I was at an after-party for a rave when I found out that Princess Diana had died. I’m not bragging, obviously. “After-party” and “rave” are words that haven’t been used boastfully since about 1997, and even then it was mostly among teenagers in parts of the country that were the absolute last to get the raves-are-thumping-neon-nightmares memo: high-school kids in pacifier necklaces and bright yellow sugar daddy T-shirts in New Orleans in 1997—which is exactly who I was when a skinny blond kid named Jason, who looked like he was being swallowed from the feet up by denim, ambled across the dewy green grass of the lakefront, flopped down on the blanket beneath the tree where my friends and I were wasting our lives, and exhaled, “Y’all, did you hear? Princess Diana is dead.”
This being an after-party for a rave, none of us moved for the next twenty minutes or so, at least until the sky stopped spinning and the ringing in our ears went down to a mildly pleasant hum. Finally, someone spoke: “I know how to curtsy to Princess Diana.” For me, this sentence was especially surprising to hear, mostly because I was the one saying it. Still, I did know how to curtsy before royalty: hands at your sides to keep your skirt full but also to steady yourself, the right foot tracing a slight semicircle on the floor before coming in behind the left foot as your knees bend in almost a crouch, your head bowed gracefully. (Only actual royalty get the head bow—an important distinction in New Orleans, where Mardi Gras kings and queens walk among the plebes.) Within a few minutes, I was on my feet, fluffing out my oversized jeans to give the impression of a skirt, and practicing the curtsy that had been ingrained in me many years ago in Mrs. Abadie’s manners class. “Damn. That’s some debutante shit,” my friend Aristede, who was dressed head-to-toe in vintage polyester, observed. Elena, my best friend since third grade, who was wearing her hair very short and very platinum blond with very many dyed leopard spots, laughed. “Your mom would be so proud.”
From what I understand, entry into the demimonde of New Orleans debutantes amounts to an accident of birth. If your mother was a debutante, you can be one too, even if you’re battling some kind of terrible deformity like a cleft palate, an unfortunate unibrow, or a Yankee father. I’m sure there are other ways to get in—joining the appropriate Mardi Gras organizations, making the right friends, or other social climbing skills that are usually the province of Edith Wharton novels, an elaborate scheme of sizable donations, and secret payoffs to certain key figures in the murky deb underworld—but I’m not certain what they are. All I know is that my mother was a deb, as evidenced by the large photograph of her, resplendent in long white kid-leather gloves and a cream-colored satin gown, hanging in my parents’ dining room. And, just as I inherited her impressive height and green eyes, I had been passed along the opportunity to hang photographs of myself as an intimidating debutante (probably for the express purpose of taunting my reluctant daughter) in my own house someday.
I didn’t ask for this, and growing up, I certainly didn’t want it. Every Tuesday afternoon when my school’s resident manners and etiquette teacher, Mrs. Abadie—a prim, white-haired woman whose voice was so round and jolly she would have been perfect to play a cartoon chicken in a Disney film—came around to instruct my third- and then fourth-grade class, I would slouch in the back of the room, hoping to go unseen. But as it turns out, slouching in a manners class only makes you more visible. “Posture, posture, posture!” Mrs. Abadie clucked at me constantly, as she was going over the proper way to sit (ankle over ankle, never knee over knee), or to curtsy, or to hold a fork. I slouched—because even at that age I was relatively tall and therefore relatively awkward, but also because I usually had an open Lois Duncan book hidden in my desk, and slumping down in my chair was the only way I could read it virtually undetected, staving off what I thought would be an inevitable death from manners-class-induced boredom. Once, Mrs. Abadie made me practice my curtsy in front of the class, and my cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she corrected the curve in my shoulders. “Back straight and proud, Miss Gillette,” she said. “When you slouch, you’re not a young lady, you’re a mouse. Now try it again.” I wanted desperately to get the curtsy right just so I could go sit back at my desk and find out what was going to happen to the babysitter in The Third Eye. By Christmas, I had learned how to hide my book in a sweater on my lap—as well as, reluctantly, how to sit up straight and proud.
While my older sister happily pursued the debutante path when she turned twenty (the usual age for coming out, in the deb sense, in New Orleans)—relishing all the many trips to the dressmaker, giddily penciling in the dates of various balls, holding actual lengthy conversations about tulle—I happily scorned it as I made my way toward my twentieth birthday. The whole thing just felt, you know, stupid. I had gone to an arts high school. I was going to be a writer. I was living in New York and going to NYU. Why would I want to traipse home to New Orleans almost every other weekend of my junior year to dress up like an (elegant) marshmallow, drink champagne with girls I never liked, and curtsy before a crowd of my parents’ friends? I had a crappy college radio show to produce and several Dallas BBQ locations to visit ironically with my friends. Just the idea of doing the debutante thing felt stifling—as if the merry widow I would almost certainly have to wear would be crushing my brain as well as my ribs.
“I just don’t want you to look back and regret not doing it,” my mom said, her voice heavy with disappointment, when I told her that despite all the manners lessons and private schooling up until my arts-school defection, I wasn’t going to ever own long white kid-leather gloves. “Don’t worry,” I laughed. “I won’t.”
By the end of a daylong marathon of British reality TV show Ladette to Lady on the Sundance Channel a few months ago, however, I realized I had spoken too soon. As I watched the three remaining ladettes—that’s British for both “tomboys” and/or “boozy tarts”—dramatically descend a winding staircase, dressed in impressive ball gowns that they had made themselves in dressmaking class, hair perfectly coiffed, backs perfectly straight, and attempt to pass themselves off as actual debutantes to a coterie of scathingly judgmental lords and ladies, I felt the slightest twinge of envy, if not regret. When Clara, an awkward, shy tomboy, and the girl I related to the most (we’re both tall) glided down the staircase, stunning in her pink gown and improbable, gravity-defying chignon, I found myself thinking something that in all my years of watching reality television I have never thought: I could win this show. More specifically: I could wipe the floor with Clara. They want debutante? I’ll show them debutante.
