I am not a Disney princess

Every little girl dreams of becoming a princess. Recently, I tried to make it come true

Published May 28, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

The author daintily nibbles on a turkey leg
The author daintily nibbles on a turkey leg

When I was little, I had three dreams: to become the first female shortstop in Major League Baseball, to marry former Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez and to play a princess at Walt Disney World. My lack of hand-eye coordination and Martinez’s wife and children put the first two ambitions out of reach, but the third stayed with me.

Since I was 3 years old, my family has visited Walt Disney World almost every year. We’re one of those families that refuses to vacation anywhere else. We consider getting a beer at each of EPCOT’s national pavilions a horizon broadening experience. When I was little, we waited in line to do meet-and-greets with the Disney princesses. I’d approach Belle in her iridescent gown, or Ariel in her brassiere made of bivalve remains, and present them with my autograph book, marveling at how cheerful, and dainty and ladylike they were. As a neurotic, tomboyish 7-year-old, I found them nothing less than magical.

Years later, I took a few gender studies courses, and came to realize what everyone else does about Disney princesses: They are pink, sparkly conduits for consumerism, antiquated gender roles and unrealistic standards of beauty. I couldn’t have cared less. Even if Snow White had the personality of a soggy carrot, and “Beauty and the Beast” is essentially a PSA in favor of domestic violence, I wanted to don an acrylic wig and pose for photos with 6-year-olds. I wanted to smile and use phrases like “Have a magical day” without irony. I wanted to pirouette on a parade float with Gaston, played by a man with an MFA in dance from SUNY Purchase and a professional dog groomer boyfriend.

During my family’s recent return to Disney World, I attended an open call audition for “face” roles, a term for the human characters who interact with park guests; non-human, masked characters like Mickey and Minnie are known as “fur” characters. The listing was for “look-alikes” of princes and princesses, including Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jasmine from “Aladdin,” and Ariel. On occasion, people have said that I look like Snow White, a compliment usually modified by the adjectives “Jew-faced” or “crack-addled," but she wasn’t on the list.

According to the Disney casting website, would-be princesses are asked to learn a simple dance routine and do an improvised pantomime based on a Disney-related scenario, such as Minnie baking a cake for Mickey. It states that the starting salary for “faces” is about $12.40 an hour.

When I visited the Disney discussion forums DISboards and Micechat to learn more, current cast members advised wearing “movement clothes” and not much makeup (so the casting directors could see how closely I resembled the characters). One post said, “Smile like your life depends on it.”

I arrived at a costuming warehouse and studio space outside the Animal Kingdom Lodge and joined hordes of women and a handful of men in line outside. They were, by and large, thin, Caucasian and facially proportionate. Approximately 40 percent of women had bedazzled cellphones and 98.5 percent wore more makeup than a camouflaged duck hunter. It felt less like a princess audition than one for Miss Teen USA with the perk that we weren’t at immediate risk of meeting a Trump. Many of the women were Disney employees who had auditioned before. One girl, a bespectacled guest relations attendant, told me this would be her seventh princess audition.

I started talking with three women behind me: Angela, a gorgeous African-American woman who worked at a spa; Janine, her co-worker, who dropped f-bombs gratuitously; and Jacqui, a shy redhead from Arkansas with invisible braces. (I've changed their names.) Angela and Janine knew a girl who had been cast as “a friend of Sleeping Beauty,” a term of art Disney cast members use to maintain the illusion that the princesses are portrayed by “friends” of theirs, rather than performers. She had clued them into the intricacies of the casting process. “Apparently they just take you into a room, fucking line you up, and just, like, fucking look at you for 10 minutes,” Janine said. “Then they send you home.”

This horrified me; no one had mentioned it in the DISBoards forum. I thought about my curly dark hair and Jewish nose and envisioned the entire Disney company, including CEO Bob Iger, ushering me out the door with a broom while singing Yiddish folk songs.

After an hour on line, a bearded man who looked to be in his early 30s ushered us into a gymnasium for registration. Various banners commemorating past Disney events decorated the walls. We lined up to have our heights measured and to receive our numbers. I was 54.

While my new friends and I sat cross-legged on the floor, waiting for our numbers to be called, we scoped out the competition. Although the casting website discourages dressing up like the characters, many did their makeup or wore clothes resembling their desired role. Janine, who wanted to be Ariel, rolled her eyes at a red-haired girl who walked in with a blue-and-white dress and a giant blue bow in her hair. Angela, who was auditioning for Princess Tiana, from “The Princess and the Frog,” spent most of her time counting the other African-American girls in the room, shouting, “3!” or “4 POCs!” as if she were calling a race-themed Bingo.

I asked Angela if she thought Disney would ever cast her as one of the traditionally white princesses. She looked at me as if I’d just announced, with great solemnity, that I was going to move my bowels on the floor. “I’ve never seen a black Cinderella,” she said. “They would never do that, ‘cause then kids would know it wasn’t the real Cinderella.”

“Well, there was Brandy in that movie,” Janine said, referring to the 1997 ABC adaptation of “Cinderella.”

