More to the Story: Nikki Blonsky
Taylor Harrington 5/24/2021 5:07pm ET
Few times in life leave a person truly speechless, and my sit-down with Nikki Blonsky was one of those times. Known as the face of the hit movie Hairspray, there is so much more to Nikki’s story. Her talent is endless, her heart is boundless, and the stories and experiences she has had along her journey are truly irreplaceable.
In this intimate conversation, we talk about dreams, joy, loss, grief, love, and the meaning of genuine human connection.
Growing up on Long Island in the town of Great Neck, Nikki was called to the stage at a young age. She remembers her Nan, Peggy Smeja, telling her, “Nikki, mark my words, you’re going to be on the big screen one day,” and a Grandma is never wrong.
“From the age of three, I’ll never forget, my Nan had a record player, we’re not talking about CDs, and she would take out her records and put them on. I remember the first time hearing the needle hit the record and just knowing how special that was. My grandmother taught me how to jitterbug at the age of eight. I was very much encouraged to sing and dance. Nobody else in my family really did it, but they were like, go have fun, do it. I started singing lessons at the age of eight. My parents always believed in me, you know? I look back now and I’m like, wow, most parents, when a kid says, oh, I want to be an actor or be an entertainer, most parents are like, Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no.”
True joy in life comes from the genuine connections we create with others, and although you might not know what Nikki has been up to over the last few years, her stories are worth more than any amount of publicity.
During her senior year of high school, Nikki quietly auditioned for a little movie called Hairspray, not even letting her best friends in on her secret in fear of rejection. Rejection never came, and she got the call that she landed the lead role in the movie the night before her senior prom. When all of her friends gathered for pre-prom pictures, she was able to break the news to the group, and was even surprised with a few dozen roses at prom from the film’s director.
“I remember it was super busy and everybody was running around doing their own thing, getting their hair and makeup done, their nails done, and I was holding this secret that I had auditioned for this movie for six months. I hadn’t told any of my friends. It’s superstition, that’s what it is with me. I’m like, if I tell people the good news the good things are gonna go away, so let’s just wait until they happen. So I didn’t tell any of my friends, and then I had to tell them at pre-prom. I stood up in front of all them, and they were all theater kids. Some of them had even come up to me and told me previously like, Hey, I saw online, they’re casting the movie Hairspray. You should audition and I’m there thinking- I’m already knee-deep in auditions. I was already four months in, but I couldn’t tell them that. So I was like, oh, guys, I’m way too busy with getting ready for college. No movie, no way. Meanwhile, I was already auditioning. So I got up in front of everyone at pre-prom and I told them, “Hey, so I auditioned for this movie, and I got it.” I remember getting to prom and there were three dozen long-stemmed red roses that said, “Welcome to the Hairspray Family”. It’s so funny how things work out and are just written in the stars. After-prom is a big deal and everybody either goes to the shore or they go into The City. We went to The City, and I remember we were on a party bus and everybody’s having a blast with music and somebody yelled, “I’m hungry”, and so of course then we’re all hungry. So the bus driver pulled over and we all got out at this diner, I believe it was on 52nd Street and it said, Cosmic Diner and I turned around and I was looking at the Hairspray marquee at the Neil Simon Theatre. I was directly across the street from it. I was like, wow, this is wild. This is your moment. This is your future. It was literally staring at me right in the face. Out of all the diners in New York City, we landed at the one right next to Hairspray.”
Nikki’s journey has been written in the stars from the beginning, and after Hairspray, she found herself diving into the Indie film world, landing roles in movies such as Waiting for Forever, Harold, and the film that changed her life, The Last Movie Star, which she stars in alongside the late great Burt Reynolds. Meeting Burt onset quickly changed Nikki’s life as he took on not only the role of co-star, but of friend and confidante. Their bond was instantly solidified when Burt asked the green actress if she could sing for him. What happened next was a gift that Nikki is forever grateful for.
“One of my favorite films recently in the past few years that I did was called The Last Movie Star. That was Burt Reynolds last film. It was funny, because I was meeting him at such a point in my life that you know, again, it’s funny how people come into your lives, and they’re supposed to just be a co-star. Burt almost took on this, I want to say almost an Uncle or Grandfather type role with me. It was at a point in my life where I was in a very, very bad relationship. It was not healthy, in fact, I ended it while on set before I walked onto a scene with Bert. I remember I had all this dialogue, I had this huge monologue, and I’m holding onto these nerves. I walked onto set and there he was. This is a man that my grandparents raised me on his movies. I was a huge fan and then I got to know him and talk to him and he asked me sing for him while I was on set. I said, “Sure, I’m gonna sing you my favorite song ever.” I think he was thinking that I was going to sing a song from an artist of today or you know, Hairspray, and I said, “I’m gonna sing you “Crazy” by Patsy Cline because that’s my favorite song. My Nan raised me on Patsy.” He looked at me and he said, “Patsy was one of my best friends.” From that moment, Burt and I got so close. He had to sing in the movie and I’ll never forget, I had already wrapped, I had come back to New York, and I got a call and they said, “Burt has a question for you“. I said, Sure. “He has to sing a song called “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” by Dean Martin.” I said, I know it. They said, “he wants to know if you’ll learn it and teach it to him.” I was like, what is happening in my life right now?! Burt Reynolds could call Barbra Streisand or Liza Minnelli and they would answer the phone and teach it to him, you know? The fact that he trusted me and thought of me. He was such a kind, gentle soul, and working with him, it gets me choked up, because I miss him. Working with him was one of the greatest blessings of my life and when they named that movie The Last Movie Star, they were totally on target. He was such a great legend and icon, but what a kind and gentle soul.
