For Courtney Reed and Chantel Riley, it was friendship at first sight.
The two met at the American Theatre Wing gala in 2013, and each immediately noticed (and coveted) the other’s style.
“You had that finger curl wave with the white dressl” Reed says.
“That black dress with the bold lip!” Riley says of Reed’s look.
“We only see each other at events,” Reed confesses.
Luckily, many of their events overlap, considering the two are both starring in Disney musicals on Broadway, and the two formed a fast friendship. Reed is Princess Jasmine in Aladdin, a role she has been with since 2010 through readings and out-of-town productions, and she originated the part when the show premiered on Broadway in 2014. Riley has been Nala in The Lion King on Broadway since 2012, and though Nala isn’t immediately thought of as a princess, she was always one of Riley’s favorites. “I’m not saying this to be biased, but The Lion King was like my favorite Disney film,” she says. “Being Nala is amazing. I used to be like, ‘She’s so cool and she’s so pretty.’ Now to be her on stage, it’s like a dream come true.”
Reed feels similarly about Jasmine: “I identify more with Aladdin than I do with the other films because of my ethnicity; Jasmine was the first Disney princess to have darker skin and darker hair. So I loved it so much. My sister and I wore those VHS tapes out!”
On a break between shows on a Wednesday afternoon, both Reed and Riley look extremely put together for having just done a matinee, though they admit they’re more dressed up than they would usually be. “I am also not wearing heels unless I’m at The Lamb’s Club for a fashion interview because my theater is literally down the street!” Riley says, as she lifts her white heeled sandal from under the table at the red leather, tufted booth in the back corner of the midtown restaurant. Reed follows suit, showing off her sexy black pump.
When Aladdin came to Broadway, Reed worked with a stylist who helped find her gold Marc Bouwer dress for opening night and her one-shoulder, royal blue ball gown by Carmen Marc Valvo for the 2014 Tony Awards. She’s not working with a stylist at the moment, but based off the Calvin Klein black-and-white pantsuit she’s rocking, she knows her way around an outfit. She’s also obsessed with accessories, and she’s carrying a rectangular Lucite clutch and wearing rings, earrings, and a vintage necklace that says Leo, her astrological sign, which a friend gave her.
Riley is sporting H&M from head to toe. She pairs a blue-and-white, stripped button down (just the right amount of undone), with a white lace, tie-waist, apron skirt, with spandex white shorts underneath to prevent embarrassment. When asked if she ever uses a stylist for events like Reed, Riley laughs. “Girl, I go to the store!” she says, citing Macys as a go-to. “I just know what works with my body… I love the sales. If it’s on sale, I will be there.”
One of her best bargains was actually for a dress she wore to a gala she and Reed both attended. She had a friend buy her one of the coveted dresses from the Lanvin for H&M collaboration, and legendary New York Times style photographer Bill Cunningham snapped her picture and told her, “Do you realize that you have on the most beautiful dress tonight?”
“Bill! Don’t do this to me Bill!” she says, reenacting her reaction.
Reed remembers this dress, though there’s some confusion as to whether this was the first or second American Theatre Wing gala they attended. Turns out it was the first, and Riley’s famed finger wave — that Reed cannot stop talking about — was at last year’s gala.
Looks like their friendship could use some testing so Broadway Style Guide crafted “The BFF Game” — like “The Newlywed Game” — where the two have to guess the other’s response to a series of questions. Each immediately admits they don’t hang out as often as they’d like, but their rapport is so easy, it seems fair to quiz them.
The first question: Who is Chantel or Courtney’s favorite Disney princess other than the one she’s playing?
Riley responded that her favorite is Sleeping Beauty, and she put that Reed’s is Cinderella. Reed said that her favorite is Pocahontas, and she answered Tiana for Riley’s.
“Why, ‘cause she’s black?” Riley quickly deadpans.
“Am I racist!?” Reed responds with a huge laugh.
“Obviously, Tiana!” Riley continues. “Must be a black girl.”
“Oh my god, it’s so rich!” Reed says, as the two burst into laughter, obviously unfazed by some lighthearted poking.
