Marissa Jaret Winokur first made a name for herself as the quirky lead of Broadway’s hit musical Hairspray and then waltzed into mainstream media when she took on the ultimate reality TV challenge: Dancing with the Stars. Since then, she’s remained prominent in our living rooms, doing everything from TV guest spots to hosting and judging other reality competitions. We talked to the mom of two-year-old Zev about the one TV show she’d love to be on (Hint: Her former Hairspray co-star stars!), her experience having a surrogate, and why she’s terrified Nanny 911 will come for her.
What’s your parenting philosophy?
I pretty much like to live by a schedule. Kids need a schedule, they need patterns but at the end of the day, they need to be able to be loosey-goosey. We pretty much have set times of when he naps and eats; everything is pretty organized. You have to set the boundaries.
If you could teach your son one life lesson, what would it be?
Love is so much more important than money.
How have you managed a public tantrum?
I actually [throw] tantrums more than he does. My husband jokes that whenever my son loses it, I lose it. For the first year of my son’s life, whenever he would cry, I would cry. My husband [writer Judah Miller] said, “You have to stop crying. I can’t look at both of you cry.” I’m not one of those people who stays calm and walks away and lets him spaz out. I try to reason with him but you’re not supposed to reason with them at all. You’re supposed to walk away and let them deal or pick them up and move them to a place where they’re safe, whereas I say, “Will this make you happy?” I’m horrible with tantrums; I haven’t figured them out yet.
Is your husband better with the tantrums?
Oh yeah, but he can figure out what Zev needs. If my son is hysterically crying because he wants a lollipop, I’ll say, “Well you can’t have that, but how about a piece of cheese? Or how about this?” I try to come up with other options, whereas my husband will just give him exactly what he’s crying about. I think we’re the worst. I’m not good with the crying. I’m actually the worst example. Nanny 911 would come and yell at me.
What shocked you most about parenting?
That it didn’t come naturally. I thought for sure the baby would come and I’d say, “Oh, I love you, you’re my baby,” and everything would be easy and I would understand everything. But I didn’t. That first year I was totally stressed. I didn’t know anything; all my instincts were wrong. I was waiting for it all to kick in which took a good year. Now Zev’s turning two and I’m finally starting to understand [how parenting works]. What also shocked me was the enormous responsibility of what you have to do when you’re a parent. I don’t think I grasped how much responsibility it was [or that it's] forever.
Why did you decide to go with a surrogate?
I had cancer 10 years ago and had a radical hysterectomy. I had no uterus, so I basically needed a womb. I was able to harvest my eggs, and my husband and I were able to make an embryo. I haven’t ruled out adopting in the future as I do want more kids, but at that time, [surrogacy] was the way I wanted to go. I wanted to try that first.
And you’re well now?
Yes, I’ll be 10 years [cancer-free] this December. It’s a good year.
What was the process of having a surrogate like?
It’s so hard; nothing’s easy. A lot of people think that [surrogacy] is easier than carrying [the baby] yourself. It’s not. Nobody’s out there getting a surrogate because they don’t want to give birth. It’s a last resort. A lot of people think people in Hollywood [have surrogates] because they don’t want to carry a baby. There’s not one woman out there who would rather have someone else carry her baby for her. [You have a surrogate] because you physically can’t do it. It’s tough, man. It’s an expensive process: you meet with agencies, the agencies set you up with [surrogates], and you try to find the person who’s going to be the best match and wants the same experience. There are some [surrogates] who want to do it but don’t want to be part of the child’s life and there are others who do want to be part of the child’s life. I have friends who had no interest in carrying on a relationship with their surrogates. My surrogate is my son’s godmother. We were both so close, and that’s just what I wanted. I didn’t go into it wanting a relationship, and I certainly wasn’t looking for a new best friend, but it turned into that when I watched a woman carry my son, it got very close, very fast.
Who’s the bad cop – you or your husband?
