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November 10, 2009

Disney's First African-American Princess

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the princess and the frog
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It may be another fairy tale, but The Princess and the Frog — the much-buzzed-about, hotly scrutinized Disney film set in 1920s New Orleans — is hardly superficial. For the first time in the storied studio's animated history, an African-American princess takes the title role (Jasmine from 1992's Aladdin was the first ethnic princess), reinforcing the message en masse that black is beautiful. And to get it right — Princess Tiana's rounder features, her Southern inflection, and even her hairstyles (it's not your basic Barbie skin-color swap) — Disney smartly called up the experts, from Oprah to members of the NAACP. They even asked Brooklyn-based beauty line Carol's Daughter (with devotees-cum-investors like Jada Pinkett Smith and Jay-Z) to whip up the official grooming goods, upping ethnic authenticity and appeal — for black women and beyond. Of course, Tiana isn't the first girl to challenge the conventions of American beauty — think of songbird Josephine Baker who ruled the roaring '20s with her then-"exotic" looks and styling; the gutsy Pat Evans, who shunned the modeling world's requisite black perm (chemical straightening) and buzzed her hair; the striking ebony curves of Naomi Sims, Grace Jones, Alek Wek — and Michelle Obama — who inspired artists and designers alike. Instead, Tiana is an homage to the many empowering black beauties before her. And that, in itself, makes for a happy ending.

BEAUTY TIMELINE
1920s Josephine Baker puts black beauty in the spotlight with her Paris debut.

1940s Lena Horne, the first woman of color to ink a major Hollywood contract, signs with MGM.

1960s DIVAS LIVE: The statement-making stylings of The Supremes; model and Andy Warhol muse Donyale Luna.

1968 Paco Rabanne casts color on the catwalk; the bald and the beautiful Pat Evans.

1969 With model Naomi Sims on its cover, Life commemorates the influence of the African- American aesthetic.

1974 CURL POWER: Pam Grier as Foxy Brown works her 'fro — a look made famous by Sly and the Family Stone in the late '60s.

1983 CROWNING GLORY: Vanessa Williams wins Miss America, only to have her title revoked after nude photos turn up in Penthouse. First runner-up Suzette Charles takes over and becomes the second black woman to carry the coveted crown.

2000s ROLE MODELS: Cosmetic companies break beauty archetypes to sell makeup: MAC signs Mary J. Blige, Lil' Kim, and Missy Elliot for the Viva Glam campaign; CoverGirl face Queen Latifah creates the Queen line.

2002 Revlon stunner, Halle Berry snags an Oscar.

2009 Carol's Daughter makes grooming goods for princesses of all shades.


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