In the 2007 film Hairspray the character Edna Turnblad is played by John Travolta. She's also played by a man in at least one stage production I know of.

Why? I know of the tradition in panto for women to play men and vice versa but why was the decision made here?

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    Right away I'd just say for a more comical or entertaining aspect, yet am looking forward to an actual answer. But wait, it actually seems to go back to the 2002 musical and the 1988 movie (starring Divine) it was based on.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Aug 8, 2013 at 8:42

1 Answer 1


John Waters, who wrote and directed the original film had this to say:
(from the article Waters recalls men who played Edna)

In the beginning, Divine played the role of Edna Turnblad. And the first day on the set of “Hairspray,” I didn’t recognize him. I thought it was another neighborhood woman watching the shoot. We were filming in East Baltimore, and all the housewives were talking to him.

Divine looked normal, not weird. It was a moment of truth. It was so anti-the-Divine-character that we started with. Divine said, “Nobody can call me a drag queen, because what drag queen would allow themselves to look like this?”

If there’s a template, that’s it for everybody who has played the role of Edna. And they’ve all taken that to heart. Edna Turnblad isn’t a drag-queen part.

It has become a tradition for men to play her, as with Peter Pan, where it is always played by a woman. Why, I don’t know. It gives it an edge. It’s all about outsiders.

Divine played Edna realistically. The movie I made was actually realistic.

Neil Meron, who produced the 2007 film version (with John Travolta in the role) said:

We hired an actor to play the role of Edna, not an actor to be a man wearing a dress and a fat suit.

John Waters never conceived of the role as a drag role. I mean, it happened to be that Divine was a drag queen, but it's not a drag-queen role. The only tradition is that a man play the role of Edna.

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