It’s been interesting, I’ve had these massive things like Hairspray, smaller indie films, and my career has gone up and down and all around and some people have said, Oh, she’s gone and hasn’t done that much or whatever. People don’t know the experiences that I’ve had. That’s what is so important to me. That’s what I take away, that’s what I put on this pillow every night and go to sleep with, the chance and the time that I got to sing for Burt and hang out in his trailer and hear stories about Deliverance. There was greatness.”
There is something magical that happens when the right people cross paths, and Nikki’s life was altered after meeting Burt and having such a special bond with him, one she likes to thank her Nan for, because she gave her the right song to sing for him in that moment.
“I guess they thought I was gonna sing Hairspray, or something else, but I had to go with my favorite and I sang it for my Nan. It was her favorite song, and she was the one that always told me to follow my dreams. She used to say to me as a little girl, “I’m gonna see you up on that big screen one day.” She always thought bigger than I did. I thought I would just be on stage. I would say, “Nan, I’ll be on stage, maybe,” and she’d say, “Mark my words. You’re gonna be on that big screen.” So the song I sang for Burt was “Crazy”, by Patsy Cline. Anytime I get to sing that song it just brings me back to her, singing it to her, and then singing it to Burt. Yeah, now it has a double meaning to me.
My nan was super, super, important to me and we lost her while I was auditioning for Hairspray the Musical on Broadway and while I was learning the material for her funeral. It was an intense time but what I’ve learned is, and I was just telling my brother this yesterday because unfortunately, his best friend had passed away. I said, “Joe, just because he’s passed, doesn’t mean that he’s not still here with you. He is on your journey with you. I mean, this tattoo right here, it says “kid”, and I recently got it. For my birthday this year, I just went and got it because that was the nickname that my Uncle always called me as a kid. He was my best friend in the whole world and unfortunately in 2008, after Hairspray, after all the excitement, I lost him to suicide and that was the biggest thing that shook up my world. It was like, you could be at the top of the world and have a movie and all this excitement, but you never know what’s going on with your loved ones. My Uncle wanted to be an actor. So I very much feel that by me being on my journey, by you being on your journey, we’re still carrying on the legacy of those we have lost, and are still making them proud. I know it.
It’s about the experiences and how people touch your heart and your soul. You can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have that human connection with someone, then what is it all for? The feeling of love and being loved just for who you are is the greatest thing in the world.
I think there’s something so special with grandparents or, you know, aunts and uncles. I was very thankful that after losing my grandparents I was able to almost get a surrogate grandfather in Burt there for a little bit. Now in everything I do, I’m like, I know you’re up there, Burt, I know you’re watching.”
Nikki and I exchanged stories of our grandmothers, hers being her Nan Peggy, and mine my Gran Mary. Sharing grief with someone whose love for their grandma mirrors my own is something that I won’t soon forget.
Although she has been in this industry for well over a decade, her story is only beginning, and we feel blessed to have crossed paths with such a genuine soul and person. The future is so bright for Nikki Blonsky, and we can’t wait to see much more from her in the future.
“I’m out here filming a new movie. I’m really excited about it. It’s something totally different for me. It’s really imperative to the times right now and it’s about social injustice. I’m working with an incredible young actor, Aubrey Joseph, who I just adore. It’s been a really nice experience and it’s been interesting filming during COVID, but it’s happening. Sets are typically such “huggy” environments, everybody’s so happy to be there, and normally you all hang out at the lunch table. Not anymore, everybody’s separated and in their trailers, just for safety reasons. It still feels good and right, it’s been good to be back and be around creative people putting out a fun product. My character is not like Tracy, from Hairspray, she’s not super spunky and there’s no singing and dancing, no riding on garbage trucks. She’s had a hard life and she just wants to be loved and she finds herself in a very interesting predicament, and how she gets out of it is even more interesting.”
A New Yorker living on the West Coast could be challenging, but Nikki has made the move with grace and intention, and has hit the ground running. With dreams of writing and opening her own production company, you can be sure that big things are headed her way, whether she is in NYC or California.
