Princess Marty says the most important thing a princess has to do is smile and be in character — always.
"You can never ruin it for a child, even if you're coming home from work ... and you're in your big dress," she says. "If a child sees you, you have to be a princess for them. You can't say, 'Sorry kid, I'm off the clock.' "
Her highness — known outside the big dress as Mary Alice LeGrow — is a professional party princess. She uses her best princess voice and dresses up in full regalia to charm children.
"It just gets exponentially more profitable and more exciting as we go from year to year," she says. "Ten years ago, you wouldn't have even heard about this job, and now, here we are, people are talking about it on the radio."
People are talking about it online, too; LeGrow illustrates and blogs about her royal career. Before crowning herself the party princess, she was a graphic novelist. Her eight-volume fantasy series, Bizenghast, got a lot of positive press before the recession hit. That's when LeGrow realized she needed to get even more creative about her work. Being a princess foots the bills while she fundraises for her graphic projects through Kickstarter.
She does face some opposition, though, from parents who worry about reinforcing negative feminine stereotypes. Princess culture could even be harmful to a girl's self-esteem, argues Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter.
It's the No. 1 question LeGrow gets, she says. But when she asks children what they would do if they were princesses, they say, "I would be in charge!"
"For them, it's more about being in charge, eating cookies all day long," she says. "They like the pretty dresses, but they also like the idea of being the most important person in the kingdom."
The key is helping kids get a balance, while fostering play and creativity, LeGrow says.
"Simply dumping this princess culture in all its merchandising form onto children, you can do damage to them," she says. "I think you should encourage kids to explore their creativity at a young age in a very gender-neutral way. Do things that aren't just princess-y or aren't just G.I. Joe and that sort of thing."
Even the boys enjoy the princess parties sometimes. LeGrow says, at a recent party, the birthday girl had a younger brother who was just as excited, if not more so, to see the princess.
"The mother actually bought him a tutu in case he wanted to dress up because all of the other children were in costume," she says, "and he was contemplating it. He was jealous."
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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
Mary Alice LeGrow is a professional party princess. She graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2003. She's the author of a dark fantasy graphic novel series "Bizenghast," which had eight volumes between 2005 and 2011 that got lots of positive press. Since the recession, though, she's had a hard time getting more work in her field, and so she funds her creative pursuits through Kickstarter.
She turned her love of cosplay into a job as a professional party princess, and she blogs and illustrates her life. I just want to say, Princess Marty, it is a great pleasure to have you with us.
MARY ALICE LEGROW: It's unbelievable to sit here and talk to somebody who's talked to a real princess, Princess Di, as well as many other very influential people.
LYDEN: I just got to shake her hands. But I can tell you, she did have violet eyes. Yes, it was at a garden party in London many years ago. May I describe what you are wearing?
LEGROW: Go right ahead.
LYDEN: Well, you have alighted here in full regalia. You have a gorgeous golden gown on, opera-length gloves, of course, and a tiara, as all princesses must have. How's the princess game, Princess Marty? How is it going?
LEGROW: It just gets exponentially more profitable and more exciting as we go from year to year. Ten years ago, you wouldn't have even heard about this job. And now, here we are. People are talking about it on the radio.
LYDEN: What is the most important thing a princess has to do?
LEGROW: Smile and be in character all the time. You can never ruin it for a child, even if you're coming home from work and you're standing on the corner - as I've often done - waiting for the light to change so you can cross and you're in your big dress. If a child sees you, you have to be a princess for them. You can't say: Sorry, kid. I'm off the clock.
LYDEN: Do princesses have a little princess-y voice?
LEGROW: We do. We have a princess-y voice.
LYDEN: So speak - can you speak to me in that?
LEGROW: Well, hello, children. It's so wonderful to be here in your third birthday, Jackie.
LYDEN: You know, I never really got over my third birthday. However, we thought we would ask some real 3-year-olds, and kids maybe a tiny bit older than that, if they could name any princess. And here's what we got. Would you mind putting on your headphones around that tiara?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Cinderella, Jasmine, Snow White, Ariel.
Princess Belle and Princess Ariel and Princess Sleeping Beauty and Aurora, Mulan, Tatiana and Cinderella.
LYDEN: Wow. Are any of them familiar to you?
LEGROW: Yes, she forgot one. Pocahontas.
MARY ALICE LEGROW: But, yes, I know them all as well.
LYDEN: You know, the princess in our culture doesn't always have a great connotation as we get older.
LEGROW: No. It's - actually, one of the number one questions I get is, do you ever get some people who feel like it's very antifeminist? And I say: Have you talked to any children lately who like princesses? The number one thing I hear from them when I say: Oh, what would you do if you were a princess? And they say: I would be in charge. So for them, it's more about being charge, eating cookies all day long. They like the pretty dresses, but they also like the idea of being the most important person in the kingdom.
LYDEN: As you want to be on your fourth or fifth or third birthday.
LEGROW: I think anybody at any birthday would like to be the master of their own destiny.
LYDEN: So we had a writer, Princess Marty, on NPR a few months back named Peggy Orenstein. And she wrote a book called "Cinderella Ate My Daughter." And in that book, she says this whole princess culture could actually be really hurtful to a girl's self-esteem. And I would imagine you've thought about that.
LEGROW: I believe that without fostering a general sense of play and creativity in your child and simply dumping this princess culture and all its merchandizing form onto children, you can do damage to them. And I think you should encourage kids to explore their creativity at a young age in a very gender-neutral way. Do things that aren't just princess-y or aren't just GI Joe and that sort of thing.
LYDEN: And are there ever little boys at any of these parties?
LEGROW: There are. I did a party last weekend where the little brother was there. And he was just as excited, if not more so, to see the princess. The mother actually bought him a tutu in case he wanted to dress up because all the other children were in costume. And he was contemplating it because he was jealous.
LYDEN: Alice LeGrow is a professional party princess and the author of the graphic novel series called "Bizenghast." She visited our studios in D.C. in full princess regalia, no less. And if you want to see Princess Marty in action, check out the video we have online at npr.org. Princess Marty, it has been a great pleasure. I don't want you to go poof and make you go away. So I'm just going to say thank you.
LEGROW: Thank you so much, Jacki.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIBBIDI-BOBBIDI-BOO")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, put 'em together and what have you got, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, it'll do magic, believe it or not, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Now, salagadoola means mechicka booleroo, but the thingamabob that does the job is bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo, put 'em together and what have you got, bibbidi-bobbidi, bibbidi-bobbidi, bibbidi-bobbidi, bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.