It begins with a cryptic email summoning a student to a meeting at the Office of Student Life. If she passes muster—eager, agile, and able to keep a secret—she is admitted into a select group of Barnard students who take on a role close to the heart of the College: portraying Millie the Dancing Barnard Bear, a mascot that spreads school spirit at events such as Midnight Breakfast and Spirit Day. The catch? The student is strictly forbidden from revealing her special role to anyone until just before graduation.
Wearing the Millie costume—a heavy, fur-covered suit that requires a dresser to help put it on—makes you the life of the party. Alumnae and students give you high-fives, President Debora Spar dances with you, and everyone wants to be in a picture with you. It may seem to friends that you are absent for some of the most central events of your college career, but only a few people know that you are the one hamming it up underneath all that fur.
Courtney Muller ’10 loved entering a room as Millie and seeing the excitement on people’s faces. “Barnard attracts women who are very serious about their careers and very ambitious,” she says. “Millie lets us be kind of silly.” Jyoti Menon ’01 says, “I loved the way people got excited seeing the Barnard Bear. People love her because she’s fun.”
Associate Dean for Student Life Alina Wong, who helps choose the students who play Millie, says the College looks for those who are not just outgoing and reliable but who “love Barnard and want to spread the love,” she says. Typically, two students a year play the role of Millie.
Being Millie isn’t for the faint of heart. Daly Franco ’12 describes the interior of the costume as an “inferno.” Appearances are usually kept to an hour; at longer events, the Millies take turns. But neither the heat nor the lack of financial compensation dimmed the enthusiasm of Reni Calister ’11: “Dressing up in a bear suit and cavorting around was payment enough.”
There is a specific order for putting on the fur-covered body, gloves, paws, and head: Pull the body up to your hips, slide your hands through the shoulder straps and get zipped in, then slide into the feet and the hands. Last, put on the head. A staff member accompanies Millie to compensate for the limits the costume imposes on eyesight and mobility. Millie isn’t much for sporting events—she leaves those to Columbia’s Roar-ee the Lion. She spreads school spirit at Barnard events such as new student orientation.
The song celebrating “The Baby Blue Barnard Bear” is more than a century old, but the tradition of having a student appear as Millie was inaugurated about 15 years ago. Her name is an homage to Barnard’s first president, Millicent McIntosh. The bear image was derived from the family coat of arms of Frederick A.P. Barnard, the 10th president of Columbia.
For some students, portraying Millie helps overcome shyness. They also discover that Millie enables others to overcome their own reserved tendencies. On Spirit Day, “I walked up to a friend who didn’t know who I was in the suit and did this big elaborate bow to her,” Muller recalls. “I took her in my arms and we started to waltz around the grass in front of the Diana Center. I passed her behind my back. We did little twirls. At the end, she curtsied to me, and I did a bow. Then she gave me a hug and said, ‘Millie, that was my first dance.’ … I was moved.”
For others, being Millie can mean reining it in: “I would engage with my friends and realize I couldn’t do any of my signature dance moves because they might recognize me,” Kiani Ned ’16 says.
Keeping the secret is the biggest hurdle for many Millies. “I love attention and praise and being in on a secret, so let me tell you: it was hard to keep that one to myself,” says Christina Ellsberg ’16, who has lots of experience making people laugh—she led two campus comedy troupes and appears in an all-female comedy sketch group, Low Cut Comedy, which she founded while at Barnard.
Despite the best intentions, there are times when Millie’s identity slips out. Ellsberg’s bear head became dislodged during a rigorous dance routine, and someone may have spotted her spiky blond hair. After Sophie Lieberman ’14 checked Facebook on a friend’s computer, the friend went to log out and saw that Lieberman maintained Millie’s page. People tend not to ask, preferring to sustain the mystery.
Sometimes others are enlisted to keep the secret. A friend often snuck Muller into the bathroom, but Muller never broached protocol in public. “One day, I am in the suit on the elevator, and one of my best friends gets on,” recalls Muller. “She sees me and she knows it’s me. We’re alone. She says, ‘How’s it going? It’s hot today; how are you doing?’ I start kind of miming, fanning myself, wiping sweat off my brow and bending over in exhaustion.
“I refused to step out of character.”
Donning the Millie costume can mean it looks like you are skipping out on important campus events. “I was the Midnight Breakfast Millie for three years,” says Franco. “I always got crap from my friends for not showing up. Little did they know that I always made sure to find them and give them a Millie hug.” Ned recalls, “I had to have a cover story for any event that I would normally be at but couldn’t attend because I was Millie.”
The veil of secrecy is officially lifted at graduation rehearsal, when a video of Millie is shown and the names of that year’s Millies are announced. “For the next few days, people sent me photos they’d taken with Millie and asked, ‘So, that was you?’” recalls Ellsberg.
Those who’ve worn the suit say that being Millie is an experience they will always look back on fondly.
“As I have moved through the years, I started to really treasure what the Barnard community was, and being Millie was a big part of it,” Lieberman says. “It was cool to be able to be kind of central to it, but not have it actually be about me, which I think is a good metaphor for how to be a good community member. If anyone asks me, ‘What’s a fun fact about you?’ Millie will always be it.”