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Brandy’s Cinderella: How Whitney Houston gave the world its first Black Disney princess

Critics were cold when the film, now streaming on Disney+, debuted in 1997. Two decades later, it’s iconic.

Brandy, dressed in a ballgown and tiara, steps down a sweeping staircase.
Brandy stars in Disney’s 1997 Cinderella.
Walt Disney Television
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The 1997 TV adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Brandy Norwood and Whitney Houston, landed on Disney+ on Friday, February 12. The release marks the first time the movie has ever been available on streaming — a huge milestone for a film whose cultural reception has long outlived its initial critical appraisal.

While critics at the time of its release were polite but chilly — “this is a cobbled-together ‘Cinderella’ for the moment, not the ages,” the New York Times declared — Brandy’s Cinderella has held massive sway over the hearts of the ’90s kids who watched it, as well as subsequent generations who grew up with the film on DVD. In fact, it’s been dubbed by some “one of the most important movies of the ’90s.” And with many people drawing comparisons between “The Brandy Cinderella” and other recent attempts to do colorblind casting, there’s no better time to revisit what made this film a cultural phenomenon.

The film’s famously multicultural casting was a precedent-setter

In the years since it aired, “The Brandy Cinderella, as it would henceforth be informally known, has become renowned in particular for its casting. Executive produced by Houston, who hand-picked teen pop artist Brandy for the lead role, the movie featured a fantastical, “colorblind” multicultural cast. Bernadette Peters played Cinderella’s stepmother; the king and queen were played by Victor Garber and Whoopi Goldberg, while their son, Brandy’s prince, was played by Filipino American actor Paolo Montalbán.

Because Cinderella was a fairy tale, it didn’t have to justify its fully integrated magical society. While that was (and still is) a common approach for theatrical casting, on television, it created a rare phenomenon: an unapologetically diverse production whose lasting impact is still being felt over two decades later, even among fans who weren’t alive when it debuted.

It would be hard to overstate the impact these straightforward visuals had on generations of children of color. “This might sound dumb, but I didn’t even think we could be princes and princesses,” Cameron, a 20-year-old from Texas, told Vox. “In school, the only Black history we’re taught is slavery and oppression, so this was huge for me. As a Black person, this felt amazing. This was to me how Black Panther is to Black kids today.” In other words, even though it was a fairy tale — and perhaps because it was a fairy tale — the Brandy Cinderella was an ode to Black excellence and artistry that felt revolutionary in 1997 and still feels revolutionary today.

Twitter user keincolor is another 20-year-old with a longstanding love of the film. He described the movie to Vox as “a perfect storm” of elements that worked. “Whitney was intentional about what she wanted to do with that film. [Producers] Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were very deliberate with what they tried to do with that film, and they fought for that vision,” he said. “If you don’t have the people on board who have the power and are willing to go to the networks and the studios and fight for inclusive casting, nothing changes. There’s also the unfortunate truth that Hollywood tends to see things like Cinderella as a ‘fluke.’”

Even at the time, the film’s rosy, “racism is over” ’90s aesthetic was something the production team had to fight for. According to Kendra James’s fantastic oral history of the production, Cinderella ran into multiple hurdles from pre- to post-production: from producers balking at casting a Black actress to play Cinderella — one unknown producer suggested casting Jewel instead — to Atlantic Records refusing to release the soundtrack because the label didn’t think the musical fit Brandy’s “urban” image. To this day, you can’t stream the movie’s songs on Spotify or other licensed platforms.

Keincolor observed that it took a producer with the power of Whitney Houston to make Cinderella what it became. “I think without the power of Whitney they may have replaced Brandy as Cinderella, which is unfortunate to think about,” he said.

Still, though it might have been seen as a fluke at the time, the film’s impact was real. Keincolor told Vox that Brandy’s Cinderella inspired him to want to be a writer and entertainment creator. “It really influenced me to be more critical of the media we’re delivered and the media I want to make.”

