You don't meet a Disney movie princess every day.
Over small talk at a Christmas party, I met Lisa Kelly, an ebullient, classically trained opera singer who transforms herself into Snow White, Cinderella or Ariel to sing at princess parties across Austin. Over a soy latte at Hot Mama's Espresso Bar in East Austin recently, Kelly explained her journey.
Months before her graduation last August from the voice performance program at the University of Texas at Austin, Kelly says that she was "freaking out" about her prospects. Because pursuing a career in opera is so competitive, she and her fiancé brainstormed other options.
"I always loved the princess movies when I was a little girl, and I remember singing
'The Little Mermaid' song for all my friends when I was in junior high school," says Kelly, 29. And her classical training as a soprano and her petite frame also give her the lighter voice of a Disney character. "So my fiancé said that I should do parties," she adds.
She turned to the Internet to research princess parties in the area and found that singing princesses are rare. With her talent, a desire to work with little kids and the lure of flexible work hours, Kelly discovered her niche, and Princess for Parties was born.
Next, the singer created a party plan, which included singing two Disney or music theater songs, posing for photographs, assisting with crafts and playing games. After setting her prices u2013 $175 for weekend parties and $150 for weekdays u2013 and placing an ad on Craigslist.org , Kelly booked her first gig as Cinderella in June.
The experience was fun yet eye-opening. "I walked out really happy," she says. "It was interesting because I wasn't expecting that (the girls) would think I would be the real Cinderella," she recalls. "They still believe in magic."
Since then, the Connecticut native has performed at about 70 parties, where, for about an hour, she entertains an average of 15 children, mostly 4- to 5-year-old girls. (If boys are present, they decorate swords instead of tiaras.)
Despite a nationwide recession, Kelly says she didn't fear starting a business. "I feel really lucky in this present economy that people still want parties for their kids," she says.
So far, Kelly says she's suffered no backlash for embodying what some may perceive as a negative gender stereotype. "The Disney princess characters are beautiful inside and out and are kind to everyone," she says.
Though most girls request Cinderella and Ariel for parties, there was one request Kelly can't quite pull off.
"I had a request to do Princess Tiana, but for obvious reasons I couldn't," says Kelly, who is white, of the African American character in Disney's "The Princess and the Frog." No worries. The parents hired Kelly to perform at two parties — as Cinderella at the girl's day care and as Snow White at home.
The life of a Disney princess isn't always a fairy tale. Occasionally, Kelly comforts a teary guest after a misunderstanding with the birthday girl or calls on a few princes, er, fathers to come to her rescue to change a flat tire before dashing to another party. But sometimes a princess has to remind parents in the next room to use their "inside" voices. "Once I start singing 'Happy Birthday,' everyone joins and sings u2026 to signal to get quiet," she says.
For someone whose career is in transition, Princess for Parties isn't Kelly's only venture. She also teaches voice lessons at Kelly Music Studio and at Westlake and Anderson high schools, according to her Web site princessforparties.com .
"If you had asked me a year ago, I would have wanted to be an opera singer someday," says Kelly, whose resume includes performances in the Austin Lyric Opera chorus. "I am a talented singer, but only the top 3 percent ... if that .. are able to make it as a professional opera singer."
Besides, Kelly says she's having so much fun with Princess for Parties ... and preparing for her wedding this month.
So will Ariel be a guest at the nuptials? "I don't think so," Kelly says with a giggle.
The only princess there will be Kelly herself.