There are probably chefs who watch Top Chef and think, “I could make a much better appetizer with spray cheese, Chilean sea bass, and a Bunsen burner.” And fashion designers who watch Project Runway and think, “They want innovation? I’ll show them innovation. Hand me those cotton balls, that scrap of taffeta, and those corn husks.” And hairstylists who watch Shear Genius and think, “This is my profession? Jesus. What am I doing with my life?”
Ladette to Lady, however, is in a different reality competition category. Like VH1’s From G’s to Gents or Charm School or (everyone’s favorite) Tool Academy, it’s a reeducation reality competition. The show takes ten crude, pint-gulping “hard-core ladettes” and ships them off to Eggleston Hall, an austere, fancy-pants finishing school where the curriculum (cookery, flower arranging, dressmaking, deportment, elocution) hasn’t changed since about 1950. All the while, their actions are coolly commented upon by an unseen narrator, who can sometimes fool you into believing you’re watching a nature documentary rather than a reality show. When Louise, a very pretty, possibly alcoholic contestant from Season Two is shown downing glass after glass of wine following a dinner party, the narrator intones, “Some girls rose to the occasion—while others let themselves down.”
The stated goal of Ladette to Lady is to transform the girls into “ladies,” but what that translates to is “self-confident, slightly more polite, definitely less-drunk young women.” In the first season, the girls who hadn’t been “asked to leave” (that’s British for “eliminated”) got to show off what they’d learned in a sort of public final exam: it was part fashion show, part speech, part floral arranging and cooking demonstration. But the second season’s finale was far more interesting, at least to me. In addition to each giving a speech about their experience and taking final exams in floristry and cooking, the final three girls had to pass themselves off as debutantes at a ball, My Fair Lady–style. All the girls succeeded in looking the part, but sounding like true British debs was another thing altogether. Each of them was given away by her accent. Where is Henry Higgins when you need him?
My accent was the handicap in my fantasy Ladette to Lady ball. After a few weeks of cooking classes, I could definitely whip up something edible. I’m sure if I paid attention to Jill Harbord, the stern floristry teacher at Eggleston Hall, I could sufficiently pretend that flower arranging is an actual skill—as opposed to, you know, putting flowers together in a way that doesn’t evoke sweet-smelling chaos. There’s no question that I could carry myself like a debutante—after all, I was literally born to do it. But my American accent would undoubtedly be a huge obstacle in passing myself off at a ball as a British debutante. I pictured one of the crusty, be-sashed lords greeting me at the bottom of the staircase and trying to disguise his disgust as soon as I opened my mouth. Later on, he’d turn to the camera and say, “She’s a lovely girl. Not a debutante, but lovely. Unfortunately, her accent was so American it made my eyes smart.”
So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that an American version of Ladette to Lady called The Girls of Hedsor Hall was in the works. I actually considered developing alcoholism, a love of self-tanner, and a penchant for yelling “Woooooo!!!” at the top of my lungs at any and all occasions in order to fulfill the “ladette” requirements. Then, once accepted, I could gradually slough off all of my crude pseudo-habits, until I’d be the most improved student, and the belle of the ball I never, in my real life, wanted to attend. But though The Girls of Hedsor Hall shares the same concept and some of the same instructors as Ladette to Lady, it is a very different show. For one thing, it’s produced by Donald Trump, that world-class connoisseur of reality-show cheese. For another, it airs on MTV, and unfortunately adheres to that network’s tiresome reality-show blueprint: melodramatic elimination ceremonies occur with regularity; petty sniping of the other contestants in interviews is wholeheartedly encouraged; the production values are so low it looks like it was shot in a fiberglass approximation of a mansion; and the ultimate goal of the show isn’t self-improvement, but a cash prize of $100,000.
In the first episode of The Girls of Hedsor Hall, each of the extension-clad, overly-tanned party girls is dramatically presented with a strand of pearls. The necklace is a symbol, Jill Harboard reminds them, of their aspiring ladydom, and as such, it must be relinquished if they are asked to leave Hedsor Hall. The girls, however, aren’t so impressed by the reality-show trope being fastened around their necks. “I don’t really care about the pearls. It’s bullshit,” one astute, orange girl named Brianna tells the cameras. “It’s about our attitude, not about some freaking pearls around our necks.” Over the course of the next few episodes, Brianna is proven right. It isn’t just about some freaking pearls around their necks; it’s also about stomaching ox tongue, removing the entrails of a pheasant, and learning falconry (yes, falconry) in the name of self-improvement. Only after all that does it become about a change in attitude, a new sense of self-confidence.
Watching Brianna rip the feathers from a pheasant carcass, I understood that I had already been where she was—not literally, as I don’t use astonishing quantities of self-tanner, I don’t have my own adult website, and I’ve never touched a dead game bird. But I did go through a reeducation of my own—albeit one that (thankfully) didn’t involve Donald Trump. All the manners classes and curtsy drills and lady prep may not have made me a debutante, but they did make me a kind of lady. I’m incredibly poised while watching all-day marathons of obscure British reality shows, for instance. My posture, when I think about it and sit up straight, is really something to behold. I know and love all forks. I am aware of what a chignon is, even though I don’t have the patience or inclination to try and attempt one. Really, who needs a ball?