In show biz, any plus-sized star that makes it has done so against the odds, often while shattering stereotypes and changing minds.
The following big names are either pudgy or have been, and in either case, they’re pound-by-pound the most lovable plus-sized icons in history. I’m going to place three icons — Alfred Hitchcock, James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman — in a separate chub bubble above the list, in honor of the millions they inspired. But I’m not including Oprah Winfrey at all, only because I’ve always thought of her as a slender person with fluctuations. OK, here goes:
Jackie Gleason (1916-1987) A roly-poly comic with a sour expression covering an undying optimism, Jackie made “The Honeymooners” into an eternally popular triumph of everyday angst and joy. As a schlubby bus driver with a wife and a million dreams, he put the extraordinary back into the ordinary. Runner-up: The great Zero Mostel.
Adele (1988-) A zaftig girl with a pretty face and a nice personality, Adele became the voice of a generation with her songs of lament and woe. Slimmed down, with less rage to unburden herself with, she will hopefully be just as potent a musical force. Runners-up: Helen Terry, Alison Moyet.
Roseanne (1952-) The domestic goddess revolutionized TV with her gritty and funny sitcom about the minutiae of life in the middle lane. Since then, she’s glammed up and done talk shows and reality shows, while keeping her wonderful mouth on overdrive.
Divine (1945-1988) Once this drag star of John Waters-directed underground films was in full makeup (which included a raised hairline and high, painted eyebrows), no one was more punkily glamorous. Looking at Divvy in all her splendor, you never even thought she was fat. She had simply transformed herself into a less self-conscious Liz Taylor, someone willing to do all manner of outrageous things for a laugh, while being gorgeous in the process.
Marlon Brando (1924-2004) The brooding super hunk who brought method acting to the movies, Brando let himself go with age, thereby becoming a bit of a caricature of himself, though he always possessed a magnetic allure that gave him charm, even when in caftans with golden pendants. Toward the end, it was hard to believe this was the same guy who played Stanley Kowalski — except for the quirky talent.
John Belushi (1949-1982) A manically funny comic who learned his craft with Chicago’s Second City and then exploded on “Saturday Night Live,” Belushi was a kamikaze who lived to outrage, offend and entertain. His weight had a “fuck you” edge to it, and it was sexy, too. His bristling humor had a real charm to it. Runners-up: Chris Farley, Jack Black, Josh Gad, Victor Buono, George “Spanky” McFarland.
Melissa McCarthy (1970-) A talented comic from both TV and movies, Melissa is a female Belushi, generally playing a rough redneck who breaks and licks things, though she usually adds a lilting touch whereby her character turns out to really have a heart o’ gold. She’s a riot, but I hope she can ultimately start skirting the fat-mess type roles and educate the world with projects that equalize things a little. Runner-up: Shelley Winters.
Mama Cass Elliot (1941-1974) As one of the 1960s singing group The Mamas and the Papas, Cass had a silky voice and a fabulous fashion sense, sporting all sorts of eye-popping caftans and boas while unapologetically presenting herself as the beauty she was. Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, her lilting vocals were applied to pop, rock and nostalgia alike, but she was uneasy about her weight. For her live solo debut in Las Vegas, Cass crash-dieted for six months and lost 100 pounds, but with devastating health effects. Her death in ’74 was not at all the result of choking on a ham sandwich, as jokes have long had it. In fact, she died of a heart attack, most likely the result of her extreme weight loss. Cass should have been allowed to be her fat self. She made it OK for fat girls everywhere to flourish and shine. Runners-up: Carnie Wilson, Marisa Jaret Winokur, Nikki Blonsky, Barbara Cook, Rosemary Clooney.
Mo’Nique (1967-) I first noticed this raucous comic/actor as host of “Showtime at the Apollo,” where she was ribald and lots of fun. I didn’t know she also had a blistering standup act. And no one knew at that point that she’d go on to be an Oscarwinning actress, too (not to mention one who bravely refused to campaign for it. In her case, she didn’t have to.) In any shape or size, this is a formidable talent — and lady. Runners-up: Gabourey Sidibe, Camryn Manheim, Ricki Lake.
Oliver Hardy (1892-1957); Lou Costello (1906-1959) Comedy duos often team a fat person with a skinny one — for the sight gag, not to mention the personality stereotypes that can be played with for humorous effect. And those types can easily be reversed, too. For example, with Laurel and Hardy, it was Hardy calling the shots as the smart, imperious one who bossed the skinny, wimpy one around. But with Abbott and Costello, the chubster was the screechy, nervous wimp while the slender one was the master and commander. In both cases, hilarity ensued. These guys were phat.
Aretha Franklin (1942-) For a while, The Queen of Soul was looking like The Queen of Soul Food. She lost some weight after a mysterious operation a few years ago, but whatever the case, Aretha can look however she likes (as long as she’s healthy). The woman has always been the fiercest interpreter of soul music, and it could be argued that some physical heft makes perfect sense for that. Give the lady her props. Runners-up: Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Florence Ballard, Jennifer Holliday.
“Fats” Waller (1904-1943) A singer/songwriter with a twinkly eye, a wry wit and his finger on the pulse of black America, “Fats” brought us sweet nothings (“Ain’t Misbehavin’”), love swoons (“Honeysuckle Rose”) and hilarity. A real legend, and one whose songs will live for the ages.