The Governor's Room of the Westin Crown Center Hotel is a fancy name for a small, charmless cell on the building's fifth floor. It's the kind of space typically rented out for corporate breakfasts or all-day training seminars. But on this hot July afternoon, it holds three suburban teenagers: 12-year-old Christine, 16-year-old Courtney and 14-year-old Da'jha. They're awkwardly imitating an instructor's hip-hop moves, trying to follow the fluidly agile young man through Wiz Khalifa's "Work Hard, Play Hard" as the song punches out of an iPod.
"They're learning to limber up," says Melissa Stevens, an impeccably coifed blonde in a shimmery-gold raw-silk pantsuit. "Modeling is all about movement."
Each girl has paid about $900 to take Stevens' one-week course that includes a photo session, professional makeup application, and classes in retail merchandising and, the application promises, "social graces and etiquette."
"Modeling is more than just being pretty," Stevens says.
For one thing, it's typically about height. It's a profession dominated by tall women: Christy Turlington and Alessandra Ambrosio are 5 feet 10 inches, and Gisele Bündchen stands 5 feet 11. The three young women limbering up at the Westin are presumably still growing, but they aren't yet 5 feet 5, and their middle-school prettiness suggests a future as a small-town prom queen more than it does a Paris runway model.
Stevens waves away the high-fashion dream. "They're perfect for trade shows, conventions and special events," she says. These are the real, lower-rent destinations for most professional models. "They're perfect petites," she says, admiring her students.
She is, at age 57, still a perfect petite herself — barely over 5 feet, with posture not much eroded by time. She spent most of her 20s on that grittier circuit, posing and greeting people at trade shows and special events. She began modeling for local fashion shows as soon as she could walk.
"Mom was determined that her daughters would be stars," Stevens says. "She thought pageants were a good way to develop talents."
Flo Stevens, known professionally as Patricia Stevens, was a force to be reckoned with: a teenage model in Chicago who hosted her own radio show at age 13. She later juggled motherhood duties while running a modeling agency full time. Eventually, Melissa Stevens would follow in Flo's stiletto prints, training a generation of Kansas City debs to move and pose and move.
Melissa Stevens never doubted that she would learn the modeling business inside out. Her strong-willed mother had made it clear with Melissa's birth announcement: "A new Patricia Stevens model has arrived."
Sixteen years later, Melissa was a finalist in the Miss Kansas City Teenage America Pageant. "I was Miss Blue Springs," she says. Eight years after that, she was working in Los Angeles as a unit publicist for 20th Century Fox.
Her stint in Hollywood completed in the early 1980s, she began her glory years as the very public face of the Patricia Stevens Modeling School. She appeared on TV, spoke on the radio, gave speeches, hosted fashion shows.
But that was a long time ago. And no one knows just how long ago better than Melissa Stevens.
"Destiny, quite often, is a determined parent," wrote the choreographer Twyla Tharp.
The late Florence Czarnecki Stevens became "Patricia Stevens" only after her 1946 marriage to a young Chicago entrepreneur named Jim Stevens ("a ballsy, big-shouldered Irish guy," Melissa recalls). Before he met Flo, he had already named his training school, a business designed to help women navigate the postwar work world.
An early subscriber to Stevens' vision: Howard Hughes. The millionaire industrialist and Trans World Airlines chairman was Jim Stevens' first big client. Hughes hired the new company to train TWA stewardesses when the airline was still based in Kansas City. The Patricia Stevens Career College & Model Agency came later. Jim's sister, Bernadine, legally changed her name to Patricia, but Flo — the woman who everyone assumed was the real Patricia Stevens — never did.