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EXCLUSIVE! Halle Bailey is making history as Disney's first Black live-action princess

As Disney's Little Mermaid, Halle Bailey is bringing a big shift in representation to Hollywood—and she's found her own voice in the process. 

Once upon a time, there was a shy little girl in Georgia who loved singing along to Disney DVDs (as one did in the early 2000s) and daydreaming about becoming a seafaring songstress like Ariel from The Little Mermaid.

And in a turn of events fit for a fairy tale, that little girl would grow up to be part of that world and actually *become* Ariel (at least on the big screen) in a groundbreaking live-action film, in theaters May 26. 

That little girl? Halle Bailey (now 23), who says she identified with Ariel from the start. Not because of the animated character's aesthetic (you know, the red locks, blue eyes and milky skin tone), but because of her fierceness and determination. 

"Ariel was my princess when I was younger," Halle explains with the complete lack of chill of a true fangirl. "I've always admired her courageousness and passion and her drive for what she wants."

Now, Halle will bring Ariel's special flavor of ambitious optimism to life as Disney's first Black live-action princess in a major film—a role that's already receiving applause for its historic impact. (When The Little Mermaid's trailer was released last fall, TikTok exploded with clips of young Black girls' sweet and surprised reactions to seeing a princess who looked like them.)

And as much as the movie is set to shake up standards in Hollywood, it also served as a catalyst for major change in Halle's world, too. Turns out playing a princess who sacrifices her voice helped Halle find hers.

Little sister energy

Halle checks a lot of boxes that are pretty universal to every Disney princess (she's stunning *and* has "I-was-born-to-live-in-a-musical" vocal skills), but back when she was cast in 2019, Halle was best known as the baby sister half of Grammy-nominated duo Chloe x Halle, thereby sharing Ariel's unique brand of little sister energy. (The two also starred in Grown-ish). 

Singing and acting with your sib can be a dream, but sometimes destiny pulls you in a different direction. If you're a cartoon mermaid, that direction might be exploring sunken ships for human world trash  treasure or rescuing a prince from going down with his own sinking ship.

If you're a real human with incredible levels of talent, that direction might be auditioning for one of the most coveted movie roles of, well, ever. (In a fairy-tale moment, The Little Mermaid director Rob Marshall asked Halle to audition after he saw her perform with Chloe at the 2019 Grammy Awards. She eventually nailed the role by singing the power ballad 'Part of Your World," which brought the director to tears.)

The offer to play such a life-changing role meant Halle had a huge decision to make. And just like Ariel traded her voice to Ursula in exchange for living in the human world, Halle made her own sacrifice when she was cast in The Little Mermaid.

"To be in the movie, I had to leave the only life I've ever known—from my family and the world that I had become so comfortable in and used to," Halle says of moving solo to England to shoot the film. 

And making that sacrifice led to a transformation as big as Ariel's change from mermaid fins to human legs. In Halle's case, the journey has made her confident in a way she wasn't before.

"All my life, I've been kind of shy," she says of her pre-Mermaid self. "I've always had protection from my siblings to kind of shield me, in a way, from having to do things on my own. So when it came to this film, it was like the first massive thing I've ever done on my own."

@disneylittlemermaid and @disneystudios

Poor unfortunate trolls 

Of course, no Disney princess journey would be complete without a villain, and in the story of Princess Halle, the evil force took the form of an army of trolls who had issues with Ariel being played by a woman of color. The backlash wasn't surprising, but that didn't make it any less awful.

For her part, Halle chooses to ignore the hate and focus on the reactions from fans excited to see a Black girl play Ariel. And, especially in the younger parts of the Disney fandom, there are lots of them.

"It's been surreal to watch their reactions to the teaser," Halle reveals. "I saw the trailer for the first time with everybody else, and I was immensely overjoyed and emotional. So when I heard those reactions like, 'She looks like me!' I mean, I was just sobbing. That is still by far one of my favorite moments in life." 

Halle knows it's not just little girls who are excited to see a Black actress as Ariel: It's people of all ages and backgrounds who are welcoming the cultural shift—and welcoming Halle as a face and voice of that change.

"It's about time a role like this is played by a Black woman, by somebody who is part of this beautiful community," she says. "We deserve to have images that look like us, to see ourselves in the media on big screens. I'm just grateful we're finally getting to see ourselves on such big projects."

Once super reserved, Halle's ready to use her voice to continue to inspire progress, both on a personal and professional level. (Next up, she'll star in the musical film adaptation of the classic novel The Color Purple alongside H.E.R.) Because, much like Ariel, she wants more—and is self-assured enough to go get it.

"The transformation is my belief in myself," Halle dishes of her biggest takeaway from The Little Mermaid experience. "I've really just learned how to change my mindset and recognize that what I'm doing is amazing, be proud and clap for myself."

Just some bonus Halle x Ariel thingamabobs

Because, srsly, Halle is a genuine Little Mermaid stan.

Why The Little Mermaid was always her fave: "I mean, the songs had me in a chokehold when I was younger."

Her favorite Little Mermaid song: "My favorite from the original and the remake is still 'Part of Your World.' That still goes down as my number one."

Her thoughts on the new songs: "Alan Menken and Lin-Manuel Miranda did a beautiful job of making these new songs for the film. I can't wait for people to hear them. I'm especially excited about a new song for Ariel called 'For the First Time.'"

Her silent communication skills IRL: "Certain people who know me, they can read my facial expressions. Like my sister, you know, we can, like, read each other's whole life in conversation just through the look of our eyes."

Her personal "Part of Your World" moment: "I always wanted to play in an orchestra because I used to play cello when I was younger. I wish I never stopped."

Her low-key hoarding habit: "I like to make jewelry in my free time, so I have a lot of crystals and beads, and I'm very similar to Ariel in that way."

Hey, girl! Just wanted to let you know that this story originally ran in our June/July 2023 issue.
Want more? Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

Slider and header images: @hallebailey


by Kayleigh Roberts | 5/26/2023