The Photos · Uncategorized

The Writers’ Block

Maria Spadafora (9)

Princesses: Caroline Mitchell, Aisha Khan, Zodwa Nyoni, Kirsty Taylor
Location: Shakespeare Avenue, Leeds

Caroline: “They (princesses) made me want to give them a good shake as a child. especially the one in The Princess and the Pea. Bruised because she was too tender! Oh please.”

Aisha: “This project made me giggle in a ‘ooh I’d like to do that’ kind of way!” 

Zodwa: “There is a westernized stereotype of what princesses look like, usually blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Certainly with fair hair and skin. I come from a culture with royalty that doesn’t look like that, but is never held up, celebrated and respected as royalty.”

Kirsty: “Should I bring like a tracksuit top and Nike air max to go with the dress? With me Pat Butcher earrings?! Is that the look or not really…?!” 

It is now! #PrincessRealness


Love Yourself and Be Yourself

20170725_104626In an attempt to seek some balance to my cynicism, I knew from the offset there was one person I had to include in this project. Anna is a young actor with Mind the Gap, the UK’s largest learning-disabled theatre company. I knew she loved all things pink, but it also transpires she’s something of an oracle when it comes to fairy-tale princesses.

So I asked her – what do you love about princesses?

“I love the costumes, definitely. First I love Cinderella, because I’ve played Cinderella here at Mind the Gap. But my ultimate favourite, is Elsa from Frozen. I love the costume, I love the make-up, the finale dress on the steps and the song”.

She also adores the mix of live action and animation in Enchanted, and it’s apparent that a lot of this appeals to the natural performer in Anna.

Lorraine also performs with Mind the Gap, and is a talented dancer and musician. She also loves princesses.

“I also love being princesses because it gives the experience of being one of them. I love Frozen (she and Anna made sure they each got a turn in the blue dress I brought to the shoot). I did a performance called Fairy-tales and I got chosen”.

My third princess from Mind the Gap, Charlotte, is a dancer:

“I quite like dressing up as a princess, I also like the encouragement of being part of it (this project) – empowering women to be strong together, not necessarily as princesses, but as women. We’re being powerful towards the concept, and that concept is to be who you are. To be yourself, but also to be powerful in decisions we’re going to make our daily lives as well. It means you can be more powerful and strong in the future as well”.

I talk a little about how my view of princesses has changed in doing this project, because I’m dressing these brilliant women in big frocks the iconography of the princess has started to take on a new meaning for me. It’s starting to feel more powerful. At which point Lorraine pipes in with enormous passion ‘and some of us have learning disabilities!’ starting a discussion about representation and the importance of seeing yourself in art and media.

Anna then talked us through some fairy-tale princesses who are breaking the mould in terms of ethnicity, such as Mulan, and Pochahontas.  She’s very aware of the different ‘types’ of princess on offer:

“There’s different ones as well. Some can have, bravery, confidence, be strong, and others are girly-girly and things”.

I can see why these characteristics appeal to girls and parents. Encouraging qualities such as kindness, bravery and courage are positive messages, and it’s nice to be reminded of this. These young women also surrendered themselves to the sheer joy of dressing up – swapping outfits, lots and lots of spinning, and even some lip-synching. I thought I’d never get those frocks back! Charlotte kept it real though, and had some more serious points to make:

“I’ve noticed that one of the Disney princesses from Princess And The Frog – that concept is a bit strong and full on. Because in the beginning there are two separate scenes, there’s one family who are real rich, but in the other scene there’s a black family that’s in a very poor area. And I don’t feel that’s very comfortable because of history repeating itself (It’s a stereotype). I don’t think it’s appropriate for Disney”.

So I asked – If you were to create your own princess stories, what would they look like?

“You don’t really see many black princesses. I don’t really feel comfortable, it’s not very nice not having many black princesses around. It would be nice to have more. They’re a stereotype, there’s a bit of favouritism there, and it’s not fair. People who are black want to step out into the world and want to be that princess. Girls are even encouraged to buy moisturiser that makes their skin lighter, and I don’t think that’s right, to change your skin colour to make it lighter I don’t think that should be allowed.

Love yourself and be yourself. Because we are women and we are in it all together, it doesn’t matter who you are. You don’t need to change yourself, it’s about loving yourself and accepting who you are in yourself”.

And that, people, is a fine message to end on. Love yourself and be yourself.

These amazing young women, alongside many others, will be appearing in The Real Princesses of Yorkshire exhibition at Arts@Trinity from 11th to 22nd September 2017. And if you’d like to join us at the Princess Ball,  book your free tickets here.


