For Trisha Coburn, it was Miss Macy.
The 12-year-old Anniston native, then known as Trisha Mitchell, was working the concession stand of a movie theater when she was “discovered” by charm school teacher Olma Macy Harwell, “the tallest woman I’ve had ever seen,” Coburn recalls.
Harwell, the wife of circuit judge Ed Harwell, took a liking to Coburn and coaxed her mother to allow her to take classes at Macy’s Fashion School for free.
“Her motto in the modeling school was ‘Tilt, tuck and keep your chin up,’” remembers Coburn, now 60. “And that’s kind of how she went through life.”
At the time it was a breath of fresh air for Coburn, a self-described closeted writer and one of five siblings growing up in the Norwood projects.
“When I was a little girl, I used to love to write poetry but I never had anybody tell me I was good at it,” she says. “My mother was too busy with her own problems to really focus on what the kids were doing, talent-wise. If there was a little spark of something that could be developed, she just wasn’t there — that wasn’t her focus.”
Coburn learned how to walk and talk and soon became a local beauty pageant queen. At the age of 18, she took a train to New York with Miss Macy and, after some feather ruffling on the teacher’s part, was signed to Wilhelmina Modeling Agency where she began an 11-year career that would take her to Europe and back, and have her working with top designers like Halston, Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani. But once she was on her own, the star pupil and Saks High School alum nearly got cold feet.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” says Coburn of her first days in the big city. “It was so different from anything I’d ever seen.”
At one point, she contemplated returning home — but was stopped by one phone call to Miss Macy.
“She instilled courage in me to believe in myself, ’cause I didn’t even know what myself was at that point,” Coburn says.
Coburn didn’t return to Anniston, and instead continued to reinvent herself as a painter, interior designer, storyteller and writer whose work has been featured in O, the Oprah magazine.
“I think it’s a constant staying curious and keeping your mind and your heart open to accepting different ways that you can be in the world — that we can be in the world as women,” says the wife and mother. “Even though my childhood was hard, I’m glad that I had that. It was a foundation that helped me build a life with compassion and integrity and empathy for other people who come from those kinds of situations.”
Last year, Coburn decided it was time to share her humble beginnings with the world. In October 2012, she took the stage at the The Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas, as part of The Moth Radio Hour, a Public Radio Exchange program.
“Every Southerner I know always has great stories,” says Coburn. ‘‘I always loved telling Southern stories and people love to hear them — especially in the North.”
Her story, simply titled “Miss Macy,” was originally developed through a workshop she participated in with Narativ, a communication organization that specializes in storytelling methods and techniques.
After pitching “Miss Macy” to the program in May 2011, Coburn was selected and spent the next six months working with The Moth storytelling team to make her work right for its stage. It debuted at The Players Club in New York, and soon Coburn went on the road with The Moth, which is how she ended up in Austin, where her story opened the evening to great acclaim — so much so that she is now working on a memoir about her life in the South and is in talks with a production agency to make a television movie.
“The way that I write is kind of the way that Miss Macy’s story is written — there’s kind of a humor but there’s also that kind of darkness,” she says. “But there’s always humor in it because that’s how I feel about the story.”
Though Coburn doesn’t get back down South much these days, her family still resides in Anniston and she still keeps Miss Macy’s family in the loop whenever she prepares to take the stage and talk about their loved one, who died in 1990. To the woman who provided the foundation for all her accomplishments, all Coburn can say is thank you.
“People across America have been emailing me saying ‘I want to have a Miss Macy in my life’ or ‘I’m going to be a Miss Macy for someone,’” she says. “It’s a very sweet message.”