I got your attention with that headline, didn't I?
I can't take credit it for it, though. It's the title of a funny short story by Kay McSpadden, an English teacher at York (S.C.) Comprehensive High and a Charlotte Observer community columnist. It's the winning entry in this year's Norman Mailer Writing Award for high school teachers. To give you perspective on how major this award is, one of the judges was Garrison Keillor.
Tonight Kay will be in New York City at the Mandarin Oriental hotel where she'll be surrounded by literary giants including Joyce Carol Oates who's receiving a Lifetime Achievement award. The emcee of the evening, who'll be handing Kay her award, is Alec Baldwin. If you're not impressed by now I don't know what to say.
I'm a huge fan of Kay's columns on our Op-Ed pages, but I had never met her. I think her writing is brilliant and the topics she picks are compelling. That's why I was beyond thrilled when she emailed me a few weeks ago asking if I would help her pick out something to wear to the awards gala.
I've been fortunate enough to interview some of the best style experts in the world, including Clinton Kelly of What Not to Wear. He gave me his brutally honest thoughts on the importance of having personal style when he visited Charlotte last year, so I really felt I could give her some valuable input based on what I've learned from some of the best.
In her email, Kay said she was thinking of getting a black dress. My main goal was to put her in something with color because I know from all the photographs of parties I cover that black usually looks boring in photos, plus this season is all about color. And I wanted her to fly into that room like a beautiful Southern butterfly and turn heads.
I immediately thought of the special occasion dress department at Belk at SouthPark mall because they really do have outstanding selections and everything is well-priced, which I figured would be especially important to a school teacher.
I was nervous about meeting Kay for the first time. Would I say something grammatically incorrect? Would we get along? From the moment she approached me in front of a rack of sparkly dresses and asked "Are you Olivia?" I knew this was going to be a fun day, but I had no idea it would turn out to be one for the record books.
Kay, who is in her 50s, has a great figure and about the most gorgeous skin I've seen. She is a true natural beauty with brains and a funny and kind personality. She brought along her equally fabulous friend, Marion, and I told them my thoughts. I gave Kay my argument for color and told her that any dress that caught her attention, even if it's not something she would normally wear, she should take it to the dressing room because you just never know how much you'll love something until you try it.
This is where it gets mystical for me because I really feel that the universe put us there at 11 a.m. on that Saturday morning at Belk for a reason. And the reason walked up a few moments later.
Her name is Lee Harper and she's one of Kay's former students from York. She was there with her delightful mother, a school librarian from York. Lee is a costume designer based in Paris who's currently working on a French film in NYC. She was on a mission to buy specific types of dresses the film's director was looking for, including orange dresses.
It surprised me when Lee said it's hard to find reasonably priced dresses in NYC without going to many different places so she combined a trip home to the Carolinas with a trip to Belk, which is one of her go-to sources.
Lee started her costume design career as an intern on "The Patriot" starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger when it was filmed in the York area. The professionals she worked with were so taken with her and her skills that they still recommend her for jobs. On her resume is - get this - working on What Not To Wear with Clinton Kelly and Stacy London. Lee's mother told me that when Clinton was in Charlotte last year she went to his personal appearance. When he found out who her daughter was he practically picked her up off the ground in a bear hug and said, "I love Lee Harper!"
We all visited for awhile, then went about our separate shopping expeditions.
Kay probably tried on at least 20 different dresses, but it was one of the first ones she put on (and one she picked out herself) that tugged at her heart right away. I told her to keep trying the others because it will clarify whether the first one really was "the one."
It was. The elegant and classic teal blue dress by Kay Unger looked smashing on her and she'll be able to wear it for years to come.
We searched Lee out for her seal of approval (it got a thumbs up) and then Kay invited us all out to lunch.
Being surrounded by that group of bright, sparkling and accomplished women was so meaningful to me. They're all so brilliant but humble, gracious and hilarious. That's when Kay shocked me with the title of her humorous short story while telling me that her husband is a Presbyterian minister. If I had been wearing pearls I would have clutched them.
It all left me wondering what in the world is going on in York that such a small town is producing such outstanding people. I think I need to start spending more time there.
Lee sent me the nicest email after our meeting. She was back in New York and the director loved all the clothes she picked out. "Thank goodness for Belk!" she said. In the email she also told me that she was going to dine with Kay while she was in town.
When Lee is in between projects in Paris, I hope to interview her. (Lee, you know I had to work that line in!)
And I'll report back on Kay's evening, hopefully with photos, but I've already seen it in my mind. Kay will look beautiful in her dress with her proud husband by her side. I know everyone who meets her is going to be enthralled with her grace, beauty and wit. I know I was.
Thank goodness for Kay McSpadden!
Follow Olivia Fortson on Twitter @oliviafortson
Thursday, October 4, 2012
I got your attention with that headline, didn't I?