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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.