A lucky few in Arizona did a couple of years ago when Sapphire Nova, a ballroom dancer and cosplayer who impersonates Disney characters on the side, stopped for a fill-up on her way to a job. “I was driving to a [children's] party as Tinkerbell, with full wings, and I had to stop and get gas," she says. "I had to be out there standing next to my car, pumping gas as Tinkerbell. I got some funny stares and a couple catcalls.”
That's just another day on the job for Nova and impersonators like her, who have tapped into the astoundingly successful Disney Princess phenomenon, a franchise worth nearly $6 billion in merchandise sales. Embracing the magic of make-believe and dress-up as adults, Nova and her colleagues perform as beloved characters from the Disney canon at children's birthday parties, making anywhere from $60-80 an hour. Which is nothing, many will tell you, compared to the squeals of delight from a 5-year-old girl who's just witnessed Queen Elsa walking into her living room.
We spoke to five women from the New York City area who moonlight as princesses. They shared their thoughts on the ins and outs of the job and the cultural significance of Disney characters.
(Oh, and a note about Tinkerbell: Yes, yes, we know that she is no longer considered a member of the Disney Princess crew, having found her place among the Disney Fairies. But hey, Tink's an honorary Princess by association.)
Location: Bloomfield, NJ
Characters Most Often Played: Jasmine, Tiana
Growing Up With Disney
Like many of us, Contreras says Disney played a central part in her childhood. “Cinderella every day before nap time, followed by The Lion King when I woke up," she says. "It was an everyday thing. I love my parents. Man, they raised me right.” Based in New Jersey, Contreras is a 24-year-old nanny who also works with Bella Princess, a company that specializes in fairy tale-themed parties. “I’m like a princess nanny-sitter,” she quips. "A professional hugger."
Contreras has been donning gowns and tiaras for more than five years, after hearing about the line of work from a friend. “I thought, Oh! Princessing! It’s my dream deferred!” Well, kind of. She knew she wanted to work for Disney at some point in her life and attended the Disney College Program at the Orlando theme park in the summer of 2013. She worked in “merchandise entertainment.” Which is...what, exactly? “I sold sunscreen to really sunburnt people.”
Then she learned that Martha Peralta, the owner of Bella Princess, was in need of a Jasmine. Contreras raised her hand, eagerly. Bella is an all-female operation, which Contreras appreciates. “It’s all women, down to the people that pack the boxes [of party supplies]. All women. Oh, wait," she says. "We do have Martha’s son. He helps with cleaning.”
Every so often, you get a really friendly dad.
Working The Royal Life
Contreras has the parties down to a science. “I’ve got this whole story I tell [the kids] about pixie dust and believing and how making a wish comes from your heart. Things like that,” she explains. I tell her she must be good at thinking on her feet. “I’m good at lying, yes.” She tries to switch up the stories and activities every so often to avoid feeling stagnant, but her favorite game to play with the kids is musical chairs. “That’s a great party game anywhere, any time. Even for adults. You can turn it into a drinking game.” (Noted!) Contreras so enjoys what she does that she's convinced both her sister and her boyfriend to perform with her on occasion. (Sometimes the client requests a prince.)
You can’t really look back and think Cinderella’s a progressive woman. She’s not.
Things can get uncomfortable in other ways as well. “Every so often, you get a really friendly dad,” she says. “They’ll ask you questions like, ‘Can I be your Aladdin?’"
Contrera says she's often asked, "'Well, isn’t the whole princess thing sending the wrong message to little girls?'" To which she replies, “I think Disney is extremely progressive, especially nowadays. You can’t really look back and think Cinderella’s a progressive woman. She’s not. But you do think about the message her movie sends. It’s about dreaming and believing in something and going after it. Of course it’s a guy she’s after, but the message is still there. Chase your dreams. Don’t give up.”
Location: Morristown, NJ
Characters Most Often Played: Belle, Snow White, Rapunzel, Elsa
Nova, a 28-year-old professional ballroom dancer and cosplayer, loved Disney princesses as a child. And her favorite characters alternated each year. “There was a time when I could not go [out] without my Jasmine costume on," she says. "Then came Pocahontas, and I had a fake cardboard canoe I sat in. Everyone from Megara to Belle to Ariel, where you couldn’t get me out of the water. If I could go to school in costume, I would be happy.”
I don’t think I would be as good a person if I didn’t have the princesses growing up.
Nova started in the business almost eight years ago, as a college student in Arizona. “Originally, it was my all-time dream to be a princess for [Disney]. But I knew I wanted to finish college first,” she says. Princess parties allowed her to get experience while earning her degree in environmental chemistry. She eventually auditioned to be an entertainer at Disney theme parks and cruise lines, but never got cast. She did manage to become a professional ballroom dancer along the way, though.
Nova, who now works for Bella in New Jersey, would happily do princess work full time if she could. “Honestly, it’s always been the best part of my day. There’s nothing like coming out and seeing the look on the girl’s face when she first realizes you’re there. Being able to bring that magic to life? It’s so much more than the job.”
