Her first major film role has come with big expectations and a racist backlash. But the Grammy-nominated singer isn’t easily deterred.
“I just focus on the positives and the greatness that I’ve been seeing in these beautiful babies’ reactions,” Halle Bailey said of young fans of her character.Credit…Kayla James for The New York Times
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By Kalia Richardson
Emotions wash over Halle Bailey in waves.
When a little girl embraced her at Disney World in March, Bailey, who has the plum role of Ariel in the live-action film of “The Little Mermaid,” fought hard to keep her composure. But when a box of sequined Little Mermaid dolls with auburn locs and cinnamon skin arrived on her doorstep, she couldn’t hold it in.
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“I just sat on my floor and sobbed for, like, 30 minutes straight,” Bailey said.
As one half of the R&B sibling duo Chloe x Halle, Bailey has serenaded YouTube audiences with renditions of Beyoncé classics and captivated Super Bowl crowds with patriotic anthems. But the 23-year-old Atlanta native grew up idolizing the Disney princess Ariel, never imagining she’d play her.
When Bailey and her older sisters, Ski and Chloe (they also have a brother), flapped imaginary fins in the pool as children, she would pretend to be Ariel and hide from Ski, who played the merfolk-eating shark. Bailey was drawn to Ariel’s curiosity about the unknown and her gumption. The mermaid-tailed princess was part of the reason she learned to swim, she added.
“I had a lot of similarities with her. That’s why I connected with her,” Bailey said. “But of course, visually, she looked different than me.”
It might sound like Bailey is living a dream, and in many ways she says she is. But before young girls registered joyful reactions to the trailer, there was a vicious racist backlash to the announcement that a Black star had been cast as Disney royalty. For Bailey, the experience served as a reminder of the lack of Black princesses in her childhood, and her hope for more Black Disney leads for the next generation.
The plot of the live-action “The Little Mermaid” stays largely faithful to the original: Ariel loses her voice to experience the surface world and must receive true love’s kiss from Prince Eric. But in this rendition, Ariel and Prince Eric share an eagerness for adventure and thirst for knowledge that outweigh their desire for romance. Through it all, Bailey’s powerhouse vocals, youthful laugh and contagious charisma make her seem like a real princess.
On a video call from her apartment in Los Angeles, she spoke gently, as if her words would catch fire, smiling politely between pauses and flashing her embellished nails from the Met Gala a week before. But don’t let her sugary sweet demeanor and kind eyes fool you. Bailey, who will star as a young Nettie in the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple” in December, said she hadn’t been afraid to dive into something big — in this case her first major film role — and had possessed a go-getter spirit since early adolescence, despite an overprotective father.
She was born into a musical family. OutKast, Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild rang throughout their Atlanta home, and she gravitated to jazz artists like Nina Simone and Billie Holiday. Halle and Chloe Bailey, now 24, performed around the city for anyone who would listen. They were persistent —“Can we sing for you?” she remembered asking the So So Def record executive Jermaine Dupri — and soon local producers knew their names. Online, they posted their covers of classic R&B titles, and when their take on Beyoncé’s “Best Thing I Never Had” went viral, it led to their discovery by the star herself, who subsequently signed them to her label, Parkwood Entertainment.
As prodigies under Beyoncé’s wing, the sisters released their own albums, amassing five Grammy nominations each. They opened for the singer during her Formation World Tour in Europe in 2016 and performed during her On the Run II Tour two years later. From international concerts in their teens to starring in the “black-ish” spinoff “grown-ish” together, they were rarely apart. It wasn’t until filming “The Little Mermaid” in 2020 that Halle found herself separated from her sister. Despite this, Chloe’s support overflowed.
“She has been really encouraging in more ways than one, where she’s been trying to say, ‘You have these beautiful wings and here, go fly,’” Halle said. “So, it’s really nice to have my best friend tell me those things.”
Although they have their own apartments, they live in the same complex. When Halle got the call with the news that she’d landed the starring role, Chloe was by her sister’s side and they both burst into tears.
