The VICE Channels

Charm School Confidential Charm School Confidential

All photos by Stephanie Mei-ling

Charm School Confidential

New Jersey's longest-running etiquette institute taught me that "there are no ugly women, just lazy ones."

The legendary cosmetic entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein, born in 1902, was famously known for her beauty regimen-selling mantras. Beauty is power; There's no ugly women, only lazy ones. Among magazine cutouts of the latest fashion trends and binders labeled "Beauty Pageant Training" and "Women Empowerment 101," these aphorisms pepper the office of Roslyn Rolan, founder of The Image & Etiquette Institute of New Jersey, the state's longest running charm school.

While she's no multimillionaire magnate, Ms. Rolan has been in the business of beauty and image consulting for over 44 years. At the age of 65, she's kept pace with the times since opening New Jersey's first personal shopping consultation company in 1975. When stores started to adopt their own personal shoppers, she enrolled in The Protocol School of Washington and pivoted her business to cater not only to image improvement, but what she refers to as presence. Now her training sessions, which run from half-day introductory classes to two-month boot camps, help everyone from pageant hopefuls to unruly kids, couples, and business professionals. Her business, she asserts, is bigger than it has ever been. But what does a charm school really look like in 2015?

Vaguely aware that I was dressed like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman before her transformation, I went to visit Ms. Roslyn for a 4-hour etiquette course in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The Image & Etiquette Institute is nestled in what was once a luxury apartment complex "for those who want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple." The remnants of glitz can be found in lobby, with its doorman and gold mirrored walls. Most of the residents are aging and have watched as their Manhattan-adjacent community has become an affordable hub for Korean and Russian immigrants.

After the doorman buzzed me up, Ms. Rolan greeted me on The Carriage House's 8th floor hallway with a firm handshake that she would later teach me inside her apartment-cum-office, where the institute has been located for 20 years. "Every woman should be grounded," Ms. Rolan intones as we're going over the "shaking hands" section in my workbook that has "You Are The Message: The Ingredients of a Professional Presence" emblazoned on its cover. "I meet so many women who do this," she continues, offering her fingertips to my outstretched palm as an example of what one should never do. "Limp handshakes imply that a woman is insecure and lacks confidence. A woman of substance should have a strong handshake." To my relief, she approves of mine.

If you want to be successful you cannot forget that as soon as you leave the threshold of your home, you are on.

For the first hour we study the basics of business behavior: introductions, eye contact, and networking. Ms. Rosyln firmly believes that there are rules for every situation from which one should not deviate. One of the most important, she tells me ("You should write this down," she commands more than she suggests), is the communication of 12. "The communication of 12 is the first 12 inches of your body, the first 12 steps into a room, and the first 12 words out of your mouth." Basically, she explains, first impressions are key.

"Image is the essence of everything. Without saying one word, you walk into a room and so many things are judged about you. Only after one makes their visual judgement, they decide whether or not they even want to meet you. People form their opinions before you even say one word. That's how critical image is," she says with an air of finality.

Roslyn Rolan, founder and executive director of The Image & Etiquette Institute of New Jersey

I gently protest and she quotes Shakespeare with a twist. "I'm sorry, but if you want to be successful you cannot forget that as soon as you leave the threshold of your home, you are on. The world's a stage and we are actors upon it. That's it, girl!" Citing a night when she put on makeup just to take her trash to the building's compactor and stumbled upon a networking opportunity, she espouses another motto: always be prepared.

Lest anyone get the impression that her rules only apply to women, she assures me that she thinks image is equally important for men. "Give me that Chinese boy!" she says, asking me to pass her a letter that one of her former students wrote to her; his picture is clipped onto it and he is, indeed, Chinese. I quickly realize that this is just how Ms. Rolan talks: bluntly yet with great generalization. Anyone who is bold enough to teach others how to live probably talks this way, too.

The less gestures you use when you speak, the more powerful you are.

"I'm going to tell you about this young man," she continues. "He got in touch with me and told me that he needed help to prepare for his job interview at a law firm on Friday. I told him to reschedule his interview to Monday and meet with me on Friday. I wanted him to be assertive and tell his interviewer that something has come up. So he came to me and we worked for four hours. I went over his dress and his shoes. I made business cards for him. We talked about the job he's interviewing for and we did mock interviews. I really had to pull him out of himself."

Seamlessly, she launches into another lesson: "This is a cardinal rule: When you go for a job your prospective employers want to find out if you're a good fit for their corporate identity. Every company has a corporate identity and they want people to represent them properly. So if you come across as a shy stick-in-the-mud they're not going to be able to see how you'll help them win clients." Though after being rejected by prospective employers prior to coming to Ms. Rolan, he finally landed the interview with her help and was eventually hired.

In addition to professional coaching, Ms. Rolan also sees many kids with attention deficit disorders as clients. She views addiction to screens as one of the primary plagues in modern culture and the bulk of her work. "I think that the more that we're involved electronically and kids no longer know how to talk face-to face, there's more of a need to learn communication skills. That's all I'm doing now—communication skills," she says.

I ask her how I'm doing, communication-wise, and she doesn't think I'm half bad, though I can feel my eyes and my back straining from the level eye contact and rigid posture I've been concentrating on maintaining for the duration of our session. My natural instincts are to avoid and slouch, but I've been on my best behavior.

"You have a very good sense of yourself. That comes across," she tells me. "You have a wonderful smile. You have a very pretty face. That must give you confidence—that you know that you are physically putting yourself together very well. When you want power, though, how do you dress for your office?"

Young women should be ready to go to a beautiful restaurant.

She looks me up and down with her eyes, landing on my tank top, disapprovingly. I hear myself using the words "business casual" and she cuts me off as if to say there are no excuses for wearing a tank top to any office, regardless of how non-traditional the environment may be. "As long as you're not showing too much skin at work that's okay with me. But as soon as you start doing this..." she side-eyes my shirt, "you've already lost respect." She explains that a collared shirt would bring me more power, and recommends J.Crew. Speaking of power, she adds, "The less gestures you use when you speak, the more powerful you are."

Once we're onto table etiquette, any praise I had earned for my forceful eye contact is gone. Unbeknownst to me, I have been using forks and knives terribly wrong for 23 years. Though this hasn't held me back in a major way, or arguably in any way, Ms. Rolan emphasizes the importance of proper dinner etiquette.

"Do you remember Pretty Woman? The best scene in the whole movie is when Julia Roberts was being trained how to eat by the hotel manager. She didn't know a thing about utensils. The hotel manager ordered escargot for her—the hardest thing to eat!—and she didn't even know where to begin."

"But the point is there's an awful need now in our country for people to know how to eat properly. It's not all beers and chips. There's fine dining and young women should be ready to go to a beautiful restaurant."

Though my dining skills surely need work, she mentions that she's had foreign students come to her that have have a habit of eating with their hands.

Over the summer, Ms. Roslyn had 20 young students in her summer etiquette camp. Most of business comes from private, one-on-one lessons. It's actually rare, she says, that she has American students. Her etiquette course has slowly evolved to help new immigrants assimilate to American customs, for both business and personal relations.

"What we're doing is universal, she says. "These are all universal laws. I teach people from all over the world and they feel more comfortable now that they know how to act. They don't have to be pigeonholed. Once you're no longer pinned into any one group then you become part of the mainstream. That's what everyone wants to become part of, right?"

More from VICE

The Latest