Once upon a time, in a back alley in Belle Vernon, a beautiful princess stood in the shadow of a Kia, peering into her iPhone camera to check her false eyelashes.
Katie Oxman, bedecked in a platinum wig and a flowing icy blue gown, is, for copyright reasons, “The Ice Queen.” Her partner, a braided, caped Courtney Czarniak, is officially “The Ice Princess.”
But as the pair walk over to the Russian Club and descend the steps into a birthday party for two 5-year-olds filled top to bottom with “Frozen” balloons, blue-tinted punch and homemade Olaf cake pops, there is no doubt who the party guests believe has arrived.
Princess parties find receptive audience in children
Princess parties, featuring readings, games and more, have found a delightful audience with children in and around Pittsburgh. (Video by Nate Guidry; 7/13/2014)
“Elsa! Elsa! Elsa!” squeal 15 bouncing bundles of lavender and turquoise taffeta, all dressed in Disney princess dresses, calling out for the cartoon star of the hit movie “Frozen.”
One child runs over to Ms. Czarniak, taking her by the hand over to the dessert table. “Anna, look,” she gushes. “These napkins are YOU.”
It’s a reaction that Ms. Czarniak has grown accustomed to, multiple times per weekend, as her business, Fairytale Princess Visits, has boomed over the past few months. With the incredible success of “Frozen” -- now not just the highest grossing animated movie of all time but the fifth highest-grossing movie of all time -- princesses are in hot demand.
By the end of June, Ms. Czarniak and her half-dozen regular princesses were fully booked through November -- which will mark a year since the release of “Frozen” and the debut of royal sisters Anna and Elsa. Party princesses are not new -- Ms. Czarniak occasionally got gigs playing Cinderella when she worked for a promotion company during art school more than 10 years ago -- but have been more popular in recent years, driven by increasingly elaborate children’s birthday parties and Disney’s decision to market the princesses as a group rather than as separate movie characters.
This past year, “Frozen” has only heated up that trend. Elsa and Anna impersonators have popped up at birthday parties for children of attention-getters such as reality TV star Tori Spelling and Heather Armstrong, one of the country’s top “mommy bloggers.”
“It‘s kind of a weird job,” laughs Mary LeGrow, a comic book artist and party princess whose blog about “princessing” has been featured in national media. Through the popularity of her blog (www.birthdaypartyprincess.tumblr.com/), she has retained a Hollywood agent and is working with a production company on a sitcom centered on party princesses.
Ms. Czarniak, who works full time as a graphic designer for an arts nonprofit, fell into the princess business this winter, when she was approached through theater connections about organizing a “princess ball” in the South Hills. The three-hour event in February drew mothers such as Heather Rodebaugh of Belle Vernon, who with her friend Allyson Lee, booked the princesses for a joint birthday party last month for their daughters.
To avoid drawing unwelcome attention from Disney -- and breaking copyright law -- they weren’t actually hiring Elsa and Anna but the Ice Queen and Ice Princess. “It is not our intention to violate copyright laws,” reads a statement on Ms. Czarniak‘s website, www.pittsburghprincess.com. “Characters are generic, and we can only present characters to clients who are aware that we do not represent any licensed character.”
The Walt Disney Co. did not respond to a request for comment.
The rules can get a little funny, explained Ms. LeGrow. “When kids want to hear ‘Let it Go’ 400 times in a row, I say to the parent, ‘How about you put the CD on and the kids can dance to it?’ The parent can do it because it’s their party. If we put it on, it’s copyright infringement.”
The costumes can be similar but shouldn’t be exact replicas, she said, noting that she can always pick out the party princess at costume conventions because their dresses aren’t quite right. And party princesses can use their proper names if the fairy tales predated the Disney movie, such as Cinderella or Snow White or Rapunzel, but can’t use names created by Disney, such as Ariel or Elsa or Belle.
All that is way above the heads of 5-year-olds Hailey and Saylor, dressed for their Belle Vernon party in the highly coveted official Elsa dresses that Hailey’s grandmother managed to secure after weeks of calling the Disney store asking when a shipment would arrive. (The dresses aren’t in stock long enough to be displayed and are limited to one per customer.)
In advance of the party, Ms. Rodebaugh had Hailey “write a letter to Mr. Disney” asking for a character to come to the party. Hailey had been expecting “maybe Donald Duck,” she said, and was blown away to see her two favorite princesses instead. For more than two hours, nearly every pint-sized party guest was completely transfixed -- ignoring bowls of blue M&Ms and frosted non-pareils -- by the stories, dancing, “ice magic” tricks and face painting of the princesses. “Can we pretend we’re fairies?” Ms. Oxman asked her trail of admirers, as Ms. Czarniak took on face-painting duties. “Do you know how to play freeze dance?”