Director Rob Marshall and another “Little Mermaid” producer, John DeLuca, had been eyeing Bailey for the role from the moment they watched Chloe x Halle pay tribute to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack with “Where Is the Love” at the 2019 Grammys.
“I saw this beautiful, otherworldly young girl who had this angelic voice, and I just thought, wow, who is this?” Marshall told me in a video call.
So they sent a request for her to audition in New York. When the invitation arrived in her inbox, she assumed it was for the role of one of Ariel’s sisters, not the lead. Bailey was the first actress they auditioned for the part. As she shut her eyes and sang “Part of Your World,” Marshall was brought to tears.
“She claimed the role. She said, ‘I’m Ariel,’ and that’s what was so beautiful,” he said.
The job required emotional grit, physical strength and a splash of naïveté. Her mornings started at 4 a.m. with stunt work in the gym, followed by hours suspended from rigs and crane arms to simulate a floating effect. Although the underwater world was created digitally, Bailey wore a model tail during mermaid training with synchronized swimmers and spent eight-hour days on set submerged in a water tank.
Like a sponge, Marshall said, Bailey absorbed the talent and skill of her co-stars, including Melissa McCarthy as the sea-witch villain, Ursula, and Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric. Despite her guileless persona, DeLuca said, he was moved by her ability to access difficult emotions with ease, as in “Part of Your World” when she lifts off from the jagged rocks with vigor.
“It’s so moving, and it’s not so much the voice — but the voice is extraordinary — it’s the passion and the feeling that she has underneath,” DeLuca said in a video call. “That’s why you just want to rise up and applaud her.”
But not everyone did. Some fans of “The Little Mermaid,” lashed out at her casting with the hashtag #NotMyAriel. Up to then, Tiana (played by Anika Noni Rose) in “The Princess and the Frog,” was the only Black royalty in Disney’s nearly 100-year history. And in the 2023 live-action adaptation of “Peter Pan & Wendy,” Yara Shahidi became the first Black woman to play Tinkerbell onscreen, facing her own backlash for taking on a role historically cast with white performers. Shahidi, addressing what she and her former “grown-ish” castmate had endured, told The Hollywood Reporter that some people view inclusion as detrimental to the quality of the story, “instead of seeing how beautifully they can be interwoven together.”
For Bailey, dealing with racism is part of her reality as a Black woman. Instead, she said, she thinks about what diversity can bring to the Disney tale. “I don’t really let that affect me,” she said. “I just focus on the positives and the greatness that I’ve been seeing in these beautiful babies’ reactions. That’s what’s special to me.”
The new film cuts sexualized language to attract the prince — “bat your eyes,” “pucker your lips” — and is clear about threats to the ocean. Bailey said that the changes were subtle and that the new version was close to the 1989 animated classic she grew up loving. In DeLuca’s eyes, that meant hitting the theme of an outsider finding a sense of belonging. But the film also remains faithful to Bailey’s identity. Her Ariel has natural locs, which were wrapped with strands of red hair. To Bailey, who has had locs since age 5, keeping her natural hairstyle was nonnegotiable.
“As Black women our crowns are so special to us,” Bailey said. “Our hair is important to us in every single way, so I was really grateful that I was allowed to keep that essence of me.”
Thinking more about the film, she brought up the 1997 made-for-TV film version of “Cinderella” that featured a Black Disney princess, played by Brandy, and a Black fairy godmother, played by Whitney Houston.
There are “women who’ve opened the door for me to even be here today,” Bailey said. “So I’m just grateful to be continuing that conversation.”
As she thanked the women who swung open the doors for her reimagined royal, she reveled in the memories of reading “The Little Mermaid: Make a Splash” at the White House, greeting squealing young girls with hugs at the musical’s many premieres and admiring the mermaid dolls that match her complexion.
“It’s almost healing for the inner child within me to have this doll that looks like me,” Bailey said. “It does a lot for your self-worth and confidence.”
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.
Kalia Richardson is a culture reporter and member of the 2022-2023 New York Times fellowship class. @kaliarichardson
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