As the 'fat' and 'loud' star of 'All That,' Lori Beth Denberg inspired a generation of plus-size girls. She herself wasn't 'brimming with confidence.'
"Nobody was watching the other girls going, 'Careful, if you eat that you might not be in TV anymore,' you know?" Denberg explains.
It Figures is Yahoo Life's body image series, delving into the journeys of influential and inspiring figures as they explore what body confidence, body neutrality and self-love mean to them.
Every actor wants to be a part of something memorable. For Lori Beth Denberg, it was her role in All That — Nickelodeon's sketch comedy show for kids that exists as a piece of nostalgia for millennials — although she didn't know it at the time.
The comedian, who starred alongside Amanda Bynes and Kenan Thompson, was best known among the cast for leading skits like "Loud Librarian" and "Vital Information," where her comedic timing was put on display. Now 47, she was also recognized as being the oldest at 18 years old and biggest in the cast, although she tells Yahoo Life that her size wasn't a pervasive conversation at the time.
"It was brought to my attention that I should probably lose weight, but I wasn't held up as a role model back then," she says, noting that she didn't feel personally responsible nor expected to adhere to a certain beauty standard. "I wasn't brimming with confidence, and all the kinds of things that come with being overweight and all the societal stuff, I experienced it. But somehow I still said, 'Well, I'm gonna go do this show and be crazy and be loud and be on TV.' I wasn't doing it in some protest of like body positivity. It's just what I needed to do."
Denberg was drawn to acting and comedy while growing up in Southern California. She had big dreams of appearing in a television show, which was made possible when she was recognized by a talent scout as a high schooler taking drama classes and performing at a community theater. She says she was "lucky" to be cast in All That as her very first job in the entertainment industry and was dedicated to being the best comedian she could be. "That's really what I focused on," she admits.
She hadn't realized then that she would be providing not only entertainment for people watching, but also representation of a body type they had rarely seen on screen.
"I just happened to be the one up there doing it, and I'm all fat and loud and female. And that was a good thing," she explains. "I hadn't seen a lot of people on TV like me. Roseanne Barr was the one ... a main representation."
In the absence of social media, Denberg felt she was safe from a majority of the body shaming and public scrutiny that young people in the spotlight are subjected to today. "If I was having to maintain some Instagram account back when I was 18, 19 on the show, I don't know what I would do," she says. "All that noise wasn't part of it."
She remembers one conversation with the wardrobe department concerning her body at a time when she was gaining weight.
"It was definitely on the table as far as I was concerned, or concerning me," she says, noting that she was asked about the weight gain by someone in the department. "Of course it wasn't handled well. And of course, is there even a good way to handle that?"
In terms of the show's environment, however, there wasn't a big emphasis placed on body size or appearance.
"Nobody was watching the other girls going, 'Careful, if you eat that you might not be in TV anymore,' you know?" Denberg explains. "We have always been extraordinarily image conscious and beauty conscious. And, you know, back in the '90s, it was like, Kate Moss was really hot ... That's pervasive to everyone everywhere. But I feel like it didn't really come through to us on All That."
She adds: "Nobody was being dressed like a 21-year-old. You know, we were kids and we were represented as kids. And that was always really, really nice. Like, there wasn't any sexualization."
Nevertheless, she was still victim to her own negative self-talk that made it difficult to perceive herself in the same way that audiences had.
"I felt like a fraud when people would tell me, 'Oh, my God, you gave me so much confidence because seeing you made me feel like I could do it.' And in my head thinking, you know, I'm still in my head about [what I look like]," she says. "I wish that I was just like, you know, brimming with self-confidence, like I gave them. It's just ironic."
In the years since her departure from the show in 1998 — she's since revisited her role for a few appearances in the Season 11 reboot — Denberg continues to get messages from people sharing how much it meant to them to have her on their television screens.
"Tons and tons of chickies and dudes saying, 'I was fat growing up, and you were such a role model to see you getting up and doing what you did,'" she recalls some messages reading. "You look like me and I'd never seen someone big on TV before, especially a girl."
Denberg reemphasizes, "I didn't realize that until pretty recently," referring to those who still think of her in this positive way. In hindsight, she's relieved that she wasn't aware of how much she meant to people and representation as a young actress.
"The key to it was, despite whatever I thought of myself, or what other people told me they thought of me, or thought I should be or be something different, I still just got up and did what I wanted to do. And did it well. ... It's like my former self taught me that now," she says. "I just have gotten 25 plus years of love and thanks from people. And to hear from so many people, 'You are such a big part of my childhood, you made my childhood,' … I mean, who gets that? It's like Mr. Rogers, The Muppets and me."
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