Just like some of the characters she plays, Jenna Bell never set out to become a princess. It was a happy twist of fate that led her to become a princess-for-hire on the children’s party circuit.
With a degree in animation from Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida, Bell moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to start her career as a 3D artist for Turner Broadcasting.
It was in Atlanta during a Halloween parade that she was discovered.
Dressed as the Snow Queen, Bell says she couldn’t walk ten feet without people stopping her for pictures, and she was eventually approached by someone holding children’s events at a nearby ice-rink — they needed a Snow Queen character for their parties.
“At first I was timid about it all. I’ve never acted in my life, I’m terrible in crowds, and I kept asking my friends, ‘Is this weird? Do people do this?'”
Upon the encouragement of a good friend, Bell decided to give the gig a try. “Everything just spiraled from there,” she says. Along the way she’s made many friends in the industry, including her business partner, who originally hired her to work princess parties with Ever After Entertainment, “and it’s become a part of my life I don’t think I can live without now.”
Bell currently splits her time between working as a graphic artist on weekdays, playing a princess on the weekends, visiting sick and underprivileged children with a nonprofit called Princesses With A Purpose in her spare time, and planning the opening of fairytale party venue The Enchanted Cottage with her business partner.
In addition to scouring Bell’s recent Reddit AMA, we spoke to her to find out what it’s really like to be a part-time princess. Here’s what she said:
'If the event is small, like a birthday party, then we will arrive with some entertainment like books, music, and face paints. We start by greeting the children with hugs and 'hellos' so they warm up to us.
'Many parents ask for us to just come in with this grand entrance of singing and dancing, but we have to explain, even though we are the child's 'favourite character,' that will still scare them and they will hide behind your leg the whole time. It's better to ease into it, because the kids can be nervous too!
'From there we read stories, sing songs, take pictures, and participate in games. It takes about an hour per party, and if you have a full day, then you have to calculate driving times between events.
'If it's bigger events, or meet and greets, then usually we are ushered into an area that is designated for our character set up by the people hosting the event. They will have a line ready to go, and instead of providing entertainment we just take a few moments with each child, give them a warm hug and take a picture. We may be there for anywhere from an hour to four hours, and we have to always be in character and make sure each family walks away with a smile.'
'Having poise, an infectious laugh, a great smile, and a lovely singing voice always helps. Who doesn't love to hear a princess sing?
'You definitely also want princesses to follow certain requirements for appearances. We want the princess to look similar enough that each child believes they're always meeting the same Cinderella.'
'While I mostly play the Snow Queen, how I play each princess depends on the attitude and mannerisms of that character.
'The Snow Queen for example is very calm and collected, while her sister is much more silly and playful.
'If you are a mermaid character, then you have to pretend to like things mermaids would like. You have to actually put yourself in that princess's headspace, take in her story and what she has experienced, and think, 'How would she act right now? How would she answer this question?' So if someone asked my favourite food, as a mermaid I may say my favourite food is seaweed salads, while other princesses may favour chocolate.'
'I'm probably Ever After Entertainment's only character without an acting background, so for me getting into character is a little harder. I'll usually listen to certain soundtracks in the car on the way to an event, or put a certain movie on to get me in the mood while I am getting ready.
'But soon as I am in that room with those kids I can just feel a click. I love children so much and I want to please them, so I guess seeing their expectant faces is what gets me in the role the most.'
'Every company offers a different amount of pay. If I'm booking through a company, I'll usually make between $50 and $75 an hour, and the rest goes to the company. If people book me personally, I will make $115 to $130 an hour depending on driving distance. Both ways I usually also get a tip. The most I've gotten tipped was $200. So if I can do three parties on a Saturday, I can pull in around $300 to $400.'
This is a response to the question, 'How are you paid, per hour, per visit? How much do you make at a 60 minute visit?' posed during Bell's recent Reddit AMA.
'The most parties I've ever personally done in a day has been four, which is about seven to eight hours of work when in you include driving between each destination. Plus the time it takes to get up and get ready beforehand. This is why I'd love to make a place where people can come to us.'