And it's a job she's proud of. “Everybody’s always so excited by it. It’s something out of the ordinary. It’s not like I work in a cubicle. I’m a princess.”
I had to be out there pumping gas as Tinkerbell.
“Usually, the most challenging part of the parties aren’t the kids, but the parents,” Nova says. Among her biggest pet peeves: nit-picky requests or adults ignoring kids' temper tantrums. "Or," she adds, "they start talking too much, and the kids can’t hear or focus on what’s going on."
That's when sisterhood comes into play. Who better to help handle an annoying parent than a fellow princess, standing beside you in the trenches? “There has to be that sense of camaraderie, because really, we’re all there to help each other. There’s always gonna be times [when] something goes wrong, a costume breaks. The girls have to have each other’s backs.”
Nova has also grappled with the question of whether or not princesses are positive role models. “I think the overall message princesses send is that the best thing you can possibly be is a good person,” Nova says. “Yes, there’s that perfect image that little girls can’t live up to, but the thing princesses are really there for is to promote that sense of being a good person. It’s not about the look, it’s not about the dress, it’s about being somebody worthwhile.” Nova feels that if kids didn't see it on Disney, they'd inevitably see it somewhere else. “Girls are gonna get that from the media everywhere, anyway. Princesses are such a beautiful light, and for me I don’t think I would be as good a person if I didn’t have the princesses growing up.”
Location: Brooklyn, NY
Character Most Often Played: Frog Princess
Growing Up With Disney
Elease, a performer who lives in Brooklyn, became a fan of the animated Disney classics as she got older. “As a kid, you love Disney because it’s what your parents let you watch. But the [more recent] princesses [like Elsa and Tiana] are so kick-ass.”
She wasn’t exactly lacking in princess material during her childhood, though. “I played the [board] game Pretty Pretty Princess nonstop when I was a kid,” she says. “I didn’t have princess parties as much as I just watched the movies all the time. My room was kind of princess-y. It was all pink and with a canopy bed. It was really embarrassing. It was like that until I was in high school.”
In the summer of 2012, Elease’s male roommate, who performed for NY Princess Party, asked her if she’d be interested in filling in as the Frog Princess from The Princess and the Frog. “I was like, sure. Who doesn’t want to be a princess?” After just one party, she was hooked. “At first I was like, I can’t believe people believe that I’m her. It’s bizarre and awesome at the same time, if that makes sense.” Now she considers it part of her identity. “It’s a big part of who I am. I like being able to say I'm a dancer and actor, but I get real excited about princessing."
Elease talks about a fifth birthday she recently worked. “[The birthday girl] told me that every day since she saw the movie, she wished that the Frog Princess would come to her party. When I came in, she lost her mind, she was so excited. She held onto me for the whole party.” Memories like this make up for the not-so-pleasant times. “For every party where I have one terrible kid who’s like, ‘You’re not real!’ I have one where I made some kid’s birthday awesome.”
For every party where I have one terrible kid who’s like, ‘You’re not real!’ I have one where I made some kid’s birthday awesome.
Elease prefers to get dressed on the job site to preserve the magic as much as possible. "It kind of defeats the purpose if the kids are like, 'Hey didn’t I just see you?'” she says. A typical party for her includes crafts and interactive games, then story time, followed by an etiquette lesson. “We do curtseys, thank you, please, royal waves — stuff like that.” Once they sing “Happy Birthday,” it’s time for her to go.
When changing into her gown at the party isn't an option (if, say, there just isn't a private space away from the kids), Elease shows up in full regalia. “I try not to, because people look at you like you’re crazy,” she says. “I’ve certainly walked down the street in my outfit with a tiara on. I’ve ridden the train. I’ll walk to an event or walk through a building.” But the reactions don’t really bother her. “I just smile at them. If they talk to me I’ll respond. I like knowing that they think I’m crazy.”
Good For Girls? Bad For Girls?
It helps, she says, that her character is “kind of a badass,” which she tries to convey to the kids. “I try to bring independence. That’s an important thing not only as my character, but in all the Disney movies. It’s about what’s right for you and how you can be the best you, and do what you have to do for yourself,” she says.
Age: Hamilton declined to reveal her age, citing concerns about how it may affect her as a working actress.
Location: Hackensack, NJ
Characters Most Often Played: Ariel, Merida, Elsa, Anna, Aurora
Growing Up With Disney
Hamilton's connection with all things Disney goes way back: She visited Disney World with her family once a year as a kid. “Little Mermaid was my heyday," she says. "I had very long, red hair when I was little, so that was a big deal for me.” Years later, she and her husband even honeymooned at the theme park. “I know, we’re dorks,” says Hamilton, now a voice-over artist and actress who has worked on TV.
The Path To Princess-hood
Hamilton had worked on the Disney Cruise Line playing various characters, so it felt like a natural next step to her to continue the work on dry land. She now works with Bella Princess.
