I was never the little girl who dreamed of being a princess. While other kids dressed up in pink chiffon and glitter, I fashioned three-piece suits out of garbage bags and pretended to be a lawyer defending my Babar doll in a custody dispute. So when I got the chance to audition to be a Disney Princess at Disney Hong Kong, it wasn’t about channeling some childhood fantasy. I knew I would be faking it. Or so I thought.When I showed up for the audition, the steamy midtown studio was filling up with girls of all shapes, sizes and personalities. Though there would be no dancing, many girls were in full-on “Chorus Line” attire. A smiling, olive-skinned woman with teased hair — an obvious Disney princess — handed me an application and a sticker with the number 29. The casting call said no experience required, but I noticed the stack of headshots piled on the table.
I grabbed a spot on the floor between a trashcan and an elfish brunette in khaki shorts. I surveyed the studio, trying to match each girl with a princess. With the addition of Princess Tiana to the Disney lineup, I expected a more diverse turnout, but was disappointed to see there were only a few girls in the room who weren’t white. At the front of the studio, a beautiful young African-American girl in a bright yellow dress sat with an entourage of non-auditioning older women. They thumbed through a portfolio of her photos while she adjusted the “1″ sticker on her chest.
“Tinkerbell. Definitely Tinkerbell,” said the girl in the khaki shorts. I looked up and there was a tiny blonde, not taller than 4’11″, at the sign-up table.
“Definitely,” I agreed.
Tinkerbell sat down next to us and we made nervous small talk as we waited for the audition to start.
It turned out Tinkerbell had worked for Disney before. She had just graduated from college and spent her last few summers working at Disneyworld in Orlando. She was “mice height,” so she performed as Mickey and Minnie. It had never occurred to me that Disney casts shorter performers for these roles so they don’t tower over the little kids in photos.
Tinkerbell had auditioned for “face characters” before, but had never gotten the part. As she explained, there are approximately 50 physical characteristics that go into the judging of a face character. To get cast, you need to match half and it’s as much about fitting in with the other performers playing that role as with the character itself.
Finally, the casting director, a middle-aged man with ruddy skin and a comb-over, announced that auditions were about to begin. The girl in the yellow dress stood up and forced her smile even wider. He cautioned us, “Before we begin, I want to let you ladies know that 90 percent of this is about type. Don’t take it personally. If you don’t look the part, there’s not a whole lot you could do about that.” I reflexively touched my big, Jewish nose. “Will numbers 1 to 30 please follow me into the next studio?” I took a deep breath and asked Tinkerbell to watch my bag.
A fit man in black spandex greeted us. “OK, ladies,” he said. “We’re going to teach you a quick routine to make sure you can move like a princess.” He started going through the steps, set to a bouncy, cheery Disney track. Walk forward, curtsy, walk backward, curtsy, waltz step, waltz step, big wave to the kids in the back, small wave to the kids on the front. I can do this, I thought. As long as I could get over how ridiculous I felt.
After a few practice rounds, he split us into groups of five to perform for the casting director. Watching the other girls, it was obvious who the contenders were. While there were many clunkers like me, some of the girls were delicate and light in their movements. They actually looked like princesses, and I was enjoying watching them. I found myself more excited than nervous for my turn.
We took our places. The music played and I floated my first few steps, grinning madly. OK, it was more like a bird flapping its wings and preparing for take-off, but I owned it. Yeah, I hit myself in the head during my big wave and I tripped over my waltz step; I didn’t care. I imagined a crowd of little girls around me, some in chiffon skirts, some in garbage-bag suits, and I wanted them to feel something magical. It doesn’t matter if you’re nine or 90 or if you’re pretending to be a princess or a lawyer, we’re all just trying to channel something a little grander than ourselves.
We finished our routine and reunited with the group. The casting director thanked us for coming and asked for numbers 4 and 15 to say. Everyone else was free to go. The girl in the yellow dress kept beaming all the way to the elevator, when she finally let herself deflate. “How did it go?” Tinkerbell asked, handing me my bag.
“It was fun,” I smiled, relaxed for the first time all day. “Really fun.”
I put on my sunglasses and left the building, walking down the subway stairs with a little waltz in my step.