“I could stand up there and stand on my head and I wouldn’t have that kind of attention,” joked Ms. Lee of Belle Vernon, over a never-ending chorus of questions from the guests.
“Elsa, can I sit by you?”
“Elsa, can you sing?”
“Elsa, is that your real hair?”
“Elsa, can I come home with you?”
At 37, Ms. Czarniak is on the older side for a professional princess. “I thought I was pushing it when I was playing Cinderella at 25,” she laughed. “It‘s probably a two- to three-year shelf life for me and I’m done.” For her family, the princess business came at the right time -- work for her husband, who is an actor and a dance instructor at local colleges, had been severely impacted by the recession.
Given the work that the business takes -- just getting her makeup and dress on takes an hour, not to mention the cost of costumes -- she feels that her prices are fair. But hiring a princess isn‘t cheap. Packages start at $170 for a one-hour visit with one princess and go up to $400 for a two-hour visit with two princesses, including face painting.
There are several other Pittsburgh princess companies that charge similar rates, such as $80 for a 30-minute princess appearance from JS Princess Parties in Irwin or $125 for a 45-minute appearance from Princesses in Pittsburgh.
Ms. Czarniak and her hired princesses have booked as many as six parties in a weekend. At her home in Bridgeville, where about a dozen costumes hang in her garage, sandwiched between Christmas decorations and a box of space heaters, she has about an hour to inhale a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make a quick change between her noon Cinderella party in Moon to the 3:30 p.m. party in Belle Vernon.
“It’s impossible to find a good Cinderella wig,” she said, fingering the curls on the dirty blond wig she has just placed on a Styrofoam head in her living room. “It either wants to be really sleek, which isn’t right, or you try to mess it up and it looks like George Washington.”
There are de facto rules for proper princessing. Princesses should not be seen driving up to parties and should park blocks away or tucked off in an alley. If a princess is wearing a wig, false eyelashes are required, to make the wig believable. Princesses should not be doing outdoor parties in high temperatures and humidity due to the many-layered costumes and wigs. Just because one princess costume is flattering doesn‘t mean they all are.
“I don‘t play the mermaid,” said Ms. Czarniak, “because I feel like I look like my brother.”
And the fact that business is brisk doesn’t mean that princesses are universally popular. Plenty of critics, such as Peggy Orenstein, author of the 2011 best-seller “Cinderella Ate My Daughter,” decry the ultra-feminine images of the princesses and question their value as role models. Ms. LeGrow often hears mothers snarking about the princess image even as they pay handsomely for her appearances at their daughters’ parties.
On one hand, Ms. Czarniak tries to compensate for the less flattering aspects of the princess image, making a point to note during the Belle Vernon party that “math is pretty cool” and donating a portion of the princess ball proceeds to those affected by human trafficking. But on the other hand, she feels as if there’s a lot to celebrate, noting that as a child (and future artist), she was utterly captivated by the drawings and animation in Disney princess movies.
Ms. Oxman, 22, of Oakland, recently graduated from Point Park University with a degree in musical theater and is spending her weekdays in New York City auditioning for acting roles and her weekends princessing in Pittsburgh. The week before the Belle Vernon party, she received a call back for roles on a Disney Cruise (although sadly, at 5-foot-8, she is too tall for official Disney requirements for most of the princesses).
“I don‘t think it’s old-fashioned -- I think it‘s great,” she said, of little girls and their princess obsessions. “We think that a kid looks at them and thinks, ‘Oh, she lives in a palace and she’s rich.’ What they want to do is put on a dress and pretend to be someone else, which is acting. Everyone needs more imagination.”
And even pretend princesses can generate real emotions, said Ms. Czarniak, recalling one “Frozen” birthday party for a 4-year-old when she was invited to sit down to dinner next to the birthday girl. The girl, who had been quiet during the party, turned to Ms. Czarniak and said, “My Daddy died, too,” recalling part of the storyline from the movie.
It’s moments like that -- and the pure joy that she feels like she’s bringing to children and their families -- that makes her feel as if she‘s doing more than just dressing up in a costume.
“Making a little girl‘s day is the easy part,” she said. “What I like is when we leave a party and the grandmother is running after us.”
Indeed, by the end of the party at the Russian Club, Ms. Oxman was posing for pictures with just the grandparents.
“They’ve created a lot of memories,” said one grandfather admiringly as the Ice Queen and Ice Princess finally extricated themselves from the little girls in the basement of the Russian Club, making sure none of them was following as they walked through the parking lot and into the alley, to their waiting SUV chariot.
Anya Sostek: email@example.com or 412-263-1308.