Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now!

Special Features   Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now! Nineteen-year-old newcomer Carly Jibson makes a splash in Hairspray

Carly Jibson in Hairspray
Carly Jibson in Hairspray Photo by Joan Marcus

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Even though she had only one previous professional acting credit to her name, 19-year-old newcomer Carly Jibson was tackling a familiar role when she was cast as Tracy Turnblad in the first national tour of Hairspray last summer — that of the scrappy underdog who dares to reach for the stars.

Thanks to the internet buzz and a torrent of praise for her spunky, spirited portrayal, the fresh-faced Jibson graduated from the touring company to the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway in May. She replaced Kathy Brier as the chunky Baltimore teen who wins a featured spot on a hit 1960's-era TV dance program and then sets her sights on racial integration of that show.

The role of the dark horse cuts close to Jibson's heart. Like her character — the girl with big hair and even bigger dreams — Jibson boasts oodles of self-confidence and an ebullient, spark-plug personality. "You can't teach anybody who's a chunky teenager to be comfortable in their own skin. It's not something you can act," explains Jibson, whose one professional role prior to Hairspray was in a show called Crash Nation at the Cherry County Playhouse in her hometown of Muskegon, Michigan. "You have to be a Tracy Turnblad to play a Tracy Turnblad. You really have to understand where she's coming from." Then she adds with her snappiest 'tude: "And you can't put no skinny girl up in this role and expect her to know."

Even Hairspray producer Margo Lion admits they were a little bit in awe, perhaps even doubtful, of the inexperienced actress — until they got her up on stage. "I don't think we understood the depths of her talent at that time, even though we were knocked out by her from the very first reading." The confident, idealistic Tracy — who beats the odds to score a spot on "The Corny Collins Show" — is clearly a source of inspiration for the actress. "[Tracy] doesn't apologize for who she is," says Jibson. "And I think it's because she doesn't see boundaries. She doesn't see obstacles. Not that she's naive or stupid. She just doesn't allow them to become an issue."

Though only 19, Jibson has weathered her own share of adversity, including a long, strenuous audition process for the Hairspray tour as well as a nasty case of strep throat the week before opening to the critics on Broadway. "It's not like I just had to show up for work — I had to get my New York Times review! So it was so stressful and really scary. But I was so thankful that it worked out."

Despite the whirlwind nature of the past few years, Jibson is just trying to enjoy her success. "I don't think any of this will hit me until it's over. Like yesterday — I was talking to my mom on the phone and she was like, 'Are you at work?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, mom, I'm on Broadway!'"