A spritz of confidence
Carly Jibson is a lot like her `Hairspray’ character
By Catherine Foster, Globe Staff, 10/24/2003
Carly Jibson was standing in the lights onstage at the Colonial Theatre the other night, taking her bows and basking in the applause and cheers for “Hairspray,” when she saw him. He was an overweight man, standing in the audience. He was crying. “I lost it,” she says. “I started crying, too. Those people need an anthem.”
And that’s what “Hairspray” is — an anthem for accepting yourself, whatever your size, shape, or color. And with that acceptance, the show argues, you can do anything. Jibson plays Tracy Turnblad, a chunky, spunky 1960s Baltimore teen who desperately wants a spot on the local TV dance program. She not only nabs the spot, but also the handsome star — and integrates the show — because of a self-confidence that’s as unbreakable as her sprayed-to-death hair.
The 19-year-old Jibson exudes the same confidence as she sits in her 8-by-10-foot dressing room, with four pairs of size 6 pumps (gingham, striped, Peter Max-flashy, and shocking pink) neatly lined up on the floor and a mirror nearly covered with pictures of the exuberant actress and her friends.
There are definitely a couple of extra pounds on her
4-foot-10 1/2-inch frame. But Jibson doesn’t hide them under a big shirt. She sports a pink undershirt over an orange one, low-slung jeans with a silver-studded belt, and clunky brown boots. Her curly reddish-brown hair is pulled back into a messy topknot, with two straight side pieces hanging down. When a photographer arrives, she doesn’t even put on lipstick or comb her hair. In the squeaky voice that she uses to great effect in the show, Jibson talks about being plucked from obscurity to star in this first national tour of the Tony Award-winning musical.
In the summer of 2001, Jibson was a high-school student with a big voice in Muskegon, Mich., performing in a new rock opera, “Crash Nation,” at the Cherry County Playhouse. A New York agent spotted her and knew that the producers of “Hairspray” were looking for a very specific and unusual (in show business, anyway) type: a short, overweight girl with an oversized personality who could sing and dance.
A few months later, Jibson was in choir class when her mother showed up, in tears.
“It scared the crap out of me” Jibson says. “I thought, `Oh great, who died?’ My mom’s like, `I’m sorry but I have to pull my daughter out of class.’ ”
They went into the choir teacher’s office. Her mother was shaking as she held out a piece of paper. But Jibson couldn’t read her mother’s handwriting.
“The only thing I could make out was `Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad, New York, and Broadway.’ I had to call them myself to find out what was going on.”
The producers were interested. But as it turned out, Marissa Jaret Winokur had already been cast — and would go on to win a Tony. There was, however, already talk of a tour. They said they’d call.
Jibson graduated from high school in 2002, but didn’t know if she should go to college. What if she spent all that money and then got the part? So she decided to put off college for a year.
In August, after waiting nine months, she got to audition. She and her mother, Renee Zimmerman, got in the family Echo and drove 14 hours to New York. Neither had been there before.
“I met up with the vocal coach and went over the music,” the actress says. “He taught me three pieces in an hour. To learn pieces that quickly, you have to be able to sight-read really well — thanks, choir!”
The next day, Jibson had her audition. Despite knowing nothing about the show, she felt she sang well. Still, Jibson did seven auditions over seven months, each time going up against a new crop of competitors.
“The fact that someone wrote a musical for a short, chubby girl is an amazing opportunity,” she says. “It’s very rare. That’s why the nation went crazy for this musical as far as wanting to be a part of it. There’s a lot of talented girls of my stature that are very serious about musical theater, but don’t usually find a spot for themselves.”
That said, she doesn’t find the alternative very appealing, either.
“I would never want to be 5 feet 10 inches and weigh 115 pounds, because there’s billions of others like that,” she says. “I’d never want to be going up against 300 other girls who look like me. ” At first, Jibson wasn’t really invested in getting the part. “But the more we got into it, the more I fell in love with the character. And I would have been devastated if I didn’t get it.”
She did, a year after the first phone call.
“Hairspray” is about underdogs who get their day. Tracy isn’t the only winner; through her own civil rights “dance-in” she helps break the color barrier that had relegated her black friends to the TV show’s monthly “Negro Day.”
“People want to see the underdog succeed,” Jibson says. “That’s what makes the show so brilliant. You never feel sorry for Tracy, because she’s strong enough to handle it. You root for her the whole way. And [she’s] played by a fat girl, so it’s not like I’m up there talking about stuff I don’t know about.”
Even Amber, the blond and snooty star of the talent show who thwarts Tracy at every turn, is an underdog, Jibson says. “She’s a product of something she doesn’t understand. She’s trying to be this thing she’s been told is acceptable.”
But Jibson says there were no Ambers in her life. “I always had confidence in myself. When I was growing up, my parents never allowed me and my brother [Robb Jibson, a Chicago-based lighting designer] to feel like we were different.”
“It’s been said people will see you how you view yourself,” she adds. “If you carry yourself in a way that looks naive or insecure, people will tear you apart because they see they can. If you make people view you as a person with a strong will, they have to respect that.”
But in doing a high-energy show with lots of dancing is she in danger of losing the weight that got her the part?
“I think I’ve already lost what I’m going to lose,” says Jibson, who started the tour in September in Baltimore. “I eat everything in sight. I have to keep the weight on. Now I’m just building up the muscles I use in the show. But I am in no jeopardy of being a skinny minny.”
But she does have to wear padding — “in my hips and my butt,” she explains, “because my real one sort of does not exist. When the fake one came out it got a lot of attention from the cast members.”
She’s gotten notice for other reasons, too.
“She’s like an exploding fireplug,” says Bruce Vilanch, who plays Tracy’s sofa-sized mother. “There is so much energy and intensity and surprising physicality, it’s dazzling. Good thing I take up more space on stage.”
Jibson’s flying high on a year-long tour of a smash hit, in a role she’s made uniquely her own — some feel she’s a better singer and comic than Winokur. Still, leading roles for diminutive dynamos are few.
“This business is so uncertain,” she says, back in her dressing room, shrugging into a black coat to go run errands. “I could do this show for a year and nothing could come out of it. I treat it as my last job, and I’m riding it out as much as I can.”
But as much fun as this is, it’s not her most fervent wish. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve wanted to be on `Saturday Night Live.’ That’s my ultimate goal.”