Paige O’Hara was catapulted into the spotlight when she was cast as the voice of Belle in Disney’s 1991 animated feature Beauty and the Beast. Before landing the coveted role, O’Hara was a celebrated Broadway and opera performer, starring in productions of Showboat and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. O’Hara currently performs six nights a week in Menopause: The Musical at the Luxor in Las Vegas, and still voices Belle in straight-to-DVD sequels and Disney specials. She is also a seasoned artist, and regularly paints for Disney Fine Art.
Criticize This! spoke with O’Hara during her media tour promoting the release of Beauty and the Beast on Blu-ray. Read our Q&A below.
Criticize This!: What led you from Broadway to doing voice work?
Paige O’Hara: After The Little Mermaid, [Disney was] looking for Broadway talent for Beauty and the Beast. I read about it in the New York Times and auditioned. After [me and] 500 actresses auditioned, I got the job.
CT!: What did it feel like when you first heard you would be the next Disney Princess?
PO: It was amazing. I had been a Disney fanatic from the time I was little… I just love the animation. And it was quite a week because on my birthday, May 10, my husband proposed to me, and on May 12 I got the role of Belle.
CT!: What inspired the way you performed Belle?
PO: During the auditions, the directors said they wanted my voice. I was older and was trying to make it higher, but they wanted her to have a womanly quality. They wanted the singing to be somewhat old-fashioned, which I had been known for. Now that I’m past 50, I can still do her voice and I’m still recording in the studio for them all the time.
CT!: You’re one of the few actors that has stayed with the character for all the sequels and specials. Is that important to you?
PO: I love Belle. I love the fact that she was a revolutionary kind of heroine. She’s very smart and odd and is looking for adventure — not a husband. She was a first in a lot of ways for a Disney Princess and was ahead of her time in the film, and for Disney. I think that’s why, almost 20 years later, people still love her.
CT!: What was it like performing at the Oscars?
PO: It was so scary. I’m in this Bo Peep dress that was horrible and had nothing to do with Belle. I went out and got into the wings and Angela Lansbury — talk about a heroine of mine — was shaking and I asked her why she was nervous. She said, ‘Honey, when you get to be my age, you learn when you’re supposed to be nervous.’ Then she leaned over and said, ‘But if I sang like you, I wouldn’t be nervous.’ It was so cute. Then I walked out and saw Barbara Streisand, Nick Nolte, and Warren Beatty and I was like ‘Okay, I’m Belle. I’m not Paige.’ And I was fine.
CT!: You had a small live-action part in the film Enchanted. Any interest in doing more live-action movies or is it strictly voice work for you?
PO: I do six shows a week at the Luxor and I’m performing all the time, but I would love to do more [live-action] films. I’m not going to pursue it as my life is very busy in Vegas and I’m recording for Disney all the time.
CT! You are also a painter. How long have you been painting and are you ever going to do an exhibit of your work?
PO: I’ve been painting since I was three. Disney has signed me for Disney Fine Art and they have seven or eight paintings that they are making into giclee prints. They have them online and they are going to be offering some gifts of them on Disney Movie Rewards. There is some talk of me going to some galleries and doing signings for the next couple of years too, which will be great.
CT!: The release of Beauty and the Beast on Blu-ray will attract an entirely new generation who will grow up with this film. Does it surprise you that the film has lived on for so long?
PO: The demographic is across the charts, from little kids to grandparents that love the film. The true Disney classics like Mary Poppins, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Cinderella — no matter what age you are, you can still love them.
CT!: Anything else you’re working on?
PO: I’ve got a project in the works on the life of Judy Garland. I would be the older Judy who narrates it. It’s quite good and I hope we’ll have it on its feet in the next year.