Ricki Lake was a babe in the talk show woods when her syndicated program launched nearly two decades ago.
Looking back at the 24-year-old actress she was then, Lake pronounces the 1993 career move "a little bit presumptous," although "Ricki Lake" quickly won over a young-adult audience that wanted a peppy take on life and love from someone like them.
"I didn't know what I was signing up for. I didn't know how to host a show. I didn't know who I was or have a point of view. I basically was grateful to have the job," recalls Lake. "I thought, 'Great, I can pay my rent for six months.'"
Lake, who turns 44 this month, has been changed by marriage, children, divorce and remarriage. So have her ambitions for her return to the daytime arena with "The Ricki Lake Show," debuting Monday (check local listings).
"I have a specific point of view and a vision and a sense of who I am at this point in my life," she said. "Not that I have it all figured out, but growth comes with age and life experience."
How does she envision herself as a grown-up host? Like Oprah Winfrey, whose departure from daily syndication created the opening for Lake and a clutch of others with new daytime shows, including Katie Couric, Steve Harvey and Jeff Probst.
It's a specific version of Oprah that Lake has in mind, one circa the midpoint of Winfrey's long talk-show career and "before she became a billionaire."
Lake, who has gained experience without losing her exuberance, launches into a rapid-fire description to illustrate.
"When she was in the audience, running around, had her arm around an audience member, you felt she understood you, related to you, wasn't on any higher level than you," Lake said. "And you felt like your voice was heard. That's the show I'm looking to do."
What's on the agenda? According to a release, the first week's topics include weight loss and body image; a look at the "complicated world of hormones"; mastering social media; the lives of female veterans and "virginity 2.0," an exploration of sexuality.
Expect fun and spontaneity but also seriousness of purpose, Lake said: Despite resistance from studio executives, she insisted on a show examining the issue of suicide. Her guests include dancer Mark Ballas, who became a friend when he and Lake competed on "Dancing with the Stars" and who lost a relative to suicide. There's also a young survivor whose story Lake calls compelling and hopeful.
"This is why I'm coming back to daytime. I have no doubt that the show will help people," she said. "I'm not gonna do cheating baby daddies anymore, but we'll do surviving infidelity, an hour where we talk about real tools people can use."
Lake, who says she's been an open book since she started her career as an 18-year-old in John Waters' film "Hairspray," said she'll be candid on the show because "I don't know how else to be."
"I certainly say too much at times, and my husband cringes when I talk about our sex life or whatever," she said. "But I feel there's a certain responsibility I have with my audience. If they're going to be forthcoming with me about their personal lives, then I have to be at least somewhat forthcoming about mine."
Lake's show has a good shot at working, one expert said, in part because it's well-positioned on most TV stations, including in some larger markets where it airs on CW affiliates that drew a significant female audience.
Twentieth Television also has been smart in marketing the show, said Bill Carroll, a syndication expert with media-buyer Katz Media.
"They've done really good work in social media to remind those who watched her when they were younger that she's back and she's one of them," he said.
Lake is proud of the online outreach that, starting last March, put a monthly "The Ricki Lake Show" planning session live on Facebook to allow potential viewers to peek at the show's development and weigh in.
There's also "Friends of Ricki," a Facebook page aimed at connecting Lake and her producers with followers and experts on various topics, and a free magazine app for Apple's iPad and for Android devices.
Lake said she realized the Internet's reach when "Your Best Birth," the 2009 book about birth options she co-wrote, received a huge boost from bloggers.
"I don't want to redo something I've already done, I want a new challenge, and social media didn't exist" when the first show aired, she said. "It's a whole new way of booking guests, a whole new way of finding out what the audience wants to see."
Then she pulls back, adding some perspective: "It's not reinventing the wheel. Let's be clear: It's a talk show. But it's certainly exciting for me."
As for the competition, including the heavily promoted Couric, Lake says she's unconcerned and notes that "Ricki Lake" lasted 11 years while dozens of other talk shows came and went (and even as she continued acting on TV shows and in big-screen films including "Cry-Baby" and "Mrs. Winterbourne.")
"I'm focusing on the show I'm doing," she said, without a hint of underage angst.