Trust Us—You Want Halle Bailey to Be Part of Your World

trust-us—you-want-halle-bailey-to-be-part-of-your-world

What is it like to meet a Disney princess? Exactly what you’d think.

A soft, mellifluous voice, an elegant presence, and even a small animal companion—seriously.

Halle Bailey arrived at our cover shoot with her adorable cat Poseidon in tow. Her fur baby was under the weather, and like any good Disney princess, she was concerned with the care of her creature but still made sure to greet everyone with a warm smile. Bailey is beautiful and luminous in a way you can’t forget. She is the gospel song “This Little Light of Mine” personified.

The day that I meet Bailey for our interview at a sprawling Beverly Hills mansion—the setting for our June cover shoot—she is days away from the start of an epic worldwide press tour for The Little Mermaid, and I asked what message she has for her future self. “I think my note to future Halle would be, ‘Everything is going to be okay. It’s gonna be amazing. Be confident, be proud of yourself and the work that you put into this film, and just enjoy yourself, girl,’” she says.

Never has anyone seemed more fated for a role than Bailey flipping the fin of Ariel. Director Rob Marshall has already made it clear on the press tour for The Little Mermaid that, of the hundreds of young women they saw, Bailey was his clear choice for the live-action remake.

The story goes that Marshall knew Bailey was his Ariel after seeing her and her sister perform at the 2019 Grammys, but Bailey wasn’t sure what the Disney team had up their sleeves when they made the appeal for her to audition. “I had received the requests through my agency, CAA, and they told me that Rob Marshall, the director, wanted to see me for The Little Mermaid. I just remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. What role? … Maybe one of the sisters or something like that.’ And then they said, ‘Ariel, he wants you to read as the lead.’ Instantly, I was so excited but so nervous because of just how much she means to me,” she says. “I instantly went into overdrive trying to prepare for the audition, going over and over it again with my sister and trying to get notes from my family of what can I fix. And then I ended up in New York and met Rob Marshall for the first time. [He] was so kind, was so genuine to me, and just made me feel so comfortable. I was just filled with so much gratitude and joy that he was honestly a really cool person and genuine inside and out.”

It’s worth noting that The Little Mermaid marks Bailey’s first solo career move. Up to this point, Bailey has done everything professionally alongside her sister, Chloe. The two not only make up the Grammy-nominated R&B duo Chloe x Halle, but they also starred together in the Freeform series Grown-ish.

They got their start under Beyoncé’s record label, Parkwood Entertainment, touring with the iconic superstar as tweens. The two Parkwood protégés have a closeness that is so sweet and genuine. You hear the collective “aw” on set when Halle asks that we play Chloe’s new album during the shoot. “My sister is my angel, I truly feel,” she tells me. “So the fact that I got to grow up doing this with her is the luckiest thing that could have ever happened to me because I don’t think I would have been doing any of this without her. The whole sole reason I wanted to sing is because I saw my sister singing. … Next thing you know, we’re singing together, then we’re doing shows together.”

If ever two people made a more dynamic debut, it’s the Bailey sisters. After Ungodly Hour, the sisters decided to take a break from their group to try their hands at solo pursuits. Chloe stepped into her full diva era, performing a sold-out national tour of her debut album and taking on a killer role in the Donald Glover–directed series Swarm. When I think of Chloe and Halle, I hear Nina Simone singing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

The level of poise and humility Halle Bailey displays, I learn, can be attributed to two things: her faith and her family. “I think just growing up in Georgia—and I have a lot of family in South Carolina—we’re Southern girls from a really big family,” she shares. “All my life, I’ve just been surrounded by genuine, true love. But at the same time, when you grow up young in this entertainment industry, you have to take yourself away from the hoopla of it all. Me and my sister had to learn that from a young age, being 15 on tour with Beyoncé. I try not to identify my accomplishments as my worth. That way, I can still stay grounded and feel like I’m a real human being. What matters is love and being with the people you love and the happy, joyful moments that you have with one another. Those are the things that last. God is a very big part of my life and everything as well because none of this will be possible without my faith.”

Bailey is also quick to credit the Parkwood education in stardom for how she got to where she is now: “I think just having that example of the amazing Queen Bey…  [She is an] amazing, pristine example of just a hard worker and pushing yourself and knowing that you can just inspire so many generations. That was an amazing example and mentor for us.”

While taking her first step into solo stardom in one of the year’s most anticipated films serves as a massive breakout moment for Bailey, taking a role this big wasn’t part of any carefully curated plan. It was the direction she was led in, and she was open to receiving it. “I’m a very ‘go with the flow’ type of girl,” she adds. “I just let God lead my life. Wherever I’m meant to be, I will end up. I never thought that this would be the way I would be really entering into the acting world. When I think about it, it’s just a mindfreak. It’s immense, and I’m so grateful for it. But I did not think I would venture into acting in this way starting with such a big film.”

As my grandmother would have said, “If you surrender yourself up to God’s blessings, you may be surprised where it leads you.”

When Bailey stepped into the role of Ariel, she entered the world of FODs  (First, Only, Different—a phrase coined by Shonda Rhimes). Bailey is quick to give flowers to the FODs who came before her, Brandy Norwood (who played Cinderella in the 1997 Rodgers and Hammerstein TV adaptation) and Anika Noni Rose (the voice of Tiana, Disney’s first Black princess, in The Princess and the Frog).

