Ricki Lake, frequent star of John Waters’ films — most notably the original “Hairspray” — and successful daytime talk show host, has gone through a major career shift since leaving her spot on television, refocusing her attention on producing documentaries about women’s reproductive issues, including childbirth and birth control. Starting with her best friend Abby Epstein’s “The Business of Being Born,” Lake has used her name to bring attention to topics that mean something to her. After having her own experiences with alternative birthing options, Lake began her producing journey. Her latest project, executive producing Brigid Maher’s “The Mama Sherpas,” sees Lake working on a film that focuses on midwives and their involvement with births, both in private facilities and in hospital settings. Soon, Lake will being working on “Sweetening the Pill,” a documentary focusing on birth control and the effect it has on women.
How was your transition from working on a talk show and acting to producing and behind-the-scenes work? What made you shift positions?
I think that was vanity [laughs]. It was me aging. Honestly, the story goes, I was doing my talk show back in New York. I started my show in ‘93 and obviously 9/11 happened in 2001. I had just had my baby at home in my apartment in the West Village. Two months later, I watched firsthand the second plane hit the building. I was so traumatized, as everyone was. I really took that time to reflect on, “Okay, why are we here? What is it all about?” If I were to die this day, I thought I was going to die that day, my legacy is talking about hoochie mamas and makeovers and baby daddies. I was like, “Is this what I want to leave behind?” That’s why I explored things I really cared about where I could make a difference and use my celebrity to speak for something that wasn’t being explored. That’s when I got the idea of wanting to make a film or project about natural birth and birth options and midwifery. That’s when I shifted into more advocacy work and it was really because of 9/11. It really caused me to want to do something where I felt like I was giving back.
How did you learn more about midwifery and what inspired you to get involved with that?
With me, it was personal. It wasn’t about speaking out about it. It was about my own options. I was planning to have my first son in 1996. I’m a Virgo and I plan everything to the day as much as possible. I was like, “Okay, we’ve been married for three years.” I met a friend of a friend who had just had a beautiful, amazing birth in a birth center with midwives. I tagged along to meet this newborn and I was so awestruck by not only this precious, beautiful baby but also her birth story. This mom was telling me, “I had this incredible experience. I didn’t have any drugs. I had a midwife with me the whole time.” That just appealed to me. I was like, “That’s what I’m going to do.” With my first son, I had used midwives and tried to give birth in that birth center but had to be transferred because of what they said at the time were complications.
That’s really what started me on this whole journey and I got really, really interested in the profession of midwifery. I started to do the training and it’s really a personal passion. Like I said, what happened after 9/11 was that I was like, “Okay, this is an area where I really feel like I can help women and help to educate them about their options, so they can go into an experience informed and demanding and know that they have these choices available to them.”
Have you had responses from moms and other people inspired by the work that you’ve been doing?
It’s been amazing. It’s like every day, Abby can tell you too, you walk down the street and people will come up to us. I had an experience in San Francisco when we did a screening of “The Mama Sherpas,” another film about midwives that Abby and I are producing. This big, burly police officer, told me the story about how moved he was by watching a child being born that he pulled a couple over the next day during his job and he saw a pregnant woman and was like, “Are you aware of the C-section rate? Where are you delivering? Are you delivering at home?” He immediately shouted specifics to her. It’s incredible, the impact that the film has had on so many people, and not even people that are becoming parents. They’re shocked by it and the information that they learned. It just stays with them. The movie has this ripple effect. It came out 8 years ago and yet it’s just only gotten bigger.
There’s an educational version with a study guide that’s being taught all around colleges and universities around the world. We went and spoke at Columbia University last year. They’re teaching it in gender studies and ethics class and midwifery school and nurses. It’s unbelievable. I pinch myself when I think about the fact that this film is part of curriculums. It’s beyond thrilling.
From what you’ve been exploring with these projects, do you think there’s a reason for this C-section culture?
According to the CDC, the acceptable rate of C-sections in the US is supposedly around 14%. I think we’re more around 32%. It’s because of the way insurance is now set up. With hospitals and the way economics are structured, it’s better to have a certain amount of babies in a certain amount of time. C-sections are much, much quicker than waiting for a woman to go into labor naturally. I think it’s also safer from a legal standpoint for the doctors to do the C-sections. I think women have been told that it’s safer for them, as well. I do believe that it’s shifting in certain ways.
Have you learned anything in particular or anything new about alternative birth options that you didn’t know before getting involved?
It’s been a journey. I certainly didn’t know a lot when I started the film. I still have so much to learn. There are amazing obstetricians out there and there are amazing midwives. Learning about what’s going on with legislation has been really interesting. In California, midwives are fighting to get legislation passed so that they won’t be supervised by obstetricians. There’s so much more work to be done and so much more to know, but I don’t know everything by any means. I have to use the disclaimer that I am not an expert, I’m not a doctor. I’m someone that’s very curious about all options when it comes to my health and my childrens’ health. I’m all about exploring those options and educating myself.
Do you think the documentary would do something entirely different than what the book has?
We’re going to be a little more balanced than the book is, just like I think we were able to do with “The Business of Being Born.” We were not scaring people out of having their hospital births. We were really showing all sides. It had a point of view and certainly all documentaries have a point of view, but I think the genre is so powerful. I watch documentaries all the time and my mind is blown by what I learn from them. I think we’ll be able to take the book to the next level and really present it to a mainstream audience, particularly the audience that really was so moved and inspired by our previous documentaries.
Is there a reason that there’s a smaller community of midwives?
It’s a shame, that’s what it is. I think the OB-GYN took over and whatever in the 1920s and people think going to the doctor is bad. Certified nurse midwives and certified professional midwives are trained in natural birth and normal birth. They don’t do C-sections. They do everything else. They’re incredibly skilled and I really am on a flight to really showcase the art of midwifery. It’s an amazing profession and there are so many incredible midwives out there. I think any low-risk should explore that avenue because they’re wonderful practitioners. Only 8% of births are attended by midwives.
“The Mama Sherpas” is a film with midwifery as well. It’s all about midwives in the hospital. When people think of midwives, they think of at home births. That’s less than 1% in this country. Most midwives deliver in the hospital and that’s what this showcases. They’re incredible. The film is really a well-made film.
Midwives aren’t just there for the birth. It’s more of a process. They actually stay with women and get to know them. It definitely provides a different experience. What do you think about that?
The more you can not feel like a number when you’re going to your practitioner, when you feel like they actually know who you are and respect your desires and how you want to be treated– it’s this kind of miraculous moment where it’s like a once in a lifetime opportunity. If you can be respected and made to feel safe and to have a trust and a bond with that person, it’s an incredible opportunity. They definitely spend more time with you than the doctors do, I think.
Indiewire has a lot of readers who are looking to become directors and producers on their own work. Do you have any advice for women wanting to work on women-driven documentaries. Is there something they should do or an avenue they should take?
Find a passion. I haven’t figured out the business side of it. Abby and I both are still kind of figuring that part out. Team up with people that you respect and follow through on your idea and come up with something original. That’s what I’ve managed to do. I really found my passion. I had to make that movie and do more. I didn’t know how to go about making it at first, but I hired my friend and business partner Abby. I had passion for this project and nothing was going to stop me from doing it. It’s about coming up with that idea and following through.