Russell Grant seeks some Divine inspiration for Hairspray

Best known to many as the celebrity astrologer, since appearing on Strictly Come Dancing Russell Grant has been reigniting his passion for his first love – the stage.

Wednesday, 17th April 2019, 3:19 pm
Updated Friday, 26th April 2019, 11:21 am

And now Russell is to play the role of Edna Turnblad in the musical adaptation of John Waters’ cult-film Hairspray – a role made famous by his idol, the drag queen Divine.Russell appeared on the hit BBC1 dance show in 2011 when he was partnered with Flavia Cacace, and memorably fired from a cannon at the start of a routine.

‘I was 60 when I did that,’ Russell tells The Guide during a break from rehearsals. ‘And then four years later I did the Christmas special and I was with Joanne Clifton – so I’ve danced with two of the champions.

‘Flavia was wonderful because she knew that at 60 years old and 17 stone there was only so much I could do, but she said your greatest asset is that you’ve got rhythm, and your second greatest asset for me to work is that you’re a performer – and that was my musical theatre days.’

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Russell Grant will be playing Edna Turnblad in a new production of Hairspray. Picture: Habibur Rahman
Russell Grant will be playing Edna Turnblad in a new production of Hairspray. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Throughout the ’70s Russell was a regular on the nation’s stages – he talks fondly of appearing at The Kings Theatre in Ivor Novello’s King’s Rhapsody.

But as he became better known for his ‘hobby’ of astrology – with regular TV appearances and his readings appearing in newspapers across the land, including The News – the stage work tailed off.

However, since Strictly, the offers have flooded in – he took over from Michael Crawford in the title role of The Wizard of Oz at The Palladium and then went into a UK tour of Grease, where he played Teen Angel – which returned him to The Kings.

‘The News gave me a fabulous write-up,’ he recalls.

Celebrity astrologer Russell Grant, centre, with the cast of Hairspray, taking a break from rehearsals. Picture: Habibur Rahman

The latest role came after Gaiety Bar co-owner and the show’s producer Jack Edwards contacted him asking if he had ever played Edna.

‘I told him I had done a concert version, so we only did the big numbers. I told him that I’ve played Edna, but not in the strictest sense of the word. ‘He said he’d love me to do it, but it’s probably not a long enough run for you. He said that it’s only going to be 10 performances. So I said: “Darling, that’s perfect – at 68 that’s plenty!”

Playing in drag has only come recently to Russell, though.

‘For some unknown reason it’s only been the last few shows I’ve done – I’ve played Dusty Springfield, Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, and very honoured indeed to play Madame Arcati in the 75th anniversary production of Blithe Spirit. I didn’t realise it, but apparently I was the first man to play the part – but the connection was irresistible wasn’t it? Madame Arcati the medium and me? They just put us together.

‘I seem to have played a lot recently, but not before.’

Although the musical is based on the 1988 film, there is also a glossier 2007 film version starring John Travolta as Edna.‘When I was first asked to do this I said, do you mind if I model this as much as possible on Divine?

‘In September I’ve been asked to workshop a new theatre production on the life of Divine. It’s strange how this year I’ve been asked first to play Edna, and then to play Divine which could go on to the West End

‘When you watch Divine in Hairspray, for me it’s just amazing.

‘One reason I wanted to take it was… it would be too ridiculous to say it’s my tribute to Divine, but my tribute to Divine is that when I’m getting into this role – it’s Divine I see, it’s not John Travolta or anyone else. Divine is my aspiration, my inspiration.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​’