Simone Brown is a performer, opera singer, and the founder of Black Princess Parties DMV. In connection with our production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, we’re lifting up local artists who are reclaiming the true, expansive definition of beauty. Olney Intern Mia Rohan sat down with Simone to chat about her love of performing, starting her own business, and her mission to create spaces where kids can see themselves in the world of Disney and beyond. Read their conversation below!
MIA: What is your favorite song in Beauty and The Beast?
SIMONE: My favorite song? I'm torn between “Home” and the classic “Beauty and the Beast.”
MIA: Could you tell me a little bit about your business and its mission?
SIMONE: Sure, so I started about two years ago. I was in a production with a colleague and they told me that they worked at a princess party company and mentioned that they were hiring. She said it was a great side gig and like, it was fun and easy and you know, you're using all your skills as an actor anyway. So it's an easy fix. So I submitted my materials and didn't really hear back from the company at all. And when I spoke to that colleague again, she was like, “Oh, I guess they probably just didn't need another Tiana performer.” I had not had that kind of situation happen to me in a long time; where someone is taking a look at me and assuming that or deciding that I am not the right fit for something because of the way that I look. And I thought, Well, I'm completely qualified in every other way; I work with kids, I act, like I do all of these things. So I will just start my own company. So that is kind of how it came about. I thought it was a great idea. And kids love it.
Then, I thought about myself as a young kid; how exciting it would have been to have somebody who looked like me show up as my favorite princess (I was an Ariel girl growing up.) How special that would be. So the mission is to give young girls, boys, and children in general princesses and fantasy characters that look like them. It also gives parents and families that are not of color an opportunity to talk about what representation looks like in a light, easy, and still fun way. “What it was like to have this princess at your house? Did you notice anything? Was that something that was relevant? Was the skin color relevant or did you just have an amazing experience?” So those are the two big things that I thought about when starting the business.
"The mission is to give young girls, boys, and children in general princesses and fantasy characters that look like them. It also gives parents and families that are not of color an opportunity to talk about what representation looks like in a light, easy, and still fun way."
MIA: How do you think children benefit from feeling represented by their princesses?
SIMONE: I studied classical music. And I grew up in theatre, and I was often told that I fit in a certain box; that I would be great at jazz or wonderful in The Color Purple or something like that, when I really loved opera music. I love opera. I sing classical music. That's what I went to school for. And I was 16 or 17 years old before I even thought that this was something that I could do. We tell kids that they can be anything and do anything they want to do. A lot of the time, if you don't get to see somebody who looks like you doing the thing that you love, it doesn't feel like an option. So in this, I hope that kids just get to enjoy it a little bit longer. To feel like there is a place and a space in joy and in Disney for them.
MIA: What challenges did you face in starting your business?
SIMONE: Most of it was that I didn't know how to run a business! I am an actor and that is a business in and of itself. But it's very different than setting up and discussing packages with parents, figuring out pricing, building a website, and all the things that kind of go along with looking a certain way—looking put together and looking good. But I had great help from a mentor. Her name is Jade White and she volunteered her time for about a year and a half to help me build the business. This was all during [the early period of] COVID. She helped me build my website and build out my packages. If ever I had any kind of back and forth with parents or any kind of issues there, I could talk those things out with her. And she could give me feedback because she was in that event-planning realm. That was the hardest thing. And I think I've been very fortunate that I haven't received much pushback, in the sense that I am not the “traditional” look of many of these characters. So really, it was just that I didn't know how to run a business.
MIA: How do you balance being a working actress and business owner?
SIMONE: We are still working on that. I mean it's still very new. It's been about two and a half years since I started it. Right now, as I have been performing more, [I’m trying to balance it by] finding other women and creating that little side gig opportunity for them as well. Because in general princess parties do pay pretty well and it's a great gig if you can get it as an actor. So, finding other women who are in the same place or space as I am, who think doing princess parties is fun, who need a little side income, who are passionate and invested, and trying to pull back the reins a little bit on me being the business owner and performer so that I can just be the admin side of things and allow other women to take on the performance. Because it was great if you could get it but we couldn't get it unless it was Tiana. So getting to provide a little bit more of that opportunity is great as well.
"We tell kids that they can be anything and do anything they want to do. A lot of the time, if you don't get to see somebody who looks like you doing the thing that you love, it doesn't feel like an option."
MIA: What does it mean to be a princess in your eyes?
SIMONE: I think it can mean anything you want it to mean. But I think the most important thing about being a princess is knowing who you are, being confident in who you are, confident in the way that you show up and what you have to offer. I think when you watch all the movies and you see the kind of shows and things that come up now, it's not being afraid to waver and not being afraid to be unsure. But at the end of the day knowing that you have a lot to offer and you're competent and you're smart and you can do anything that you will put your mind to.
MIA: Who influenced you as an artist and as a person?
SIMONE: Classically, I would say Denyce Graves. She was the first Black woman that I saw as an opera singer. So that's what I went to school for and then I kind of transitioned and do a little bit of everything now. But she was the first person, the first Black woman that I had ever seen in an opera. Until that, I didn't think that I could do that. I thought I could do theatre; I thought that was safe. So seeing her and knowing about the career that she has, which is huge, it was really inspiring. And then I actually did my Master's at The Peabody Institute where she was teaching, so she ended up being my teacher and mentor. So she's had a huge part in getting me where I am and just advice and things like that. Otherwise, I'd probably say Audra McDonald because she does everything. Like she'll sing arias, she'll sing theatre, like she'll sing whatever. In the conservatory, they're really strict about just singing opera. If you sing anything else, you're lame. And it's silly because there are so many performance opportunities and for me, I just want to be on stage. So seeing Audra McDonald do everything? It's pretty cool.
MIA: Who are you outside of work?
SIMONE: Outside of work? Where's the time? I love reading. I have a cat. His name is Toby. He's a tabby. He's orange… I have kind of gotten into running, which is weird because I hated it through all of my young life and high school, but I enjoy being able to get outside, clear my head, listen to podcasts, and think—just like think about things that are not about myself and my life related to music… I'm getting married. In October. I like to get outside, I like to read, and I'm wedding planning right now. That's all I've got time for, and the cat of course.
MIA: That's all I have. Is there anything else you'd like to add or share about yourself?
SIMONE: If anybody wants to be a princess, let me know. I'm looking for cool ladies who want to be princesses.
I'm coming to see Beauty and the Beast on Wednesday with a friend from Into The Woods and I'm really excited to see this production. It's so special to see what is being done at this theater because it's a lot less of just saying, “We're going to be more diverse,” but actually getting to see it, and not in a way that is kind of tiptoeing around it; in a way that is truly and honestly diverse and with people who are extremely talented. People who probably have been told the exact same thing that I have been told where it's like, “Well, you could never be that. And it's only that you could never be that not because of your talent and not because of what you have to offer but because of the way you look.” So I'm excited to see the show and I love what Olney Theatre is doing with their productions. The last couple of shows that I've gotten to see have been really fabulous. So just getting to be a part of that in a little way with black princess parties. The DMV is really cool.
"I think the most important thing about being a princess is knowing who you are; being confident in who you are, confident in the way that you show up and what you have to offer."
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Don't miss Simone as Rapunzel in Signature Theatre's Into The Woods this month or in Olney Theatre's production of FELA! in July 2023!