Princess Marty says the most important thing a princess has to do is smile and be in character — always.
"You can never ruin it for a child, even if you're coming home from work ... and you're in your big dress," she says. "If a child sees you, you have to be a princess for them. You can't say, 'Sorry kid, I'm off the clock.' "
Her highness — known outside the big dress as Mary Alice LeGrow — is a professional party princess. She uses her best princess voice and dresses up in full regalia to charm children.
"It just gets exponentially more profitable and more exciting as we go from year to year," she says. "Ten years ago, you wouldn't have even heard about this job, and now, here we are, people are talking about it on the radio."
People are talking about it online, too; LeGrow illustrates and blogs about her royal career. Before crowning herself the party princess, she was a graphic novelist. Her eight-volume fantasy series, Bizenghast, got a lot of positive press before the recession hit. That's when LeGrow realized she needed to get even more creative about her work. Being a princess foots the bills while she fundraises for her graphic projects through Kickstarter.
She does face some opposition, though, from parents who worry about reinforcing negative feminine stereotypes. Princess culture could even be harmful to a girl's self-esteem, argues Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter.
It's the No. 1 question LeGrow gets, she says. But when she asks children what they would do if they were princesses, they say, "I would be in charge!"
"For them, it's more about being in charge, eating cookies all day long," she says. "They like the pretty dresses, but they also like the idea of being the most important person in the kingdom."
The key is helping kids get a balance, while fostering play and creativity, LeGrow says.
"Simply dumping this princess culture in all its merchandising form onto children, you can do damage to them," she says. "I think you should encourage kids to explore their creativity at a young age in a very gender-neutral way. Do things that aren't just princess-y or aren't just G.I. Joe and that sort of thing."
Even the boys enjoy the princess parties sometimes. LeGrow says, at a recent party, the birthday girl had a younger brother who was just as excited, if not more so, to see the princess.
"The mother actually bought him a tutu in case he wanted to dress up because all of the other children were in costume," she says, "and he was contemplating it. He was jealous."