Ten years have passed since Nikki Blonsky, then 17, broke out as Hairspray's Tracy Turnblad—a bubbly, beehived teenager that fights for stardom and rallies against racial segregation on a local Baltimore TV show. Despite such a potent debut role in 2007, Blonsky's since had difficulty leveraging her success and navigating an industry where type-casting and false promises are the norm.
Now 28 years old, the Long Island-based actress has sprinkled her career with appearances on Ugly Betty, Huge, Smash and the queer film adaptation of Brent Harting's Georgraphy Club—enough roles to keep Blonsky's passion for entertainment alive, without losing herself along the way. Now, she's been cast in Lisa Lampanelli’s Off-Broadway show, Stuffed, which opens tonight at Manhattan's Westside Theatre.
We sat down with Blonsky a decade after Hairspray to reflect on its cultural impact, and all the personal setbacks she's overcame since its premiere, from family suicide to relationship abuse. (For ticket information on Stuffed, click here).
OUT: It's been ten years since Hairspray came out. Looking back, do you have anything you wish you knew or would have done differently?
Nikki Blonsky: You know I entered this giant industry, where I was promised the world, when I was just 17 years old. Everybody wanted a piece of me. Not to be funny about it, but I was literally The New Girl in Town. I think my downfall was that I was so naive and trusted everybody. I don't think I was old enough or seasoned enough to weed them out yet. A lot of people promise you everything; and when you expect that it's going to come and it doesn't, it's a big let down. So if I could tell something to myself then I'd say, Unless you see it right in front of you at that moment, don't expect that anything's going to happen. There's a lot of empty promises in this business. You just have to find the strength within yourself to rise above it. There are good people in this business, though—people who are really there to help you and are willing to fulfill promises rather than just leave them empty.
Do you think Hollywood typecasted you after Hairspray?
I think Hollywood saw me as a sweet 17 year old girl who had a dream: that was Tracy. We were both plus size, we both come from loving families, we both want to sing, dance and live our lives, but there's a lot more to me. I think Hollywood wanted that young faced, excited, happy-go-lucky kid and I was that, but they didn't understand that there was more to me. I wanted to produce and play serious roles and get into different genres. The industry definitely got what they wanted from me, but I don't think they realized there were so many levels to the person they were seeking out. I think they saw me as Tracy, but nobody really ever knew me as Nikki.
You've starred in a few television series and films over the last 10 years, but none have really catapulted you to the same level of Hairspray. Do you think the industry held you back or did you take the initiative to step out?
I did not take a conscious step out of Hollywood and so long as I'm alive, I never will. Singing and acting has been my dream since I was three. It kind of feels like the industry left me. It's no offense to the industry because I understand that there are new actors and actresses everyday. There are new films and new roles to be cast. Hairspray though was just a very different entity. It felt like they took me to the top of a mountain and gave me everything I ever wanted. Then after a year, they all just looked at me and said, Okay, bye! and left me with no way to get down. I would be lying if I said I still didn't struggle with it. I see a lot of my other co-stars steadily working and I question whether I did something wrong. I've had some great projects: I've done Ugly Betty and Smash and starred in various films. I'm getting ready to be on Off-Broadway. Like you said, however, I've never quite done anything again that's been at the level of Hairspray. At a certain point I just have to throw my hands up and say, It is what it is. My grandmother used to tell me everything happens for a reason. So maybe a year from now I'll be doing a movie that's just as big as Hairspray. I just love what I do and want to keep doing it. I remember the feeling I had while making Hairspray and if I could have it everyday, it would be so exhilarating. I love this business, but I've learned that if I don't get a role or a part, I'm going to survive.
Hat: Christian Cowan, Earrings: Haarstick, Top: American Apparel
Do you have any upcoming projects?
I've always been told that I need a Plan-B in this industry, so I decided to do something else that I'm very passionate about. I was given a ring by my grandmother as a young girl and I've cherished it ever since. It's my good luck charm. I was inspired by that family heirloom and created a collection of jewelry for the Home Shopping Network. I am about to start shooting a film with a very famous Wedding Crasher and am rehearsing for my role in Lisa Lampanelli’s off-Broadway show Stuffed, which starts on October 5. I'm also working on a television series about a film I did called Geography Club.
Geography Club is a fun coming-of-age LGBTQ story. What's your connection to the community?