It was peak event television — and a much-needed win for Disney and ABC

The cast of the 1997 Cinderella wasn’t just significantly diverse — it was significantly excellent, billed as “untouchable” even by today’s standards. Whoopi Goldberg, Houston, and Peters were all living legends in their respective fields, while most of the adult cast were familiar, working actors who audiences regularly saw onscreen. Jason Alexander would have mainly been known to 1997 audiences as Seinfeld’s George Constanza; the late Natalie Desselle, who played one of Cinderella’s stepsisters, was a well-known Black comedian who’d recently starred in the Halle Berry comedy B.A.P.S.; Victor Garber was about to make an even bigger splash as the doomed shipbuilder of James Cameron’s Titanic.

The all-star ensemble meant that when it aired on November 2, 1997, as part of ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney weekly series, Cinderella was peak “event” television, drawing 60 million viewers — nearly a third of all Americans watching TV that night. Not only was that a landmark achievement for any TV movie, it was a huge, crucial win for the ABC/Disney machine, which had floundered after its merger the year prior.

At the time, the merger, a $19 billion acquisition, was the largest such deal in Hollywood history. The deal gave Disney access to ABC’s dominance over primetime television, which had held steady for most of the ’90s, as well as ESPN. It seemed like a can’t-fail proposition. But a year later, the partnership seemed shaky: ABC’s primetime reign had started to decline. Its once-ubiquitous TGIF programming, the famed ’90s Friday-night sitcom lineup, had given ABC many of its biggest family-friendly hits, like Full House and Family Matters. But by 1997, most of those shows had ended their runs. “Once the No. 1 network, [ABC] has dropped to No. 3, scoring some of the most miserable ratings in broadcast history,” the Wall Street Journal noted — and “Disney’s wave of cross-promotions with ABC have had little effect.”

What the two companies needed, then, was a family-friendly miracle. Enter the “magic” of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The legendary Broadway duo had originally written Cinderella for television (not a stage musical); when the first production, starring a young Julie Andrews, aired in 1957 on CBS, it drew 107 million viewers — then the largest audience in television history. A 1965 production starring Lesley Ann Warren also drew huge ratings and was subsequently re-aired frequently over the next several decades. So by the ’90s, the show held a strong nostalgic appeal for many older Americans.

Cinderella also conjured up patriotism: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were the epitome of folksy midcentury Americana. Shows like Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music were synonymous with themes of community-building and family, racial equality and harmony, and uniting American values with those of the world. Not all of those elements were present in Cinderella, which straightforwardly retells the classic fairy tale, but those elements were definitely present in how the midcentury audience understood “Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella.”

By reframing that familiar, nostalgia-tinged Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy around the 1997 production’s new diverse cast, Disney could send the message that America’s past was alive and in good hands, its traditions being passed down to and through young, savvy artists of today. None were savvier than Whitney Houston and her prodigy Brandy, then enjoying fame from her eponymous 1994 debut album while starring on the popular UPN show Moesha.

By airing the movie on a Sunday night during its usual Wonderful World of Disney time slot, ABC pushed that idea to large family audiences. By filling the film itself with visual references to Disney’s animated 1950 Cinderella — most notably Brandy’s blue ballgown, a throwback to the blue ballgown of the 1950 film — Disney asserted its company-specific branding over a public-domain fairy tale. And by emphasizing the movie’s casting diversity and feel-good messaging, ABC fit Cinderella into the mold of its TGIF fare, essentially expanding that ’90s sitcom image and allowing ABC and Disney to assert their combined dominance over family-friendly content once more.

Cinderella was one of Whitney Houston’s biggest cultural milestones

And yet, it’s likely this neat Disney hat trick would have collapsed without Whitney Houston. Disney arguably couldn’t have reworked Cinderella for diverse modern audiences without having a centerpiece star who embodied all the themes of multicultural artistry and success, along with an idealized, integrated vision of contemporary America. Arguably no pop star did more throughout the 1990s to sell that specific image of the nation than Houston.

