In the ballroom of the Royal on the Park—a 42-year-old Brisbane hotel that reeks of long-gone glamour—young women are parading down a catwalk for inspection, like so many thoroughbreds. It’s only a rehearsal, but the clock’s ticking down to the real thing and everyone’s feeling the pressure. In pairs and trios, they strut onto stage while a glamorous blonde woman in a blue kaftan gives orders. “You’re the first girl out!” she snaps. “Don’t look so scared, please!” Smile. Stand tall. Don’t look at the floor. Never have your legs apart; never. “Don’t look down when you’re at the end of the catwalk!” she cries, exasperated. “You look like a hunchback.” As I watch, I lean over to a primary school-aged girl beside me who has done this before. “This seems scary,” I say. “It is,” she whispers back.
This is the graduation ceremony for June Dally-Watkins, Australia’s first school of personal and professional development. Over 60 years, JDW has taught generations of young women (and some men) the fundamentals of etiquette and style, glamour and good posture. Some students will be represented by JDW as professional models. Tonight, students are graduating from three courses: Junior Model, Professional Model and something called Personal Development which, while personal, still involves publicly parading down the catwalk too.
Upstairs, the hotel’s boardroom has been transformed into a make-up hub. Volunteers from the Academy of Make Up apply touch-ups to all the students, even though they’ve already arrived wearing enough foundation to alter the skin tone of a small island nation. When their make-up is done, graduates stand up and tower over me. (I’m 5’7”.) I know they’re wearing heels, but they may as well be another species altogether.
At 14-years-old, Mikaela and Abbie are the youngest of the Professional Model graduates. They enrolled together after convincing each of their parents. Sophie, 18, signed up to the course because her mother did the same thing 30 years ago. Diana Bryson, the Brisbane school manager for JDW, says many students enrol because of tradition. “For a lot of them, it’s a multigenerational desire. Mothers and grandmothers would like their daughters and granddaughters to have that traditional training of Miss Dally: how to speak properly; how to carry yourself; how to eat properly; and how to start a conversation.”
Still, Diana is aware that this occasionally means students end up here against their will. “A lot of the times, mums ring up [for their daughters]. I’ll always say, ‘When you’ve talked to your daughter, come back.’ I do need to know it’s the child who wants to come here.” If she senses something is wrong, Diana will go into the classroom herself and ask the student directly, ‘Do you want to be here, or is it Mum’s idea?’” Three days into the course though, Diana says most girls end up loving it.
David, 17, is one of the few male graduates tonight and looks like a teenage hybrid of Tom Cruise and Matt Damon. Because he was the only male in his professional modelling course, I ask whether the girls teased him in training. “Yeah, it’s pretty tough surrounded by all these models,” he jokes. David is sensible. He knows modelling is rarely a full-time gig and has aspirations to be a pilot too. (“Pilot and male model will go together well,” he says.) He’s already met professional male models who’ve given him valuable advice. Like, when you’re being photographed, don’t smile forcefully. Instead, imagine a puppy coming up to you and licking your face. I make a mental note of this.
Not all of the modelling graduates will actually become models. Although nearly all the guys will be signed (there aren’t ever enough boys, apparently), only 25 to 50 percent of the girls will end up in JDW’s books. Thomas Sidey, JDW’s model manager, says there are no guarantees. All June Dally-Watkins can provide is quality training. “It’s a very competitive industry out there, so they need little tricks of the trade that we offer that gets them ahead,” he says. “I read somewhere many years ago that modelling is actually one of the ten hardest most awful jobs to do.” Behind what, exactly? “Being a garbologist?” he offers, half-joking. “It’s a really difficult job. I’ll send a girl out to five castings a week. Essentially, five job interviews. She might not get any of those.” When I say that sounds brutal, Thomas nods. “It is, it is.”
Before the evening kicks off, June Dally-Watkins herself arrives. She is a petite but regal woman with an intoxicating smile: sort of like Quentin Bryce with a brunette perm. Miss Dally has flown in from Sydney especially, wearing a flame-red blazer paired with a black-and-white beaded necklace. In any given year, she’ll preside over five graduation ceremonies in Sydney and another five in Brisbane: ten ceremonies a year, over 60 years of business. She says she can’t remember missing one.
“Do you ever get sick of these?” I ask. Miss Dally shakes her head smiling. “I love it,” she says, purring. “Because these are all brand new beautiful young ladies. It keeps me alive and going. What would I do if I resigned? In the morning, my body says, ‘Come on June, don’t get up, don’t go to work.’ And my brain says, ‘But what about me? What will I do?’” She laughs. “You have to keep active and I loooove it.”
When we’re all seated, the MC announces, “I hope that you will be wonderful with your applause. Your hands will get sore and tired.” As the junior models strut the stage, it’s already clear: some people are born to do this. Some own the stage, while others are owned by it. It’s heartening to see some of these kids—and they are kids—having a laugh. One young girl cracks up when she realises neither her nor her stage partner are walking in the right place, before shrugging wryly with an expression that says, I-seriously-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing.
Meanwhile, the Professional Model graduates know exactly what they’re doing. They walk with purpose all wanting the same thing: for JDW’s Thomas and the secret business clients scattered around the room to take notice of them. These students are stunning. Gaultier would love the girl with Brooke Shields’ eyebrows. Burberry could easily sign the one with the Twiggy haircut. David, the aspiring pilot-slash-male-model, seems destined for toothpaste commercials. When three more young male model graduates emerge wearing bow ties, middle-aged women around the room involuntary moan, then sheepishly giggle to mask the collective noise they’ve just made.
It’s the Personal Development kids who are most interesting to watch. Some have been enrolled to prop up their dwindling confidence; others are super-confident already and have used the course as an entrée into modelling. One blonde, wasp-like girl—no older than ten—comes onto the catwalk baring all teeth. She walks alongside a sad-looking brunette girl in a red dress who looks so deeply uncomfortable, that she has lost all idea of how arms are supposed to move. When their backs are turned, the blonde waspy girl says something nasty to the sad girl, berating her for screwing something up. She then turns to the audience again with a smile and wave. My heart sinks a little seeing this.
At the end of everything, Miss Dally comes out on stage and presents graduates with their certificates. “You really are good for my heart,” she says. The night feels like it’s gone on forever, and we’ve applauded so much that we’ve lost all feeling in our palms. After the certificates are handed out and all graduates appear on stage, I worry for some of the girls, especially the one in the red. Then, with music blaring and everyone clapping, Miss Dally returns to her seat. But before she does, she walks straight over to the girl in red, grabs her hand and offers a beatific smile. She looks the girl in the eye and says something to her that can’t be heard above the din. As Miss Dally walks away, the other girls whisper questions to her. She is suddenly radiant. And for the first time that evening, she’s smiling along with everyone else.