One of the highlights of my life, was performing at the Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco. I remember stepping out there and literally seeing thousands of gay men with my face (as Tracy Turnblad) on sticks. They were all singing "Good Morning Baltimore." I didn't know I was that well endowed! I was highly impressed. I just love the gay community. They have been there for me through thick and thin and I am so humbly grateful.
Who is the Nikki Blonsky you want the world to know?
That's really difficult to answer. I have tons of emotions. I am never one thing for too long. I am family oriented. I'm a very low-key person. I live on Long Island. I love to go fishing – it's my favorite thing to do in the entire world. I've played competitive softball for nine years. I was a catcher and nobody knows that! [laughs] People see me at 4'10" and don't think I'm athletic. I love to laugh, but I also cry and I've gone through a lot that I haven't really shared publicly. With everything that's going on in the world, I feel like this could be a way to bring more awareness to this important subject: I've suffered through a family suicide that broke me. I brought my uncle onto the red carpet premiere of Hairspray and a few months later he was gone. My uncle was my best friend in the whole world. One of my last memories I have of him is looking up at him at the New York premiere and seeing him look down at me and just saying, "I'm proud of you, kid." That is one of the most defining moments of my life.
I'm so sorry. That must have been extremely difficult for you and your family.
I loved him and I miss him so much. I love my family. My family was there for me when I was in a horrible relationship that dealt with domestic violence. It was very volatile and I was struck a number of times. I had a phone thrown at my head. When somebody's hands are around your throat and you think that it's the end, you don't know where turn. I remember thinking to myself, Oh my God, my poor mother is going to get a phone call that her daughter was choked to death. The minute he released me, I left him and never went back. My mother knew that something was happening. She had a gut feeling. She was able to get me to come clean about what was going on and gave me the strength to breakaway.
It's really brave of you to share your story.
There comes a time in life where you just have to chalk it all up to the wind and say, What's the point in hiding this? So many people are struggling. So many people are dealing with suicide, domestic violence and all these painful things. I hope knowing that the girl from Hairspray, who always looked so darn happy, has gone through it too, can help somebody think, Maybe I can be happy like her but also get through this. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You just have to give yourself the courage to walk to that light.
Sunglasses: Le Specs, Top: Ralph Lauren
What's your advice for victims of domestic violence?
Number one: it's not your fault. Number two: it's your life. You can't let people do anything to you that you don't allow them to do. Yes, it's hard to get away when somebody is on top of you, but you have to do whatever you can to get out. Once you do, you never turn back. You escaped death. Why would you ever go back there? That person doesn't love you. That person may say they do, but they don't. You may feel like it's your fault, but it's not. I promise you things will get better. Lean on your friends and family. There's no point in doing this journey alone. I'm here and know what you're going through.
In these conflicting political times, do you think the message of Hairspray is more important than ever?
I do think the message of Hairspray is more important than ever. The message of unity and integration is something we need right now. One love and one life. There are people being killed in this country for standing up against hatefulness. It's heartbreaking. It's a war within our own country. People are losing their children. I think Hairspray has this way of getting into people's hearts and minds. We don't hit you over the head with the message, but we sing you the message. We dance it and we make it exciting. I pray, and get so excited to hear about schools around the country performing the show. Our grandparents have gone through it and now we're going through it. It's gotta stop. We have to progress.
What are your thoughts on the current U.S. President?
Any president, or man, who talks about women like they're pieces of meat, I find absolutely repulsive. As a woman, and as an American, we want to be treated as equals to men. It feels like he's giving men a free pass to talk to women however they like. I think he's a president that wants to get a lot of headlines. He needs to realize he's not a hotelier anymore—he's in charge of a country. So if he's looking for shock value on his Twitter, maybe he should just go back to being a businessman. I wish I could just say Trump was a substitute teacher that's only there while Obama's out on vacation-leave. Unfortunately, that's not a case. I'm a big advocate for the LGBTQ community and I cannot support somebody that goes against them. The trans ban in our military deeply unsettled me. People who fight in our military are heroes—no matter their race, religion, sexual identity or gender—and are more heroic than Trump ever will be. I don't care if you're a man or a woman: if you have the guts to go out there and fight for our country, then you are a hero. I don't care if he or she, or however they choose to identify, has a penis, vagina or is transitioning. They are American heroes.
Photography: Andrew Tess
Styling: Israel Mejia
Hair: Vi Huynh
Makeup: Raoul Alejandre
Production Assistant: Giovanny Bahamundi
Location: DSG NYC