“I’m not stupid. I went to Wendy Ward Charm
School… I know how to walk, how to get in and
out of a car without showing the world everything.”
Terry Ventura, on her readiness for her new
role as Minnesota‘s first lady (Time.com, 01/18/99)
Mrs. Jesse Ventura and I share a special bond. We’re both proud graduates of The Wendy Ward Charm School. In windowless offices above the local Montgomery Ward’s, I learned about the magic Ps—Poise and Posture.
MaryAnn Palodino, doppelganger of 1970s siren Marisa Berenson, presided over ten girls in various stages of gawk every Saturday for 8 weeks. Her title, Personal Charm Director, fit like a tiara; in sweet but forceful tones she turned the everyday into Proper Pronouns. False eyelashes improbably becoming, lip-gloss blindingly shiny, her silver bangles never jangled on her willowy arms. I was grudgingly mesmerized. Like me, MaryAnn was tall and dark; unlike me she was thin, a walking definition of perfection.
It wasn’t my idea to enroll in The Wendy Way to Charm; my mother thought it would bring me out of myself. Self was something I hid and ignored. At twelve, with my height and breasts in full bloom, I looked eighteen. I didn’t want to parade in a roomful of little girls.
Radiating disdain, I slouched through the door in a baggy T-shirt. My cool was practiced. Head down, I stumbled into a chair. I guess you have your work cut out for you, my mother sang out. She quickly exited, leaving me to my best impersonation of a paralytic. Nonsense, MaryAnn purred. She’s a tall and lovely girl. I was hers; it was that easy.
Cherub-voiced, with the personal force of a drill instructor, MaryAnn schooled us in Classic Charm. Before we could touch the jeweled pots of gloss nestled temptingly in our Beauty Kits, we imbibed the mantra: Cleanse! Tone! Moisturize! I inhaled the almond moisturizer we were issued—my first real girl gear.
Several girls began wearing their hair in disheveled homage to MaryAnn’s sleek chignons. I managed to achieve a “hiding small woodland creature” effect, and then switched to a Veronica Lake do. MaryAnn pronounced it chic but impractical; I kept tripping while practicing the Model’s Walk.
MaryAnn imparted the mechanics of modeling with the gravity of a tutorial with Balanchine. Model’s T, which, indeed, resembled a ballet position, was the starting point for Model’s Walk— a pantherish glide. The Pantsuit Lunge, my favorite, came next—lurching forward with hand on knee, elbow slightly bent. I tolerated The Skirt Tilt: one hand on hip with a slight dip to the side. It echoed the unflattering I’m A Little Teapot I’d been corralled into performing in kindergarten. Only the Hokey-Pokey earned more of my childhood scorn.
The group favorite was Little Twirl, a supposedly controlled spin for showing off skirts. Spin Girls Spin! Maryann sang as we dizzied ourselves. Beatrix Chassee, a sallow milk fed veal of a girl, became briefly notorious for twirling herself into a nosebleed. Heedless of her distress, the rest of the Charm commandos spun in disoriented orbits while MaryAnn ran Beatrix to the restroom. A visitor to class at that moment might have witnessed something akin to Interpretive Dance for the Autistic.
Model T, Model Walk, Pivot, and Pantsuit Lunge. Model T, Model Walk, Pivot. We practiced our panther glides tirelessly, for the ultimate reward—A Fashion Show, the golden carrot MaryAnn held out as we toiled on imaginary runways. Wendy’s Way handbook featured such weirdly deathless prose as “Beauty is learned…and earned—you’ll never find it sitting on a mushroom” and the slightly frightening “…remember rudeness is the devil’s gift to a self-conscious girl, and you don’t want people to think you’re self-conscious.” If that was true, the entire class was enrolled in Satan’s Gift Registry.
I worked hard for MaryAnn, she of the flawless skin and noiseless bracelets. Her huge eyes seemed to reflect what I could become. Soon, I was voluntarily showering two times a day. A miracle! , my mother declared. I sneered an elegant sneer; my Model’s Smile was for MaryAnn alone.
When MaryAnn looked at all of us, gangly, pimply, plump, or stringy, she really seemed to see Natural Beauties capable of pulling off a Graduation Fashion Show. Natural Poise and Beauty are the Best Cosmetics Girls—Makeup and Stylish Clothing are Only Icing! I forgave her mixed metaphors.
As we descended to Ward’s retail floor to select outfits for the Show, my stomach tightened with familiar dread. I was 5 ft 8 and over 120 pounds–huge, enormous, gargantuan. My sad baggy T-shirt camouflaged my flaws.
Nothing ever fit—why bother looking? Freak!—too tall, too big, and too fat–my inner rant continued. As the other girls fanned out in pursuit of Fashion, I lurked near the footwear department feigning sudden interest in Earth Shoes. MaryAnn caught me with her gimlet eye as I slinked behind a pillar. Why wasn’t I looking for an outfit? I stared at the pillar, the floor and MaryAnn’s charm bracelet—all hearts. I unleashed my litany of woe—too big, too tall—too much! She was unconvinced. Show me where you usually look, she commanded. I led her to the area where my father usually selected my clothes. Always in the largest size possible.
A frown broke her usually placid surface. Then she smiled and said, Why sweetie, this is the children’s department! You are a lovely young woman—not a little girl. In memory I see her as a sort of Disco Glinda the Good Witch, lip-gloss reflecting light from an ever-present rotating mirrored ball. I wanted her to curse my parents as fools, but without another word she led me to the Fun & Lovin’ Juniors department. With MaryAnn’s help, I chose my first grown-up outfit: a fitted brown and cream windowpane-plaid jacket and a peach mock turtle neck shell with chocolate brown pants. Brown platforms completed the ensemble.
MaryAnn waited for me while I changed in the mirror-less dressing room. Remember, shoulders back, chest out, she murmured as I reluctantly emerged. Slowly, I turned to face the mirror. I froze. I had a real woman’s figure—breasts, waist, hips, and long legs. I nearly swooned. No wonder my parents tried to hide it. No wonder I was speechless; I’d never really looked at It–the body I had long disdained. I only knew what I felt like all the time—too much. Yet, now I felt just right. I wasn’t fat—I was curvy. For once I didn’t cringe at my own reflection. Good fit is always important; you can’t put clothing on willy-nilly; MaryAnn smiled but I hardly paid attention. Nearly drunk with self-love I did the Pantsuit Lunge and bonked my head on the mirror.
Some thirty years later, I find myself summoning up all the Charm I can muster to ask: what the hell does plus-sized mean? If the count starts in the size 0 range of Kate Moss and the Sex in The City gals, all the rest of us are plus-sized. I buy what fits and flatters, no matter the number on the little tag. I live fully in my tall, curvy body and can often be persuaded to demonstrate the Pantsuit Lunge at parties. Wendy Ward,embodied by Mary Ann Paladino,equipped me not only with the ability to get out of a car without flashing my knickers, but with enough Charm to take on just about anything.