Now, the 52-year-old documentary filmmaker is shedding light on her "debilitating" hair journey, telling PEOPLE exclusively what made her decide to shave her head — and how she finally found self-acceptance.
"I went back and forth about coming forward last year," she says. "It's such a shameful thing." In the emotional social media post, Lake revealed that at times she even "felt suicidal" over the painful experience. "Almost no one in my life knew the level of deep pain and trauma I was experiencing," she wrote. "Not even my therapist/s over the years knew my truth."
Lake says that her hair issues began shortly after her portrayal of Tracy Turnblad in the original 1988 Hairspray, explaining that the role took a toll on her "then healthy virgin hair" when she had to tease and triple-process it every two weeks while filming.
Credit: New Line/Kobal/Shutterstock
From that point on, she experienced several periods of excessive shedding (known as telogen effluvium) throughout her adult life due to a number of factors including dramatic weight fluctuations, hormone changes and stress.
She tried everything: Rogaine, prescription medications, topical treatments, Propecia, steroid injections and PRP therapy which involves injecting your own plasma into your scalp to promote hair growth.
Nothing worked and Lake relied on extensions and hair pieces to hide the thinning.
"I was afraid of coming out," Lake tells PEOPLE of shaving her head and telling the truth about her hair. "Because no woman as far as I knew had ever gone public about female baldness."
Credit: Courtesy Ricki Lake
By December 2019, Lake had finally had enough. "I'd reached a low point," she says, "I decided to take charge." She told her then boyfriend about her secret and her plans to shave her head. He encouraged her to go for it. "He said, 'It's going to look good,'" she recalls.
Fueled by his support and surrounded by close friends, Lake shaved her head and shared her new look and what she referred to as her "quiet hell" on January 1, 2020, in that now famous Instagram post.
"It wasn't a calculated move," she says of choosing to post on the first day of the new year. "I just needed to be set free from this silent suffering."
And Lake recognizes that her transformation was as internal as it was external. "It's about inner beauty, self-confidence and self-love," she says of her journey. "I truly appreciate what I see in the mirror now."
These days, Lake is rocking yet another surprising style. "When I shaved my head, I never had even an inkling that it would grow back," she says of her full head of short, gray hair which she attributes to Harklinikken, a Scandanavian company that specializes in hair loss and diagnosed her with a hereditary condition called androgenetic alopecia. "It feels like a miracle."