The star open up to ET about her groundbreaking role as Ariel in Disney's new reimagining.
The 23-year-old actress stars as the titular, headstrong princess in Disney's new live-action reimagining, and her casting has hit home in a big way for little Black girls who are seeing themselves portrayed as the beloved Disney character for the first time onscreen.
The film also stars Jonah Hauer-King as Prince Eric, Melissa McCarthy as Ursula, and Javier Bardem as King Triton, with Daveed Diggs as the voice of Sebastian the crab, Jacob Tremblay as Flounder, and Awkwafina as Scuttle.
The role feels like a dream come true according to Bailey, whose previous forays into acting include starring alongside her older sister and musical partner, Chlöe Bailey, on Freeform's Grown-ish series. The singer tells ET that while it "feels absolutely amazing" to join the iconic ranks of the Disney Princesses, being one of the few Black Princesses is on a whole new level.
"I loved Brandy as Cinderella; she was so amazing, such a role model and inspiration and a really big kind of studying point for me as I was taking on Ariel," Bailey shares. "I just watched how amazing she was in that role and how comfortable she was in her skin and how impactful to audiences and little girls like me who watched it. And Anika Noni Rose, who's just outstanding. I've had the chance to meet her and we got to sing [The Princess and the Frog's] song together, "Almost There" for [2022's Disney Family Singalong] with my sister. She was always so kind! But there are these beautiful Black women pioneers who've done this before and been there for me to be able to say, 'OK, I can do this.'"
Soon after the first trailer for the upcoming film was released, videos began circulating on social media that showed numerous Black girls "blind reacting" to the live-action trailer, which included a seconds-long glimpse at the new Ariel swimming under the sea and singing the song "Part of Your World."
"It's been such a beautiful moment for me to be able to see the reactions of the babies -- it makes me just emotionally overwhelmed honestly and I cry as soon as I watch them," Bailey admits. "I think of the little girl that's still in me, honestly, and it heals that girl inside of me to watch them feel like they have representation and someone to look to, to know that they deserve to be in those places too. [It's] so important. It just makes me cry anytime I see any of those videos."
Bailey shares that director Rob Marshall went beyond simply casting her for representation -- he gave her the reins to stay true to herself while portraying Ariel. From pushing for Ariel to have locks as her signature red mane to Bailey changing keys or notes in the music to fit her voice.
"I think naturally, I just really tried my best to stay true to myself with every choice that I would make in acting, especially in the songs," Bailey says. "I was really grateful to Rob Marshall that he gave me the freedom to just be me and sing how Halle would sing. And some of those inflections and riffs I was allowed to do -- that was fun to be able to play because the original music that we have is so beautiful and such a staple in all of our childhoods; the fact that I got to tweak and edit it a little bit was like so much fun and a joy to have that creative freedom."
The singer explains that she "jumped an octave higher" when singing her rendition of "Part of Your World," and to make it more of her own song, as well as adding lines to the Sebastian-led song, "Under the Sea."
"Moments like those are really fun when you get to sing with your favorite songs," she gushes.
It was all worth it when Bailey got to see the film for the first time. The singer reveals that she watched it alone on the recommendation of Marshall and says she couldn't stop crying for "the first 20 minutes."
"I was like jaw dropped and just tears [were] nonstop flowing because, you know, I consider myself a musician and singer first. I had never seen myself on this big screen before, so it's like all of these things and emotions," she recalls. "[Like,] 'Wow, that's me,' and, 'Oh, that's a little cringe that moment there.' And then also like, 'That's really me. I'm proud of myself.' It was just a really cool experience."
The Little Mermaid is in theaters now.