Wedding shamers use online forums to voice opinions on everything from the bride’s camouflage gown to the happy couple’s first toke

Group gained traction in August 2018 after model Chrissy Teigen retweeted the story of a bride who allegedly canceled her wedding after guests refused to pay $1,500 to attend.
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New research shows Amazon’s Alexa and other voice assistants regularly record audio accidentally. | Andrew Matthews/PA Images via Getty Images You’re not imagining it. Smart speakers inadvertently listen to you all the time. How often do Alexa and her ilk listen to your conversations? Maybe more than you think. According to a new report from Northeastern University, smart speakers accidentally activate as many as 19 times a day, recording as much as 43 seconds of audio each time. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that voice-activated assistants aren’t perfect and will wake up accidentally and start recording if they think you’ve said their trigger word. That’s not great if you’re a privacy-minded smart speaker owner (this could be an oxymoron), especially since the companies that make these devices hire contractors and employees to listen to small snippets of recordings. But Northeastern’s Mon(IoT)r Research Group wanted to quantify for the first time how often these activations happen and what the devices hear when they do. “The anecdotes aren’t wrong,” David Choffnes, an associate professor in computer science at Northeastern who worked on the report, told Recode. Researchers tested five types of speakers: a first-generation Google Home Mini, a first-generation Apple HomePod, Microsoft’s Harman Kardon Invoke, and the second- and third-generation Amazon Echo Dots. For the experiment, they forced the speakers to binge-listen to several 125-hour cycles of television shows including Gilmore Girls, The West Wing, Big Bang Theory, and Narcos while they monitored if, when, and how the devices were accidentally triggered. The good news is they didn’t find any evidence that the devices were constantly recording conversations, and about half of the accidental activations lasted less than six seconds. Here’s the bad news: About half of the accidental recordings lasted six seconds or longer, with some recording as much as 43 seconds of audio without the hypothetical user’s permission or, possibly, knowledge. Choffnes said these long activations were rare, but they did happen. That said, the test environment did not fully replicate the environment in which these speakers are used; the audio comes from television show dialogue, which is not always representative of how humans talk. The audio also comes from a speaker rather than a human mouth, so the voice assistants’ actions aren’t necessarily representative of a real-life situation. As you can guess, the devices were usually activated when a word similar to the trigger word was spoken: “I can work” instead of “OK Google,” “congresswoman” instead of “Alexa,” “he clearly” instead of “Siri,” and “Colorado” instead of “Cortana.” While some speakers were better than others, they were all prone to accidental activations, ranging from an average of 1.5 to 19 times per day. The Apple and Microsoft devices activated more often than the others. While this study’s findings are recent, the news that these speakers can be activated accidentally and record random conversations is not. If you have a smart speaker in your house, it has surely happened to you. What you might not know is that, intentional activation or not, the recordings are kept on servers and may even be reviewed by human ears. Sounds creepy, but there is a reason: The more data providers get about things like accidental activations, the better they can refine their voice recognition software to prevent them. Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft all do this. The human listeners are not told who they are listening to, but they might hear enough details to connect a voice to a specific person. The report is part of a still-in-progress larger study, which will also look into what happens to all the data these voice-activated assistants collect. Choffnes hopes consumers will feel more informed and better able to decide for themselves if the privacy risk that comes with voice-activated devices is worth the reward. And that’s assuming consumers even have that option at all. As he points out, it’s increasingly impossible to avoid smart devices, and he doesn’t think the burden should be on consumers to do so in the first place. “They should not be the ones making these decisions,” Choffnes said. “Ultimately, we should actually have regulations to enforce good behavior in terms of protecting personal data.” By now you must be wondering what your devices are hearing. As it happens, you might be able to hear the recordings for yourself — and delete them and stop others from listening in. Here’s how to take control of your favorite voice assistants. Amazon’s Alexa/Echo Amazon gives you the ability to hear your recordings. The instructions are here. You might even get someone else’s recordings, which happened to one man in Germany. You’ll also see how to delete those recordings and opt out of having your audio recordings reviewed by humans. But before you do that, why not give those recordings a listen and tell us what you heard? Google Home Googlealso lets you review your recordings and delete them if you’re so inclined (but first please drop us a line and tell us about it). Your recordings won’t be reviewed by humans unless you approve it. Google also says that, yes, it may use the things you say when it’s activated to target ads to you. Click here to access Google’s privacy controls to review and delete recordings (and turn off “ad personalization” to opt out of the targeted ads). Apple’s Siri You can opt out of having your interactions with Apple’s Siri stored and reviewed through your device’s settings and you can delete recordings; instructions are here. Apple does not appear to give users the option to review their recordings. Microsoft’s Cortana You can review recordings from Microsoft devices through its privacy dashboard (we’d love to know if you do), and there are instructions on how to delete your voice data from the service. Microsoft’s privacy policy doesn’t say whether it lets users opt out of having their recordings stored or reviewed. Help Open Sourced’s reporting Has your smart speaker accidentally recorded something you didn’t intend to be recorded? We want to hear what happened! Just fill out this Google form to share your experience. Loading… Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.
