On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Cinderella was on the phone with her next client. “Are you ready? Everybody there? Okay, here I come.”
The princess put away her cellphone, gave her crown a final tweak and climbed out of her Kia, ready to rock her fourth birthday party of the weekend. This Cinderella is a gown about town.
“I think I’ve done more than 800 parties now,” said Rebecca Russell, owner and principal Cinderella of Princess Parties of Virginia, as she guided her voluminous blue skirts along a Chantilly cul-de-sac. “It’s just getting busier and busier.”
It is an enchanting time to be a professional party princess. On the tails of a massive marketing blitz of all things tiara-ed, the ancient childhood appeal of the fairy-tale heroine has exploded into a modern princess-industrial complex. Amid thousands of princess products and millions of begowned little girls, it turns out there is a decent living to be made by chipper-voiced entrepreneurs ready to displace the old party clown.
“It’s just grown like crazy,” said Heidi Martin, who recently started a party princess company in Stafford and now books a stable of 25 Cinderellas, Belles and Pocahontases for gatherings all around the region.
Even in career-obsessed Washington, where legions of professional women command six-figure salaries and care more about office shoes than glass slippers, parents find themselves helpless in the face of the fierce princess passions of their 3-to-6-year-old girls.
“I have parents from D.C. all the time who call and say, ‘We don’t know where this came from, Disney is getting to her somehow,’ ” said Russell. “They say, ‘We don’t even play with princesses but all she wants to do is put on a dress and dance around the house, and now she really, really wants Cinderella at her birthday party.’ ”
There were no reservations at the Chantilly home of Vedika and Vinay Pande, where Cinderella was walking up the front steps.
“No, no, no,” she scolded, in an un-princessy voice, as some rose thorns snagged her gown. But by the time she pushed the doorbell, she was composed, aglow and ready to burst into song.
“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” she crooned out as the door opened, accompanied by a wireless speaker held in her gloved hand. She swept past a wide-eyed crowd of children, ages 5 to 9, who stared, squealed and clutched their cheeks in excitement.
For the next two hours, Cinderella held court in a living room cleared of furniture. She led nine agog girls — and four only slightly more reserved boys — in song, using the iPad she keeps in her leopard-skin roll-aboard bag. They danced in a circle, she painted their faces and helped them make magic wands. She dubbed them all official princesses and knights.
“The fairy dust will only last a couple of months,” she said sweetly, casting a little confetti glitter on birthday-girl Viola’s hands. A few parental heads snap around. “I’m just kidding. But the magic will last forever.”
This is Russell’s weekend life. She lives in costume and in character, coordinating four other performers by cellphone (her message begins with her theme song) and e-mail (all signed “Enchantingly yours”). She pumps gas in her gown and has endured a couple of fender-benders where the other driver gets out only to confront Cinderella.
“I used to have my phone number on the car, but I’d get these creepy calls from guys who saw me in traffic,” she said. “I’d have to say, I’m sorry, I’m not that kind of princess.”
But at an average of $220 per party, even a proper princess can pull down $40,000 a year, Russell said. The former wedding singer (and daughter of a Washington Opera chorus member) jumped into the biz in 2007, when she heard about a “real” princess showing up at her niece’s party in Fairfax. Instantly, she knew it was the home-based business she was searching for.
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.”