'I think my days behind a computer and animating graphics are numbered. I'm sure I'll also freelance, but I realised I was working almost every day -- five days in the office and events on the weekends. While I dreaded Mondays, I actually looked forward to weekend work, even if I was skipping what should have been my personal time. My husband always says to me, 'Follow your bliss,' and I find my bliss is in a hands-on environment, with children, making people smile, rather than in front of a computer.
'Our dream of opening The Enchanted Cottage is very near and dear to our hearts. As we've met so many other people involved in this industry like face painters, cupcake bakers, magicians, and people who do princess make-overs, we realised there really isn't a home for this industry. People work out of rented office buildings, or their houses, and we thought, 'What if we made a place where we can all come together as a co-op and benefit?'
'Everyone needs a place where even for just an hour or two their dreams can be made real and they can experience their favourite fairy tale on a smaller, but much more personal scale. Hence our motto 'Children's Dreams Made Real.''
'I have male counterparts a lot when I'm anyone but the Snow Queen. She doesn't really have a male, but her sister does, so if we are a large group he will be included. When I'm Cinderella there is often a Prince Charming, and when I'm the Little Mermaid I'm actually usually accompanied by a pirate, or Peter Pan and Hook more then her prince.'
This is a response to the question, 'Are there often males along side you portraying the princes of the fairy tales?' posed during Bell's recent Reddit AMA.
'Ultimately all the princess stories are public domain. Cinderella, the Snow Queen, the Little Mermaid, Rapunzel -- all of those stories were written long ago.
'What Disney did is just retell those stories in their own way. But because they are such a large distribution, their re-tellings is what children recognise the most. So as look-alikes it's how we can connect to the magic that the kids hold onto from those known fairy tales. If most kids know Cinderella to be wearing a blue dress, and we showed up in pink, we wouldn't be bringing any magic to that family because the child wouldn't believe in us. And us showing up and bringing that magic, only drives their merchandise and fandom even more, when done right and respectfully.
'What is also very important, and that we don't do -- and I worry when I see other companies do this -- is we don't have any mascots. We don't involve or incorporate characters that are Disney's, like Mickey Mouse, or Olaf. Disney made those guys fair and square, and having those within a company, or selling those on merchandise, is totally copyright infringement.
'Sometimes events will hire multiple companies and mascots like that will show up and we have to be very strict not to take any pictures with them or be involved with them in any way, which can be frustrating. But better safe then sorry!'
'That this is easy! It's actually very exhausting to be 'on' for hours.
'You have to be someone else and answer questions as someone else, with no breaks, and you can't sit or eat, because that sort of breaks the façade. If it's a meet and greet, you will do about 500 squats in 2 hours, because you have to get down on the child's level to interact with them, then stand up for a picture, then greet the next child and get down on their level again, and the process continues. It's a lot!'
'The best part is bringing magic to kids and adults alike. To be able to change their day and make them feel like their dreams have come true. It seems like such a nothing thing to just spend time with them dressed as a princess, but giving people hope can do amazing things.'
'I think commanding a room. You are walking into a room of complete strangers, all watching you, some even filming you on their cell phones and it's nerve wracking. You have to really capture both the kids' and adults' attention, and it's not always easy.
'Some kids believe, some don't. But if you can convince the non-believers that you're 'real,' then you'll be leaving on a high note by the end of it and in the good graces of the guests, which means recommendations for more events.'
'Oh gosh, that's a tough one. I think that can fall into multiple categories. Doing hospice visits is completely heartbreaking, but its very important we never break character. We have to always smile and keep a good face. And if later we hear the child passes, it's so hard to let go sometimes.
'But what is also sad is when I do parties and parents tell their children not to believe in us -- just crush their dreams right in front of us. Childhood is such a special time; I don't understand why some parents act that way.
'Or I see children that maybe don't come from the healthiest lifestyles, and I want so badly to step in, but I can't. All I can do is give them an hour of hope and pray that it's something they can hold onto.'
This is a response to the question, 'What's the saddest thing you saw in your career as a princess?' posed during Bell's recent Reddit AMA.
'It's honestly such hard work. We have much longer hours than a normal job, and it can totally be physically draining -- all that squatting and standing up for photos really gives the legs a workout. But it's worth it to see the joy on a child's face as their childhood hero walks through their front door. There really is nothing like it!'
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