Pageant coach's unconventional training reaches teens, entertains viewers, irritates others (with video)

Pageant coach's unconventional training reaches teens, entertains viewers, irritates others (with video)

January 21st, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

TUNE IN

• What: "Kim of Queens"

• When: 10 p.m. tonight.

• Network: Lifetime, Comcast 37; EPB 52

• Tonight's episode: Alexis Mechell, 17, of Monroe, Ga. (last name withheld by agreement with Lifetime network) has never been in a pageant and comes to Kim Gravel to prep for her first contest. When Gravel takes her to a thrift store to shop for her pageant wardrobe, Alexis is suspicious and skeptical. From this episode, Alexis was cast as a regular on "Kim of Queens."

Kim Gravel, far left, stars in the new Lifetime series "Kim of Queens." She's a pageant coach with 20 years experience whose clients are teens with aspirations of one day being crowned Miss Georgia.

When Kim Gravel speaks, her teenage clients and their stage mothers listen. Not just because she's a former Miss Georgia - and they are all chasing that crown - but because they just never know what's going to come out of her mouth.

Her methods are unorthodox; her advice uncensored -- she told one girl her stage personality needed to be "more ballsy." She's spontaneous; she's insightful. She's funny and controversial -- she secretly took on a client after the teen's dad had forbidden it.

She coaches teens on how to become pageant winners, polishing their rough edges with the goal that, while they learn to make themselves prettier on the outside, they'll absorb some life lessons that make them beautiful inside as well.

Gravel (pronounced Gruh-VELL), who lives in the Atlanta suburb of Johns Creek near Alpharetta, Ga., is the star of Lifetime network's new docuseries "Kim of Queens." It airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m.

The pageant coach capitalized on winning Miss Georgia 1991 by founding The Pageant Place, a pageant prep business. She shares her expertise with girls ages 12 to 18 who are serious about winning teen pageants in preparation to one day compete in Miss Georgia with the goal of advancing to Miss America. The Pageant Place draws aspiring teen queens from all across Georgia, many of her clients from this area, Gravel says. The Times Free Press requested names of any North Georgia clients but did not receive them.

Numerous Pageant Place alumnae have gone on to compete in Miss Georgia, Gravel says, with many of them preliminary winners and one taking the state title.

"I've been training girls for 20 years, but formed the business 10 years ago,"she says. "At first I just did it for fun because I had a heart for young girls."

In each of the first episodes of "Kim of Queens," which debuted three weeks ago, she has taken on a pageant rookie who wants to "feel more girlie" or "to feel pretty." This teen is in addition to a core group of six teens and their moms, who are her regular clients not extras cast in the show.

In tonight's episode, 17-year-old Alexis Mechell has never been in a pageant and comes to Kim to launch her.

"If I was going to do them, I wanted to do them the right way," says Alexis, who lives in Monroe, Ga. "She taught me how to interview, the way to hold myself. I've always spoken my mind and she taught how to do it in a nicer way that people won't be offended. She genuinely is a sweet person."

With the help of her sister and mother, Gravel puts each newcomer through a crash course, teaches her how to do makeup and hair, helps her develop a talent presentation then sends her out onstage. Of the pageant rookies featured in the first three episodes, one won her pageant title and the other two won preliminary awards.

"We don't win them all, that's how you know it's real," Gravel says. "These are actual pageants we go to. Lifetime doesn't rig the pageants."

Gravel says as the season progresses through its 12 episodes, more shows will focus on her "pros" (regular clients) and their moms' involvement.

"I want people to laugh and have a good time and be encouraged, but I want girls to stop and think for themselves. I want them to know they are beautiful and unique," Gravel explains.

Her means of accomplishing her goals may leave viewers laughing, but local pageant coaches are less than enthused.

COACHING CONTROVERSY

"I see a very contrived reality show that is clearly to provoke viewer response, and that's the way reality TV is," says Myra Brown Dooley of Ooltewah, who has watched "Kim of Queens." "I think the focus is entirely on winning and everything from the accents to the clothing to promoting jealousy was very contrived."

Dooley is a former model who holds summer poise and etiquette camps for girls in grades kindergarten through 12th. More than 2,000 girls have passed through her camps over 23 years, many returning every year. She has also coached Miss Tennessee winners on how to walk the runway before they competed in Miss America.

In the second episode of "Kim of Queens," the daughter of a staunchly conservative preacher comes to Gravel and asks for her help. The teen, an aspiring singer, wants to compete in a pageant to get stage experience, get her name out and start building a career. Gravel meets with the protective dad, who is adamantly opposed and says no to training. The girl pleads with Gravel to help her anyway, and she agrees to secretly coach her. Dad learns what's happened when he is invited to the pageant to see his daughter's transformation.

Dooley says the episode sent the message that it's OK to defy your parents if the ends justifies the means.

Gravel defends her decision.

"I did worry about the message it sent, but she was 18, so that's the reason I agreed to do it. I would not want to promote somebody going outside their parent's wishes, but she is in college. If she had been underage I would have says no," she explains, adding that teen is still a client of hers.

Dooley also believes Gravel's language is inappropriate for the ages she teaches.

"The things she says were so inappropriate in front of young girls, like 'ballsy' and 'don't pick your nose and eat it.' That certainly didn't need to be said."

Gravel says that "to get a teen's attention today so they absorb what you teach, you've got to do it in a way that is powerful and purposeful." She admits that her style is "a little irreverent," but insists it gets through to the teens.

"I come at it from a humorous or shocking perspective. I find they absorb and retain more when I do," she explains.

Stefanie Wittler of Soddy-Daisy, Miss Tennessee 2009 and second runner-up in Miss America 2010, also coaches young girls, especially teenagers interested in the Miss America's Outstanding teen program. She says she is familiar with "Kim of Queens."

"In teen pageants, they want to see you are having a good time, acting like a typical teenager. Sometimes teenage girls have a hard time coming out of their shell onstage -- they're so worried about being cool, and they are out of their comfort zone," says Wittler. "I probably wouldn't use that term (ballsy), but say something like 'We need to show more confidence. Show you are proud of what you do onstage.'"

PAGEANT TIPS

In an episode where Gravel critiqued the flashy runway gowns the teens and their moms had selected, she dropped this nugget of wisdom: "Winners wear white."

"Statistics on winners show most everyone wears white," Gravel says when asked about the statement. "It pops onstage; it's very angelic."

Although Desiree Daniels of Chattanooga, Miss Tennessee 1982 and first runner-up to Miss America 1983, has not seen "Kim of Queens," she agrees there are statistics to back up that theory.

"There have been more winners in white gowns than any other color. There is something very regal about a white gown. A white gown is majestic, it has an aura about it," Daniels says, wryly noting that she wore a blue gown at Miss America and the winner wore white.

Coaching styles aside, Gravel manages to make her point by the end of each episode: Beauty is built from the outside in. By teaching them how to apply makeup or fix their hair, she says she isn't making them dependent on superficial improvements.

"Makeup, hair and boys are all girls talk about anyway. I'm talking to these girls where they're at, then I'm hitting them with a message. We talk about inner beauty all the time, but if they can't see it outside, then they can't understand it inside. You have to meet people where they're at."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.