She was, to borrow her own words, a "4-foot-11 chubby New York girl," nominated for a Tony Award for her role as bubbly, teenage Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray." She was up for best actress in a musical against such big names as Bernadette Peters and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Competition was stiff, the stakes were high and, as friends kept reminding her, Peters was awfully good in "Gypsy."
Was it finally time, Marissa Jaret Winokur wondered, to play the cancer card?
But as the 2003 Tony Awards ceremony approached, Winokur decided not to go public with the heart-tugging tale: During the pre-Broadway workshop performances of "Hairspray," a routine Pap smear had led to a diagnosis of aggressive adenocarcinoma, a glandular cancer, and a hysterectomy.
"Everybody was waiting for me to tell the story, I mean everybody. But I didn't want to be the sick girl," says Winokur, now 31 and reprising her role as Tracy at the Pantages Theatre in the touring production of "Hairspray."
"I never wanted it to be, 'Oh, my goodness, look at that girl who had cancer, look how far she's come,' " she continues. "And trust me, I knew in the back of my head, this is such a good story -- but it ended up being such a better story."
The surgery was successful, no chemotherapy or radiation required -- and the chubby 4-foot-11 New York girl won the Tony without going public with her illness. She's game to talk about it now but sends her omnipresent manager, Michael Valeo, out of her dressing room as she begins. She jokes that Valeo has a lousy bedside manner when it comes to emotional matters.
In fact, all of Winokur's associates have already heard the story and now approach it with a healthy blend of sympathy and irreverence. One of her closest friends, actress Lucy Lawless ("Xena: Warrior Princess"), scrawled in a recent birthday card: "Happy birthday, sorry about the cancer."
At 8:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, Winokur is backstage at "On Air With Ryan Seacrest," broadcast from a studio in the Hollywood & Highland retail complex, preparing for a live performance of the show's high-voltage closing number, "You Can't Stop the Beat."
Unfortunately, Seacrest and his crew had just learned that the low-rated program had been canceled in its first season. Happy seven months on the air, sorry about the show. Winokur cringes at the idea that she and the "Hairspray" cast are preparing to belt out an obnoxiously upbeat song while "Seacrest" crew members are probably already on the Internet hunting for new jobs.
But that's showbiz -- belting out a song on a canceled talk show, or talking about cancer while putting on her big "Hairspray" hair, bright pink shoes and a smile. "For me, 'Hairspray' was always the light at the end of the tunnel," says Winokur, who postponed surgery in Los Angeles for a week to show up in New York for the final reading of the musical. She hadn't yet signed the Broadway contract, so she told no one connected with the show, carefully disguising her weight loss. "My sister and I padded my butt because I was so sick, I was on all kinds of medicines," she recalls. "But it was always: 'I have to get better, I have to do this show.' "
While most sleepy "Hairspray" cast members arrive in drab-colored sweats for the pre-show run-through, Winokur, wide awake on black coffee and Diet Dr. Pepper, has on a bright pink top over white sweats, the same color as the hot pink "Tracy" dress she will wear later. She does it to help orient the film crew as to who's who during the live performance. "Just a little trick of mine -- they're probably saying, 'Where's Beyonce, where's Britney Spears, where's somebody I recognize?' " she cracks.
Since the world premiere of "Hairspray" in Seattle in 2002, Winokur has learned many such handy tricks in the endless quest to be recognized. She knew she didn't have the same brand recognition enjoyed by costar Harvey Fierstein, who played Tracy's mother on Broadway (Bruce Vilanch plays that role in the touring production). "I said yes to everything, David Letterman, Regis and Kelly, I mean there was not a show we didn't do," she says.
For Winokur, being featured in US Weekly magazine's "When Bad Clothes Happen to Good People" column as a result of the unfortunate houndstooth cape she wore at the Broadway opening of Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme" was less humiliation than career coup. Her boyfriend, TV comedy writer Judah Miller, tried to hide the magazine, not expecting that Winokur would receive it with a scream of joy: "This is the coolest thing ever; I'm next to Cher!"
The incident did lead Winokur to try to make amends by showing up loud and proud at the L.A. opening of "La Boheme" in a "ridiculously low-cut," bright red dress and a red flower in her fountain of curly brown hair.