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Raymond Champion, a retired Marine who was the school's director of education, told the students that in order to oversee the different jobs on an estate, household managers had to know how to do each of those jobs. "In no way, shape or form have we used the students to clean the mansion. The whole facility is the classroom," he says, adding that those who expected to learn in lavish surroundings had unrealistic expectations. "We try to get them to have ownership of their environment."
Those students who are quick to complain may not be suitable for the trials of household service, suggests Pamela Keltie, former executive housekeeper at the school. "God forbid you work for a celebrity and you complain about a personal issue," she says. "It's about learning about who you work for and anticipating their needs. It's not about all the griping."
But Hamilton, who held several positions at the school including client services director, admissions director and placement director, claims Starkey took advantage of students. "They were used as unsupervised maids, daily, for eight weeks, under the guise of learning to clean," she says. "Understandably, this is a great way to absorb skill sets, but only if you are being guided and trained throughout the process."
And some lessons seemed to make no sense at all. In one class, for example, Champion gave students the opportunity to describe negative memories from their family histories — using disturbing tales from his own childhood as examples. "The stories got really sordid," says Muller. "I'm looking around and thinking this is worse than something out of Jerry Springer."
"The whole purpose of the family-tree exercise was to let them know that no matter what kind of experiences you come from, you can achieve greater things. I would use my life to illustrate that point," says Champion. "It wasn't for shock value, it was to show none of us are perfect, but people do the best they can. It was powerful, though."
When they questioned parts of the curriculum, former students say, faculty members assured them that the Starkey pin they received at graduation would more than make up for any educational shortfalls.
And Starkey does have satisfied graduates. "It was a very structured situation, packed with all kinds of field trips and guest speakers. Every day was packed," says Valorie Lambert, a 2001 graduate. "I learned a lot. It really helped me and gave me a lot of confidence with a job I took with a Fortune 500 family."
But many former Starkey employees — including two earlier heads of education — admit the program had drawbacks. "The curriculum was antiquated and inexpensive in the fact that Mary doesn't want to provide anything for them she can't get for free," says William Bennett, the school's education director from 2000 to 2001, when he left to take a job at a Hawaiian resort. "Take them to the mall, it's free. If you bring in certain instructors, you have to pay them."
Allan Miller, Bennett's replacement, says Starkey International could have boasted a top-notch curriculum — if not for Mary Starkey. "I could not focus on the type of program I wanted to do, because she was interrupting nonstop," says Miller, who left in 2003 and has worked as a household manager for a Florida family ever since. "She needs constant attention, constant stimulation."
And the students may have needed more. "I really saw there was a lack of ownership by these students when they graduated," says Janice Bartels, director of placement from 2005 until 2007 and now a conference manager in South Dakota. "They were still tentative, hesitant, wondering if they could really manage someone's property. They don't really teach a lot on human-resource issues or laws governing managing, or how to hire or fire. It was my opinion that they learned how to take direction, not give it."
In Muller's class, student Lisa Kirkpatrick seemed particularly ill-suited for learning how to direct a multi-million-dollar household. She told her fellow students that she'd suffered a debilitating spinal injury and was on medication. After the first week of class, Muller wrote a letter to Champion noting his classmates' concerns about Kirkpatrick: "Each of us, professionals from diverse backgrounds, share the impression that someone with such communication and understanding challenges could not succeed in such a complicated, high-stress and high responsibility job."
"When I applied, I put down I did not have excellent computer skills," Kirkpatrick says now. "On my application, the medications were listed on there. Mrs. Starkey and staff were fully aware of the fact I was on medication."
According to Christine Trujillo, admissions coordinator at the time, Starkey's admissions criteria weren't followed in Kirkpatrick's case. "I was totally against her being admitted," she says. "In the admissions meeting, I told them she wasn't computer savvy. She was a beautiful person, but I didn't know if she was going to make it through the program. Not because she wasn't smart enough, but just because she shouldn't have been there. But Mrs. Starkey looked at her picture and said, 'She is not bad-looking. We'll accept her.'"
The first time Muller and his classmates encountered Mary Starkey, there was none of the magic they'd expected from a housekeeper-turned-international sensation, none of the savoir-faire that had charmed military generals, seminar audiences and veteran journalists alike. The morning after they first arrived at the Starkey Mansion, students were sitting in the dining room when Starkey huffed in and launched into a welcoming speech that seemed designed to make no one feel welcome. "If you don't listen to me," she said, scowling, "you will fail."