09/09/2002 at 01:00 AM EDT
The first musical Marissa Winokur ever saw was a Darien, Conn., dinner-theater production of Meet Me in St. Louis—and zing, zing, zing went the 8-year-old's heartstrings. "I retained the entire show," she says. "We had a porch in the backyard and I would dance around singing to the trees."
These days her audiences are far more appreciative. Winokur's performance as Tracy Turnblad, the plump, plucky teenage heroine of the new musical Hairspray, has besotted critics and helped turn the adaptation of John Waters's campy 1988 movie into Broadway's hottest ticket since The Producers. On opening night Aug. 15, Winokur, 29, recalls, "it literally took all of my energy not to burst out crying. It was the day I'd been waiting for my entire life."
In fact, at size 12 and barely 5 ft. tall, Winokur—who costarred in Broadway's recent revival of Grease and has played bit parts in films such as American Beauty and Scary Movie—never expected to find herself a headliner. Now, she says, she's thrilled to be "a positive role model" for the plus-sized. "For a 15-year-old girl who has weight issues, if I can make a difference by just being who I am, that to me means more than anything."
Winokur herself appears refreshingly issue-free. "I am completely confident with my body," she says. "I have never had a problem getting a job and I have never had a problem with guys." Offstage, she favors tight leopard-print pants and black see-through shirts. "She doesn't cover her body up," says her boyfriend of four years, Judah Miller, 28, a TV writer in L.A. "She has that confidence in herself that is very sexy." Of course, adds Winokur, "in the real world, size 12 is just normal. I always laugh and say I'm showbiz fat."
Her high-energy role, for which she prepared by singing while running on a treadmill, has already melted off 15 lbs. Now the crew of Hairspray brings her chocolate and candy every night to encourage her to maintain her figure. "They say, 'We want this show to run! Make her eat!' " recounts Winokur.
Like her heroine Ethel Merman, Winokur hopes never to miss a show. Her theater-loving father, Michael, 69, a retired architect, "started my record collection," says Winokur, the youngest of four siblings raised in Bedford Village, N.Y. Perhaps tellingly, her kindergarten report card—which she proudly posted on the wall of her dressing room at the Neil Simon Theatre—reads in part, "Marissa needs to control and soften her voice."
Fat chance. When Winokur performed in a sixth-grade play, says her mother, Maxine, 68, a retired teacher, "they gave her a little part and it became the lead. You knew it was her show." A cheerleader at Fox Lane High School, Winokur studied musical theater for two years at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Manhattan before joining the touring company of Grease in 1994. A year later she took over the role of Pink Lady Jan on Broadway—"it was just dreamy," she says—and in 1997 became best buddies with costar Lucy Lawless, "a cool broad."
When Grease closed in 1998, Winokur headed out to L.A. for Lawless's wedding and a few movie auditions on the side. When she scored a small part in 1999's Never Been Kissed, she was hooked, in no small part because of the payday. "I was like, 'Oh, you can make money in this business,' " she says. She also nabbed guest-star turns on sitcoms such as Dharma & Greg. "I would go to auditions for the funny sidekick," she says. "I never do pathetic-fat-girl roles. I just refuse."
She was the first actress to audition for Hairspray, in which she plays a Baltimore teen who pines to perform on an early 1960s dance show. "Her hair reached the room two minutes before the rest of her body and she was talking a mile a minute," says composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman. "She had the perfect personality." A drag-clad Harvey Fierstein costars as her mother. "We have this real mother-daughter chemistry," Winokur says. "He is really protective of me."
In her downtime, Winokur, who lives in a Manhattan apartment, enjoys making her own accessories ("I'm a craftaholic") and going to movies with beau Miller when he visits. Like Tracy, she still dreams of being on TV—and her newfound fame is already drawing offers. "Eventually I would love to have The Marissa Winokur Show," she says. "But until then, I am just having the time of my life out there."
Rebecca Paley in New York City