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The Nuclear Family Is Still Indispensable
The nuclear family is disintegrating—or so Americans might conclude from what they watch and read. The quintessential nuclear family consists of a married couple raising their children. But from Oscar-winning Marriage Story’s gut-wrenching portrayal of divorce or the Harvard sociologist Christina Cross’s New York Times op-ed in December, “The Myth of the Two-Parent Home,” discounting the importance of marriage for kids, one might draw the conclusion that marriage is more endangered than ever—and that this might not be such a bad thing.Meanwhile, the writer David Brooks recently described the post–World War II American concept of family as a historical aberration—a departure from a much older tradition in which parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins all look out for the well-being of children. In an article in The Atlantic bearing the headline “The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,” Brooks argued that the “nuclear family has been crumbling in slow motion for decades.” He sees extended families and what he calls “forged families”—single parents, single adults, and others coming together to support one another and children—as filling the vacuum created by the breakdown of the nuclear family.[David Brooks: The nuclear family was a mistake]Yet the search for alternate forms of family has two major flaws. First, there’s evidence indicating that the nuclear family is, in fact, recovering. Second, a nuclear family headed by two loving married parents remains the most stable and safest environment for raising children.There are, of course, still reasons for legitimate concern about the state of the American family. Marriage today is less likely to anchor family life in many poor and working-class communities. While a majority of college-educated men and women between 18 and 55 are married, that’s no longer true for the poor (only 26 percent are married) and the working class (39 percent). What’s more, children from these families are markedly less likely to live under the same roof as their biological parents than their peers from better-off backgrounds are.But there is also ample good news—especially for kids.Today, the divorce rate is down, having fallen by more than 30 percent since peaking around 1980, in the wake of the divorce revolution. And, since the Great Recession, out-of-wedlock births are now dipping as well. Less divorce and less nonmarital childbearing means that more children are being raised in stable, married families. Since 2014, the share of kids in intact families has begun to climb, reversing a decades-long trend in the opposite direction. And as Brooks noted—citing research that one of us conducted at the University of Virginia—the nuclear family headed by married parents remains a personal ideal even among men and women who harbor no moral objections to alternative family structures.None of this suggests that scholars and social commentators are wrong to extol the role extended families can play in improving children’s lives. In her New York Times article raising questions about the importance of the two-parent home, Cross hypothesized that living closer to extended family may actually be helping protect black children “against some of the negative effects associated with parental absence from the home.” And, in Brooks’s evocative telling, the alternatives to the nuclear family hold enormous promise: “Americans are hungering to live in extended and forged families,” arrangements that “allow more adults and children to live and grow under the loving gaze of a dozen pairs of eyes, and be caught, when they fall, by a dozen pairs of arms.”Grandparents, for example, are sharing homes with children and grandchildren; single adults and single parents are forging novel alliances on websites like CoAbode, where, according to Brooks, “single mothers can find other single mothers interested in sharing a home.” These emerging arrangements not only afford people more freedom to choose their own ties that bind, but they also promise to fill the void left in the absence of a strong nuclear family.