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.
"She was a tough cookie," Melissa says. "She told us that we had to be tough, too, or the world would wipe us up."
Flo Stevens was driven to succeed, and for most of the 20th century she did, becoming one of Kansas City's best-known entrepreneurs and a businesswoman of national standing. The chain of modeling schools and talent agencies bearing her adopted name extended across the country. (My own mother attended the Indianapolis branch in the 1950s. "Girls with poise and style," she was taught, "always find husbands.")
Flo's three daughters — Patricia, Melissa and Sheila — were groomed to be stylish, poised and popular. (Melissa's high school friends included members of a teen band called Manchester Trafficway — one of whom was future Kansas City Mayor Sly James.) They weren't just the daughters of a familiar local brand; they were walking advertisements for the family business.
The oldest daughter, Patricia, was voted Miss Teenage Kansas City in 1968. The youngest, Sheila, dressed up as the Easter Bunny every spring for the Easter parade, which her mother started on the Country Club Plaza in 1960 and kept going for three more decades.
When Patricia left the company to work for TWA, Flo set her focus on Melissa. "I was the only one who liked the business," she says. "Even though my mother would go on to fire me three times."
Melissa Stevens sent the company archives — contracts, payroll slips, brochures, correspondence, hundreds of photographs and clippings — to the LaBudde Special Collections of the Miller Nichols Library last year. But she kept something.
"Melissa didn't want to turn over the Easter Bunny costume," says Stuart Hinds, collections director for the library.
She wants to bring back the Easter parade as a Patricia Stevens event. The costume also reminds her of Sheila, who died in her own home in 1984. (The cause was asphyxiation; Melissa Stevens insists that her younger sister was murdered but won't elaborate on her theory.) "We were very close," says Stevens, who hasn't spoken to her older sister, Patricia, in two decades. "We were a close-knit family."
The bunny costume, along with most of Melissa Stevens' possessions, was put in storage last January. That winter, she vacated the place she was renting downtown, the first and fourth floors of a brick office building at 21st Street and Grand.
It was a frigid afternoon the day she collected the last objects left on the unheated upper floor that held her living quarters. Wearing blue jeans, a sweater and a fur-trimmed vest, Stevens sipped from a glass of white wine and chain-smoked cigarettes. One spacious room on the floor still had metal bars hanging from wires screwed into the ceiling; she'd used the room as a walk-in closet for her extensive collection of clothes. There was in the day an unwelcome déjà vu.
The school used to give its students a printed handout titled "Laws for Women to Live By." Rule No. 10: "Love is blind, but marriage is a real eye-opener."
"It was," Stevens says. "It really was."
She wed her husband relatively late in her career. When she and photographer Frank Messer married, she was nearly 40, and her mother was dying. When the union ended in an acrimonious divorce, she says, there came a serious shift in her fortunes. (Messer wouldn't speak to The Pitch about his ex-wife or their settlement. Each claims to have filed first.)
The divorce ended what she thinks of now as the final act in the glamorous part of her life. From 1992 to 2002, Stevens was the sole owner of a 10-story building, the former Liquid Carbonic Co., at 20th Street and Baltimore in the heart of the Crossroads District. "I paid cash for it," she says. She lived on the top floor in a showy penthouse apartment with a Jacuzzi, crystal chandeliers, a closet packed with stylish clothes and hundreds of pairs of shoes, and the French Provincial furnishings inherited from her mother.
By Stevens' account, she hired and fired several attorneys to represent her in the divorce. It wasn't a cheap split; the building on Baltimore had to be sold. Meanwhile, the family business languished.
The last Patricia Stevens Modeling School, a fixture on the Country Club Plaza for more than three decades, moved out of its longtime office suite in 1995 and into far less upscale digs downtown. Today it's pretty much a mobile affair. Stevens' modeling camps this summer have squatted in hotel meeting rooms in midtown and at the Westin. "I'm still looking for a new studio," she says. "You can't believe all of the spaces I've looked at."
Despite her still graceful carriage and the lifelong habits of fashion-model poise — that classic "Patricia Stevens stance," shoulders erect, arms to the side, left foot facing forward, right foot tucked behind it, heel to heel — she shows the last decade's strains.
"I'm a survivor," she told me on that cold January afternoon, pouring another glass of wine and lighting another cigarette. "I'll be back."
