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Interview: Jaz Flowers

By Elissa Blake
June 18, 2011

Size doesn't matter ... Flowers was considered too thin for the role of Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. Photo: Simon Schluter

"I don't see why I can't live my dream and not be a size six." Jaz Flowers

Jaz Flowers is tackling a chicken-and-bacon burger and talking loudly about her love of Meat Loaf (''big fan''), fishing with her dad (''love it'') and how she once spent all day in bed watching episodes of Man vs Wild, the adrenalin-fuelled series starring SAS soldier-turned-Scout leader Bear Grylls (''all day'').

''Love to have a good time, love to have a laugh,'' she says emphatically. ''I mean, life is too short to be boring.''

A 23-year-old country girl, Flowers is an unusual music-theatre star. She's tall, buxom and mouthy. She doesn't stuff around with small talk and she can't abide rude people or anyone getting too serious.

''Too many people have a frown on their face. I mean, lighten up, people!'' she says.

Her friends and colleagues variously describe her as ''one of the boys'' and as having ''the stamina of a diva''. She floors her fellow cast mates in Hairspray, in which she plays the lead role, the effervescent Tracy Turnblad, by heading to the gym after three hours on stage, dancing almost non-stop and belting out 15 songs.

''She's a real chameleon,'' says performer Marney McQueen, who plays the villain in Hairspray. ''She grew up in the country and gets around in ripped singlets and trackie dacks. Then you see her on the red carpet and she's an absolute knockout; she has the most beautiful face and such amazing presence.''

McQueen recalls a time when the cast performed a fund-raiser for the floods in the Victorian town of Yea. ''Jaz sang a beautiful version of Don't Cry Out Loud and she was so poised and stunning. Then she kicked off her stilettos, sat down with a guitar and slammed out a yodelling country song! She brought the house down. She can swing from diva to bogan in a split second.''

Flowers says she felt at home that night, performing to ''country people''. The song she yodelled was Patsy Montana's I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart, made famous by LeAnn Rimes. ''It's rare that you need to be able to yodel but it came in handy that night,'' Flowers says.

Today she's at the uber-manly bike-culture cafe Deus Ex Machina in Camperdown, flanked by vintage motorcycles, sipping on a Coke. She's dressed in a blue-and-white-striped short T-shirt dress with white Doc Martens (no socks). She wears full make-up, with false eyelashes and a tiny beauty spot by the left corner of her pink-lipped mouth. ''I like a face,'' she says.

It's a rare day off before the eight-shows-a-week Hairspray kicks in, a season that is likely to extend to several months, if not a year. Based on John Waters's 1988 film, Hairspray has won more than 30 stage awards worldwide. This production is not the Broadway version. It has the same Motown-inspired songs (by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and book (Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan) but the staging, choreography, set and costume designs are all new.

Directed by David Atkins and choreographed by Jason Coleman, the production uses ground-breaking LED video screens to bring the cartoon-colourful world of 1960s television to life.

When Flowers auditioned for Tracy, she was winning rave reviews for her performance in Fame the Musical, playing another big girl, the gospel-singing Mabel. But Hairspray's producers were looking for a female aged 18, under five feet (152 centimetres) tall and a size 16-plus. Flowers was too tall, too old and too thin.

''I was never up for the role of Tracy. But I'm living proof that you can get almost any role if you can change the opinion of the producers with your performance,'' Flowers says, adding that she is ''costumed appropriately'' for Tracy - a polite way of saying she wears a fat suit under her costume.

Flowers wears a fat suit to look the part. Photo: Simon Schluter

''In Fame, Mabel was the fat dancer. That was me growing up with people saying, 'Don't you think you need to lose weight to be a lead in a musical?' I would always say, 'I don't see why I should. I'm a normal healthy girl. I don't see why I can't live my dream and not have to be a size six.''

Flowers grew up in Morwell, Victoria, a town best known for its coal-fired power plants. Her father, Colin, worked as a tradie at a local paper mill and her mother, Vicki, ran a dance academy, where her older brother, Dallas, was a star tap dancer.