For a girl who once played with mermaids with her sister, landing the part of Ariel is a dream come true for Bailey, and she hopes her casting is one day seen as standard and not extraordinary. “It’s crazy, because we’re in the year 2023. You would think that these firsts are not firsts anymore,” she says with wistful optimism. “I just hope that for the future it’s not such a shock anymore for a Black woman to be cast as Ariel and for that to just be a normal thing.”

While the character of Ariel means so much to many, it’s beautiful to hear how much the character taught Bailey.

“I’ve been comfortable really just being with somebody all the time. Somebody has always held my hand. I’ve never had to do anything alone. So this was really my first venture into solo adulthood. I had moved to London, and I was in intense rehearsals and stunts and mermaid training, and all of a sudden, I’m going through this not only physical transformation but [also] mental and spiritual transformation of me finding who I am on my own and building that confidence within myself to be able to do these things,” she says. “So I truly feel like Ariel taught me that I’m worthy, and I’m stronger than I thought. We were filming in the middle of the pandemic and in London, and my family couldn’t come visit me. So I was very isolated. Everything was closed down. I would literally go from work to home, and I would sleep on the weekends because I’d be so tired, and then I’d go right back to work. But looking back, I am happy that it was that way. [It] helped me mirror the emotions Ariel was feeling in the film to where she felt trapped and isolated and ready to see a brand-new world where her heart belonged. I felt like there were parallels to both of our lives in the time that I was filming, and I was grateful for that.”

Bailey’s casting was the start of a conversation about where we, as Black women, are allowed to be, even in the world of fictional characters. Many will say Black folks got Tiana, but they fail to remember that she spent the majority of the movie as a frog. So the message was clear: Even in the fantastical, Black women still didn’t get to be ethereal and beautiful. 

But this is different.

A princess we know and love wears red goddess locs and has melanin-rich skin that soaks up the sun. What does that do to your brain to look at a princess and see yourself? A lot. We all saw the little girls whose paradigm shifted in real time watching the film’s trailer. You can see the look in their eyes—their visions for themselves are expanding. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t cry while watching trailer reactions all over the internet.

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Photo:

Alex G. Harper; Styling: Prada dress; Emily P. Wheeler earrings

As our interview comes to a close, I take a moment to personally thank Bailey for the impact this film has had on me. What does this film feel like to this almost 35-year-old woman?

When I was about 4 or 5 years old, I dressed as the Little Mermaid—bad red wig, purple seashell bra, and fin. I spent the entire evening of trick-or-treating being asked what I was. I was beyond confused because it seemed obvious, as I had all the regalia of Ariel. 

Like the Bailey sisters, I love the ocean, feeling like a fish in the water. So that led to a 12-year Junior Olympic swimming career, travelling the country but hearing competitors call me “black terror” behind my back. There were some pools where I swam that had just taken their first Black members 15 years before I stood on those pool decks.

I sat in on an advance screening of Halle Bailey’s The Little Mermaid, and I cried from the moment the credits started until the film finished. It wasn’t that the movie was particularly emotional or felt like a “very special edition” of the classic Disney film. It was the realisation of how much you were missing before your vision expanded to even include it.

I felt my heart crack open the first time Bailey’s face appeared on-screen. I’d never given myself permission to imagine something like it. Yes, I heard my inner child cheering for joy, but in this moment, the woman who still carries the uncomfortable weight of being called “black terror” through her entire swim career felt that weight disappear. Yes, it’s a remake of a children’s movie, but seeing Bailey playing Ariel makes Black folks feel so much more.

Our relationship with the water is a fraught one. We were carried across it to chattel slavery. We were barred from public pools, with bleach thrown in the water while we tried to splash around. We were hosed with it till our skin flayed when trying to fight for our freedom. Water was weaponized against us during Jim Crow terrorism—it’s about time we reclaimed it.

We’ve tried to return to it. We’ve started acknowledging and calling on the goddess Oshun. But perhaps, as silly as it seems, Bailey stepping into this role is the first step to healing and embracing the libation of water from our ancestors to us.

I cheered when I saw Ariel’s sisters run the gamut from a fair blonde woman to a dark-skinned Black woman. Even the royal court of Prince Eric reminds me of Whoopi Goldberg and Victor Garber as the parents of Filipino Prince Charming Paolo Montalban. It’s not colour-blind casting—it’s colour-brave casting. It requires you to allow everyone into the fantasy.

We’re all there in this film because this young woman had the grace, poise, and preparation to say “Why not me?” to the role of a lifetime.

Thank you, Halle Bailey, from the little girl whose Ariel Halloween costume confused her entire neighbourhood. Thank you from the teenager who heard “Can she even float?” while standing behind the blocks for swim meets. And thank you from the grown woman who may never find words adequate enough to express what it means to see a Brown-skinned woman unapologetically take up space, even under the sea.

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Photographer: Alex G. Harper

Stylist: Lauren Eggertsen

Hairstylist: Tinisha Meeks at Basic White Shirt using Sparkle Hair Imports

Makeup Artist: Christiana Cassell

Manicurist: Yoko Sakakura

Creative Director: Alexa Wiley

Video Director: Kellie Scott

Cinematographer: Amusement Productions

Sound Mixer: Jason Flaster

Senior Video Producer: Stephanie Romero

Video Editor: Collin Hughart

Entertainment Director: Jessica Baker

This story originally appeared on Who What Wear US.

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Trust Us—You Want Halle Bailey to Be Part of Your World

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