I remain stone cold during the first part of the interview with the president of the modeling agency in New York City where I hope to land my next position. Katia Sherman (think Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada") sits with perfect posture. I do, too.
My attire is on point. My confidence is on point as well. My hair is pulled back in a low, sleek ponytail, and my makeup mirrors the classic look I had perfected while training to work for Chanel cosmetics. Every inch of skin is exfoliated and moisturized, every nail perfectly manicured and every hair groomed to perfection. My wrapped blouse with the stand-up chinois collar and long sleeves pairs well with my cigarette pant and classic pumps. I'm wearing only stud earrings and a single ring to keep my accessories minimal.
Katia cracks a smile only once at the end of our grueling exchange, and I do too, knowing I just blew past the other candidates whose resumes were stacked one inch high on her desk. (Take that, Brown and Yale graduates. This University of Northern Iowa alum had demonstrated poise, fashion industry savvy and Midwestern work ethic and dedication.) This job was in the bag.
That is, until Jason Kanner, men's division director, walked in. He sat down, appraised me from head to toe, and said one thing.
"Pardon me?" I blurted out.
"You're too pretty," he said. "The models in this division are the most beautiful men in the world. Our guys are all-American beefcakes who don't need any distractions. You're too attractive, and it will never work."
The insecure 12-year-old Belle inside me nearly fell off her chair in disbelief. Then 23-year-old Belle "womaned up," "leaned in," sat up even straighter, crossed her legs and, with a stable cadence and slightly lowered voice, listed the reasons why she was the right person for the job. Challenge. Accepted.
Jason's left eyebrow raised to altitudinous proportion before his mouth twitched in a near smile and he ordered me to be there by 9 a.m. Monday morning.
During my time at that agency, I went on to coach dozens of young girls and guys on etiquette and presentation. I talked at great length about the importance of appearance and first impressions as well as speaking with confidence and poise.
Years later, I became an instructor for Barbizon Modeling and Acting School, a school that provides instructional courses in modeling, acting and personal development for girls ages 8 to 18. I taught the girls to put their best foot forward and the importance of looking and sounding their best.
A few tips I gave them:
1). Lowering your voice slightly and speaking with a normal cadence can do wonders for presenting ideas. Add eye contact and the occasional smile, and you're golden.
2). Posture is important. Test yours by standing against a wall. Your shoulder blades and tailbone should touch the wall and you should be able to slide one arm between the small of your back and the wall. Adjust your spine until this is possible.
3). Never distract from your words. Makeup should be as classic as possible without too many colors or being too heavy. Nail polish colors should only be clean, nude or pink (grown women can throw in a vibrant red).
4). Your clothing should not be ill-fitting or distracting. Limit yourself to one thing that represents your personality but keep the rest sophisticated. Steer clear of anything with bling or dizzying patterns. (That's also a no for animal prints.)
5). Personal hygiene is nonnegotiable. Be exceptionally groomed and avoid wearing scents that can be overwhelming.
6). Once you have someone's attention, keep it. When entering a room, you should immediately show your face first and never break eye contact. How do you do this and close the door correctly? Look at the door before entering the room. If the hinges are on the right, the only hand to touch the door should be the right one and you will use only this hand to catch the door behind you. The opposite is true if the hinges are on the left.
7). Never forget the power of the pause when speaking or presenting.
The bottom line is I wanted those I taught to know it's okay to be intelligent and feminine and polished. I realized, to me, my appearance was my armor. How I was taught to present myself helped me feel confident and powerful. I could use both my intellect and my appearance to advocate for myself.
It is my hope that women at all points in their career can feel the same way. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive and can be dynamite when paired together.