“I’m a New Yorker through and through, it’s in my blood. When I get off the Long Island Railroad in Penn Station, and I’m not being cheesy, I feel the heartbeat of my feet, like you can feel it pumping under your feet. I love New York with all my heart. It’s everything to me, I miss it, but I will say being out here in California, I’m excited. It’s my chance to live on my own and really start my production company up. I realized that I don’t just want to act, I want to write and I want to produce. It’s scary at times, I miss my family, I’m not gonna lie. I’m 32. I FaceTime with them all day, all the time. Like I said, my uncle wanted to be an actor and he was he was out here for a while, so I was telling my brother yesterday, I said, I just feel so connected to Uncle Steve, when I’m out here. I said, even though I’m solo out here, I’m not, you know, that he has my back. I’m also very lucky to over the past 14 years after Hairspray coming out, I have my core group of people that are like family and I’m very lucky that they are close by and I get to see them.”
Anyone would be lucky to have Nikki by their side and on their team, and so we were curious what her dating life has been like after a huge year of coming into her own and finding the confidence to share with the world that she is gay.
“It’s been a massive year of just really coming into my own and I think really being myself. This summer I came out, and it was very liberating. Scary, it was, but I knew that this is me. Either take it or leave it, you know? I’m going to continue to be me and go on with my life, so either you’re on the Blonsky Train or you’re off. I was really excited to come out and it was really amazing to see the response back from other members of the community. People that I’ve looked up to my whole life, Billie Jean King, and Melissa Etheridge, just welcoming me into the community. I was just blown away and it’s still so surreal.
Dating has never been easy. In high school, I was that girl that was super focused on the school shows and getting into the colleges and all of that. I never really dated until my 20s, but it was really this summer when I decided to come out with the news and just let everybody know, nope, I haven’t been dating boys. It’s been great to see how accepting my fans have been, and I’ve gotten some amazing DMs from them saying that they were inspired to come out. That’s just wild to me. I’m just glad that people are just finally in 2021 able to be who they are and be celebrated for that. I pulled my brother and his fiancé aside, they were the first two I told, and I was like, “Hey, I just want to let you know, you guys are gonna see a girl pick me up tonight for a date.” Then we had the conversation, and then I told my parents and they were just super accepting.
My relationship with my first girlfriend really made me believe in love. She is still to this day, you know, I haven’t spoken to her in God knows how long, but she’s somebody that I think of with a lot of respect. I thank her for showing me that love is real, and I can be loved for just being Nikki. I think that was my favorite part of that relationship was being loved for just who I was, and not for Nikki Blonsky, because dating in this business is tricky enough, putting the whole Tracy Turnblad thing on top of it can be interesting. You don’t know, are people with you because they are right for me, or are they here because it is going to benefit them? For right now I’m single.
I went into this new movie purposely single because I can’t have anything distracting me or clouding my head, I just needed to go in open-minded and play this character. So, I am single right now, but um, who knows what can happen in the future? There’s always someone out there for everybody, but for now, I really enjoy laying down at night and just being with myself and being at peace and not having to worry, especially when I’m playing a hefty role like this because I’m a person that always wants to make sure all of my partner’s needs are met. I want to make sure I am making them happy and all that. I feel like, especially when I’m working, I’m like, oh, gosh, am I giving everyone and everything the attention that it deserves? I feel like it’s good that I’m single for my current role, but who knows? We’ll see. You never know what tomorrow brings.”
After talking about relationships, grief, dreams, and plans for the future, Nikki tells us that she hopes to have her book and screenplay out in the next few years, and is keeping the door to love open.
“If you put out good energy, you’re gonna get it back. So I’m gonna put out positive energy, and say that I will still be making movies, you can bet your bottom dollar. I’m obsessed with being in this business and acting and following my dreams. I just started getting my hand in producing and writing as well. Hopefully, my book will be done by then, my screenplay will be done, and that movie will be made… And who knows, maybe that person that we were talking about that’s out there, that she doesn’t know that she’s my soulmate, maybe she’ll wake up and find me. As long as I have my family, my best friends Amy and Gino, my managers, my little team and I get to sing and act, then I’m a happy camper. I don’t need a lot. As long as I have a place to rest my head and everybody is safe, happy, and healthy, then I’m happy. When you’re doing your passion to carry on somebody else’s legacy, it means so much more. So please know that your Gran is up there and she’s looking down on you and she’s smiling about your journey, and she’s with you every single day.”
With the love of Burt Reynolds, Nikki’s Nan Peggy, and my Gran Mary shining down on us, it was hard to wrap up this conversation, and I know that Nikki will remain a close friend and touch so many lives with her kindness, compassion, and limitless talent.
Nikki can be found on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/nikkiblonsky/
Watch the full episode below and listen everywhere podcasts are available!
Taylor Harrington is the Editor-in-Chief of Confessional Magazine, and can be found on Instagram at Taywoww.