Sun, Jul 22, 2007 - Page 18 News List

For Nikki Blonsky, big is beautiful

The young actress stars as the 'pleasantly plump' Tracy Turnblad in the new version of the film 'Hairspray'

By Alice Wignall  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Nikki Blonsky tells me that an agent once advised her: "'The best thing would be, first step, to lose a good amount of weight and start going out for conventional roles.'" Blonsky pauses. "I looked at her and said, 'Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your advice. I will think about it and ... probably never use it.'"

And her confidence seems to have paid off. With just a few high-school musical parts to her name, Blonsky has landed one of Hollywood's most eye-catching lead roles in years, as the "pleasantly plump" Tracy Turnblad in the new film Hairspray (a musical remake of John Waters' 1988 film). In this role, Blonsky's body is not just an advantage but an imperative. Tracy is a girl with a dream: to appear on the Corny Collins Show, a local TV dance program, and, despite some snide opposition on the grounds of her weight, she's soon a star - in Baltimore, at least. The film's cheerful instructions to be true to yourself may not be original, but it is refreshing to see how Tracy's weight is an issue for everybody but herself. Her mother, Edna (played by John Travolta - yes, you read that right), is also large, but is on a constant diet and refuses to leave the house for fear of being seen. Tracy dismisses Edna's concerns with kind-hearted impatience. "Tracy doesn't really see herself as different," says Blonsky. "She knows she is because people tell her she is, but what does that mean? She just is who she is and she's proud of it."

Blonsky herself is equally straightforward about her size - she says the only opinion that has ever mattered to her is that of her parents, and they have always told her she's beautiful. And she is. In person, her face is quite serious and far lovelier than it appears on screen.

Like Tracy, Blonsky, who is just 18, enjoyed a secure suburban upbringing. She describes her home town of Great Neck, New York, as "small" and "sweet," before singling out the school system for particular praise. It doesn't seem like the first thing most teenagers would mention when describing their home town, but it's typical of Blonsky. Her responses are delivered in pure American teen talk - she is blessed, she thanks the Lord every day, and a lot of her statements? Are delivered as questions? - but they are considered, eloquent and strangely intense. Even when enthusing about something it sounds like recitation, rather than rapture. She mentions that "John Travolta has graciously shared his agent with me" and stumbles over the word "graciously" a few times. But rather than abandoning her curiously formal sentence, she says, "Excuse me. I'm so sorry," corrects herself and continues. It's as if she has just fluffed a line from a script. She is jetlagged, of course, and has spent the past two days doing press interviews. But I suspect that at least some of her eerie professionalism is down to the fact that she has been preparing herself for the job of dignified interviewee for many years.

As Blonsky says, before landing the role of Tracy she "was totally an unknown. I had done nothing." This wasn't for lack of ambition. "I grew up singing since the age of three," she says. "Vocally trained since the age of eight. Fascinated by Mary Poppins and all those musical movies and really knew that I wanted to be a performer." And this was no simple hobby. "No. No. Absolutely not. I knew it in my heart. I had made it a distinct goal for myself that I wanted to be doing this professionally.'"

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