Me, times 10. My husband is a pushover. I can stop Zev in his tracks with just one look. My husband will get up in the middle of the night when my son is crying and give him a bottle. It’s awful; he’s a complete pushover. But that’s why I married him – it works for me, too!
What’s your guilty pleasure as a parent?
We watch a lot of TV. Yo Gabba Gabba is our favorite by far. Zev’s just getting into Sesame Street, but Yo Gabba Gabba is in my car, on our TiVo, [and] when we’re getting dressed, Zev wants to wear the Yo Gabba Gabba shirt.
What’s your favorite vacation spot? Hawaii. The Marriott in Maui is the most beautiful, perfect place ever. It’s perfect even with Zev. I like it because it’s not a hotel for children. It doesn’t have the crazy slides in the pool, and you don’t feel like you’re at a Vegas kids’ resort.
What’s your favorite exercise? Walking to the kitchen and getting something to eat. I’m so bad right now. I’ll get on the elliptical because I want to catch up on TV shows. That’s pretty much all.
What makes you cringe? Takeout food in Styrofoam packaging. That sound when it moves around makes my whole body cringe.
What’s off-limits in your house? No eating popsicles inside. My son knows if he gets a popsicle or ice cream to go to the back door or outside. No eating drippy food inside.
If you could be any TV or movie parent, who would it be? I grew up in the ’80s, so I always think of Bill Cosby. The Huxtables – they were the coolest parents!
How did appearing on Dancing with the Stars change your life?
I’ve always been someone who had dance in her life because of Broadway. But Dancing with the Stars in particular changed my life because I’ll go to a wedding and every single 50- to 80-year-old man says, “I want to do the waltz with you” or “Let’s do the foxtrot!” I sneak out of weddings now because I can’t be doing foxtrots and waltzes with old men all night.
Do you still remember the steps you learned on DWTS?
I could do any dance from the show today. It was implanted in my brain. I can’t do an improv waltz, but I can do the one I did on the show if someone wants to learn!
You hosted the first season of Dance Your Ass Off last summer. Why did you agree to that?
I thought it was going be a great show. I liked that the [contestants] used dance to lose weight, and I thought that I’d be able to help people and interact with the dancers. I’ve been in the situation they’ve been in, where they’re trying to lose weight on TV or dancing in a competition. Unfortunately, I was just a host. I wasn’t really able to hang out with the contestants and be part of their journey. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be but I had a great time on the show and I wish it all the success.
So is that why you opted out of season two?
It wasn’t the right fit for me, just standing up and reading a teleprompter. I wanted it to be more like what Tim Gunn does on Project Runway. I wanted to be with the contestants and give them advice on the dances, feeling confident, and feeling good about themselves in the bodies they were in because that was my journey. Be strong and feel good about who you are. If you don’t feel good, figure out how to fix that, but don’t let other people put their prejudice on you. [But] I was never allowed to be near the contestants. It wasn’t the right job for me.
What do you like better: performing live on stage or being in front of the camera?
I’m a Broadway girl. I love being on stage. It’s almost like church; it’s spiritual for me. That’s why I don’t do that much of it, because when I do, it has to be perfect. It’s my passion and love. With Broadway, I performed Hairspray for 1,200 people each night, whereas with Dancing with the Stars, it was 25 million people. [TV] is much more stressful because you think, “People are going to record this, TiVo it, and put mess-ups on YouTube.” But with stage, it’s your word against mine. You think I did a [bad] job, but everyone else thinks I did good. It’s kind of a defense mechanism, whereas with TV, you can watch it and say, “Oh yeah, that was really bad.” I like stage better, but I like that you can touch more people with TV. I don’t think I’d ever be exclusive to one.
You’ve been pretty vocal about your body image with Hairspray and Dance Your Ass Off. What do you want to teach Zev about that?
