"It's so relevant right now," says Baillio of the show's message to follow your dreams

By Lanford Beard
Updated June 07, 2016 06:00 PM

Maddie Baillio has been hanging on to a major secret for nearly two weeks.

“It felt like forever,” she tells PEOPLE of the wait to share with the world that she’s been plucked from relative obscurity to play Tracy Turnblad in NBC’s Hairspray Live! – but it’s little surprise 12 days felt like an eternity considering she decided to audition only three hours in advance.

“I decided at, like, 3 a.m. the night before that I was going to get up and go to this audition,” says the 20-year-old college sophomore from Texas, “and I’m so glad I did.”

Though she wasn’t even a twinkle in her parents’ eyes when John Waters’ dark comedy hit movie theaters in 1988, and she was only 6 years old when the Broadway play debuted, Baillio saw the stage musical’s 2007 film adaptation when she was in elementary school, and a dream was born.

“I fell in love with it, and I fell in love with Tracy,” she recalls, “and that’s when I knew that I wanted to play Tracy one day.”

Indeed, Baillio finds the hair-hopping heroine’s fierce conviction to achieve her dreams particularly important in a time where more and more women like Ashley Graham, Whitney Way Thore and Amy Schumer are championing body positivity.

“It’s so relevant right now,” she says. “I think this is a good time for Hairspray to be a thing.”

She adds that, by playing Tracy, “I want to be an inspiration to girls just like me. I want them to know: Don’t let anybody stop you from following your dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you you’re something that you’re not. Go for your dreams, and if you work hard enough, you can achieve them.

Which isn’t to say her road to the role has been completely smooth.

During her audition for casting guru Bernard Telsey, she admits she had a bit of a hiccup: “On the flyer, it asked that all the girls prepare a short version of ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ so I prepared my short portion, and I was really confident with it. I sang it, and Berney Telsey, the casting agent, asked me to sing the end of ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ and I was like, ‘Oh shoot! I don’t know that part.’ I made up about, like, 50 percent of the words, I think. I guess I didn’t mess up too bad!”

She adds, “It’s funny because the only performance that I’ve ever messed up the words on was in a competition that I was in when I was in, like, fifth grade – and I sang ‘Good Morning Baltimore.’ ”

So now, Baillio is putting aside her school books to study the musical’s score and ace Hairspray‘s “showstopper” of opening when rehearsals begin in October. (The star-studded cast includes Harvey Fierstein as brassy mama Edna Turnblad, Martin Short as Wilbur Turnblad, Jennifer Hudson as Motormouth Maybelle and Derek Hough TV host Corny Collins.)

Hairspray Live! airs Dec. 7 on NBC.