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Culture Fri Apr 20 2012
For Tressa Thomas, founder and artistic director of the ThYck Troupe Organization, when it comes to the treatment of full-figured women in arts and entertainment, the industry still has a way to go. "Hollywood is still not ready to embrace the potential of the full-figured market," said Thomas. "I'm starting to see the winds of change come, though." Here, the model, singer and actress talks about the organization, its mission to eradicate negative images of plus-sized women, and her connection to a certain Chicago-born filmmaker and director.
How you did you get your start in the entertainment industry?
I've been in the entertainment industry ever since I was about 5-years-old. I started out singing and had my first live band by the time I was seven and was in my first feature film by the time I was eleven.
You had a live band when you were only seven?
Yes, I did. It was a trio, actually. I did live performances at probably every festival and outdoor concert in Chicago for about three or four summers straight. My mom really got me out there and helped me build my chops as a singer because I was singing all over the place. That was kind of how my career started and of course, I started to garner attention because of that, and the rest is history.
Is your singing what led you to your connection to Chicago's own, filmmaker and director Robert Townsend?
As far as my connection to Robert, I showed up for the audition for The Five Heartbeats just like thousands of other people. He actually had a "cattle call" audition, where he put it on the radio and invited everybody out in Chicago who wanted to be in the film. [The audition] was at the Regal Theater and I showed up with my mom and brother, who had a big boombox and my mom dressed me really flashy to try to get me more attention since I was definitely one of the younger people auditioning. We waited in line, I sang for Robert, and he actually went back to L.A. a couple of weeks later and wrote the scene--it was not originally in the movie. When he told us that, my mom was like, "Okay, is this 'Hollywood' talk? Are you really going to do it?"
That is an awesome testament to your talent that a scene was written just for you.
Now once you see the movie, it makes sense because my scene, although everybody loves it and it's a favorite, is pretty random--like it kind of comes out of nowhere! But it is something that has changed my life; my life has never been the same--even to this day.
Of all Townsend's movies, The Five Heartbeats is indeed a cult classic.
I don't mention The Five Heartbeats much at all; I'm one of those people who try not to dwell on past achievements. I don't mean that in a negative way at all it's just that I've done a lot since then. They may not have been as high profile but I'm moving forward with a different mission and vision and it's a new time for me. I do reference the movie occasionally, though.
ThYck Troupe of Chicago, your performing arts organization, is charged with recognizing full-figured performers who are often overlooked. What were you seeing--or not seeing--that gave you the idea to get the troupe started?
It's funny you ask that because it's a little bit of both. What I was seeing was how I was able to get past all of that as a plus-sized woman. Even in The Five Heartbeats, I was a chubby little girl--I wasn't skinny. I've been plus-sized my entire life so what I saw was that there is a way to get past the stigma that exists against full-figured women in the entertaining and performing arts industry and the way to do that is by being an expert at your craft, building your brand and developing your own content. Because I'm kind of connected in the plus-size modeling industry, I'd get, "They don't recognize us" or "They don't make clothes for us" and all of these things. And of course we have a right to voice our complaints, but the best way to facilitate change is to make the change happen. That's how the ThYck Troupe came about--from a combination of what I knew could be accomplished and what wasn't being accomplished--and trying to create an organization that addressed both.
You've stated that the ThYck Troupe's mission is to also "promote diversity in the arts"; usually, 'diversity' refers to people of color, the LGBT community, etc. Why do you feel full-figured women belong in this category?
Because we are a niche demographic--just like people with disabilities or who are of a particular ethnicity. So when I say I want to create diversity in the performing industry, I'm talking about television and what I see being perpetuated as beautiful. I am saying stop looking at plus-sized people like Hollywood looks at us--like character actors who [only] provide comic relief. That's the diversity I'm talking about.
You mentioned television--roles like the one Nell Carter played on "Gimme A Break!" immediately came to my mind...
I need us to get out of that--that was the 80s. There is an expansion that can take place and if Hollywood or the 'powers that be' in the entertainment industry are not ready for it, it may be because they've never seen its potential. My organization is one that tries to show them the potential of what could be. They're not going to give me a pass--they're going to make me prove it. And I'm ready to do that.
Melissa McCarthy, who is of course, full-figured, is pretty hot right now; with her show, "Mike and Molly" and her Oscar-nominated role in Bridesmaids, she's everywhere, yet, her size doesn't seem to be referenced much. Do you think there is a double standard for roles for full-figured actresses who aren't women of color?
I don't think so. I don't think women of color are targeted specifically; I honestly think the double standard exists for all full-figured people in entertainment. No, they don't mention Melissa's size a lot, but trust me, it's a barrier for her. If you were to sit down and talk to her one-on-one, I'm sure she could tell you all about it. I think that Hollywood is very careful because it knows full-figured women are talented and we can take over, but I feel like they keep us at bay in their own little way and keep us intimidated and conscious about our size. If there is a double standard, it's on a smaller scale.
Do you think heavy men have it easier in the performing arts? Is there any comparison?
I think heavier men have it easier, but I don't think they have it easy.
What has the response about the ThYck Troupe been like from the theater community?
All responses have been overwhelmingly positive and people are amazed at the concept, which I find interesting because anyone could have come up with it; I guess it was just ordained for me to do it. It's essentially what I've gone through in my life and career and I'm expanding it into a consortium of other artists who are also either going through what I went through or who refuse to go through what I went through. People not only get excited about it--they also want to join.
Do you have any plans to collaborate with any other performing troupes who also face exclusionary obstacles?
Because we are so new, our collaborations are just beginning. And I don't want to just collaborate with performing arts organizations; I also want to collaborate with health & fitness organizations as well as empowerment or confidence-building ones. For example, I'm looking to collaborate with an Illinois women's correctional facility, to come in and teach a "diva clinic" for ladies who are about to be released--to teach them about self image and finding out if they have a talent I can help cultivate. When they get back into the community, I want their minds occupied with building their talent and creating a different world for themselves. I believe that the power of art can bring that out of somebody. Those are the kinds of collaborations I'm looking to do.
What does the future hold for the ThYck Troupe?
I'm going to create a branch just for youth, but it won't be limited to size like the adult division. I want to expand out to the community and expose youth to their inner talents so that they come up with a mission and vision for their careers and for themselves. I can definitely relate to that because that's what my mom did to me and I want to pass that on.
See the ThYck Troupe of Chicago in "The Abstract of ThYck", a showcase featuring a runway fashion show, live music, spoken word, dance and vocal performances. The event will be held Saturday, Apr. 28 at 7pm at the Grossinger City Autoplex, 1530 N. Dayton. General admission tickets are $25; VIP tickets are $50-$100. For more information, call 847-582-0555.