Unlike most actresses, she simply doesn't worry about her weight anymore.
``You name the diet, and I've been there, done that,'' said Darbo with a grin. ``If I wanted to diet now, I would get nothing but support. But when I diet, I feel deprived - and what's in D-I-E-T? D-I-E.''
Instead, she simply eats healthfully - with occasional indulgences in Haagen-Dazs ice cream, of course.
``I'm just as talented at a size 20 as I would be at a size 10. I may be fat, but I'm not stupid.''
That's what the powers that be at ``Days'' thought when they hired Darbo in May 1998 to play the wife of scheming Dr. Craig Wesley (Kevin Spirtas).
Producer Tom Langham wanted ``a real woman, not one of these super-skinny actresses,'' said casting director Fran Bascom. She immediately thought of Darbo, who has a long list of TV and movie credits (would-be presidential assassin John Malkovich snapped her neck in ``In the Line of Fire,'' she was a passenger on the ill-fated cruise liner in ``Speed 2: Cruise Control,'' and she played Suzanne Somers' sister in the first season of the ABC sitcom ``Step by Step'').
Langham approved Darbo's hiring without even an audition.
``He liked the fact that this handsome man loves this woman who's not super-thin - really, really loves her,'' Bascom said. ``And the fans love it, too.''
Although Spirtas was surprised by the voluptuousness of his new ``wife,'' he soon grew accustomed to snuggling up on screen to somebody who wasn't a size 2.
``I have not hung around with many large-size women,'' he confesses. ``But I see that beauty is not just on the surface. Patrika is a gem inside. Back 100 years ago, she would have been the `It' girl. She would have been hot stuff.''
Most days, she feels like hot stuff.
But for Darbo - who lives in a modest home near the NBC studio with husband Rolf, a former Disney producer who's her personal manager - that feeling that who and what she is is all right has been years in coming.
``I won't lie to you. I'll be the first one to admit that if the Weight Fairy showed up and said, `Who wants to be thin?' I'd say, `Me first, me first!' ''
Along with many obesity experts, Darbo believes that childhood hurts, along with a tendency to be a ``people pleaser,'' push overweight people to eat inappropriately. After Darbo's parents divorced, she lived for a while with her grandmother in Florida, where she dealt with her unexpressed anger by stuffing down grandma's specialties: pork chops fried in bacon fat, milk gravy and fruit pies.
She remembers the kids teasing the little fat kid, and she recalls decorating the high school gym for the prom but staying home from the dance ``because nobody wanted to go with the fat girl.''
When she came to California to make her mark on show business, she discovered that Hollywood is a tough place to be when you're not a size 2. But only one casting director has ever suggested to the character actress that she lose weight.
``Then he said, `But you may never work again.' I don't want to think about the roles I might have had as a leading lady if I had been thin. I'm not a woulda, coulda, shoulda kinda person,'' she said. ``If tomorrow I was thin, would I work more? Or would I be putting myself into the same category with a lot of other skinny actresses who aren't working?''
She's never had to find out. Since quitting her 20-year job as a credit manager and becoming a full-time actress in 1984, she's appeared in several dozen movies and nearly as many plays and commercials. With success has come self-acceptance and confidence.
``Power is sexy,'' she says. ``So is confidence in yourself.''
While some people have suggested that Darbo has broken the size barrier in soap operas, she doesn't want to be anybody's role model.
Do what's best for yourself, she counsels, whether that's to be thin or not so thin. You and your doctor are the best judge of that.
Whatever you do, have fun doing it, she urges.
``If you want that bag of McDonald's fries, have it and get on with your life,'' she says. ``Do what makes you happy.''
What makes Darbo happy is getting paid for doing bedroom scenes with a handsome hunk, taking twice-weekly swing dance lessons with her husband, pitching on the ``Days'' baseball team and learning to balance on her new in-line skates.
More than a year into her two-year soap opera contract, she still marvels that she's not playing a wise-cracking barmaid or a big-haired truck-stop waitress, roles traditionally reserved for overweight actresses.
And she's still surprised at the fan letters - 50 or more a day - she gets from viewers who say they like seeing ``a real person'' on screen. One letter writer especially touched her, an overweight 10-year-old girl who wrote that the kids at school make fun of her, and she turns her anger inward by burning herself with her mother's curling iron.
``I felt so sad when I read that,'' Darbo said, dabbing at her eyes. ``I told her to stop that, to talk to her mother, to a counselor, to a teacher, to a minister, to somebody. I told her that when she's ready, she'll lose the weight, but that the people who make fun of her will always be mean and ugly.''
Photo: (1--Cover--Color) A BIG SUCCESS
Actress Patrika Darbo proves good things don't always come in small packages
(2--3) ``I'm just as talented at a size 20 as I would be at a size 10. I may be fat, but I'm not stupid,'' says Patrika Darbo, who went from being a credit manager in 1984 to movie and commercial work and, since 1998, the role of Nancy Wesley on ``Days of Our Lives.'' On ``Days,'' Darbo's character is helping hubby Dr. Craig Wesley (Kevin Spirtas) claw his way to the top.
David R. Crane/Staff Photographer
(4) Along with Darbo, actress Camryn Manheim - shown above in Lane Bryant's current ad campaign - preaches accepting and celebrating yourself and others no matter what your weight.
Charlotte Schmid-Maybach/Staff Photographer