Bonnie Milligan, a self-proclaimed “Midwest gal,” made her Broadway debut last month as the beautiful Pamela in Head Over Heels, featuring the songs of The Go-Gos. Spoiler alert: Pamela eventually realizes she’s a lesbian, in love with her best friend, Mopsa. She’s also a plus-sized woman whose size receives no fatphobic jibes in the script. The musical is notable, also, for being the first Broadway musical in which a trans actor, Peppermint, has created a leading role.
INTO spoke to Bonnie about her breakthrough role, lesbian love on Broadway, and her personal experience with fatphobia.
More spoilers follow. This interview has been condensed.
How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut in Head Over Heels?
I feel very lucky. It’s something I’ve wanted for so long, and so it’s not lost on me, the amazingness of it all. So I feel very grateful, is really the word for this kind of opportunity, and to be doing a show that has such a beautiful message and with this character, which I’m obsessed with.
What is the message of the show?
Love and acceptance, and that can apply to yourself and to others — that finding your true authenticity, and embracing it, can lead to such joy.
What’s different about your role in Head Over Heels from previous roles you played?
Well, that she gets to, first of all, have a whole, real part. [chuckles] What I love about playing her is being the vain, beautiful girl who has to go on a journey of finding out what’s really going on inside of her.
I feel like so many roles I get, especially as a plus-sized girl, usually will reference my weight, and usually, the journey is finding her own self-love, and how does she overcome all these obstacles of being overweight, and will someone love her? And [in Head Over Heels], that’s not an obstacle. [Pamela] loves herself from the beginning, and it’s actually finding out, What else is there? and what does she really want out of life? and embracing it.
Do you feel like playing this role has taught you about yourself in any particular way?
It’s amazing to go on the stage and, eight times a week, sit out there and go, “No, I really feel beautiful,” and sing my opening number, “Beautiful,” about my own beauty, and just appreciate that a little bit more, invite the beautiful things that I find about myself, which sometimes can be hard to do. I think it’s taught me to be kinder to myself, and to embrace what I love about myself.
What is it about Mopsa that causes Pamela to fall in love with her?
Mopsa is her best friend. Mopsa’s the one who always puts Pamela in her place, because [Pamela’s] not mean-spirited at all. She sings, “You might think I’m crazy — so what if I am? My head is full of good things, enough for everyone.” So she honestly thinks she’s doing what’s right when she’s calling her sister plain. So it’s Mopsa who is there saying, “You lose sight of gentleness.” “You’re going too far.” [Mopsa’s] the one who always keeps [Pamela] in check. And we have this playful tête-à-tête, back and forth, that I love because it’s just fun. It’s this person who is always there, who believes in the best in Pamela and feeds the best in Pamela. So it’s this beautiful, complicated, deep relationship that has always been there.
It was definitely after the Ben Brantley New York Times review,* where he was so flippantly addressing nonbinary [people], and he called “binary” the “most overused word of the decade,” and it was so rude, so transphobic. He incorrectly addressed the character Pythio’s pronouns with a joke, misused Peppermint’s pronouns, and it was mean-spirited.
He also addressed me as “provocatively cast,” which to me felt like a mean side-eye of fat-shaming, because he called me “provocatively cast” [as] the beautiful princess. And in the script, it was always Jeff [Whitty’s] intention to have me, and have a plus-sized actress, but have nothing in the dialogue discussing that. But that was to be on stage — a beautiful ingenue being the plain girl, and the beautiful, plus-sized girl playing the beautiful girl, and that’s part of the lesson. I have a line saying, “For Beauty’s standard through all time defines inconstancy,” meaning the standards change all the time. You can’t keep up with them.
Back in the day, I would have been the picture of beauty, because you look at all these paintings and sculptures, and they were round! They were chubby! Because that meant wealth, that meant status. So I just found [Ben Brantley’s] whole… it was heartbreaking to me. It had been such a joyful opening, and our audiences had been so receptive and beautiful and amazing, and to have to see that was just… it broke my heart.
And so I really do dream of a place where people are respected, where you don’t have to comment on what someone’s pronouns are, or what someone’s size is, or who someone loves. How does that affect your life? It doesn’t. And I just wish that we could move to a place where it isn’t a thing, that we don’t have to defend ourselves for existing. It’s frustrating to me.
One of the things I loved so much about Head Over Heels is that it’s a queer story that’s just a lot of fun, which feels revolutionary, in a way.
That’s just been so much of this, too: The reception of, especially Mopsa and Pamela’s storyline, that the obstacle is Pamela figuring out what that piece of the puzzle is. It’s not her not wanting to be gay. It’s not her not wanting to accept that part of herself. She just doesn’t understand it yet. She knows something feels different, and it’s a little scary, and it’s very different, because she’s known [Mopsa] forever, and it never felt weird around her [before]. There’s no toil, there’s no, “Well, should we come out?” It’s actually just joy for us. And when we do come out, we are accepted.