Like countless Americans, Melissa Stevens can sum up the means to her self-reinvention in two words: reality TV.
She knows that television series, such as America's Next Top Model, have sparked new interest in modeling as a profession. She knows that there are girls in KC who want in, who can learn from her.
And it's far from a fantasy that a young model from a Midwestern city might tunnel into the high-fashion world. Angela Lindvall of Lee's Summit, for example, was discovered (along with her late sister, Audrey) here. Following a career arc from glossy-magazine ads to design collaboration to the occasional movie role, Lindvall is taking the next step: She's set to host Lifetime's Project Runway All Stars this fall.
Another local talent agent and modeling-school maven, Kim Hoffman of Hoffman International Agency, credits herself with Lindvall's launch. Could the Patricia Stevens brand generate a similar superstar-producing aura in the 21st century?
"I never hear anyone talking about it — as a talent agency, anyway," says Jennifer Mangan, president of the local Exposure Model and Talent (which bills itself as the city's "premier model and talent agency"). "I was wondering if it was even still in business."
"I think with parents it probably has some cachet," Hoffman adds. "It was a respected, recognizable brand name in Kansas City for a very long time. But things are changing so quickly. I sent a young model out on a photo shoot recently, and the talent coordinator looked at her and said, 'You look like a young Christie Brinkley.' And my model said, 'Who is Christie Brinkley?' That's how quickly people forget. The Patricia Stevens School is like that."
In the 1960s, the Patricia Stevens Agency had its own big discovery: Debbie Bryant, who was studying at the University of Kansas in 1966 when she was crowned Miss America in Atlantic City.
Bryant's victory was a major public-relations success for Flo Stevens, who had suffered some financial and personal hardships during that decade. The modeling-school empire had expanded quickly — and expensively — and the driving force behind that expansion, Jim Stevens, died in a Sioux City, Iowa, hotel fire in 1964. After that, his siblings in other cities took over the franchise schools; Flo inherited only the Kansas City operation.
Meanwhile, other talent-training ventures — both local and franchise operations, such as John Casablancas and Barbizon — came along. Most eventually vanished, but each did its part to erode the Patricia Stevens luster. By the late 1980s, the most prominent national mention of the business was a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch: Nora Dunn playing the clueless host of a low-rent talk show called "The Pat Stevens Show." Dunn introduced her character to the audience by grandly announcing, "I used to be a model," and striking that familiar stance: heels close together, arms at the side. (Stevens says she never saw any of the sketches. If that's true, she was spared the knowledge that Dunn's character had a sullen daughter named Missy.)
Somewhere between that and America's Next Top Model is the media exposure that Stevens wants now.
Getting there seems likely to take more than the lone laptop computer she has lately learned to fiddle with. The business's failure to keep up with modern technology has contributed to her woes.
"When I started in this business, in the 1980s," Hoffman says, "there were no such things as websites that enabled clients to click a mouse and see my whole client list. If I wanted to send a head shot to a potential client, I had to use a fax machine or mail a packet or drive over to an office building. Technology has made it a really different ballgame now."
Stevens understands that she's trying to play this game at an awkward personal time. "I have to reinvent the business," she says, "and reinvent me. I have a cousin in Detroit who is interested in taking over the business, and I've considered bringing him in, teaching him everything I know, and then sit and knit while he runs the business. That's one possibility." This is not the first time she has mentioned to me this cousin, this possibility.
"But if I could ever afford to do it, what I'd really like to do is work with inner-city kids. Those are the young men and women who really need the tools to communicate with people and develop the confidence to maneuver successfully in any kind of social situation. I'm talking personal and corporate. Why shouldn't those kids have those advantages, too?"
This is how Melissa Stevens brings herself around, visibly rousing herself when talk has again turned to the difficulties of the past decade. Her mother was a determined woman, and Stevens can still draw on that family trait, that urge for one definitive scheme.
Until she settles on that singular path to successful reinvention — for herself and for her 64-year-old family business — she spends her days planning the small stuff, the things that keep her going. She sets up the classes and seminars, making money a few days at a time in this or that drab rented space, coming and going from her cousin's Overland Park house. The reinvention waits for relocation. Only the right place will do: a place to unpack the wardrobe and the mementos and to live alone, an office from which to book speaking engagements and start working the phone and meet new clients. A new studio to train the models of tomorrow.
"All I really need," she says, "is a runway, a makeup table, a mirror — and me."