Actress takes heavy duty in stride

A lot of overweight teens dream of losing weight and becoming stars. Nineteen-year-old Carly Jibson is rapidly achieving stardom - with the added bonus of being encouraged to keep her pleasingly round shape.

Jibson heads the cast of the national touring company of Hairspray, in which she plays Tracy Turnblad, a rotund Baltimorean with her heart set on winning a spot on a local TV dance show.

During her lengthy audition process for Hairspray, Jibson received some advice that would make most food-loving would-be stars drool. Hairspray choreographer Jerry Mitchell, she recalls, told her "to work out three times a week, but eat everything in sight - which is not a problem for me - keep the weight."

Maintaining the requisite pounds did prove a problem for both Ricki Lake, who originated the role in the John Waters movie on which the stage show is based, and for Marissa Jaret Winokur, who won a Tony Award in the Broadway production.

And lately, it's been a bit of a struggle for Jibson, as well. In recent weeks, when the cast was rehearsing by day and performing by night, the 4-foot, 10 1/2 -inch actress found herself "dropping pounds, but it's not anything," she says. "It's not a huge issue for me, because I'm in no jeopardy of ever being skinny. So I don't think we have that to worry about."

Just in case, however, Jibson wears a bit of padding on stage - in the derriere and the hips. "I am so used to it now, I'll bump into something and really feel like it's my butt. I think the real one is very jealous because the fake one gets a lot attention," she kids.

Positive thinking

It's Jibson's star quality, however, that turned heads when Hairspray launched its national tour at the Mechanic Theatre earlier this month.

Variety called her "a chubby charmer with instant star appeal." The Washington Post said the touring show has "minted a new star." And The Sun wrote, "if there is justice in the theatrical world, the role of tubby teen Tracy Turnblad will make Carly Jibson a star."

Reached by phone last week in Hartford, Conn., the second stop in the show's 50-city tour, a bubbly Jibson reacted to her sudden stardom with modesty. "I try not to think about that aspect of it because my main goal - you can ask anyone who knows me - my main goal is, I want to do this show justice. It's an amazing piece and a difficult role to conquer. I want to bring what's so great about Hairspray to the entire nation. You just can't think about the rest."

The young actress says she definitely identifies with Tracy's can-do attitude. "She doesn't see obstacles, and she doesn't see limitations. She doesn't put limitations on herself. She doesn't think, 'I can't because I'm different.' She just will not allow anything to be an issue. In this process, that's very much been a mindset for me, and in this business in general, because roles like this don't come along often for girls like me."

Yet, self-assured as this 2002 high school grad may sound, she admits, "I'd be lying to you to say I don't have any insecurities about myself, but it's very important - and something Tracy brings to the role - to be comfortable about who are, and be comfortable in your own skin and not apologize for it. And I think that, if anything, it's something that you can't pretend to have. It's an aura that you bring to it."

Jibson believes that aura is something the producers looked for in casting the role. Her own casting process included eight auditions spread over six months, from August 2002 to February 2003.

But her interest in the role began before that. In summer 2001, a New York agent saw her performing in a new musical called Crash Nation at the Cherry County Playhouse in her hometown of Muskegon, Mich. That winter, the agent called and asked if she'd like to audition for Hairspray.

Jibson had never seen Waters' movie, but she said yes. As it turned out, the Broadway role had been cast, but the agent told her to sit tight because there was already talk of a tour.

In the interim, Jibson graduated from high school, then traveled to New York to try out for the soap opera, One Life to Live. While she was in New York, she got a call asking her to audition for Hairspray the next day. That night she learned three of Tracy's songs - "Good Morning Baltimore," "Welcome to the '60s" and "You Can't Stop the Beat."

'I can do this'

She left the audition feeling uncertain. "It was very hard for me to call. I didn't know what they were looking for. I felt I sang the pieces well." But, she explains, "I didn't know anything about the show."

When she was called back to New York to audition a second time, she and her mother saw the show. "Finally, things made a little bit more sense," Jibson says, adding that her confidence went up several notches as well. "I remember thinking, 'OK, I can do this.' I just kind of got it, and I remember going up to my mom at intermission and saying, 'I can do this.'."

In December, Jibson moved to New York, and still the auditions dragged on. But she never lost heart. "The one thing people forget about auditions is that it isn't scary," she says. "They want you to do well and feel comfortable and do your best. I never felt uncomfortable or discouraged."

The day she was expecting to hear whether she'd won the role, she holed up in her apartment and waited. "We were ordering in food. We weren't leaving," she recalls. When the good news came, she says, "I can't tell you what I said verbatim because it's not appropriate to print in the newspaper, but I was pretty excited."

Born in Decatur, Ala., the second child of a father who's a mechanical engineer and a mother who works for a liquidation company, Jibson - whose family moved to Michigan when she was four - has been acting ever since she portrayed a singing bunny in the third grade.

But despite her breathtaking ascent from Muskegon's Cherry County Playhouse to the lead role in Hairspray's national tour, she's resisting the impulse to peer too far into the future. "This business is very weird, and it's very uncertain, so you can't look at this job as a little stepping stone to the next thing. You have to treat it as your last and ride it out for everything you get out of it."

And, even though she's just come off the first stop on the tour, Jibson realizes nothing may ever feel quite the same as the wild audience reaction Hairspray elicited in the town where it's set.

"[Baltimore is] so much in the show that they get things that no other crowd will get or understand. It's so fulfilling to get that roar," she says. "They can relate, 'Oh, my God, North Avenue!' They were an interesting audience. They'll feel a little more home to us than anyplace else will."

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