What It Takes to Be a High-Society Debutante
These young women were born into some of the world's wealthiest families.
— -- intro: They are the daughters of the upper-crust, well-connected before they reach college and born into some of the world's wealthiest families.
These young women from around the world, ranging in age from 16 to 25, are selected to be debutantes at the International Debutante Ball, held every two years in New York City, to formally present themselves to society. While in the past these balls were used to find potential suitors for the young women, they are now mainly used for networking.
Margaret Hedberg is the director and general chairman of the International Debutante Ball, which is held at the luxurious Waldorf Astoria hotel. Her aunt founded the ball 60 years ago, and it remains a high society tradition.
“Debutante Ball is a celebration of a lot of people getting together to celebrate their daughters’ sort of entrance into the adult world,” she said.
Hedberg is in charge of selecting the girls who will be chosen as debutantes. The process takes about a year, and Hedberg and her team receive recommendations from ball committee members, past debutantes and their families, as well as from committees of smaller debutante balls.
“How many girls you have and what places are being represented this year, it’s very arbitrary,” Hedberg said. “Some years it’s got a lot of Texans, some years a lot more Connecticut. It’s just the way it is.”
Once invited, the young women and their families spend tens of thousands of dollars to attend the ball. The entry fee alone is $17,000 for one table. They then have to pay for travel and their stay at the Waldorf -- Hedberg say the girls and their families stay for about a week to attend “warm-up” events, smaller parties for everyone to get to know each other. Each girl is also required to wear a white princess-style gown and long white satin gloves for the big night -- a deep-rooted tradition.
When asked why the girls have to wear white, Hedberg said, “back in the days of the robber barons and the Gilded Age, I think it was a very expensive thing... I think that the purity quality back in the old day was part of it.”
A month prior to the ball, the girls attend “bachelor brunch,” where they can mingle with an assortment of escorts, many of which are young men from Ivy League universities or military schools, to find one for the ball.
“If you don’t have a brother or cousin you want to take, I can put you together with a young man,” Hedberg said. “It’s a date, not a mate.”
“Nightline” was given access to this year's event, which was held on Dec. 29, where 46 girls were presented. We followed four American debutantes -- an accomplished ballet dancer, a sketch comedy writer, a children’s book author and a world-traveling film student -- from the selection process to finding escorts to making their big debut at the ball.
quicklist:1title:Brittanymedia:27904825text:Name: Brittany Muriel-Marion LaPointe
Hometown: Mission Hills, Kansas
As an accomplished ballet dancer, a competitive ballroom dancer and a cheerleader, Brittney has some serious moves.
The Otis College of Art & Design student performed as Clara in the “Nutcracker” for the Kansas City Ballet, and if that wasn't enough, she is also fluent in French.
For the ball, Brittany did her own make-up and bought an Issac Mizrahi gown from Kleinfeld Bridal while on a trip to New York City.
"I didn't really want a princess dress ... and I didn't wanna look like a cupcake," she said. "So when I walked in I saw this one dress and I said, 'oh I liked that one,' and kept walking. But then after trying on four or five dresses I asked if I could try on the dress I saw when I walked in. I put it on and it was the dress that I’ll actually be wearing to the ball."
She also met her escort, Harvard student Harrison Parker, the night before the ball.
"I originally had asked an escort from the Bachelor’s Brunch, but now he has a football game that he wasn't aware of before, so he had to cancel," she said. "But I was assigned to Harrison, and he goes to Harvard and he knows how to play the bagpipes and he’s actually in the Cotillion Ball before so he got a little bit of an experience."
quicklist:2title:Carolinemedia:28580431text:Name: Caroline Ann Miller
Hometown: Tampa, Florida
Often mistaken for a young Reese Witherspoon, Caroline has gotten used to standing spotlight. The Elon University freshman is an actress and writer for the university’s sketch comedy show. When she was in high school, she starred in lead roles in several Tampa Community Theater productions, including Roxie Hart in “Chicago” to Oliver in “Oliver!".
Caroline was also a competitive dancer and the leader of a rock band in high school, not to mention she performed as her high school’s mascot.
When it's time to make their debut, the debutantes have to line-up in alphabetical order based on their state. Being from Florida, Caroline was the 15th girl to walk, and was presented with her escort, Yale student Nate Goodman.
"We go out with our date ... he holds my right hand and I hold flowers, and we walk to the orchestra’s music," she said. "It’s 'The Sunshine of My Life' for Florida, it's the Sunshine State, and we walk to the stage. Then the announcer repeats our name and state where we are from and also who our parents, our family is, and I curtsy and go off-stage."
"We practice that twice," Caroline added. "It’s much harder than you think."
quicklist:3title:Sophiamedia:28580266text:Name: Sophia Alexis Dieck
Hometown: Austin, Texas
Sophia is just starting college -- she's a freshman at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts -- but she has already traveled the world, from Africa to South America and across Europe. Her passion for filmmaking landed her prestigious internships at University of Southern California and in London to work on a Terence Malick film.
Coming to the International Debutante Ball was a familiar experience, because she attended the event six years ago when her sisters debuted.
"It’s so weird that this is happening so soon because I always used to see my sisters and it would be like they’re so old doing this and they’re in New York and now I’m the one doing it so it’s weird but it’s a good kinda weird," she said. "They always talked about going to the brunch and picking their escorts and now I was doing it and it was crazy."
When the girls are presented, they have to curtsy, but being from Texas, Sophia had to do the "Texas Dip."
"The Texas Dip is really hard to describe. It's basically like an extreme curtsy," she said. "You have to slowly kneel on one knee and it’s hard because it has to be timed and you can’t go too fast and you can’t go too slow. It’s all on how it feels and my nerves kinda get in the way."
But as a Texas debutante, Sophia said she has the option of having her escort, Yale student Robert Hurn, help her.
"They can help us up or down with their hand, both ways are obviously acceptable," she said. "But both my sisters didn’t have any assistance and so I told [my escort] Rob that I’m OK, that he doesn't need to assist me so I’ll be doing it on my own."
quicklist:4title:Leahmedia:28580350text:Name: Leah Lane
Hometown: New York, New York
At 16, Leah is a junior at the Horace Mann School in New York City, but she was one of the youngest debutantes at this year's ball. She wore a dress by Oleg Cassini, the same designer who made Jackie Kennedy Onassis' dress when she debuted.
When the girls are presented, they walk out to music, and Leah chose something close to her heart. Both of her parents are Tony award-winning producers, and even own a Broadway theater, and Leah chose a song to honor the family business.
"I’m making my debut to the song 'Lullaby of Broadway,' which is very appropriate because my parents are in the business," she said. "I want to go into the business and my escort, [Cole Rumbough], is a 'Cabaret' singer. So today he was trying not to sing along as we were walking but we were both kind of losing the fight."
When asked if she was nervous before she was presented, Leah said she was only worried about tripping in her heels.
"I can walk around in heels all day all night but with the dress and the stairs I’m waiting to Jennifer Lawrence up the stairs onto my face just hoping that doesn’t happen."
But following in her parent's footsteps, Leah is an actor and a writer. She even became a children’s book author before she finished first grade. Her book entitled, “This Never Happens in the City,” tells the story of a girl who lives in the city and summers in the country and was published 10 years ago. She also has done work for various charities, including Habitat For Humanity and Project Clean Water.
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