Now, at 60, she’s been happy to pass the candelabra to Emma Watson, and was even on hand to celebrate at the film’s premiere.
“I made sure I wore blue. I wore blue to audition for Belle. I wore blue for both premieres, and she ended up in blue in the movie, so it’s kind of a lucky color,” O’Hara told PEOPLE at the film’s Los Angeles premiere.
O’Hara’s been there all along through the remarkable history of Disney’s take on the classic fairy tale. Following the success of 1989’s The Little Mermaid, Beast was the second film that returned Disney animation to its classic roots.
Back when O’Hara first heard about the role, she was a rising star on Broadway best known for her performance in Showboat. The film’s acclaimed lyricist Howard Ashman – hot off the success of The Little Mermaid – had his eye on her for Belle early on. “He was already an established genius,” she recalls, “and the stardust that he sprinkled on the Disney animated franchise resonates still today.” Almost immediately she felt she was destined to play the part.
“She’s so much like me, it’s crazy,” she says. “I felt like it was almost written for me. That’s how I felt in my heart, because so much of my childhood was like Belle: the oddball, the bookworm, all of it, and wanting adventure – I wanted adventure as an actress in New York, so I moved to New York at 17.
Today, her voice has aged just beyond Belle’s more girlish tones, but she does stay connected to the character through her artwork. An artist since childhood, who bolstered her early acting career selling her art on the streets of New York, she began painting her character “just for fun.”
From Coinage: The 5 Most Expensive Movies of All Time
But after a painting commanded a hefty price, she was recruited by Disney Fine Art to create a series of limited edition “Belles By Belle” originals which became instantly in-demand collector’s items. She is currently the only Disney Princess who is also a Disney Fine Artist.
The fan connection also endures, especially with her youngest admirers, who are often downright enchanted when they hear Belle’s voice coming out of her mouth.
“The parents will be hugging me, like, ‘Oh, I grew up with you!’ And the little kids are trying to figure it out,” she says. “They’ll look at me, and I’ll say, ‘Okay, close your eyes,’ and I’ll say, ‘Gaston, you are positively primeval!’ And they’re like, ‘Belle!’ ”
Beauty and the Beast hits theaters Friday.