‘The Little Mermaid’ star Halle Bailey connects with her inner Ariel

Her first major film role has come with big expectations and a racist backlash, but the Grammy-nominated singer isn’t easily deterred

By Kalia Richardson

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Published: Mon 29 May 2023, 3:21 PM

Last updated: Mon 29 May 2023, 3:24 PM

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.

“I just sat on my floor and sobbed for, like, 30 minutes straight,” Bailey said.

As one half of 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 in New York 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 including 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 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 Beyoncé 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.”

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.

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 re-imagined 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.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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