[Read: If the nuclear family has failed, what comes next?]There’s no question that “a dozen pairs of arms” can make lighter work of family life. Society should applaud those who step up to try to rescue adults and children left adrift in a nation where, despite promising trends, many children still grow up outside an intact two-parent family.But Americans should not presume that society can successfully replace families headed by married parents with models oriented more around kith and kin. Caution is especially warranted as extended families and communities struggle to foster upward mobility or to raise the next generation successfully in circumstances where the family once anchored by marriage has broken down in their midst.It turns out that the relationship between nuclear families and larger communities is more symbiotic than substitutionary; more interdependent than interchangeable. Whatever the merits of extended or other nonnuclear forms of family life, research has yet to show that they are entirely equipped to shoulder the unique role of a child’s two parents.Today, most multigenerational households—which include grandparents, parents, and children—contain only one parent. This often occurs because a mother has moved in with her own parent (or the reverse) following a divorce or breakup. According to the sociologist Wendy Wang, 65 percent of multigenerational families include a single parent. But research reveals mixed outcomes for such households.Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Gary Sandefur of the University of Wisconsin have found that the average child raised by a “mother and grandmother is doing about the same as the average child raised by a single mother” on outcomes such as dropping out of high school or having a teen birth. And in the absence of both parents, children raised by their extended kin, such as an aunt or uncle, are significantly more likely to have, in the words of one study, “higher levels of internalizing problems”—including loneliness and sadness—compared to their peers raised by married parents. As for other emerging forms of family, such as forged families, there are well-founded reasons for skepticism about the role unrelated adults might play in raising a child. Over the years, study after study has detailed the many possible downsides to introducing unrelated adults, especially men, into children’s lives without the presence of those children’s married parents.This is because, sadly, adults who are unrelated to children are much more likely to abuse or neglect them than their own parents are. One federal report found that children living in a household with an unrelated adult were about nine times more likely to be physically, sexually, or emotionally abused than children raised in an intact nuclear family. All this is to say that, for kids, it matters if all the pairs of arms raising them include—first and foremost—those of their own parents.The positive effects of stable marriage and stable nuclear families also spill over. Neighborhoods, towns, and cities are more likely to flourish when they are sustained by lots of married households. The work of the Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson tells us that neighborhoods with many two-parent families are much safer. In his own words: “Family structure is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, predictor[s] of variations in urban violence across cities in the United States.” [Read: Marriage has become a trophy]His Harvard colleagues, the economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, have drawn similar conclusions about the relationship between the health of the American dream and the presence of two-parent families in a community. Working with a team of scholars, they found that black boys are more likely to achieve upward economic mobility if there are more black fathers in a neighborhood—and more married couples, as well. And for poor children of all races, Chetty and his team have found that the fraction of children with single parents in a given community is the strongest and most robust predictor of economic mobility—or its absence. Children raised in communities with high percentages of single mothers are less likely to move up. In other words, it takes a village—but of married people—to raise the odds that a poor child will have a shot at the American dream.The isolated nuclear family detached from all social support is simply not workable for most people. Married couples raising children—as well as other family forms—are more likely to thrive when they are embedded in strong networks of friends, family, community, and religious congregations.Likewise, communities are stronger and safer when they include lots of committed married couples. It’s good news, then, that the share of children being raised by their own married parents is on the rise. Extended kin can (and sometimes must) play a greater role in meeting children’s needs. But as any parent knows, when it comes to an inconsolable child, even a “dozen pairs of arms” from the village don’t quite compare to the warm and safe embrace of Mom or Dad.