“Right, Brandy,” Angela said. “But that didn’t count.” She continued counting while I wondered how it must have felt to be a young African-American girl in a pre-“Princess and the Frog” world where the only Disney character who looked like you was in an ABC-TV movie, played by someone who once dated Flo Rida and was sued for vehicular manslaughter.

At one point, I excused myself to the bathroom, where I encountered a row of six perfect-looking women doing their hair and reapplying makeup; one of them managed to use a hair iron while talking on her cellphone. A strawberry blonde with the craniofacial structure of a baby sparrow, was a current face character who referred to herself as “a friend of” Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty; apparently she was so devoted to these roles that she felt compelled to maintain the illusion in front of me. She said that face characters had to re-audition for their roles every six months, to make sure nothing “major about your look” has changed.

I asked her if that meant they checked to see if you’ve gained weight. “Well, the costumes go up only to a specific size, so they want to make sure you still fit in it,” she said. (According to cast member posts on Micechat, the largest size for Disney costumes is a size 10, which translates roughly into a real-world size 6). When I returned to tell Angela, she was unsurprised. “Oh, yeah, my friend told me about this. If you gain weight they can phase you out by making you play Pluto or something,” she said, spitting out the word “Pluto” as if it were “Goebbels” or “Anne Hathaway.”

At this point, the gymnasium was completely full, with perhaps 400-odd hopefuls in attendance. A few minutes later, the bearded guy called numbers 51-104 into a dance studio, where we were all told to line up in order.

A muscular dude with a shaved head welcomed us and told us that for the first round, he would be looking at our “ears, eyes, noses, and most importantly, builds”  to see if we matched any of the roles he was casting. He stressed that 90 percent of auditioners get cut during this round: there were a few dozen specific facial characteristics each character performer was required to have, so guests wouldn’t get suspicious if they saw a princess with distinctive facial characteristics, like “a Snow White with a large birthmark on her face.”

He said he would go down each row and look at all of our faces; if he smiled at a few of us, we were instructed to smile back. “I recognize this is probably uncomfortable for you guys, so I’m gonna put on some music to make you feel more at ease,” he said. The music he selected was Natasha Bedingfield’s "Pocketful of Sunshine.” The second I heard the familiar pop tune, I remembered something I'd read about the Titanic, that the ship's officers instructed the orchestra to play cheerful music to assure passengers that they weren't in danger. As I watched the other princess aspirants dance to the music, their faces contorted in awkward grimaces, I wondered if they felt like those Titanic passengers, swaying to an up-tempo beat while clinging to the ship's hull.

Eventually, the man called my row. While he scanned our faces, I looked in the mirror and saw Janine light up like a terrified jack-o-lantern. Then he smiled at me. In one split second, I forgot everything I had learned from gender studies classes and feminist blogs; this was my moment to prove to this bald stranger that no matter how Jew-faced and snarky and un-ladylike I was, I was a true Disney princess. I smiled like my life depended on it. He made a quick mark on his notepad and moved on to the next face.

After a few minutes, the bald man called out a few faces, all of them worn by men. He thanked the rest of us politely for coming and bid us adieu.

We walked out to the parking lot, where those who didn’t make the second round waited for rides. On the way out, I spotted Jacqui on her cellphone, calling her mother. Jacqui had been relatively quiet before the audition, but she had told me that she went to the parks with her family every year, and it was her lifelong dream to perform in the Magic Kingdom as Ariel. She was on her way there now. “I’m gonna go to all the parades and look at all the princesses and be like, ‘Oh, well, that’ll never be me,’” she said, flashing a tight-lipped smile.

Later that afternoon, I met my family in EPCOT, where I downed two Kir Royales in France and a glass of prosecco in Italy. I was in Germany, pondering whether to grab a stein of hefeweizen for the road, when I spotted Snow White under an elm, surrounded by awestruck children. One shy, yellow-haired little boy sidled up and presented her with an autograph book.

I thought about Jacqui and the other girls at the audition, all of them far more beautiful and dainty and all-around princess-like than I am. I thought about the Belles and Ariels and Sleeping Beauties I’d met when I was little, and the ones now who earn $12.40 an hour to live in fear of being demoted to Pluto. I wondered if I would have found an African-American Cinderella, or a Jasmine with glasses, or a Snow White with a birthmark on her face, any less magical.

As the little boy walked away from Snow White, his tiny face still painted with awe, I knew it wouldn’t have made a difference to me, and it wouldn’t have made a difference to him either. For Jacqui’s sake, and Janine’s, and Angela’s, and the millions of aspiring princesses who visit the parks every year, I hoped that the Walt Disney Co. would come to that realization as well.

Since the audition, my princess dreams have dissipated. I don’t have any of that Disney magic, or at least I am not pink and sparkly enough to make it come alive. But, as cheesy as it sounds, I still do believe in its power to make dreams come true. That’s why, even though my princess adventure has come to an end, I’m still holding out hope for Tino. Give me a call, Martinez. Let’s make some magic together.

By Ej Dickson

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