Margaret O Brien has been shaping young Toledoans since 1963

6/3/2007
BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Margaret O'Brien talks about 40 years of operating a charm and modeling school for 40 years.
Margaret O'Brien talks about 40 years of operating a charm and modeling school for 40 years.

They are ideas that seem utterly alien, but were important just an echo ago. Even the terms sound quaint: finishing school, etiquette, poise.

Adolescent females were the primary scholars of social graces. Before courtship and marriage, they should know how to walk gracefully with fine posture and carriage, how to position one s feet when sitting, how to move the hands when talking. There was a way to enter and leave a room. How to make and respond to introductions, how to pick up a dropped item. Fashion. Hair. Applying enough but not too much makeup.

It was a time when a showing a bra strap was as uncouth as wearing white shoes before Memorial Day; when holes in rumpled clothing, tattoos, piercings, and bare bellies meant bad breeding.

Beginning in the mid-20th century and continuing for a few decades, department stores offered charm classes, as did franchised schools and privately owned businesses, perhaps the best-known of which in Toledo was run by Margaret O Brien.

A charm school was mainly for me to help people feel confidence and to feel special. You start feeling good from within, then you project that, said Mrs. O Brien. From 1963 to 2000 she ran her business as Margaret O Brien s Charm School, and when charm seemed outdated, changed the name to Finishing School, and finally to Margaret O Brien s International Modeling Agency.

She taught refinement to thousands of people teens dreaming of strutting down runways, nuns trading their robes for street clothes, sales people aiming for a sharper image, and physicians who asked her to address personal grooming in a way their foreign colleagues could understand.

When I started, it was all self-improvement, to get people to feel good about themselves, said Mrs. O Brien. All beauty comes from within.

Trim, with short reddish hair, and impeccably dressed in a white jacket, black pants, and gold hoop earrings, Mrs. O Brien, 78, lives in a modest West Toledo duplex with her husband of 58 years, Jim O Brien, a retired template-maker at the former Libbey-Owens-Ford Co.

Margaret O'Brien in 1964.
Margaret O'Brien in 1964.

A few of her students have won fame actresses Katie Homes (Dawson s Creek, Batman Begins), Alyson Stoner (Cheaper by the Dozen), and Kimberley Simms (Guiding Light), and others have made careers modeling for Tommy Hilfiger and the prestigious Wilhemina and Ford agencies. The vast majority, however, were people to whom she showed how to lubricate the gears of daily living.

Sharon Kripke was a 21-year-old bride when she enrolled at the O Brien studio about 30 years ago.

She s like a life coach, Ms. Kripke said. She knew that everyone has a different gift . She would listen to what people wanted. Ms. Kripke worked as a petite model, staged modeling shows for Macy s, Hudson s, and Marshall Field s, and acted in industrial films.

She never promised anything. She would tell you what she could do for you, she said. Margaret cared. She had compassion. And she wanted to make sure she touched everyone that came in there. She wanted to be able to help them in any way she could.

Added former student and employee Marcia Pasternak: Margaret looked beyond your appearance and went straight for your soul. ... She did far greater things than most ministers I know.

Ms. Pasternak, mother of eight, did not aspire to model, but learning good posture and how to walk properly gave her confidence a boost. It was a great feeling. It was great training.

Katie Holmes, a former student of Mrs. O'Brien's, autographed this photo for her.
Katie Holmes, a former student of Mrs. O'Brien's, autographed this photo for her.

The prospect of being a model was arguably the most exciting option for young women in the post-World War II years. For most, high school graduation was followed by marriage or clerical, retail, restaurant, or domestic work. For the college-bound, careers were typically teaching, nursing, or social work.

Department stores used fashion shows as a marketing tool to promote their seasonal fashions. Moreover, pulchritude was celebrated in beauty pageants, from Miss America to Miss Autorama.

Mrs. O Brien didn t kid people into thinking they could be a model if they didn t have the right stuff. But she provided a place for one to blossom. Looking for the source of beauty inside her students, she sometimes found pain. Students spilled their stories suicidal thoughts, unhappy homes, bullying boyfriends. The wives of corporate executives confided about feeling belittled by their husbands. When she learned a girl had an eating disorder, she advised her mother that modeling might encourage the teen to focus on being thin.