Joy is, sadly, revolutionary on a Broadway stage. [In Head Over Heels, we] have a lesbian love story that just exists. I am so glad to be able to provide that.
In many ways, fatphobia is an enduring struggle within the LGBTQ movement, even as we’ve made so much progress in so many other areas. What’s your relationship with fatphobia today?
I mean, it’s definitely something I still work at. There are days that I feel so gorgeous, [chuckles] and I’m like, “Yes, nailing it.” I leave and I feel amazing and sexy. And there’s a lot in the show, that I do feel sexy, and I can go out there and be like, “Absolutely, yeah,” singing “Beautiful” and meaning every word of it.
It was so hard for me to find an opening night dress that I felt beautiful in. And I was trying to work with stylists, and people were turning me down because I wasn’t an easy size to work with, and that was soul-crushing. Everyone in my cast is so gorgeous. Like, literally everyone. And looking at all the girls, [they were] pulling their dresses during previews, and they all looked stunning, and I would sit there, and that voice kicks in, where you’re like, “Well, you’re not going to look that good.” I got to a point where I was like, “I just don’t even want to go to this opening party. I’m so discouraged.” And I had to make the choice to not listen to that, and that’s very hard.
I had a friend help me, and we did a Rent the Runway, and again, many things didn’t fit, and it was really frustrating. But I found one that did. And then, making the choice to be like, “No. Remember those times when I felt gorgeous and beautiful?” and embrace that. And, as I got ready, just really being like, “No, you look amazing,” just kind of retraining [myself], because it’s so hard.
We’re constantly told, in this world, by magazines, by TV, by everything, especially like… I get scripts where everything is so [laughs] offensive if you’re a plus-sized actor. What they want you to constantly do in these scripts, and say about yourself, is just heartbreaking, and you have to rebuild yourself up every time.
You’ve said recently that therapy was a big part of your journey to self-acceptance.
Oh yeah, for sure. I had been in the city for a while, and I didn’t really start “going for it” for five years. I had left school, and I’d had all these self-doubts placed in me, and words from others, people that had said, “It’s just going to be really hard for you,” and I took it in as fact that I wouldn’t work. And I came to the city and I thought, “Oh, I can figure this out.”
But I didn’t really tackle what those words had done to me, and all the hurt inside that I was already dealing with. And I was taking a voice class in the city, and we were doing a tongue tension release day. And all of a sudden, I just started sobbing, and I started talking out things that had been said to me before, that I didn’t realize, that I thought I had moved on from, that had really stayed in my head and my heart. And I then kind of stopped and looked back at myself, and I thought, “I’m so unhappy.”
I hadn’t done anything in a year, which was longest since I’d started acting that I hadn’t done something, and I’d just been nose-to-the-ground working, and paying my rent. I realized I was dealing with a little bit of a depression, and I wasn’t doing anything, and I had a friend help me, honestly, fill out the paperwork for a therapist, because I was just in a rough spot, and then I started on therapy, and dealing with things I had never, ever dealt with in my childhood.
So yeah, finding a therapist was integral to me finding healing, in so many ways, to realize maybe that the girl that was so gung-ho and believed in herself before the world kind of broke her down, maybe she wouldn’t come back, but that I could find a way to find some of that self-love again and come back a stronger person because of those things that had happened to me.
If success had happened before I had dealt with all these other things… gosh, I don’t even know. I would have been such a mess. So it was from that, honestly, a little bit after that is when I finally started to take off in my career.
What would you say to other plus-sized actors, either on the verge of entering the industry or in training programs where they may be given toxic messages about their size?
I think that it’s most important to really find your self-worth and know what you bring to the table. This business, in general, is really hard for everybody, but especially as a plus-sized human, because people like to really put things in boxes, and when they find out what your “other” is, that’s your box. And the “fat” box is not always the kindest box, and again, you’ll get scripts that just make you want to go, “Oh my god.” And you’ll get that all the time!
And it’s really hard, and you have to really have a strong sense of self, and the feeling of, well, maybe you can go into rooms and change people’s opinions, and bring what you bring to the table. Surround yourself with the right people, and know that you’re special, and you are beautiful and that things are changing, and things are shifting and that change takes time, which is frustrating. And we have more to come up against, but you’ve got to stay positive, hang in it, and just ground yourself in true self-love because it’s very important.
Bonnie can be seen eight times a week in Head Over Heels at the Hudson Theatre at 141 West 44th Street, New York, NY 10036. See headoverheelsthemusical.com for more information. She will additionally appear in a Showtime mini-series, Escape at Dannemora, directed by Ben Stiller, this fall. Follow Bonnie on Twitter at @BeltingBonnie or Instagram at @beltingbons.
*NB: The New York Times has since redacted Mr. Brantley’s most queer- transphobic remarks in his original review of Head Over Heels. The publication’s statement on the subject can be found here.
Images via Getty