Twenty-five years ago, Brandy Norwood made what some might have considered the impossible possible by becoming the first Black actor to portray Cinderella onscreen.
On Tuesday night, Brandy and her “Cinderella” co-stars reflected on the lasting cultural impact of their take on the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical for an ABC reunion special looking back on the TV movie’s 1997 release.
“I knew that this was so great for the world to see, especially Black people,” Brandy said in the special, which is now available to stream on Hulu. “She represented a culture that is beautiful, and I just so appreciated that because that was so much a part of what I wanted to bring to Cinderella.”
“That movie changed the way Black little girls believed in themselves,” the singer and actor added. “I hear to this day, ‘I believe I can be a princess now because of you.’”
Among the other “Cinderella” cast members who participated in this week’s TV event were Whoopi Goldberg, Paolo Montalban, Victor Garber, Bernadette Peters, Jason Alexander and Veanne Cox. The special also included archival footage of Natalie Desselle-Reid, who played one of the stepsisters and died at the age of 53 in 2020, and executive producer Whitney Houston, who played the Fairy Godmother and died at the age of 48 in 2012.
“My dream when I was a young girl was to be a singer, have my own band and meet Whitney Houston. That was it,” Brandy said during the ABC telecast.
“I had no idea that my destiny would take me to a role [like] Cinderella, [or that I would] be the first woman of color to play her. And then for Whitney Houston to be my Fairy Godmother — you gotta be kidding me.”
While watching the ABC broadcast on Tuesday evening, several viewers mourned Houston and Desselle-Reid on social media using the hashtag #CinderellaReunion.
“This #CinderellaReunion is making me miss Whitney Houston even more,” tweeted @electricsoul123.
“Hope Natalie Desselle is resting well,” tweeted @Melissa_Kimble.
As soon as the project was off the ground, Houston and her producing partner, Debra Martin Chase, pursued Brandy for the lead role. In the special, Chase said the filmmakers intentionally took a “diverse” approach to casting — not a “colorblind” one.
“Whitney loved Cinderella,” Chase said. “It was one of the things she was most proud of in her career. She totally understood the value, the importance, the significance of having a Black Cinderella.”
Also groundbreaking was Montalban’s casting as Prince Christopher. While searching for the perfect love interest for Brandy, the filmmakers considered a number of talented candidates, including Wayne Brady, Taye Diggs and Mark Anthony.
But Montalban ultimately landed the part thanks to his angelic voice and “magic” chemistry with Brandy.
“We were like, ‘Oh my God, how interesting to have a Filipino prince with our African American Brandy,” Chase said.
Now accessible to a new generation of viewers on Disney+, “Cinderella” drew an estimated 60 million viewers when it premiered on ABC in 1997, sold a million entertainment units and became the most successful TV movie of its time.
“People were so inspired because it changed people’s lives,” Brandy said during the reunion special. “It’s timeless.”