Snap Into a Grass-Fed Organic Meat Stick
For most Americans, meat sticks have one face: Macho Man Randy Savage. The pro wrestler fronted the Slim Jim brand for much of the 1990s, flipping tables and crashing through ceilings in television commercials to implore young men to snap into dried sausage rods. Over several decades of marketing, Slim Jim had fine-tuned itself for a certain type of bro: one who delighted in the purposefully trashy masculinity embodied by WWF icons in neon-fringed leather and the mystery-meat gas-station snacks they love. The processed protein cylinders long dominated the meat-snack market, netting hundreds of millions of dollars in sales in the ’90s for the packaged-foods behemoth Conagra.As the new millennium dawned, however, American tastes and the whims of pop culture started to shift. People began to worry about processed foods and search for different flavors and ingredients in their snacks. Savage’s tenure with Slim Jim ended, and the brand launched new campaigns—most notably, a series of late-2000s ads in which a man dressed as a meat stick implored people to eat him. Slim Jim even temporarily changed its slogan from “Snap into a Slim Jim” to “Made from stuff guys need.” But growing up is hard. By late 2010, sales of the sticks had dipped, and even as they rebounded in the years afterward, executives fretted over teenage boys aging out of their products.Five years later, I did a double take while walking through a Whole Foods in Brooklyn. Out of the corner of my eye, I had spotted a pile of narrow, long tubes in single-serving plastic shrink-wrap—Slim Jim packaging, but with the sophisticated shades of organic groceries instead of the garish colors of snacks fighting for attention in convenience stores. I stopped to marvel at the sticks, made by a company called Vermont Smoke & Cure, and to quietly scoff at their audacity. Who would buy a gentrified Slim Jim as health food?The answer turned out to be a lot of people. Over the past decade, the gospel of meat and spice has not only endured, but flourished into a shelf-stable-beef extravaganza. Slim Jim’s sales have nearly tripled since their 2010 dip, and new companies have sprung up to offer organic, grass-fed, or minimal-ingredient protein batons virtually everywhere: corner stores, airport newsstands, office snack deliveries, the ads slotted between Instagram Stories. To put a meat snack in every hand, snack purveyors have pulled off a trick that might have seemed impossible in the days of the Macho Man: They transformed surplus beef into health food.[Read: The capitalist way to make Americans stop eating meat]Despite my initial incredulity at the thought of gourmet Slim Jims, curiosity won out. I started buying fancy meat sticks and jerky in airports—flying is stressful enough without a tummy full of chocolate and Cheez-Its. I’ve never had a meat stick that I’d regard as delicious, exactly, but plenty of them taste perfectly fine. They occasionally show up in my office’s snack stash, and they’re a better bridge to a delayed lunch than a tiny packet of organic animal crackers. They seem like no less reasonable a thing to have floating around at the bottom of my tote bag than a protein bar flavored like birthday cake.To understand why dried sausage sticks are all the rage, you have to look past their most famous American purveyor and into the fitness-centric enclaves on Reddit, Facebook, and Instagram. There, carbohydrate-skeptical plans like the paleo diet, Whole30, and the ketogenic diet, often called “keto,” have found an audience of millions in the past decade—1.7 million people subscribe to the keto subreddit, and more than 4 million Instagram photos have been tagged with #whole30. These diets vary in their exact restrictions, but they all posit that Americans have been sold a bill of goods on “health food,” and that sugars, starches, and low-fat processed foods should mostly be abandoned in favor of minimally processed protein, fat, and vegetables. While the actual science behind these diets varies, they've helped mainstream concerns that are in fact supported by considerable evidence.Read: The Keto diet’s most controversial championIn 2012, Pete Maldonado was caught up in the first gusts of the internet’s low-carb whirlwind while exercising at a CrossFit gym. He began to dabble in paleo eating, which lead him to a common realization for those who cut carbs: If you don’t have a full kitchen at your disposal and time to cook in it, avoiding them is basically impossible. Sugar shows up everywhere—even in conventional meat sticks and jerky, as a stabilizer—and particularly in the protein bars and powders marketed to people trying to build muscle. “There weren’t very many on-the-go convenient options, especially ones that were healthy,” Maldonado says. “They were candy bars for people who were into fitness.”Along with Rashid Ali, a fellow Florida-based CrossFitter, Maldonado founded the meat-stick brand Chomps. Its products are free of sugar and nitrates, which are common in conventional shelf-stabilized meat and