Her father wanted to name her Jasmine (''but Jasmine is a flower and my last name is Flowers, so that's stupid''). It was her mother's idea to call her Jaz but with only one ''z'', so it didn't sound like jazz ballet. She started dance lessons at two and first sang on stage at four. ''My parents realised I was tuneful around four. It was a good start,'' she says.

''My story is really a Brady Bunch story. I grew up in a really happy family. I graduated from uni, had my final showcase and got an agent the next day. The following week I had an audition and I got it.''

She studied musical theatre at Ballarat University - where she suffered terribly from homesickness, something she still grapples with daily, and that first job was an ensemble role in Shane Warne the Musical, a smash hit in Melbourne but a flop in Sydney.

When Hairspray eventually closes, Flowers will have one eye on Broadway and the other on a record deal. ''I think I always wanted to be a pop star,'' she says. ''I'd love to be the next Beyonce - let's be honest, who wouldn't? I'd love to get a record deal. I love writing music and collaborating with other musicians. At the moment I'm in love with Adele and Jessie J. I'd love to do something that's unique and different - you know, show off my good bits.

''I've always been told to bring out a country album but I don't like the idea of putting myself in a box. I'd like to go everywhere. I don't know how a music producer would feel about me saying, 'Look, I want to put an opera track on there and a country track on there and a jazz track on there.' I don't know if it works like that!''

For now, she's more than happy to continue in musical theatre, a world she shares with her boyfriend, Alex Ellis, who performs in the jukebox musical Rock of Ages, now playing in Melbourne.

''We both have the same days off and we're in the same industry so we get each other,'' she says. ''We understand what it's like living in our world and it's great. It's awesome.''

She'd like to try straight acting, perhaps some Shakespeare.

''I'd love to do everything,'' she says. ''It just so happens that music theatre is where I fit at the moment and I'm having a really good time with that.

''Tracy is possibly the biggest role I'm ever, ever going to get. It is the most amazing experience ever to be the leading lady in a show. It's just - I kind of can't explain to you what it feels like. It's the best feeling in the world coming out for your bow every night. It is just the best feeling on earth. It's hard work, you know. It's really, really hard - three hours in a very, very big costume, and a hot costume, and you just don't get a break.

''Every night I come off and I feel sick. You give your heart, your soul, your sweat, your tears every single night and when you get off stage you just collapse because you've just got nothing left. I have a cold shower to recuperate. People have to remember that this is a job and you've got to have a good time as well. You've got to have a life and I definitely have that, too.''

Atkins, the director, says Flowers has a huge career ahead. The only danger is getting stuck in ''big girl'' roles. ''She's not really a big girl at all,'' he says. ''She's curvy and vivacious with a huge voice and she can dance as well as anyone in the show. There are a lot of other roles she can kill, so long as directors look beyond having a physical stereotype, which is what Hairspray is really all about.''

Flowers is not worried about being typecast. ''I'm very confident I can break out of these roles,'' she says. ''I'm happy with my body. I've been offered other roles and had to turn them down because I had a part in something else and that was when I was the shape I was. I'm not fussed.''

Hairspray opens at the Lyric Theatre, Star City, on Thursday.
Big hair and a big dream

Tracy Turnblad, a 16-year-old girl with big hair and a big dream, was first brought to life by Ricki Lake (later of talk-show fame) in the 1988 John Waters film, Hairspray. The 2007 movie version made a star out of Nikki Blonsky, who apparently heard she had scored the role while working in an ice-cream parlour.

When Waters heard the musical was coming to Australia, he reportedly said: ''That's great … we'll make a fat girl a star.''

Flowers gained weight to win the role of Tracy but quickly lost it during the show's run in Melbourne. She wears a fat suit, sometimes with ice packs stitched in, to double her dress size.

''I had leeway to get as big as a house but it's just not healthy,'' she says. ''I have to be fit. I can't run out of breath in the first number.''


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