“It’s okay, I got you on the last question,” Riley says. (For Reed and Riley’s full “BFF Game,” go to the bottom of this article.)
Though Reed and Riley answer many questions similarly in the game, their Broadway origins are quite different. Riley grew up in Toronto and got a degree in sociology from York University. Once she graduated, she planned to teach dance, but she ended up starting a 9-to-5 job working in insurance. “I remember at my year mark, I was like ‘Lord! You need to change this up!’” Riley recalls. “It wasn’t me. My back was hurting, my shoulders were tight, and that’s when the [Lion King] opportunity came up.”
Riley attended an open casting call in Toronto, and after a series of callbacks — many of them for the Rafiki track — and not hearing anything for five or six months, she finally got an answer. Although her initial audition was for the Singapore company, the producers wanted to fly her to Germany for one final audition for the production there. She’d never been to Europe so she jumped at the chance and learned the song “Shadowlands” in German. She booked the role on the spot. However, she had just six weeks to learn the entire show in German phonetically. She made the move to Broadway in August 2012 and has been there ever since.
Reed grew up in a suburb of Chicago, and studied musical theater at Roosevelt University. She booked a few shows in the Windy City, and she made her break when she auditioned for Mamma Mia! in Chicago. She’d gone to calls for the show while in college and didn’t think anything of this particular one at the time. “I almost didn’t go to the audition!” Reed says, adding that she never learned in school that shows are constantly casting. She thought it was just a one-time thing for one company. “Imagine if I didn’t go to that audition? My life would be completely different!”
She booked an ensemble track, understudying Ali and Lisa, and within two weeks, she came to New York for the first time and saw her first Broadway show. Usually an actor joining a cast would stand at the back of the theater to watch the show, but Reed’s friend Frankie Grande (as in brother of Ariana) joined the cast at the same time and pulled some strings with stage management to get her seats for the show. “Imagine the excitement!” Reed exclaims.
Both Reed and Riley adore fashion, and Reed even entertained the idea of being a fashion designer. However, her greatest design accomplishment — or at least the most memorable — is when she decided to make a vest using the plastic store packaging for a duvet, fishing wire, and Velcro.
“It was fierce!” Reed says jokingly of her childhood attempt. “My theater was doing Annie or something, and I was backstage saying, ‘Yeah, I’m making these vests right now, and they are really cute and trendy. I can make it for you if you give me like thirty dollars.’ People thought I was so cool.”
Riley has actually delved in to fashion design, and she cofounded a line with her friend Crystal Rose called Riley & Rose, which focuses on men’s and women’s street and urban clothing that also benefits social, humanitarian and education efforts.
Both are fascinated by the rise of fitness fashion, and Reed says recently she’s toyed with the idea of trying out design again. “It used to be just you threw on some old gym shirt and gym shorts, and you just worked out,” she explains. “But now, you go to SoulCycle, and it’s like a show! You cannot show up to a class like you used to.”
“Sometimes when I wear the cute stuff it motivates me to work out,” Riley adds.
Both are incredibly fit, though they admit that their curves can sometimes present hurdles in fashion choices. When they spent the evening in the Meatpacking District with Broadway Style Guide for the photoshoot, one of the looks presented to them was a dark denim crop top and skirt by Harbison that Beyoncé had worn.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to wear this!’” Riley says. “And it could not fit past my knees. It was ridiculous.”
“Her butt isn’t even that big!” Reed says of the pop star. “Literally the waist was like a 23 or 24 fit. It was so tiny.”
So much for Beyoncé spearheading looks for curvy girls. However, Reed and Riley have plenty of other style icons to share. “I love, love Solange’s style!” Riley exclaims. “I love the way she thinks outside the box and isn’t afraid to wear anything — bright colors, dark colors, oversized stuff, really tight stuff. She rocks everything and does it really well.”
“I’m obsessed with Kate Hudson!” Reed says. “Every time she’s on the red carpet she NAILS it. She’s seriously amazing. I’m also just obsessed with her in real life.”