verboten for many dieters. At first, Maldonado says, he and Ali expected to run Chomps as a side business while they worked day jobs. Things cruised along manageably for the first few years, as the company, like a lot of modern health-food brands, marketed itself directly to paleo and Whole30 adherents online. Then Uncrate, a popular website for men’s lifestyle recommendations, wrote an article about the Chomps sticks. “We got thousands and thousands of orders,” Maldonado says. “We realized that, wow, this isn’t a niche product. This is as general as it gets.”In 2016, Chomps got picked up by its first retail client, Trader Joe’s, and the company brought in $4 million in revenue. In 2020, Maldonado says, it is on pace to surpass $60 million in sales. Its clientele is mostly women in households that make more than $80,000 per year—exactly the people gas-station treats were never trying to attract, and people who might not want to bring a fistful of neon-encased meat whips to the office.Chomps is far from alone in its growth. Hershey bought the jerky upstart Krave in 2015 for more than $200 million, and food companies such as Chef’s Cut, Country Archer, and Stryve have also found a booming market for their sticks. As a genre, meat snacks—sticks, nuggets, jerky, and beyond—are expected by one industry analysis to become a $6 billion market in the United States by 2027. Much of those sales will continue to go to big brands like Slim Jim (whose parent company, Conagra, did not respond to a request for comment), but smaller companies can thrive in what the snack industry refers to as the “better for you” market, which traffics in “healthy” updates to old favorites. “The first thing consumers are going to look at might be the nutrition-facts label, but if it’s not that, it’s the ingredient list,” says David Walsh, a vice president of the industry trade group SNAC International. “The fewer the ingredients the better, and they want to understand all the ingredients as well.”This intense interest in ingredients isn’t just the result of changing ideas about health. Ideas are changing about snacks themselves. “Consumers are replacing meals with snacks, especially during the workday when they might not have time to run and grab a full meal,” says Chelsie Rae Lee, the chief revenue officer at SnackNation, a subscription service that delivers boxes full of miscellaneous snack foods to American companies (including The Atlantic). Indeed, Americans eat fewer traditional sit-down meals than previous generations did, so they need different kinds of snacks to take their place. Lee says that SnackNation’s meat sticks are so popular that the company launched what it’s calling the Marvelous Meat Lover’s Box, for offices that want to load up on protein.If you’ve read a lot about the popularity of plant-based proteins like Beyond Meat or the Impossible Burger, or about the growing anxiety over what America’s generous per capita meat consumption is doing to the planet or people’s bodies, it might seem counterintuitive that people intensely focused on their physical well-being and the provenance of their food would be fueling an explosion in bulk boxes of dried sausage. But an interest in fancy meat alternatives and in fancy portable meats are two sides of the same coin. Along with faux-burger technology, sales rates for protein-packed snacks made with chickpeas and beans have soared in recent years, but the vast majority of people seeking out those foods don’t seem intent on giving up meat; the rate of vegetarianism in the United States has been steady for decades. Instead, many Americans with disposable income are primarily concerned with making better, more informed choices about what they ingest. Someone who forgoes meat at dinnertime might also be someone who fishes a teriyaki-flavored free-range-turkey stick out of her purse for a mid-morning snack.By selling directly to consumers, small brands prepared to meet the baroque requirements of restrictive health regimens can build a following large enough to pry their way onto sought-after shelf space at major grocers. For most newer meat-stick brands, that means not just a limited ingredient list, but a good backstory of where their meat comes from and the life it lived. Maldonado was careful to emphasize that Chomps sources its beef, which comprises the trimmings from steaks and other retail cuts, from a sustainable, humane ranch in Tasmania. He found that American cattle were too mistreated.Even going to Australia and back for its beef sticks hasn’t been enough for Chomps to banish the ghost of Macho Man Randy Savage, though. The company’s products may contain only ingredients you can easily identify, but it’s hard to out-brand a burly man in neon leather selling ultra-processed treats. “This happens every time. I’ll get this sideways look when I’m explaining I’m making meat sticks, and then people are like, ‘Oh, do you mean like a healthy …,’” Maldonado laments. “And I’m like, ‘Yes, like a healthy Slim Jim.’”
Odd Job: What’s it like to be a real-life Disney princess?
