(The Root) — On Monday Maxine Powell — the modeling-school proprietor, etiquette expert and charm-school coach — died at age 98. Best known for her work with Motown’s Artist Personal Development Department, she trained performers there in the arts of poise, posture, grace, speech and style. But her legacy extends far beyond the legendary record label.
Powell was arguably one of the greatest black influencers of the last century. Motown artists broke numerous color and pop-cultural barriers. They would not have been able to do so without the guidance of Powell. She coached acts like the Supremes and the Temptations on the appropriate way to carry oneself on- and offstage.
They would become some of the first acts to find major mainstream acceptance, and the Supremes in particular would become a regular presence on television programs, many of which had not been traditionally welcoming to black artists. But in the eyes of many, the way the Supremes spoke and dressed transcended race. They exuded glamour and became the first black style icons of the golden age of television.
According to Michael Dinwiddie, a professor at New York University who interviewed Powell numerous times, Powell “always said that the way you carry yourself determines how people perceive you.” Her goal was to make sure that Motown’s stars in the making always carried themselves like stars. Dinwiddie told The Root that while Diana Ross might have achieved success without Powell’s aid, “she wouldn’t have had the staying power.” Powell helped create a total package, and to this day Ross is viewed as a worldly, pop-cultural icon, not merely a flash-in-the-pan entertainer.
To that point, Dinwiddie said, “Artists today would greatly benefit from her lessons. You don’t see the kind of class, style and refinement that Mrs. Powell had as her trademark in their training of what it takes to be in front of the public.”
One can only guess what Powell thought of the inarticulate, barely dressed artists who have become a staple of entertainment in recent years. But one of the greatest beneficiaries of her legacy likely would have made her proud: By empowering black Americans through glamour and style half a century ago, Powell helped lay the groundwork for women like Michelle Obama to be seen as symbols of American femininity and womanhood.
Today many of us take for granted seeing a black face like Obama’s on the cover of Vogue magazine, but those small victories are ones that Powell first began fighting for years ago. Dinwiddie recalled that Powell’s modeling agency broke the color barrier for advertisements in the Motor City when the car companies began working with her models. “Maxine Powell had an incredible legacy,” he said. “She was a pioneer.”
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.