She is almost method in her level of dedication. “I do everything I can to embody the personality of the princess,” she says. Sometimes, her husband comes home and finds Hamilton on the floor, reading a story to an invisible crowd of kids. Practice makes perfect. “When Merida first came out," she says, referring to the heroine of Brave, "I developed a Celtic step dance. He watched me do that in our living room and laughed.”
I do everything I can to embody the personality of the princess.
I’ll never be asked to play Tiana — and I shouldn’t.
Hamilton’s party routines are usually structured around a coronation day for the princess — which most kids understand thanks to Frozen. “Everything revolves around that, whether it’s getting dressed up, putting makeup on — you need to practice how to be a princess.” They learn to be kind and polite. The birthday girl becomes the princess. Then it’s time for the royal ball.
Hamilton likes to remind the children that they're beautiful without makeup. “There’s only so much you can hammer into a kid’s head in an hour, so I think if they can take away from that that you don’t need makeup to be beautiful, that’s good. That’s a good start.”
She pays in-character visits to sick children in hospitals. It's especially rewarding when she gets to deliver excellent news. “Some of the really fun ones — they bring you in for a half hour, and they want you, as a princess, to tell their child they’re going to Disney World.”
As for playing characters outside of one's own ethnicity, Hamilton says there's a shared opinion within the community: “That we won’t do. Kids are honest. I was requested to play Mulan, and I got on the phone with the woman and was like, I just want you to be aware, I am not Asian.” The woman still wanted her to come dressed as Mulan. Hamilton held her ground and refused, but did take the gig. “I made the entire party very much about being strong and being your own woman. We sang ‘Reflection,’ and it was more about that instead of China,” she says. "The birthday girl was young and loved that Mulan was a tomboy like her. We try to be as accommodating as possible," she says. "I’ll never be asked to play Tiana — and I shouldn’t.”
Ariel's great and all, but Hamilton prefers the newer crop of characters, who embody more modern ideals. “You see it with Frozen. Elsa literally says, ‘You can’t marry a man you just met,’ which has been what Disney’s been about since the beginning.”
Location: Fort Lee, NJ
Characters Most Often Played: Elsa, Rapunzel, Aurora
Scrivanich doesn't remember her childhood being filled with Disney merchandise or trips to the theme park. "I liked the movies, but I didn’t have the whole collection and costume and toys and books," she says. "The parties I do now, these little girls, I see their bedrooms and the whole thing is outfitted with Disney princesses.”
One day in 2009, while driving through New Jersey, Scrivanich noticed a big, colorful billboard. “All it said was ‘Bella Princess.’ It didn’t give too much information, but I thought the sign was really pretty,” she says. Intrigued, she went to the Bella Princess website, and fell in love with the fairy-tale details — from the wigs to the dresses to the women themselves. “I thought, Oh my gosh, this is the coolest thing ever. I realized: Wait a minute. I love wearing pretty dresses. I love kids. I perform. I can do this. This is so up my alley.” So she got in touch with the owner, Martha, who interviewed her over dinner at a local diner and offered her a job.
Scrivanich often gets matched with characters based solely on hair color: “A lot of Elsa. She’s so popular. A lot of Sleeping Beauty. Cinderella and Ariel. Those four I get the most.” She echoes the sentiment that sometimes the kids are the easiest part of the job. “A lot of the moms are overbearing. Some of them can be so picky and finicky and just a real pain sometimes, especially when you have these higher-end clients. Those ones tend to be the worst.”
She tells me about one time when she was convinced she was being duped. Most of the parties she works are in the morning or afternoon. So she was confused when she was asked to show up at a hotel at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night. “The mom met me in the lobby, because the kids were in the pool, and she just said, ‘Okay I need you to go to this hotel room, and my boyfriend is there and he’ll let you in.’” Sure enough, a man greeted her at the hotel room. “I looked at all my exits, [thinking] What am I doing in a hotel room at 7 o’clock at night on a Saturday? I haven’t seen the kids, because the only person I met was the mom in the lobby.” Was this a kids' party at all or some creepy, kinky grown-up gathering?
“At first, I was like, I’m in a hotel room with a guy I’ve never met before. I had my phone on me because I was like, all I need is this guy to come barging through the door. I was really scared. That was one I’ll never forget.” Eventually, the kids joined her in the hotel room. And nothing like that has happened to her since.
I don’t want these little girls to think all there is to life is just being pretty.
Scrivanich likes to use her work to remind little girls that princesses are more than just about being beautiful. “A lot of these girls, I’ll ask them what’s the most important thing for a princess to have, and their first answer is alway makeup!” she says. So, for example, in a guessing game she plays with the kids, she’ll ask about the princess’ hobbies, like reading. “That’s the thing I try to get across the most — that there’s brains behind being a princess. I don’t want these little girls to think all there is to life is just being pretty.”
Sure, it’s cute to have a swarm of kids dressed in little heels and tiaras, but Scrivanich sees it as an opportunity to convey the importance of intelligence, too. “You need to start molding them early on. These kids really listen to us. The parents make jokes that I should stay for dinner to get their kids to eat.”