Disney characters Pocahontas, John Smith, Beast, and Belle on a float at Disney World in 2012. (Kristen Sotakoun not pictured.) | Mark Ashman/Disney via Getty Images A former Disney World employees describes working her way up from playing Winnie the Pooh to Mulan and Pocahontas. Kristen Sotakoun had to learn Pocahontas’s signature. It starts with a strong crisscrossing “P” and ends with a scythe-like “S” that swoops below the base of the script. Compared to Cinderella’s frilly cursive, Tarzan’s closed-fist scrawl, and the paw print serving as an “O” in Pluto, Pocahontas’s autograph looks as if she painted it with all the colors of the wind. Kristen Sotakoun Kristen Sotakoun as Pocahontas. Sotakoun worked at Disney World for four years, starting in 2008 when she was just 18. Today, at 30 and with a job in the video game industry, she says she looks back at her princessera with only good memories. Sotakoun, who is half Laotian and half white, went through an intensive crash course for each of the characters she played in Disney’s “entertainment” division, which refers to the iconic costume characters that cheerfully reside in the amusement parks. At the beginning of her shift, she’d enter the bowels of the Magic Kingdom and be costumed as either Pocahontas, Mulan, or Silvermist (a Peter Pan fairy of East Asian appearance who first appeared in the Disney Fairies direct-to-DVD films). Afterward, she was let loose on the campus so she could briefly lose herself in the “happiest place on earth.” In that time, Sotakoun became familiar with every curveball the Disney World Resort was capable of throwing at her. From crying children to leery grandpas, she’s seen it all. Nothing fazes a Disney princess. Sotakoun hasn’t worked at Disney World in nearly a decade, but she’s one of the few former princesses who’s willing to share her experiences candidly with anyone curious. The company discourages its entertainment staff to talk openly about their time working at the parks, and asks all of its Ariels, Belles, and Snow Whites never to acknowledge that they play their namesake characters. Instead, if she’s recognized by a park-goer at Target, Sotakoun and her former coworkers are urged to say something like, “Yes, I’m friends with Pocahontas.” Sotakoun and I talked about the sliding pay scale at Disney parks, the after-hours scene with the cast members, and what it was like to be asked to play Pocahontas with no Native American heritage. So how did you get your foot in the door at Disney World? I wish I could tell you that I glamorously walked in and they said, “We love you.” But I was in high school in 2008 [in Illinois], and Disney came to our school and talked about the Disney CareerStart program. Basically, you graduate school, go straight to Disney. I think it was to try and get kids into the workforce. I immediately told my mom that I wanted to do this, and she said, “Okay, maybe for a couple months.” I didn’t start as a princess; you’re not allowed to audition for entertainment in that program. So I worked at the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground first. It was glorified babysitting — you watch kids climb over this giant ant, and that was a lot of fun. At the end of the program, after three months, they held auditions for entertainment. They pulled me after the audition and told me I would be Pocahontas. Being half Asian and half white, that was a surprise. I put on the costume; they had me read a prewritten line. I’m from outside of Chicago, and they said, “Could you read that again, and this time don’t say ‘Poca-HAHN-tus.” They took pictures of me, and they said, “You’re in!” When you’re working at the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids playground, is getting into entertainment the holy grail? Oh, it feels like a hierarchy. Walking backstage in my yellow polo with khaki shorts, if Peter Pan would pass me, I would go quiet. It’s not like they say, “Listen, these people are so much better than you.” You just feel it. You feel like this is an iconic Disney character walking past you. Kristen Sotakoun Sotakoun’s rendering of Mulan’s signature. When you got to entertainment, how long was the training regimen? It may be different now, but for me, the training was five days. When you’re accepted in entertainment, nobody is just a princess or just a prince. You have to be trained and approved in fur characters first. The first three days of training is sitting and watching videos of what you can or can’t do. Learning autographs. There’s a really creepy portion where you wear just the head and hands of the character. So you’re in business-casual but the hands and head of Chip and Dale. The last two days of training you go out into the park with character attendants, and meet people. It was wild to me, I thought the training would last about a month. And once you’re approved for fur, it’s two days of training for each “face character” [characters like Belle or Princess Jasmine that don’t wear a mask]. I was so stoked when I got through training, and then I did three weeks in a row of just Winnie the Pooh. I had no idea that there might be a woman underneath the mask of Winnie the Pooh at Disneyland. So the gender of the performer doesn’t matter much? Yeah, so Mickey and Minnie, their heights are 4-foot-11 to 5-foot-1, so Mickey and Minnie are usually women. I have a friend who is a heterosexual cis male. He was Queen of Hearts for the first time; he did his set. I asked him how it was, and he was like, “Oh, my god, it was so fun. I was having dads kneel and kiss