I spent a lot of my teen years wondering if I missed some school assembly where how to master the art of being a woman was explained. It was like I looked up from my Harry Potter book to discover everyone around me knew how to wing a perfect cat eye with liner, make small talk with adults, whip up a healthy smoothie for a snack, nail internship interviews in the right heels and eliminate zits with a careful 8-step skin regimen.
All the YouTube tutorials in the world can't cover the delicate and all-consuming art that we now call adulting, but that doesn't mean we're on our own. For generations, well-off families sent their daughters to finishing schools to teach them social skills and refinement—what, you thought Jackie O woke up like this?
It's this type of program that Crystle Stewart and her husband Max Sebrechts want to re-invent for today's young women with MISS Academy. "Finishing schools in London and Switzerland, they have great values but they're outdated and expensive. Cotillion teaches great things, but girls aren't interested in going anymore," says Stewart, an actress and former Miss USA who recently made the move back to Houston.
MISS Academy instead balances finishing with fun, mixing old school manners with advice on modern life, with classes falling under four main categories: manners, style, image and success (hence MISS). The full program launches in the fall, running from six to 12 weeks with different curriculum for young girls (5-8), tweens and teens (9-22) and young women (21-26). Before that there will be seven week-long pop-up programs during the summer, each with its own theme—think MISS Maven, MISS Entertaining, MISS Makeover.
Stewart says she started thinking about how to put together a comprehensive program when she was 16 and in modeling school, learning about hair and makeup as well as poise, posture and confidence. She says she also learned a lot in the pageant world, from nutrition and fitness to interview skills, things that women who didn't necessarily want to be models or pageant contestants could use.
The result is a program that feels designed for the aspiring Ivanka Trumps or Tory Burches of the world, who want to be taken seriously in their career while also expressing their creativity, looking perfectly put-together and maintaining a personal brand that includes millions of Instagram followers. Summer sessions include mastering how to pose for selfies, party planning, nail art, hair extensions and wardrobe styling, with "electives" based on each student's passion, from cooking to acting to fashion design to photography. But Stewart says while helping young women nail their image and styling is important, the goal is to learn lessons that are more than skin deep.
"When I was Miss USA, I went to big debutante ball and I had no idea which fork to use or which glass to drink from. It's dining etiquette, social skills, how to network, how to navigate a room ... [and] life skills from laundry and time management to personal branding, how to be a team player, resolving conflicts and even how to get likes on social media," says Stewart. "Confidence is the main thing we're selling—feeling good from the inside out. It's about good character, how to be a productive citizen, and the resources and tools to pursue what they want to pursue in life."