Brandy Norwood is an American singer, actress, and television personality known for his string of successful projects in the ’90s and early ’00s. Emerging in a generation of talent that also included Monica, Aaliyah, Usher, and Tevin Campbell, Brandy was an easy standout thanks to her groundbreaking cross-over into television and mainstream culture. Although Brandy was one of the top musicians of the 90s and even became the first black Cinderella, the singer/actress didn’t always have the confidence she has today.
Brandy began her career singing in church before scoring her first major television role on the short-lived series Thea. From there, the talented vocalist scored a record deal and issued her self-titled debut album. Featuring hits like “I Wanna Be Down,” “Baby,” and “Best Friend,” Brandy became the poster child for the everyday black teen of the early ’90s. Her unapologetically urban style was groundbreaking for its time, and she was one of the first women of color to rock braids in several high-profile campaigns, including CoverGirl. She also had her own Barbie doll. Brandy became a primetime television star as well with her series Moesha. She starred in several films, including “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer” and “Double Platinum” with Diana Ross.
The most enduring project in Brandy’s earlier work would be her turn as Cinderella in the 1997 ABC-made-for-television musical of the same name. Brandy starred as the titular character in a monumental film that featured a diverse cast, including an Asian Prince. Whoopi Goldberg, Bernadette Peters, Jason Alexander, and Victor Garber all starred opposite Norwood. The film had a long road to conception, as it was originally imaged as a vehicle for Whitney Houston. Houston had aged out of the role but handpicked Brandy to star in it instead. Whitney decided to take the role of the Fairy Godmother and produced the film as well. She and Brandy would forge an enduring relationship from the film that lasted till Whitney passed, ironically on Brandy’s birthday in 2012.
“My dreams when I was a young girl was to be a singer, have my own band, and meet Whitney Houston. That was it,” Brandy recently said during a 20/20 interview. “I had no idea that my destiny would take me to a role (like) Cinderella, be the first woman of color to play her, and then for Whitney Houston to be my Fairy Godmother. You gotta be kidding me.”
Brandy’s work in the ’90s, particularly in Cinderella, helped many young women of color feel seen and appreciated at a time when they were often not showcased as the star or lead. This was even more important to many because Brandy always rocked her signature braids. For Norwood, it was a struggle to really step into some of these roles because at the time, she did not see herself as the beautiful superstar that the world saw her as.
Cinderella is being honored with a cast reunion on ABC this week, and Norwood is opening up about her experience in the film. “I thought I was ugly; then I turned out to be the first black princess! That’s pretty mind-blowing,” she recalled, holding back tears. Jason Alexander talked about how amazing it was that the film also featured a Black queen (Goldberg), an Asian prince, and a Black Cinderella. “It’s a story for every little boy and girl of every color,” said Bernadette Peters.
Fans of the film flooded the comments section to reveal how the casting of Brandy as a Disney princess was impactful for them at the time. “I watched this as a child❤️❤️❤️❤️grew up on Brandy,” said one person. “I was so proud to watch with my little brown daughter! Thank you,” said another person.
Brandy’s casting in the role helped set off a diversity wave in the industry and was accompanied by other historic castings in the ’90s. Toni Braxton would join her in making history as the first black Belle in the Broadway version of Beauty and the Beast a year later in 1998. ABC did another groundbreaking casting in 2005 when they put Ashanti in the role of Dorothy Gale for their made-for-television original The Muppets Wizard of Oz. She is the second woman of color to portray Dorothy following Diana Ross’ turn in The Wiz. When Cinderella went to Broadway, it brought along Keke Palmer as the first black actress to portray the role on stage in 2014. She credited seeing Brandy’s ’90s iteration as inspiration.