HAIRSPRAY is a far from frothy musical, which might be famous for casting a man such as John Travolta in the female role of Edna Turnblad, but seeks to challenge views on people’s size and colour that still hits home today.

Black lead performer Brenda Edwards should know. She recalls being faced by racist threats when touring to the Sunderland Empire recently, the very venue hosting one leg of this year’s Hairspray tour.

“I had a pretty bad experience the last time I came to Sunderland, unfortunately, when I toured in We Will Rock You. I was in a car with Roger Taylor’s (the Queen band member) son. We were chased down the road by people screaming obscenities at me. That was a bit scary. I don’t know if it was because I was sitting in a car with a white guy, or been a black face in the wrong place, but it was very, very frightening for me,” says the singer who was playing The Killer Queen at that time.

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Her Luton and London upbringing hadn’t seen Edwards suffer racist abuse to such an extent.

“Racism is racism at the end of the day and, unfortunately, I don’t think it will ever be extinct. I think we can all do a lot to understand each other and a lot of conversations have taken place within Hairspray. The question remains as to why anyone should have to go through this. We are all human beings and if you cut me I bleed like everyone else. I actually give blood, so at some point one of these people could have my blood going through their veins,” says Edwards.

She is hopeful that Hairspray will help to educate people that all people are the same.

“I love the2007 film version of Hairspray, with John Travolta, and also saw the first production on Broadway, which was amazing. I also like the original 1988 film with Ricki Lake, but the revamped show is electrifying while still carrying its serious message.

“It’s relevant now, more than ever because of the current climate concerning colour. You can’t get away from it because it’s part of everyday life. It’s nice this musical tackles this question a lot, although the star is Tracy Turnblad (Rebecca Mendoza) who has a big personality and even bigger hair. The whole thing is about her wanting everyone to get along and have a better life. This difficulty never goes away. It just seems to.”

Edwards arrived at Sunderland Airshow to discuss next month’s (Sept) visit to Wearside and admits: “I’m well acquainted with airshows to the point that I don’t like flying. If I have to fly I try to be as near to the front of the plane as possible because there is less turbulence. But I’d prefer not to. I’d rather take a train for three days, rather than a plane for two hours.

“I just think it’s a rather big machine to be in the air. It’s a mind over matter thing. Once I’m on the plane, and maybe had a couple of drinks down me, I’m okay.”

The singer confesses that she had to fly as part of the X Factor show which helped her career to take off, so to speak. “When Sharon Osbourne first said to me that we were going to LA, I definitely remember my face read shock-horror. Everyone else was excited and screaming and I remember saying, ‘What do you mean, fly?’ I’d been on a plane once before and that was first class when I got married. That didn’t feel like flying because I was on champagne and brandy all the way. After that I felt, ‘Definitely no jets’ because I’d done a private jet for We Will Rock You. I was booked to go a gig in Scotland and the only way they could get me there from London was by jet, and that was really scary.

“I remember my tour manager started singing all these different plane songs (Leaving on a Jet Plane etc) and I felt, ‘This isn’t working for me’. I’ve never done that again. You feel close to death... close to everything on a plane like that.”

Were musicals on her flightplan when Edwards took part in X Factor? “No, they weren’t. X Factor was 2005 and when I did that I entered the competition to gain a recording career, but it just so happened that the first song I sang was Son of a Preacher Man. The producers of Chicago saw that and they rang Sharon Osbourne to ask about an audition. They even agreed to wait 11 weeks until X Factor finished,” she says.

Edwards had tried to audition for shows previously, but found that without an agent she was flying under the radar. “I’d go to an open audition for a girl band and I’d be told I was too loud and then not work out as a soloist either. So I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I’m glad things have gone the way they have. I’ve now had a West End and musicals career from that year to date.”

She played Mama Morton for five years in Chicago – “It’s crazy because I only signed up for six months... I just don’t know how to leave. Chicago is also all about celebrity culture and it worked really well for me. After that I played Carmen Jones at the Royal Albert Hall.”

Does Edwards have a message for anyone who hounded her in We Will Rock You?

“I don’t. I just want everyone to get along. I was nervous about coming back to do this show, At the same time it needs to be done. If even one person walks away from Hairspray with a smile on their face then we’ve achieved something. This is about not allowing colour, race, sex or class to make a difference.”

Hairspray, Sunderland Empire, September 25 to 30. Box Office: 0844-871-3022 or ATGtickets.com/Sunderland