Bailey Carlson was born to perform.
Her parents, both theater majors, surrounded her with music and filled her childhood with stories. She joined Millard South High School's drama department as a teenager, and stuck with acting through college, too.
“Theater has always been in my blood,” she said.
When Carlson graduated in 2010, she couldn't leave the stage behind. She found a “home away from home” at the Omaha Community Playhouse. When the local theater company announced it would put on “Hairspray” this summer, her friends and fellow thespians envisioned Carlson as Tracy Turnblad, the upbeat chubby teenager and lead character. But for Carlson, 24, it was a commentary on her appearance as much as it was a reflection of her talent.
She's quick to point out that Tracy is more than a number on the scale, but her weight is central to the show's theme: Embrace your differences.
People like her because “she's happy and fat,” Carlson said.
“I can't be that way. I'm not happy with how I look.”
So she decided to do something about it. Carlson started the P90X exercise program in November, six months before “Hairspray” would debut at the Playhouse. She worked out six days a week for three months, following the DVD's instruction.
She would post her progress on Facebook, a way to hold herself accountable. “Everybody is silently judging, which is horrible,” she laughed. “But I used that to fuel myself to keep going.”
By the end of the program, when it was time to audition, Carlson was down 15 pounds and two dress sizes. “It's almost been like a transformation from Tracy,” she said, “to Penny,” Tracy's slimmer sidekick, best friend and the show's comic relief.
“Tracy is a great part, she is,” Carlson said. “I wish that when I looked that way, I could have been as happy-go-lucky as she is.”
But she no longer fit the part — physically, anyway — thanks to her new exercise routine. The director cast Carlson as Penny instead.
Her fitter figure makes running around stage much easier — and more fun, too. She's sick less often and long rehearsals don't wear her down. During one scene, she even does a few push-ups, no problem. The closing number — a 13-minute rendition of “You Can't Stop the Beat” — is less of a chore. “It's definitely a workout,” Carlson said, but she has the energy to perform it with a smile. Multiple times.
“Let's do it again,” she thinks after a run-through. “Let's do the reprise. Let's keep going.”
She's 30 pounds lighter than she was before Penny and fits into size 6 clothes. She looks forward to exercise, something she used to dread, and sticks to a high-protein, high-veggie diet.
“Old Bailey was a real quitter,” Carlson said. “When anything got too hard or too inconvenient, I'd throw up my hands and say I'm done.”
Now? She still throws her hands up — but only when the script tells her to.
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