Once upon a time, there was an eighth-grader who loved musical theater and had never had a job before. She was approached by the owner of a small local business about auditioning to become a princess. Ecstatic, she agreed, and much to her delight, she received the position! Thus began the story of my first job, and how I became an unlicensed “Disney” princess.
If you’re unfamiliar, the term “party princess” refers to a performer who plays various whimsical and fictional characters, most often princesses, for children’s events and birthday parties. The range of characters played varies from situation to situation, often beginning with the policy of the company itself. Some girls specialize in one particular character, while others, like myself, play any character needed.
Here’s how the process for a typical party goes: do your makeup for whatever character you have to be that day, get to the dressing room, restyle your wig (if necessary), put on your costume, pin your wig down, add accessories, and when you’re ready, leave for the party. When you arrive, meet and greet with all the kids, read a story (I liked to do this first because their attention spans hadn’t blown a fuse yet), do an activity, sing a song, eat cake, sing happy birthday, take pictures, and then go back to the dressing room to get out of costume before you head home. Most parties would last anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, filled with awkward interactions with children, desperately trying to keep your costume clean, worrying if your eyelash is falling off, narrowly avoiding tripping on your skirts, intense quad workouts from crouching to child eye-level, and many more potential disasters.
Something you may not know is that most workers in these LLCs are severely underpaid, and I can attest to this with my personal experiences. In the beginning, and in the contract I signed upon employment, I was supposed to be paid $25 per half-hour party, $30 for events (normally two-plus hours), and $30 for hour-long parties. Looking back on this now, that is an absolute pittance, but at the time, I was simply happy that I was being compensated at all. For the first few months, I was paid for every event and party, but as the jobs became sparse, I asked about events I wasn’t asked to do. I was told that I needed enough “volunteer hours” in order to receive paid gigs, which means just doing regular events for free—which, again, are usually over two hours with no breaks. We were paid only in cash in envelopes on a table in the headquarters after our parties, and sometimes when I would return, I would find nothing and be told it was a “free” or “volunteer” event. I realize that what we were doing wasn’t backbreaking and it wasn’t hard labor, but we were still putting in many hours of our personal and valuable time. Some of these events were outdoors in summer or winter, and you don’t know the misery of summer until you’ve spent two hours in a park in direct sunlight in a waist-length wig and a ballgown. Additionally, we had to pay for all of our makeup, hair products, and nails out of pocket, which adds up very quickly. To put it into perspective, for one 30 minute party, it took around two hours to get ready (makeup, hair, costume, etc.), thirty minutes to find the party, thirty minutes to get there, twenty to get back, and another hour to get out of costume and clean up. That was almost 5 hours of work for a measly $25 that was sometimes cut short or not there at all.
Now, how do these characters work? How do they get away without the heavy price tag of affiliation to Disney? This is a question that princessing companies have been trying to work around since their inception. It’s a difficult subject to navigate, especially because of such a sensitive topic as intellectual property. The tricky part is that the characters we play are copyrighted, but some of their names are public domain due to their origin as classic fairytale characters such as Rapunzel or Cinderella. The way of getting around this is simply to fairly use the names of characters that did not originate with Disney such as Pocahontas, and use alternatives for all the rest. Titles like “The Snow Queen,” “The Frog Princess,” and “The Scottish Princess” have been coined by many bootleg princesses over the years.
This all seems very lighthearted...it’s just princesses, right? It’s just for kids. It’s common practice to assume that imitations of the characters you see at a Disney park can be brushed off because the good they do far outweighs any harm, or so it would seem. However, the dark reality to party princesses is a pill that’s hard to swallow for some. The unlicensed use of these character’s likenesses is technically illegal. Fair use has been a hot debate throughout the artistic world for years; from music to images, everyone has either stolen or had something stolen from them in terms of their art. I feel as though the rights of intellectual property is something that is too often swept under the rug.
As a musician, it is something that will define the rest of my life, my career, and the way the world digests my work. It’s something we as artists should be very protective over, but not everyone understands the gravity of the situation. When I worked for my company, pretty much everyone was an actress at one of the high schools or the college in the town, or someone who had acted in their schooling days. We were all musical theater performers, which goes hand-in-hand with princessing, and we thought nothing more of it than our amazing job. No one considered that what we were doing was fundamentally the same as theft; we simply thanked our stars for how lucky we were that we could do something so rewarding and be paid for it! At least, that’s what I thought when I started.
Though there are many deplorable business practices specific to my situation, I’d like to delve deeper into the overarching issues of these “princess for hire” businesses. It is an infringement of copyright that they are all using the likenesses of Disney characters, and an issue of artistic morality when you take into account that they all profit from said illegal use. Those who start these companies know full well that what they’re doing is misuse and continue to do it anyway, profiting from the theft of an artist’s design, and most of the underage workers at these establishments are overworked for little to no compensation, but that is an entirely different form of illegality.
Disney has attempted to take legal action, but has been so far thwarted by the case that customers of these “Character For Hire” LLC’s are not confusing Disney’s services with that of the local business, and that customer reviews show that they are very aware of the lack of affiliation with Disney. This is absurd. The primary customers of these establishments are children, who truly don’t know the difference between the Ariel on the screen and the one at their fifth birthday party, which makes this a breach of copyright.
Now, the blame will most likely be pointed in a lot of different directions with an issue such as this one, but the fact of the matter is that it begins and ends with the consumer. Voting with your dollar is how problems like this are truly put to rest. And yes, while the owners should have never started these businesses in the first place, and while these girls shouldn’t be providing their talents to an immoral company, it becomes the responsibility of the customer to decide the fate of businesses like the one I gave three years to. It is hypocritical of me to scorn the business I supported with my work, but back then, I didn’t know any better. So my advice to you is to continue educating yourself about fair use, copyright, labor laws, and the ethics of intellectual property in order to make this world a safer place for art and those who create it.