Throughout the ’80s, peddling bouncy hits like “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” Houston had typified the modern, urban 20-something — a woman who was fun, relatable, wholesome, but always up for a night on the town. By the end of the decade, however, Whitney had grown up and into the role of an American ambassador: In 1988 she recorded “One Moment In Time” for the Seoul Olympics, later delivering a legendary Grammys performance of the song. Two years later, during the beginning of the Gulf War, Houston sang what’s arguably the most famous rendition of the American national anthem, at Super Bowl XXV in Tampa.

All of this — the establishing of Houston as the voice of mainstream America, aligning her with American patriotism — preceded her starring in the hit 1992 movie The Bodyguard, in which she had a groundbreaking interracial romance with Kevin Costner, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. Even more influential was the Bodyguard soundtrack, which became the best-selling soundtrack of all time. This was mainly thanks to Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.” Houston’s version mainstreamed what had been a country music ballad, further cementing the idea of Houston as an integrating artist, a uniter of people, genres, and identities.

So when Houston decided to play Cinderella’s fairy godmother, she was using her role as America’s ambassador to be an ambassador for a new vision of America itself: She was, essentially, giving modern middle America an invitation to accept her prodigy, the winsome Brandy Norwood, as the new standard for what a Disney princess could look like. Both women were busy, hard-working successes — something my Vox colleague Meredith Haggerty noted to me made their roles in Cinderella an embodiment of “Clinton-era meritocracy.”

“She was everything!” Haggerty told me. “To my pre-teen brain it was like: Objectively, Whitney is the best singer in the world — of course she should be the Fairy Godmother, a hugely important part.”

Alongside fellow icon Whoopi Goldberg, Houston’s presence in Cinderella signified the passing of the cultural torch to Brandy and her generation of Black artists.

“The older I got the more I began to understand how monumental Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother was,” keincolor said.

It was all very affirmational — while still serving as a family-friendly Disney vehicle. It was also one of the last major cultural milestones Houston would have in her career, which waned throughout the 2000s prior to her death in 2012. So while Houston was using her industry power to create industry change, she was also giving the world a beautiful memory of her, one in which she made the impossible — a Black Disney princess — possible.

Today, “the Brandy Cinderella” is a nostalgic memory for most Americans, but it seems as relevant as ever

Over the years, the Brandy Cinderella seems to have become a rite of passage for many people. Keincolor told me of being introduced to the movie by his babysitter — and his babysitter’s teen daughters, who all celebrated his reaction and bonded with him over the film.

“They never got tired of playing it for me, and I remember us all singing the songs,” he said.

Cameron told me his mom provided his Cinderella introduction. “I’ve always been obsessed with princesses and royalty and magical fairies, so when she told me she was watching the real ‘Cinderella,’ I assumed she meant the Disney version. That was the only one that I knew — I didn’t even think there were others.”

While many people have lamented the film’s absence from streaming platforms over the years, it has arguably benefited by not being accessible outside of home DVD. “Since it wasn’t available on streaming, wasn’t being re-aired a lot, and wasn’t getting constant new DVD releases, it sort of existed in this space where people remembered it fondly, but it wasn’t a constant source of discussion,” keincolor told Vox. “The internet created an environment where everyone could talk about how much it impacted them.” And talk about it they did.

Fast-forward to today, when the film is widely accepted not only as one of the best versions of Cinderella but one of the best movies of its era. Recently, it’s been making frequent appearances in the cultural debate surrounding Netflix’s Bridgerton, with many comparisons being made between that show’s attempt to do “color-conscious casting” and other attempts, like Hamilton or the recent adaptation of David Copperfield starring Dev Patel as the title character. Because we have so few examples of true multicultural casting to look to, the Brandy Cinderella has often been cited in this conversation as the standard-setter.

Now that the film is finally available on streaming, it will doubtless go on to impact new audiences. Not bad for a film that critics originally deemed forgettable — we might even call it a Cinderella story.

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