Two Marias Are Better Than One

Maria & MariaAs a boy (which is most of the time…) I work in social media. I’ve been doing drag for a few years on fun projects or performances I think are cool. I used to really worry about doing ‘amazing’ drag and looking as much like a woman as I could, however, over time I just decided to do projects which I thought were interesting. I’ve run around Leeds Market filming for the council, I’ve been in a music video for a rock and roll band and I made 400 people take part in a 80s themed work out with me at Leeds Town Hall. That sort of stuff.

My drag name is Maria Millionaire and I wear a lot of black.

As a drag queen I’m aware of always doing things ‘dressed as a girl’ which aren’t derogatory or insulting to women. As a drag queen I want to celebrate womanhood. I’m not sure the ideal archetype of a princess does that. It often presents women in the way of needing saving, needing a man or that the only worthwhile pursuit is singing to birds and collecting fruit. Princesses are I suppose, a form of drag, in that they present a made up, over-feminised version of reality, but I feel drag is a critique of our expectations of humanity – we over draw our eyebrows, play with silhouettes and wear oversized hair to draw attention to the fact that in life we all wear masks or different identities.

Typical princesses only offer one dimension, drag offers thousands.



Fairy Tale Whitewash

IMG_9028On a Young Conservatives blog I’m not sharing a link to, someone proudly (arrogantly) responds to ‘liberal minds’ who complain about lack of ethnic diversity among fairy-tale princesses. His argument is that the predominance of porcelain skinned princesses is simply ‘realistic’, because the original stories are set in white-majority countries. I find it curious that, in fantasy worlds where pumpkins turn into carriages and frogs into princes, he’s such a stickler for verisimilitude when it comes to skin colour.

This liberal mind believes representation is really important, even in cartoons and fairy-tale worlds. Seeing yourself (and others) represented in books, on the screen and in the toys you play with is a serious issue. Even the Tellytubbies represented. I know Disney have made more of an effort to include black and brown characters in recent years, but is it good enough when many of the stories still perpetuate knackered old stereotypes? I recently watched Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live action version of Cinderella, where the first woman of colour we see is a kitchen maid, FFS. But then this is a world where Prince Charming is still entitled to any woman he wants…

One of the Princesses in my project, Natalie Davies, is an actor from Bradford, and her heritage is mixed. She had this to say:

“The princesses do not reflect the everyday female. I never could quite relate to any of the Disney princesses – so I just settled for being Mowgli!”

And playwright/poet Zodwa Nyoni delivers African Princess realness in another of my portraits:

“There is a westernised stereotype of what princesses look like, usually blonde-haired and blue-eyed. Certainly with fair hair and skin. I come from a culture with royalty that doesn’t look like that, but is never held up, celebrated and respected as royalty.”

Well Zodwa’s Princess certainly garnered respect from a passer-by during our photoshoot, as he yelled his enthusiastic support from the street.


There’s a great blog by a Dad called ‘Man vs. Pink’, chronicling the struggle he and his daughter share against pinkification. In ‘Celebrating Disney Princesses of Colour’ he says:

“As parents of a mixed race daughter, it’s important we include representations of girls & women of colour in stories, films, and merchandise she is exposed to. As far as Disney Princesses are concerned, the women of colour tend to be far less prominent than their caucasian counterparts… While I appreciate there are overriding issues with gender representation and Disney Princesses (admittedly only three of these movies – just about – pass the Bechdel Test), that is something that I can address by talking to my daughter about these stories.”

It’s great when parents can take the negatives and use them to stimulate conversation with their children, but some would also like to buy an Esmeralda lunchbox from the Disney store.


One Size Does Not Fit All

IMG_9076For one of my pictures I teamed up Natalie Davies and Jenny Wilson, both brilliant performers from Bradford, who frequently get their height commented on. And when I say commented, I mean told: “Ooh, aren’t you short!” “Ooh, you’re tall!” Jenny and I talked about gender as performance and the colour pink.

Jenny: I get my gender identity called into question quite a lot, and I have throughout my life. And that’s really about size. I can really identify with trans people, their journey and their experience of having their gender identity questioned. I play with gender and gender stereotypes in my performing, and Mysti Valentine (Jenny’s Drag character) is very much taking control of that. If you’re going to question my gender identity I’m going to give you all of the question marks in one go! Gender is performance, it’s social construct, it’s not innate.

We’ve all been brought up in a patriarchy, and our language is formed in that context, the words we have, the frames of reference we have, the very thoughts in our heads – those words are patriarchal words. Everything is so very gendered.

(For this shoot) we both turned up in pink, and I hate that ‘pinkification’ of everything. It’s capitalism and patriarchy. For example, Lego recognised that by making pink Lego theycould make twice as much. I just had a big bag of it because I had two big brothers, and the same’s true for Stella (Jenny’s daughter), she gets to play with Ivan’s (her son’s) old cars, guns and swords and stuff. She likes to play with those, and likes to play ‘big boy’ games, but she’s a very ‘girly girl’ in loads of ways. She likes to sing and dance and dress up in princess clothes and all of that. And it’s difficult, as there’s a bit of me that’s like ‘don’t be girly!’ but I try to make sure she has a choice and isn’t limited by what she’s ‘supposed’ to be. She can be a warrior and a princess, and princesses can be powerful. It doesn’t mean you have to be rescued – you can rescue yourself.

