Reinventing Ariel for a new generation, The Little Mermaid star Halle Bailey reflects on her casting controversy, style evolution, and life lessons from Beyoncé.
She’s the teen music star who’s pivoted into a movie starlet, having wrapped two major remakes within the last 18 months. Halle Bailey is the 23-year-old actress and singer making a splash with her portrayal of Ariel in Disney’s The Little Mermaid reboot, alongside acting titans Javier Bardem and Melissa McCarthy in the roles of King Triton and Ursula. Director Rob Marshall had auditioned the crème de la crème of young Hollywood for the role, and even Zendaya was rumored to have read for the part. But it was movie newcomer Bailey who won the coveted lead. The moment she heard the news will stay with her forever. “I was at home with the family celebrating my sister Chloe’s birthday, so when I got the call, it was even more of a celebration,” she shares from her Los Angeles home over a Zoom call.
Like generations of children before her, Bailey grew up on Disney classics, with Ariel having a special place in her heart. “I remember watching The Little Mermaid for the first time when I was around five years old,” Bailey says. “My older sisters Chloe [now 24] and Ski would pretend to be mermaids whenever we were in the swimming pool; it’s cool how it’s all come full circle.” Bailey didn’t take on the esteemed role lightly, either. “I felt an immense responsibility just because of how much Ariel meant to me. It’s crazy how you think it’s just a movie. But Disney means so much to so many people. Films are like the footprint of some of these adults now, so I did feel a duty to just do it justice.” Bailey pushed herself to the limit, often spending up to 13-hour days in the water – filming in both the UK’s Pinewood Studios and Sardinia. “It was like superhero training as it was very physically intense on my body, but I’ve always loved swimming and the water,” she enthuses. “And I was in the best shape of my life!”
Bailey was given poetic license to develop Ariel beyond the Hans Christian Andersen book it was originally based on. “I was really happy that Rob Marshall allowed me to have creative freedom and bring myself to Ariel and who she is. It was his vision to keep her with locs and his only request was that they were red. I really appreciated that because being a young Black girl, it’s so important for all the babies to be able to see themselves represented on screen.” The response to the trailer – from celebrity reactions to those from young girls of color around the world – left Bailey overwhelmed. “When I saw Nicki Minaj’s tweet I freaked out,” she says. “I’m such a fan of so many artists, so to have their stamp of approval is huge.” Minaj wrote, “When this come out no one speak to me. Even papa bear betta not get on mama nerves that day.” Bailey continues, “It’s moments like that when you just pinch yourself. But it means so much to me to see the reaction of all the beautiful children.”
The actress says the racist backlash against a woman of color being cast as the fictional mermaid was a shock, though not entirely surprising – however, she chooses to focus on the positives. “This is such a blessing, and the movie is bigger than me. I initially expected everyone to be as excited as I was, but the reality of it all hit me later as I realized the world that we live in. I just hope that people who aren’t sure about it, go and watch the film and realize we did the original justice.”
The live-action adaptation of Disney’s 1989 The Little Mermaid may have caused a sea of controversy, but Marshall insists that Bailey won the role on merit. As one half of the sibling duo Chloe x Halle, it was their 2019 Grammy performance of Where is the Love that caught Marshall’s attention. He was instantly blown away by Bailey’s angelic voice. The musical sisters who write, produce, and sing their material became internet sensations at the ages of 11 and 13 when they launched a YouTube channel uploading covers from their favorite artists. Their interpretation of Beyoncé’s classic Pretty Hurts went viral, and the rest is history. TV appearances on The Ellen Show followed. Chloe x Halle eventually caught the attention of Beyoncé, who signed them to her label, Parkwood Entertainment, releasing their professional EP debut with Sugar Symphony. As their music stormed the charts, the duo also won acting and cameo roles on Disney series and hit US TV shows.
Now, the five-time Grammy-nominated pair regularly tour with R&B royalty Jay-Z and Beyoncé, have performed at the Super Bowl, and Bailey was part of Beyoncé’s VVIP entourage when she made her much-anticipated stage comeback in Dubai a few months ago. Having Queen Bey on speed dial may be a perk of the job, but Bailey gleans the most from observing her mentor live her best life. “The advice she’s given me over the years is so special, but it’s also watching her navigate life that’s so inspiring. She’s a wife and a mom, and still killing it in her career. I admire her ability to balance and focus on the things that make her happy,” she buzzes.
They are life lessons she holds closely, and Bailey also credits her tight-knit family for keeping her grounded, which is just as well as the fame juggernaut shows no signs of slowing down. Hot on the heels of The Little Mermaid, Bailey’s also wrapped filming The Color Purple reboot due out later this year. It is produced by media tycoon Oprah Winfrey who predicts it will change the lives of the cast – just as it did hers when she starred in the 1985 Steven Spielberg film. Bailey couldn’t agree more. “It feels incredible to be working on such big, important films, especially as it’s all relatively new to me as I consider myself a singer first,” she says. “I’m just glad that we get to remake these movies so that new generations can see what the hype is all about and experience these wonderful stories first-hand.”
“My dream is to learn something from every strong, female role I take on. Ariel taught me a lot about myself, being independent to have courage and passion and strive for what I want in life. I want to play characters who teach me about myself because I’m 23 so I feel like I’m still learning who I am, every single day.”
As Bailey’s confidence evolves, so too has her style over the years. Channeling timeless glamour during her shoot with Vogue Arabia in the Hollywood Hills, Bailey was in her element. “I had so much fun,” her honey-toned voice goes up a few notches. “I didn’t have to think about my style before and now it’s a moment in time for me to find out what I like to wear. I love beautiful, classic structured outfits as they make me feel good about myself and my body.”
Bailey’s joy is palpable. “I’m loving it all, and it’s exciting having designers dress me for all these shoots, red carpets, and premieres. It’s like a real fairy tale.” Bailey is living proof that fairy tales do come true as she’s well on her way to bonafide stardom.
Originally published in the May 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia
Video director: Danielle Gruberger
Style: Julia Müller
Makeup: Christiana Cassell
Hair: Tinisha Meeks
Photography assistant: Andrew Harless/ Jesse Belvin
Digitech: James Goethals
Photo producer: Rafa Farias
Style assistant: Mascia Remie, Thao Vy Huynh
Props stylist: Marianne Lu
Movement director: Liam Lunnis
Local production: Lita Monclus for Seduko Productions