"I feel like the princess living the fairy tale," says Gina Wendkos, screenwriter of the Walt Disney film, "The Princess Diaries," which opens Aug. 3 in Los Angeles.
Wendkos' second produced screenplay, based on a Meg Cabot novel, tells of an awkward teenager rescued from obscurity when she learns she's a princess.
Five years ago, Wendkos was sorely in need of rescuing. The 40-something writer had just been fired from a CBS show, and her self-esteem was at "a real cockroachy level," she says.
So, she quit writing for two years. "I was going to go to law school, and I hated lawyers," says the former painter, playwright and performance artist. Enter her knight in shining armor, mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer. He needed a screenwriter to adapt an article written by a female bartender at the rowdy New York club Coyote Ugly, and picked Wendkos because she'd worked every kind of bar job except stripping when she was in her 20's.
The film "Coyote Ugly" helped her land the "Princess Diaries" gig, which Wendkos found square, but charming. "I totally identified with the main character," she says. "In high school, I was also unpopular. I wished I was invisible."
Her poor, Bohemian Jewish family stuck out like a sore thumb in her rich Jewish neighborhood in Miami. All the other kids' fathers were doctors and bankers; hers eked out a living painting portraits of guests at a luxurious hotel. The other kids got to have bar or bat mitzvahs; Wendkos' Jewish mom suggested she check out the free church services next door.
By 1977, Wendkos still felt like a misfit, especially while waitressing at a mob bar where she was expected to dance with customers at $10 a pop. (She hardly felt as empowered as her sexy characters from "Coyote Ugly.")
At 27, she landed her first writing job -- penning blurbs for a phone-sex line -- and discovered she had a talent for dialogue.
The writer is still intrigued by the arena of the sex worker, which returns often in her work. "It's the only place where women have more power and make more money than men," she says.