When I first watched the Wonderful World of Disney TV production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 1997, I thought the only thing I’d be excited to see would be the gowns and, of course, Brandy as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as her fairy godmother. I didn’t realize I’d come away from the film head over heels for the prince. But I also didn’t account for the character, Prince Christopher, to be played by Paolo Montalban.
For a very long time, I, like a lot of young people influenced by this production of Cinderella, have held Montalban in high regard. He has been my number one pick as the ultimate “Prince Charming” for years now, and that opinion still hasn’t changed.
First, let’s start with the obvious — the looks. For some reason, Montalban was the most beautiful man I’d seen as a young teenager. He was tall, statuesque, with an open, expectant expression on his handsome face. If I let my mind tell it, I hadn’t seen beautiful men before, when I know that’s not true; as a young kid, the first crush I ever had on a grown man was Jeff Goldblum after watching Jurassic Park. But Montalban is certainly different than Goldblum, and despite all of his suaveness, Ian Malcolm is no quintessential Prince Charming.
While Jeff Goldblum is definitely a mature choice for an elementary school kid, Montalban’s Prince Christopher was a little more age-appropriate, relatively speaking. He was still in his 20s when Cinderella aired compared to my 12 to 13 years of age, still more understandable than crushing on a 30-something when you’re 6. But beyond that, Montalban’s Prince Christopher embodied exactly what impressionable young minds dream of when they think of a prince coming to sweep them away from the rigors of life. He was, as the classic character’s name suggests, charming, but he was also kind, sweet, sensitive, and down-to-earth despite being a filthy rich sovereign. Also important: He’s a filthy rich sovereign.
Another thing ticks one of the boxes of swoon-worthiness: Montalban’s immense talent. Montalban has had a long career on and off-Broadway. His singing voice is so clear and piercing that when he began to sing during the opening number of Cinderella, I was shaken even as a kid, sitting on the floor with my own mouth agape. Even the Cinderella producers were shocked when they first heard Montalban during his audition.
"He opens his mouth and he sings like an angel," said Debra Martin Chase, one of the executive producers, in an interview with Shondaland for their extensive oral history about the film. "And we're just like gasping, 'We've found him.'"
I didn’t know it at the time, but there was another, more sociopolitical reason that I was drawn toward Montalban, and that has to do with Brandy. In the ‘90s, there were a lot of black-led television shows and films, breaking the monotony of Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts movies made for white audiences. In fact, I’d call the ‘90s a rare, extraordinary oasis of black content amid extreme cultural whiteness.
Brandy was definitely a part of that oasis, not just as a popular R&B singer, but as the star of the hit sitcom Moesha. For a lot of young black girls, Brandy was one of the models for teenage cool. But even though Moesha was definitely an influential show, Brandy’s role as Cinderella cemented her as a cultural icon, the lone black princess in modern media. Think about it — it’s a rare thing to see black women showcased as royalty, even though black royalty definitely existed throughout history (and modern princesses like Meghan Markle and others show they still do).
Seeing Brandy as a girl who eventually becomes a princess was aspirational. Not particularly because a princess is something everyone should hope to be, but because princesses are desirable. They are seen as the epitome of femininity and girliness. They are seen as soft, gentle, and kind. Compare that to how black women and girls are usually stereotyped as being — hard, strong, unfeeling, tough, masculine.
Seeing Brandy being desired by Montalban’s Prince Christopher was a pivotal moment for me as a teen, since up until that point I hadn’t had many examples of black women being desired by anyone. The few examples that were out there didn’t necessarily speak to me. A Different World had Whitley and Dwayne Wade, and Whitley was definitely every inch the sophisticated, genteel Southern Belle, antithetical to the general portrayal of black women in Hollywood. In some ways, she reminded me of my own mother, which made her a comforting character for me. But Whitley was also someone I knew I could never be like. She was lighter-skinned, fashionable, and flirty. Meanwhile, I was paper-bag brown, with undiagnosed body dysmorphia, believing I was much fatter than I actually was. On top of that, I had to dress in the women’s department at an early age since I had already outgrown the small-size 00 Juniors section, so my bad relationship with clothes was not at all like Whitley’s fantastic one. Family Matters, a show I watched every week, always had Laura Winslow batting away Steve Urkel’s pesky attention. I resonated more with Laura, but I also didn’t want to be desired by someone like Steve, who was way too annoying despite his moments of genuine sincerity. I also couldn’t relate to Tia and Tamera Mowry of Sister, Sister, since they seemed like the quirky teens I wished to be; I was way too neurotic to be considered “normal.”
Brandy’s Cinderella, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. She was meek and shy, had low self-esteem, and was respectful to a fault, never telling off her wicked stepmother or leaving home for fear of breaking her father’s final wish of her being with family. She was darker and wore braids like me. She was looking for relief from a life that seemed designed against her, like me. And throughout all of it, she was still able to find someone to love her for her, damage and all.
This is why 1997's Cinderella, Brandy, and Montalban, in particular, have resonated with me for so long. We all have a dream of being loved by someone despite our personal problems and issues. We often think that we are unlovable because of our traumas or the pressures we’ve put upon ourselves. But there is someone out there for us who will understand us. That’s what I felt when I saw Montalban as Prince Christopher interact with Cinderella in the marketplace, kiss her at the ball, and search high and low for her in the kingdom. There could be someone out there searching for me like that and I just might not know who they are.
Until that point, I’ll keep Montalban close to heart.