I’m totally comfortable and confident in my skin and with who I am. That comes from my parents; they never made me feel like I was any less than anybody else. I lived in a very healthy household; my parents never had junk food, cookies or treats. They were very strict eaters. So now I find myself giving treats and cookies and snacks because I don’t want them to be so special. My biggest downfall is that I grew up without having anything delicious, and I know the extra 20 pounds I have left to lose is because I just can’t help myself with chips because they do feel so special. With my son, I’m definitely doing that differently. But I am worried – more than I thought I would be. I thought with a boy, it’s not going to matter. With girls, you’re so hyper-aware, but I’m definitely finding out that I’m hyper-aware with a boy, too. So we’re going to do sports and music and build up his confidence in figuring out what he loves.
Do you have any rules regarding food?
Not yet. I can’t bribe him yet. I can’t say, “If you eat this broccoli, you can have this cookie.” He doesn’t quite understand that. I have zero food rules at my house. If he wants a snack, he has a snack. I won’t give him two ice cream cones, of course. If it would make me sick, he can’t have it. [He doesn't] get a cookie, cupcake and ice cream at a party. If we’re at a party and he has a big piece of cake, I’ll take half of it away so he sees he can’t have that much. But pretty much what he wants, he gets, and I try to mix in healthy things while he’s doing it.
Do you sing to Zev?
All the time. But a lot of times, he’ll stop me from singing. When I’m singing lullaby things to him, he wants nothing to do with it or if I’m singing along with the TV, he says, “No.” But if I sing really loud and crazy, like Ethel Merman, he loves it. We joke that he only loves it if I’m doing loud, crazy, Broadway music. He thinks it’s a joke; I don’t think he realizes that it’s mommy’s meal ticket! I’ll sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” but I’ll sing it like Ethel Merman and then he loves it.
What’s your favorite song to sing to him?
I sing “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” but I change it to “There’s No Babies Like Show Babies.” I sing it really loud and he laughs the whole time. He thinks it’s the funniest thing.
You travel a great deal. What advice do you have for traveling with kids?
It’s really hard traveling with kids. I don’t recommend it to anybody. Being trapped on a plane with a child is a disaster, not fun at all. My advice: fly the red eye so they’re sleeping most of the time. You’re going to be crazy in the morning, but at least your kid isn’t screaming for six hours on a plane. But when I leave Zev, it’s really hard. I’m definitely much more picky about what I’m doing and where I’m going and for how long.
Your fellow Hairspray lead, Matthew Morrison, is a star on Glee. Could you see yourself ever joining the show?
I’d love to be on Glee. I don’t think there’s one musical theatre girl or actress out there who wouldn’t! It’s an amazing show, and I’m so happy it’s on the air because kids get to be excited about musical numbers. My dream would be to do a musical movie or musical TV show. I’m green with envy that they get to sing every week and dance and do what they love. As a performer, you get very few jobs like that. Matt’s getting the recognition he deserves, and everybody’s seeing what I saw 10 years ago. He’s the most talented, wonderful, fabulous guy ever. We’re very close, and he’s really close with my son. I always send him pictures of Zev in cool outfits and say, “Here’s your fashion tip today from Zev.”
What do you have planned next?
Right now I am a co-host on CBS’ new show The Talk. It’s got great people in it: Julie Chan, Sarah Gilbert, Holly Robinson Peete, Sharon Osbourne, and Leah Remini. We need [moms] out there talking about what’s really going on. You do cry and you are stressed and it’s not easy and it’s not all baking cupcakes and PTA meetings. We’ve all joined the 25 percent group: 25 percent mom, 25 percent wife, 25 percent working, etc. I want to do one thing really well, but you can’t when you become a mom. And there are so many moms like me who are trying to do it all, and it’s really hard, but we have no choice.
What do you look forward to most with Zev growing up?
I don’t want him to grow up. I want him to stay this perfect little age forever! I look forward to having a conversation with him. Right now I’ll start a conversation, and he just says “big dog” or “motorcycle.” And seeing who he becomes. You have this idea – that he’s going to be a little bit of me and a little bit of my husband – but they’re their own people.