Living Hapa-ly Ever After
By Delphi Borich
It started with a comment on Instagram from someone that I had never met:
“How come you don’t have darker wigs for when you go on for Ella?”
I was understudying the lead on the national tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and I had just performed as Cinderella herself for the second time since we opened. Suddenly, the Instagram post of me, a Hapa actor dressed in a beautiful ball gown and glistening with sweat from the six minute ball sequence that I had just worked so hard to dance, was reduced to my hair color. The implication that I had to have darker hair to justify playing a princess confused me and nearly erased the twenty other comments that held so much love and positivity from friends and family.
Fast-forward to this year, when I found myself once again with the opportunity to play Cinderella in the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre’s production. This time, there was an Instagram comment that said, “Cinderella is blonde not brown,” which I can only assume to have meant “brunette.” This, combined with a comment made to me in a doctor’s office about how I obviously do not look how Cinderella should look, was enough to knock me down. Here I was, in a darker wig than on the tour, but now my hair was too dark to match the Disney character.
Disney films surrounded my entire childhood, and they were always full of romantic notions of wearing beautiful ball gowns, living in a castle, and meeting Prince Charming someday. But for a half-Asian child, they were also very confusing.
“Why don’t any of these princesses look like me? I definitely don’t look like Cinderella or Belle, so shouldn’t I look like Mulan?” Constantly asking myself these questions as a child made me feel like I would never achieve a happy ending if I weren’t the Disney standard of “beautiful,” which was certainly not mixed race. After years of overcoming insecurities – based mostly on the fact that I simply was not blonde and therefore not pretty enough to be a princess – playing Cinderella in a national and then regional tour finally felt like the cathartic experience that I had been waiting for. Yet here I was, allowing a couple of Instagram comments make me feel like all of my hard work had been for nothing.
Why did I keep putting myself out there by playing these roles that put me in a place of vulnerability? The beginnings of an answer came to me when I was cast as Belle in Theatre Under the Stars’ (TUTS) production of Beauty and the Beast. It was a dream come true for the little girl who claimed that her favorite princesses were Belle and Jasmine: two princesses who didn’t look like me, but appealed to the side of me that looked up to a princess who didn’t wait for the prince to rescue her. I braced myself for what I thought were inevitable comments about my Hapa-ness interfering with the caucasian cartoon image of Belle, but to my surprise, I received none. In fact, during the entirety of my time with TUTS, not a single person made any reference to my ethnicity. So much so, that during a phone interview with a local entertainment reporter in Houston, I rambled about what it meant to be a mixed race actor playing an iconic Disney princess role, only to hear “Oh, no one from the theatre mentioned that you’re biracial. That’s fantastic.” It was then that I realized that it didn’t matter what I looked like. I’m never going to look like a Caucasian cartoon, but neither do a good amount of the little girls and boys who came to see Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. So why was I obsessing over what I’m not? Why not obsess over what I can be; an actor who teaches young children what it means to be a strong princess? I can show them that the qualities Cinderella and Belle possess include strength, intelligence, and kindness; and those aren’t defined by the color of your skin or the color of your hair. That’s the best part of my job.
Delphi Borich is a Japanese-American Hapa originally from Kobe, Japan. She holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from Syracuse University and now lives in New York City. Follow her @delphiborich for Instagram stories of food.