We talked about dressing up. I totally understand children wanting to play dress up, because I want to do it! That’s one of the reasons I adore drag queens. But when little boys put on princess (or whatever) frocks it’s immediately problematic for many people.

Jenny: It’s about control, it’s about where the power lies. Who’s in control of it and who’s entitled to do it, and the values we ascribe to it. And that’s where the patriarchy will keep reinventing itself, you know every little gain that women and girls make, the patriarchy just redefines it as a bit shit. Because once it’s got feminine qualities attached to it, it’s lesser somehow than the masculine thing. It’s much easier for Stella to dress up as a pirate, or to be a ‘tomboy’ than it is for a little boy to be a ‘sissy’. For a boy to dress as a fairy or princess is much more problematic, and that’s because of the power. It’s insidious. What I try to do with my work as a performer, through Irregular Arts, it’s to try and create little glimmers of what the world might be like if it wasn’t like that.

I want to live in one of Jenny’s glimmers. Like the little boy who dressed up as Daphne for Halloween. And the boys who wore skirts to protest school uniform policy. I’d like to live in a world where pink isn’t for girls, it’s for anyone and everyone, if you happen to like pink.


The Punk, Post-Menopausal Princess

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I’m not sharing any project portraits until we get closer to the exhibition, but I can tell you about some of the Princesses. On the morning the general election results came in, Kath Morgan-Thompson and I had surreal fun in the ladies’ loos at the gorgeous Iberica, Leeds.

Kath is many things. A Yoga teacher; Bollywood, Kathak and Northern Soul dancer; performance artist; kick-arse comedian and a Mum. Her burlesque character Mrs No Overall is a downtrodden ordinary cleaning lady who breaks out from domestic drudgery in a celebration of middle-aged exuberance – and she won the Welsh Heat of Burlesque Idol 2016. Her other comedy burlesque character – Lady FTP – messes with the stereotype of a posh country lady, and has been accepted to compete in Burlesque Idol 2017 in London. And most recently Kath was a member of The Gulabi Gang in the Transform Festival production of The Darkest Corners, produced by the dance and theatre company RashDash (‘The punk princesses of late night theatre’ – according to The Guardian).

I asked Kath about her opinion on fictional, fairy-tale Princesses:

I’m one of six children and have four brothers, so spent a lot of my childhood on a bike or in a rugby scrum. Though being the only girl child for ages meant that I was mum’s little helper, and also treated a bit more special.

I was never really bothered for the princess thing as a little girl and saw through the ridiculous idea of a prince coming to save me. That was probably due to the mystique of manhood being farted out of me by my four flatulent brothers!

I like the idea of a punk princess (Siouxsie Sioux) and my favourite fiction character is Ripley from the Alien films. A smart, athletic, independent princess not a frothy, fluffy marshmallow princess.

I had a discussion with my daughter Pearl (19) about this and she says she liked fairies better than princesses because

a) they have powers that make them kickass
b) they can wear cool outfits
c) they don’t need anybody to save/rescue them…


Real Women Inspire Me

Blog 3The women I’m working with on this project inspire in different ways. As well as being a dear friend, Saireen is something of a heroine to me. She has educated herself and accrued  a wealth of experience in different fields including Finance, Funding, Training, and Community and Organisational Development, all  whilst battling many personal challenges.

She feels passionately that BME women should be represented in local services, and worked as a Volunteer Coordinator for Rape Crisis, as well as volunteering herself with The Minorities Police Liaison Committee.

In the late1990’s she educated the Home Office, Media and local MPs on the distinction between arranged marriage, marriage of convenience and forced marriage. She observed that criticism of arranged marriages came across as tarnishing BME communities in a broader sense, particularly Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities, and set about addressing this. She established the first project of its kind supporting people experiencing forced marriage, and successfully inspired other organisations on a local, national and international basis to create support services and education programmes to deal with the issues. Her awareness raising was also key in leading the home office to set up one of the first iterations of the Forced Marriage Unit.

These are just some of the things that make her awesome.

She reminded me that sometimes real life Princesses are more than clothes horses:

 “It’s very rewarding kind of work when you want to help people, like Princess Diana did. She must have felt she achieved what she had set out to do if she saw somebody else feel better as a result of her work. I felt like I could relate to Princess Diana, not in a physical way, but the experiences she had and her loving nature. She cared for others and I often get told I have that in me, I could relate to her in that way. She was a real woman. She was well known for being a people’s person, the people’s princess, because she cared about people and so do I.”

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