Location: Bloomfield, NJ
Characters Most Often Played: Jasmine, Tiana
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 specialises 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.”
Every so often, you get a really friendly dad.
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 favourite 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.
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 favourite 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.
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."
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: Tiana (from The Frog Princess)
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.”
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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, colourful 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 realised: 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 colour: “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.”
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.”