She remembers how, in 1977, the inmates at the federal prison in Milan, Mich., loved learning about dining etiquette and how to dress for a job interview. Each paid $45 to take her course, for which she borrowed department store suits for them to try on and brought a barber to style their hair. It had scary moments, she said.

But she was fascinated with what it was that makes people tick. She studied psychology and learned how to conduct personality profile tests which she gave to the students to better understand them. She earned a degree in pastoral counseling and worked with patients hospitalized for mental illnesses.

It was a lot of psychology and therapy, said Mrs. O Brien, a 1945 graduate of Whitney Vocational High School. My intuition tells me everything. Indeed, were she starting a career today, she d be a psychologist.

Margaret O'Brien with Alyson Stoner, one of her students. Stoner went on to become an actress, starring in the film <i>Cheaper by the Dozen.</i>
Margaret O'Brien with Alyson Stoner, one of her students. Stoner went on to become an actress, starring in the film &lt;i&gt;Cheaper by the Dozen.&lt;/i&gt;

Margaret Milano O Brien grew up in Brooklyn, the fourth of six children born to poor Italian immigrants. As a small child, the family moved to East Toledo. Her father was extremely strict and didn t spare the rod.

I prayed about everything from the time I was little on; that was my sole support.

At the suggestion of her husband, she attended the Patricia Stevens charm school in 1952 to learn to wear makeup. And as she modeled for department stores and print advertisements, her confidence grew. She taught evening classes, but became disenchanted with the emphasis on recruiting students by tempting them with the chance to model, regardless of their potential.

In the early 1960s, the husband of a friend offered to finance her business if she d make his wife a partner, so Mrs. O Brien drew up plans and leased a building. But her friend backed out and the husband withdrew his financing, sending her into a panic. The O Briens mortgaged their home, she worked long hours, gave countless presentations to drum up clients, and after a year, the business was in the black. Meanwhile, her mother helped look after her two young sons.

Her first studio was on Central Avenue, followed by one on Reynolds Road, and she hired people to teach both acting and modeling.

Actress Katie Holmes was a young teen when she enrolled in the basic charm course. She was among a group of top students Mrs. O Brien took to New York City and Los Angeles annually to be reviewed by talent scouts, showcases called the International Modeling and Talent Association, a group she helped found. After Katie Holmes walked the runway, modeled an outfit, and performed a two-minute acting scene, dozens of agents clamored to meet her.

She was a true natural; sweet, charming, innocent. She was so well brought up, Mrs. O Brien said.

Actress Alyson Stoner, only 6 when she enrolled in a class at the studio, also found success at the New York showcase. Alyson wanted to do everything her older sister did, including model at the O Brien studio.

She s a wonderful dancer and she has the personality to go with it, said Mrs. O Brien.

Upon arrival at the New York showcase, little Alyson saw her photos were mixed up with another girl s. Margaret immediately told them to change it. I thought, OK, I m in good hands, said Alyson, 13.

Like Ms. Holmes, Alyson was called back for a second look by many agents. Margaret helped us by telling us who s good with kids and who would be good to be with. That s really important because a lot of agents just hire anyone, Alyson said.

She has since appeared in the Cheaper by the Dozen movies and is the co-host of Mike s Super Short Show on the Disney Channel. Margaret has been so amazing to our whole family. She even came to one of my dance recitals, said Alyson, who s pursuing her career in California.

Karen Lumm won the 1975 Miss Teenage America contest, a true college scholarship program. The most weighted category was poise and personal expression, on which she had worked at the O Brien studio.

There are qualities in Margaret that could touch anyone. And she was a very successful businesswoman at a time when there weren t many, said Ms. Lumm, who lives in Toledo and works for Fifth Third Securities.

By the late 1990s, Mrs. O Brien found it harder to hire teachers and was ready to retire. In 2000, she sold the business to Wendi Davis, who had modeled for many years and directed a modeling center. Ms. Davis noted the industry shifting from modeling to acting, singing, and dancing, so changed the name to Margaret O Brien s and Starbound NYC.

Shortly after retirement, Mrs. O Brien developed health problems that have required her to exercise regularly. She s also traveled, and serves on the board of a religious organization. And the O Briens continue to be involved with their sons, Jim 53, and Kelly, 45, seven grandchildren, and three great grandchildren.

They were joyful years, said Mrs. O Brien of her career, and it was so joyful seeing the changes in the students.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.