my hand. And I just walked back in here and took off my head and thought, ‘What the hell did I just do?’” So did you get a crash course inspecificallyPocahontas? Or is the training more general than that? Oh, yeah, there’s a much higher chance of you accidentally doing something “non-Disney” as a face character. You can speak; they can see your face. The first day of training for Pocahontas, we’d sit and watch the movie and work on the different ways that she poses. And the trainers are usually people who’ve been the characters before. That’s really fun. Kristen Sotakoun Kristen Sotakoun as Mulan. So Pocahontas has a couple of go-to poses for pictures? Yeah, for some reason they didn’t want me to put hands on my hips. They wanted me to put my hands on my side and make a fist. It’s kinda like that Arthur meme. What do you remember about your first day as a face character, out in the park, where the training wheels are off? It was wild. My first time walking into the park as Pocahontas, I was at Epcot. You come out of the door, and you’re just like, “Oh, my god.” It’s weird, I got so nervous. So I didn’t pass training my first go-around. I had to do it again, because I was so caught up in the moment. So when did the job start to feel normal to you? Where you weren’t intimidated by being out there? It’s so weird to look back on that job and think it was a normal part of my life for four years. Once I was trained as Pocahontas, I was her five days a week for three months straight. At a certain point, just like any job, you [would] wake up in the morning and be like, “Ugh, I don’t want to go to work today.” I had to remind myself that I was saying, “I don’t want to put on makeup and hug kids all day.” One of my distinct memories of being at Disneyland as a kid is crying in front of a giant Mickey. That’s a quintessential experience at Disneyland: Kids cry in front of the mascots. Did you deal with any crying kids? Was there a protocol to deal with them? Definitely a lot of crying children. A lot, all the time. Less with face characters, but more with, “Oh, there’s Winnie the Pooh, that character is a sticker on my wall!” And now he’s a 5-foot-8 bear staring at me. Whatever character you are, you can kinda mold your reaction to what that character would do. As Winnie the Pooh, I would cover my eyes and turn away like I was scared. You can engage the situation and be within your voice. I’ve seen some performers who are just incredible with making kids calm down. You just gotta roll with the punches. I would imagine that there must be a backstage community at Disney. You’re all kids, you’re all working this weird job in this surreal environment. Did you guys go out together? Did you guys tease each other in the dressing room? What’s the after-hours scene like? I think people think that there are a bunch of people going wild, like, “What’s Cinderella do in her off-hours?” But backstage is pretty normal, but I can tell you some of the raunchier things that have happened. I was Silvermist, the fairy at Magic Kingdom and Toon Town. The fairies share their break room with the princesses as well, so it’s one big break room. One of the Cinderellas was like, “Guys, I just got a boob job!” And then Belle, was like, “Okay, not to be weird but can I feel it?” Cinderella says, “Go ahead!” It becomes this train of all the princesses and fairies feeling Cinderella’s boobs and saying, “Oh, my god, they’re so real!” Kristen Sotakoun Kristen Sotakoun as Silvermist. Some women have said that being a face character at Disney can lead to guys getting kinda handsy at the park. Did you have any experience with that? So I played Mulan, who is fully covered. She’s dressed head to toe. I would get comments from the dads that were like, “Oh, you’re so beautiful!” Or phone numbers written on Disney World napkins. Pocahontas, though, was wearing the least amount of clothes, so it was always the older grandpas. … I’ve never been, like, groped, but it definitely does happen. I think the people who do say things to the princesses have real balls. You’re at Disney World. There are so many children around respecting this character. We mentioned this earlier, that Disney was clearly playing it pretty fast and loose with race. What was your reaction when you were asked to play a Native American? Does it feel more weird now, years later, in a more sensitive cultural environment? When I got the role as Pocahontas, I thought it was so funny. But then I met the other Pocahontases who are also not Native American. A lot of the Pocahantases were also Princess Jasmines. I was Mulan as well, and I was like, “Well, I’m not Chinese, but this is closer.” But one of the Mulans was Puerto Rican. It’s wild. Out of the eight Mulans, none of us were Chinese. What’s the pay range for Disney characters? I worked there eight years ago, but what I can tell you is that there’s a base pay. Fur characters are making a certain amount of money. It’s minimum wage, maybe a little bit above. But when you’re a face character, you get a premium because it’s a skill. Same with the parade — if you’re in the parade, you get a premium. When I was on the CareerStart program, I was the only one of my friends who was a princess, so I knew I was making three or four dollars more than my friends. But it fluctuates depending on your schedule. If you’re scheduled as Winnie the Pooh, that is going to be a different paycheck than the next week if I get all Pocahontas. Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.
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