One of Bonnie Milligan’s first auditions in New York was an insult. She was in her early 20s and the character was in her 40s. There were lines insinuating the character had bad skin. And she was at a department store to return lingerie with food stains on it. It was gross. But Milligan was new in the city and didn’t want to shut down an audition. So she went, but she played against what was on the page. “I did not fall into the trap of, ‘Oh, I'm ugly and feel bad.’ I did the reading like, ‘How dare you call me fat!’ And I got a callback,” she recalls. “I’ve never been so insulted and excited about a callback.”
As a plus-size actor, Milligan has long been told by the industry, and by the world, what she should or shouldn’t be. Lucky for us, Milligan doesn’t always do what she’s told. She’s a rule-breaker. She’s now appearing in her second Broadway role, Kimberly Akimbo, Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire’s musical about a teen girl with a rare aging disease that gives her the appearance of an old lady.
Milligan plays Aunt Debra, the brassy, grab-life-by-the-balls con artist whose appearance (through a window) in the family home shakes things up and sets Kimberly on the path to tackling her own dreams despite her difficult circumstances. “She has such amazing agency over her desires and her needs. She’s a fighter, she's a survivor. And she's so fun to play, because she kind of weaves spells over everyone around her,” says Milligan.
Though Debra is an intensely funny character, she is not the butt of the joke, as are many roles written for larger bodies. Nor is she an inconsequential bystander in the back row, the roles where larger performers are often relegated. “So many times, a plus-size character is there because they are fat, or there’s usually something in the script that is telling the world why a fat body is on stage or on film. It’s like, ‘Can I just be here? Can I just be a human?” says Milligan.
Those roles haven’t always been easy to come by, and Milligan has worked hard with her agents to ensure the scripts coming to her don’t tokenize her in any way. “I don’t want to be just the fat girl who shows up and sings a high note and leaves,” she says with her characteristic bluntness. “I want characters who are fully rounded people, who show that plus-size people can do more than just one thing.”
Milligan’s confidence comes from her father, who helped develop her comic instincts as a young girl. “My dad was a really funny guy. He was a bigger guy and I watched the way he walked through the world. People just loved him. He was a magnet,” she says. But she lost that confidence when she first moved to New York: “I let some of those voices who said, ‘It’s not going to happen for you because of how you look’ get in. I had to get into therapy to relearn how to love what makes me different and find it special and worth being on a stage.”
Milligan’s Broadway debut in the 2018 Go-Go’s musical Head Over Heels was radical. Princess Pamela was vain and headstrong, but she was sought-after. She was a romantic lead without apology, pursued not in spite of her weight, or because of it (the flip side of “the sad fat person,” which is often the sexual fetishization of fat, dependent on victimhood instead of agency). Pamela was beautiful, and she knew it. “Pamela helped teach me about self-love and acceptance, that it’s ok to love yourself,” says Milligan. “Sometimes it’s really hard. Sometimes the world tells us we’re not allowed to.”
Though there had been previous instances of plus-size leads on stage, notably Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray, Princess Pamela was a new model. Unlike Tracy, Pamela’s weight is never even mentioned, at least not in the script. When the New York Times review of the show came out, it noticed, but not without its own incendiary commentary: “a provocatively cast Bonnie Milligan, trampling with throwaway casualness on pretty princess stereotypes.” Milligan promptly clapped back on Twitter: “I dream of a world filled with love and respect and inclusion...with Correct pronouns and 'provocatively cast' women 'trampling' stereotypes.”
Milligan has since been an outspoken advocate for body diversity on stage, and she admits that this season on Broadway includes more body types in several shows (Hadestown, The Piano Lesson, Some Like It Hot, Six all feature plus-sized performers in featured or lead roles). “I hope it is something that's happening more, and we'll continue to have breakthroughs. There's a lot of room to go,” Milligan says, hoping that casting can continue to evolve and allow large people to just exist on stage as they do in the world. Fat does not have to denote sorrow or evil. It can also exist with love, with sex, with humor, with anger, jealousy, and joy. Fat can simply be human.
Head Over Heels came along at a time when Milligan so personally needed it, reminding her how to love herself in an industry that was not-yet supportive. Kimberly Akimbo similarly arrives in her life at the perfect time: Her dad died at the beginning of the pandemic. She was still grieving when rehearsal for the 2021 Off-Broadway premiere of the show began. “The process has been at times a little disarming,” she admits. She still has sad days: “It’s interesting, because I’m kind of the comic relief in the show, but I’m still experiencing what the show is. It’s hard, but it’s also healing.”
The finale song, with the lyric “no one gets a second time around,” gets her every night—as a reminder of mortality and of the value of cherishing every moment. It’s also the close connection with the cast that has helped get her through this difficult time. “It’s like life,” she says. “Whatever you’re going through is really about whoever you’re going through it with.”