The pair goes on to list stars like Jessica Alba, Gwen Stefani (particularly her Versace look at the 2014 Emmy Awards), Lupita Nyong’o (both her Oscars looks), Jennifer Lawrence (specifically in the red Calvin Klein dress she wore to the Oscars when she was nominated for Winter’s Bone), and of course, Rihanna. “She could wear a garbage bag and still look amazing,” Riley says. “You could make her a garbage bag vest! She will rock it and everyone else will be jealous.”
At this, Reed laughs—“With Velcro!”—and the pair erupts into giggles.
“J-Lo’s been nailing it,” Reed adds. “And I even liked her look at the Tonys—with the short hair. Her makeup always looks flawless. And she just gives it. She’s always giving face on the red carpet.”
So how do Reed and Riley “give face” on the carpet?
“I just pretend to be Paris Hilton,” Reed admits, slightly pursing her lips to mimic the heiress. “That’s the only way I can get through it. I used to make fun of Paris Hilton because there would be all those videos of her on the red carpet, and I thought she was ridiculous. In my mind, I just channel what she does and kind of mock it, and once you mock it and make it seem kind of funny, it works. And, of course, Tyra. I’ve learned so much watching America’s Next Top Model.”
They also dish on some of their favorite designers, including Givenchy, Jeremy Scott, Versace, and Zac Posen. “I always say my first award show — Oscar, Tony, whatever I get nominated for — I’m going to wear Zac,” says Riley. “I’ve been to the Tonys to work, like in my costume singing. Next time, hopefully it will be with a nomination.”
It’s time to wrap up the interview, as they each have an evening show to get to, but Reed and Riley can’t stop gabbing. “This is so fun! I can’t talk about any of this stuff with my boyfriend!” Reed says.
Riley admits that during the time between shows she’d probably just be taking a nap or watching TV, and then the subject quickly turns to shows to watch. Jane the Virgin, The Mindy Project, Bloodline, Silicon Valley, Orange is the New Black, The New Girl, The Affair, and “obviously” Game of Thrones make their lists.
However, getting cast on TV can be a challenge, particularly for Reed, who confesses she’s lost roles because her ethnicity didn’t line up with the character’s. “I’m half Asian, but I don’t look Asian so I don’t read Asian on TV,” says Reed, who is half Vietnamese and half French and English. She also was in In the Heights on Broadway so many casting directors often call her in for Latina roles, but in final screen tests, she often won’t get cast.
With the mention of In the Heights, the forthcoming musical Hamilton comes up, and Reed and Riley suddenly realize they could both star in the show one day. With that — and the promise to see each other more often — they make a pact.
“Girl, I’ll see you at the Richard Rodgers,” Reed says. “I’ll see you in Hamilton.”
The BFF Game
How well do you know Courtney and Chantel?
Bold lip or smoky eye?
Courtney’s answer for Chantel: Bold Lip
Chantel’s answer: Bold Lip
Chantel’s answer for Courtney: Bold lip
Courtney’s answer: Bold lip
+1 point each!
What is the one style accessory you can’t live without?
Courtney’s answer for Chantel: Hoops
Chantel’s answer: Earrings
Chantel’s answer for Courtney: Earrings
Courtney’s answer: Hoops
+1 point each!
What is the one beauty product you can’t live without?
Courtney’s answer for Chantel: Red lip
Chantel’s answer: Mascara
Chantel’s answer for Courtney: Lipstick
Courtney’s answer: Lashes
No points! (Though both have the same answer for themselves.)
Where is your favorite place to go shopping?
Courtney’s answer for Chantel: Zara
Chantel’s answer: Zara and H&M
Chantel’s answer for Courtney: Zara
Courtney’s answer: TJ Maxx
+1 for Courtney!
Where can you be found post-show?
Courtney’s answer for Chantel: Home!
Chantel’s answer: Home!
Chantel’s answer for Courtney: Gym
Courtney’s answer: Home!
+1 for Courtney!
What role would you love to see the other play?
Courtney would love to see Chantel play: Aida
Chantel would love to see Courtney play: Pocahontas
+1 for each for participation!
And the verdict is, 5-3 in favor of Courtney!