John Waters' original thought was to cast Divine as both Edna Turnblad and her daughter, Tracy, in his 1988 film Hairspray. But common sense won out, and he ended up casting a real teen as Tracy, rather than the 42-year-old, cross-dressing Divine.
In a canon dedicated to turning Hollywood stereotypes on their head - in Waters' films, the pretty girl never wins - Waters struck a populist chord. With Tracy, that cheerful and chubby champion of dance-floor integration in 1960s Baltimore, the writer-director created rare opportunities for hefty young actresses and launched award-winning careers.
Tracy's popularity grew in the translation to Broadway, and she will find herself square in the show-business spotlight again on Friday, when Hairspray the musical hits the big screen.
But an overweight lead character confronts a major cultural taboo. While Hairspray playfully lampoons society's reluctance to let blacks and whites onto the same dance floor, its subplot concerns segregation of a different sort.
"Tracy is the only character in the movie that is not based on reality," says Waters, who based his screenplay on Baltimore's Buddy Deane Show, a fixture of local TV in the early '60s. "As Mary Lou Raines, one of the biggest stars of Buddy Deane, said, 'A black girl could have gotten on the show quicker than a fat girl.'"
Part of Tracy's appeal is that she's an underdog twice over. In a cinematic world of perfectly proportioned heroines, with long legs and figures to die for, Tracy is plump, and proud of it. Runway models need not apply for the role.
There's also the situation she's in: trying to become a dancer on the Corny Collins TV show, despite the evil machinations of the jealous Velma and Amber von Tussle (played in the new film by Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow).
But beyond that, Tracy is indomitable. She can dance up a storm. She's got a good heart, she loves her mom (regardless of whether she's being played by Divine, Harvey Fierstein or John Travolta), and she seems like an optimist.
"She is who she is, and proud of it," says 18-year-old newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who plays Tracy in the new movie. "She doesn't judge people; she doesn't see herself as different. I think that's what people love about her. They feel like they could be her friend, like she wouldn't judge them. She loves people for people."
Making Tracy an atypical heroine has reaped immediate dividends, especially for the actresses chosen to play her.
"When I played the role 20 years ago, there weren't many leading ladies that got the guy that weighed 200 pounds," says Ricki Lake, who originated the role of Tracy in Waters' movie. "I love that she was a big girl. I'm grateful that I was as big as I was back then."
For both Lake and Blonsky, the role of Tracy offered a major break, a first chance at show-biz success. Lake, 19 at the time Waters' Hairspray was released, had only a sitcom episode and a part in a little-seen young people's musical to her credit. She saw a lot of herself in the role, and not only because Tracy is plump.
"I really just sort of played myself as I would have been in 1962," says Lake, calling from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she's acting in a film for Lifetime. "I brought as much of myself to Tracy as I could. I think there's still a bit of me in her."
Lake parlayed her success as Tracy into film roles and a six-year stint as host of her own syndicated talk show.
For Blonsky, the musical represents her first professional acting job.
"I was just a 17-year-old girl with a big dream and with a really supportive family, and Tracy was just a 17-year-old girl with a big dream and a really supportive family," says Blonsky, who will be in Baltimore tonight for the film's local premiere. "I heard about the audition [for the movie role], and I said, 'This is totally right; this is what I want to do.'"
Marissa Jaret Winokur, who originated the role of Tracy onstage, had a pre-Hairspray career, appearing on Broadway and in a handful of movies (including 1999's Oscar-winning American Beauty) and TV shows. She was also considerably older than the other Tracys - 29 when the show opened.
But she, too, has found success in the role, netting a Tony for her work. And like Blonsky and Lake, she felt an immediate connection to the role and understood its almost-universal appeal.
"I always saw the combination between me and Tracy," says Winokur, 34. "I love what I do, and I do think there's a better world out there. ... I was looking at Tracy as what I was like when I was younger."
Tracy continues to be an inspiration for young actresses who may have seen limited opportunities to make their own mark.
"Being a dancer, growing up chubby was really, really hard," says 22-year-old Shannon Durig, now playing Tracy on Broadway. "I would always get, 'You need to lose weight,' 'You're not going to make it.' I would not get a part, because I was too chubby. That is, until I landed Hairspray, and then it was, 'Keep on the weight.'"
Displaying a confidence that would do her character proud, Durig insists she's not worried about her post-Hairspray career. Certainly, she believes, there will be other roles for actresses who aren't stick figures.
"There should be more characters like this, who prove that you don't always have to be the people on Us magazine to have a career," she says. "As long as it's happening once, hopefully it will happen twice."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times