She bought a Cinderella gown from a Halloween outfitter, boned up on the classic tunes and put together a Web site. She has learned a lot about copyright law and the public domain, always with an eye on the world’s most powerful mouse.
“I can say I’m Cinderella because she was around before Disney,” explained Russell, who has upgraded her outfits and now has five other performers working for her. “Rapunzel they don’t own, but ‘Tangled’ they do. Our Little Mermaid is not their Ariel. But we do look like them.”
Ken Massimo, who dispatches princesses for his company Kids Parties D.C., always warns his performers to be careful in their wording. He still remembers the cease-and-desist letter he got from the “Barney people” back in the ’90s, marking the end of his purple-dinosaur days.
“I don’t want to make any powerful enemies,” Massimo said.
Without doubt, Disney was the big bang that launched the ever-expanding princess universe. For decades, the company promoted princess products only every seven years or so, when “Snow White,” “Cinderella” and its other animated features would be released on a rotating basis.
But in 2000, executives lifted those characters out of their films and began marketing them together, year-round, as the “Disney Princesses.” The result has been annual retail sales of more than $4 billion, according to Disney, some 26,000 princess products and a generation obsessed with gowns and crowns.
“That’s why it seems at once familiar and extreme to us,” said Peggy Orenstein, author of the best-selling “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” a scathing critique of the princess craze as too centered on merchandizing and beauty. “Now everybody is jumping on the bandwagon . . . including all these women dressing up like princesses and going to birthday parties.”
Gina Eppolito is a marathon runner and her husband a mountaineer. The two (who met on Mount Everest) have always pushed outdoors and adventure themes at home, so they have no idea where their twin 3-year-old daughters picked up the mania that has one of them suiting up in a Sleeping Beauty dress to eat breakfast and the other donning a wimple. They’ve been to three princess parties in recent months, including one where the mom and dad were dressed as king and queen.
“The girls wore those cardboard crowns until they fell apart,” said Eppolito, 52, a former longtime flight attendant. She has enjoyed their kids’ enthusiasm, but hiring a pro princess of their own? That would be a tiara too far.
“That is just beyond the level I feel like feeding this obsession,” said Eppolito, who was relieved when her girls recently expressed interest in having a dolphin-themed party for their next birthday.
“It might be coming to an end,” she said. “I think my husband would be mortified to have a live Cinderella come to our house.”
Fortunately for the growing ranks of rent-a-princesses, there are plenty of customers to be had. Russell is looking to hire one or two more performers to cover Rockville and Bethesda.
Martin, who owns Princess Parties by Heidi, is holding auditions. She looks for young singers, many from the musical theater program at George Mason University. She brings them in, hears them sing and watches how they react when her 6-year-old runs into the room.
“They might have model looks and a beautiful voice but not really be a kid person,” Martin said. “I have six kids, I can tell when someone is a kid person or not.”
Most stay in the job only briefly, many as just a summer gig, according to Mary Alice “Marty” LeGrow. A Philadelphia-based princess, she blogs about the profession under the moniker Assassin Princess. She describes how, after years of the work, the princess persona has crept into all parts of her life, how even in adult settings she finds herself smiling constantly and filling awkward silences with “adorable laughter.”
She is well known in her neighborhood for coming and going in full princess regalia. But working in her garden recently, the white gloves were off in favor of work gloves, dungarees, sunglasses and a cap.
“I looked like the Unabomber, and I’ve got a chain saw in my hands, when my neighbor stopped by with her kids and the little girl goes, ‘That’s the princess!’ ” said LeGrow, with a not-so-tinkling laugh. “It’s just who I am now.”