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Surviving school is no picnic when you're plus-size. Growing up in Great Neck, N.Y., Nikki Blonsky constantly relied on her bubbly persona to deflect cruel barbs from classmates about her weight. "They didn't like that somebody was different and okay with being different," says Blonsky, 18. "I would just smile in their face. If that made them feel better about themselves, then I'll be the brunt of their jokes. Because I'm totally okay with who I am." As it turned out, a few other people were totally okay with it also: the producers of the new movie musical Hairspray, who selected the newcomer to star as plucky teen Tracy Turnblad, after auditioning thousands of girls for the part. When director Adam Shankman broke the happy news during her shift at Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop, it was Blonsky's turn to almost die from delight. "I couldn't pick myself off the floor," she says. "I had no idea what hit me."

Neither did Hairspray's cast and crew once they saw Blonsky's confident lead performance. "We were absolutely knocked out by her," says producer Neil Meron. "It's that rare moment where the actual person and the role seem to be one." Marvels John Travolta: "She's got the Streisand thing, she's got the Liza Minnelli thing. She's awesome." (Travolta, by the way, plays Blonsky's mom, a role traditionally played by men in drag; see box.) And while Blonsky admits to a few nervous moments with her A-list costars (seeing Travolta, "I thought, 'I'm going to meet Danny Zuko!'"), she soon fit right in. "I watch her walk the red carpet with more poise than I ever have," says castmate and High School Musical star Zac Efron. "This is a girl who's obviously been ready her entire life for this."

Although Blonsky doesn't come from showbiz stock (mom Karen, 49, is an elementary school aide; dad Carl, 50, works in water pollution control), she started voice lessons at 8 and was known "as the girl who would sing for any event in Great Neck," she says. The actress had theater aspirations but didn't get serious about them until she saw Hairspray on Broadway at 15. "That's when I was like, 'Ch-ching! I've gotta do this or I'm gonna die.'" Her Hairspray dream seemingly fizzled the next year when she was rejected for the Broadway show for being too young, but when the musical was turned into a movie she finally landed her dream role.

Offscreen, "very single" is how Blonsky describes herself. "It's more about my career right now," she says. "I think, 'Wow, a year ago I was scooping ice cream, and now I'm standing next to John Travolta in matching pink dresses.' I'm ready for whatever comes."

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  • With reporting by Monica Rizzo.