When I first moved to Los Angeles, I worked for a brief time as a “Costume Character.” This means I dressed up like a random Disney Princess and clocked in an hour or two at a child’s birthday party. I’m from the Midwest, where kiddy parties are a pretty modest affair; a few friends, cake, maybe a game of pin the something on the something. Not so in L.A. Here, people throw extravaganzas with clowns and magicians, moon bounces, pony rides, maybe a mini Merry Go Round or Hadron Collider (ok, I never saw the latter, but I wouldn't put it past 'em.) Back in small town USA, I recall being dropped off at a party and picked up a few hours later. In L.A., parents stay, so a catered lunch is customary, as is the uber important (one might say absolutely essential) Full Bar.
Due to trade mark laws, the costumed characters for hire couldn't be advertised by their real names, so Batman was billed as "Black Masked Action Hero." SpongeBob SquarePants became "Geometric Underwater Sea Creature" and Dora the Explorer was known as the woefully generic “Latin Girl.”
The company I worked for was pretty much on the skids. Much like the last days of vaudeville, a depressed, defeated pall hung in the air. (Not that I was alive during the last days of vaudeville, but one can assume it was a fairly desultory time.) The company's main office was a partially renovated garage with all the charm of Cell Block H. The costumes were shabby; colors faded, hems torn. The wigs were tangled, the balloon pumps dented, and props were held together with electrical tape. There was only one costume per character, so the actors (and yes, most of us were actors, or at least we were trying to be) were assigned roles by a single factor - which costume fit? I was usually cast as "Winter Princess" (aka Snow White), occasionally "Orphan" (Annie, of course. This I dreaded as it meant lamely lip syncing "Tomorrow" at some point in the festivities), but I'd pinch hit as needed.
Once, I was Cinderella (whoops - "Glass Shoe Princess") and, seeing as the usual GSP was anorexic, the costume was the size of a postage stamp. While I managed to jam myself into the dress, it was skin tight and my boobs were completely spilling out of the top. I looked like a stripper’s interpretation of Cinderella, which would have been perfect for, say, a swingin' bachelor party, and, granted, this guest of honor was most likely a bachelor, but he was also only five years old. That said, no one seemed to mind my turn as Slut Cinderella (and my tips from the Dads at the party were through the roof.)
Another time, I was asked to play Princess Jasmine, or "Middle Eastern Princess," and when I went to pick up the costume, the receptionist blanched.
“What? What's wrong?”
“Well, it’s just... they wanted a dark Princess Jasmine.”
“Dark like tan or - ”
“Dark like the party is in Watts and the birthday girl’s name is Laquisha .”
Now, I’m not just white – I am WHITE. Pale, Irish, vampire white and I started to panic. I figured at best, the client would be insulted and therefore mean to me and not tip me or, at worst, they'd kill me. I raced to a Mac counter and bought dark brown body makeup (I wasn't fool enough to think I could pass, I just wanted to take the glow off), then I suited up and drove down to Watts, which is a pretty dicey area for anyone, let alone a girl from Ohio wearing harem pants.
The party was in the treeless, asphalt courtyard of a big apartment building and it looked to be a birthday/block party because there were A LOT of people there, adults and children alike, and with the exception of one or two Grandmothers, any one of them could've easily kicked my ass. Everyone was eating, dancing, laughing; generally having a good time until I tentatively stepped into the courtyard.
WHAM. Everything came to an abrupt STOP. Needle Screeching on the Record STOP. Sci Fi Movie stop, where raindrops and pigeons freeze in mid air. All eyes were on me, taking in my black, bedraggled wig, my sagging bikini top, my smudged, streaky skin as I stood, sweating rivers of chestnut colored body makeup and holding a giant pineapple piñata in the noon day sun.
“Um – I’m your Princess Jasmine?”
There was a loooooooong pause and then the Birthday Mom smiled, “Princess Jasmine, the children are so excited to meet you.”
And it was true. Unlike the jaded Beverly Hills darlings (who’d roll their eyes, “I know you’re not the real Snow White because my Dad produced that movie and I met her."), these kids were willing to suspend disbelief and roll with it. Sure, they knew I wasn’t the Princes Jasmine, but I was a Princess Jasmine and that was good enough for them. We got right down to business: we sang Happy Birthday, we played tag, we hit the piñata. I wrestled balloons into vague animal shapes. I smeared paint on the kids' faces (cat or ninja - my repertoire was limited.) I performed a "magic" show (insider secret: the candy dish has a false bottom.) We danced. They taught me to Krump. I taught them the Macarena. It was hands down the best party I ever worked.
When it was over and I was packing up my stuff, one of the older kids, around eleven or so, sidled over to me and said “I know you’re not really Princess Jasmine.”
“Nah. You’re just a lady in a wig.”
Now, in training, we were given a list of coy responses to use when inevitably confronted with the unassailable truth that we were not, in fact, who we pretended to be. I didn't, however, have the heart to feed this kid a line of BS, one we'd both know was patently untrue, so I copped to it.
“Yep. You got me. I’m just a lady in a wig.”
He nodded, somewhat sadly and it is sad, isn’t it? As a child, you believe in the fantastical, that life is full of magic, that the impossible truly is possible - and then, at some point, you don’t. You lose that. You have to, to a degree - otherwise you’d be insane - but it’s a dispiriting realization; that there is no Golden Ticket, no Hogwarts, no enchanted land waiting for you just inside your wardrobe. It's crushing to learn that Santa is really your Dad, Bloody Mary's not going to appear in your mirror, and Princesses are, more often than not, just a lady in a wig.
So we sat with that, just for a moment, and then he smiled, hands spread wide.
“Hey, it don’t matter. You gave us a party. You gave us a party, Princess J, and that party was tight.”