IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

‘Hairspray’ shines light on plus-sized women

The ladies of “Hairspray” are a rarity in fat-phobic Hollywood, whose obsession with willowy women is so strong the idea of a corpulent heroine is almost unheard of.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The ladies of “Hairspray” are a rarity in fat-phobic Hollywood, whose obsession with willowy women is so strong the idea of a corpulent heroine is almost unheard of.

The new big-screen musical, with lyrics that include a line about women’s “extra large largesse” shining through, debuts Friday. The filmmakers hope it will help open moviegoers’ minds to the notion that people of ample proportions deserve their Hollywood close-ups.

Curvier women such as Mae West, Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were far more common in old Hollywood, but the outright portly like “Hairspray” lead character Tracy Turnblad have hardly ever gotten their day as lead characters.

“Growing up, all I saw were the really thin actors and pop singers of the world. Everybody was so thin and tall and blond and everything I was not,” said Nikki Blonsky, the hefty 4-foot-10 newcomer who plays Tracy. “Do I have to be like them to make it into the business? I thought, ‘No, I’m going to find a way to make it in, just as somebody different.’

“I think that’s what I’m really trying to accomplish here, and that’s why I’m so excited to have the movie open and show these little kids out there who may be thinking like I was, ‘Oh God, all I see are these thin girls. Do I have to be like them?’ No, you don’t.”

Heroine gets the guy
The movie is based on the Broadway musical about teenager Tracy, a plump sweetheart who sets out to appear on a 1960s TV dance program in Baltimore and ends up leading a fight to integrate the show.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Tracy also sings and dances up a storm, gets the hunkiest guy in town, becomes a TV darling and foils the schemes of the station’s ex-beauty-queen manager (Michelle Pfeiffer).

The stage musical in turn was based on John Waters’ 1988 cult flick, which put then-pudgy Ricki Lake, the original Tracy Turnblad, on the road to stardom. Marissa Jaret Winokur won a Tony for originating the role of Tracy on Broadway.

“It’s going to have made three young girls a big star. Three fat girls. That’s even greater,” Waters said. “I’ve had good luck with fat girls. Just call me Jack Sprat. ...

“I always thought a big girl, every outsider could identify with that. Everyone feels like an outsider nowadays, so I thought everyone could identify with Tracy. She makes people feel good about themselves, no matter what they look like.”

Few roles for large women
As always in show business, women have a harder time than men if they are overweight, with stout male stars such as John Candy, John Belushi, John Goodman and Jack Black far more common than chubby females.

Beyond a few stars such as Roseanne Barr and Camryn Manheim on television or “Hairspray” co-star Queen Latifah, large women tend to get stuck in bit parts or stereotyped comic roles.

Even when roles call for women with some weight, they often go to trim stars who gain pounds for the part, such as Renee Zellweger did with “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Charlize Theron did with “Monster.”

Besides Tracy, “Hairspray” puts two other chunky female characters front and center. Latifah’s Motormouth Maybelle becomes Tracy’s ally and sings one of the musical’s best-loved tunes, “Big, Blonde and Beautiful.”

Then there’s Tracy’s mom, beefy, bashful Edna, so conscious of her size she hasn’t left her apartment in years. Maintaining the “Hairspray” tradition since Divine originated the part in the Waters film, Edna is played by a man, John Travolta, performing in a fat suit.

Edna gradually comes out of her apartment and out of her shell, learning to love herself for what she is — a fat woman — all thanks to encouragement from daughter Tracy, played with zealous ingenue spirit by Blonsky.

A plus-sized opportunity“We are delighted to see a young, beautiful woman of size have an opportunity like this. About 65 percent of the American population is now considered overweight or obese, yet people of size are really underrepresented in the media, television and movies,” said Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

“Right now, in terms of acceptance of overweight people, it’s maybe even worse than it’s ever been,” said Howell, who is 5-feet-9 and weighs 300 pounds. “There are people who identify more with anorexic- and bulimic-type bodies than they do even with what would be considered a normal, average, healthy-sized body. Some people definitely show a lot of hatred toward a fat body.”

Why? Howell blames Hollywood and fashion magazines, along with the health-care industry for creating medical fear of fat.

In modern times, thin sells, but as with everything in Hollywood, dollars rule film casting, said “Hairspray” director Adam Shankman. After Latifah’s breakout success in Shankman’s “Bringing Down the House,” roles intended for thinner actresses — even parts written for men — were reimagined for her, the director said.

“Hollywood is open to anybody who makes money. If ‘Hairspray’ makes money, Nikki will keep working,” Shankman said. “In the golden age of Hollywood, curves were what it was all about. Old Hollywood was more open to different concepts of beauty and sexy stars.”

Moving toward acceptance
“Hairspray” producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron said they hope “Hairspray” helps inch people toward greater acceptance of overweight people but that thin will continue to rule in Hollywood.

Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. on the "Let's Be Cops," red carpet, Selena Gomez is immortalized in wax and more.

Fat stars — in fact, any stars that do not fit the narrow mold of studio conventions — will remain exceptions, Meron and Zadan said.

“Whoopi Goldberg defied the rules. Queen Latifah is one of those people. You love her. When she opens her mouth and smiles, you love her. From the first moment she appears in ‘Hairspray,’ you love her,” Meron said.

“Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, they were completely unconventional stars. They didn’t look like anyone else, they didn’t sound like everyone else. Everybody told them they weren’t going to make it. They told them, ‘You don’t have a chance because you don’t fit into the niche,’ ” Zadan said.

“Every so often, not very often, somebody comes along and defies the convention and basically says subliminally, ‘I dare you not to hire me, because I’m more talented than these other people,’ ” Zadan said.

Ostacles to overcomeThe 18-year-old Blonsky hopes to be one of those people, though she understands the obstacles. Blonsky has been bemused at red-carpet Hollywood soirees, where “everybody’s a size zero, and everyone’s so thin and tall and made up,” she said.

“I actually enjoy being in the position I’m in, because being on the red carpet and not looking like the other four girls next to me kind of makes me feel good about myself. It almost gives me a little more confidence, my size and my stature. ...

“It’s only going to be an issue if I make it an issue. If I don’t go and audition for something. If there’s a call that says for girls this age to this age with brown hair, I can go in. They may not be expecting to get a plus-sized girl, but if I do my job and I do the acting well enough, maybe they’re going to get a plus-sized girl, because everybody’s definition of beauty is different.

“My motto is, why can’t a curvaceous girl play a love interest?”