At Your Disservice

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

The students at the Starkey International Institute for Household Management knew something was wrong that day in February: Mary Louise Starkey, founder and president of the Denver-based school, the 57-year-old "First Lady of Service" who'd transformed the lowly world of butlers into the booming and respectable "household management" industry, was coming downstairs to speak formally to the class, something she'd done only a handful of times before.

The ten students in attendance that afternoon were told to convene in the school's classroom, a wood-paneled former billiards parlor in the basement of the Starkey Mansion, the old red-brick manor on Logan Street two blocks from the state Capitol. After they were assembled, Starkey, flanked by several of her top administrators, marched in. "So, I heard you guys were all upset," she said. "I would like to talk about it."

"We are pretty shaky about what's been happening," said a student. That day, several of them had reported seeing Starkey yell at one of their classmates, take hold of her by the neck and then push her face close to a hallway mirror. The student, Lisa Kirkpatrick, had since left for the hospital and would eventually file a police report noting that Mary Starkey "grabbed her and screamed at her because the defendant didn't like the way the victim would appear in a school picture."


Starkey International Institute for Household Management



to hear excerpts of the February 7 school meeting in which Mary Louise Starkey explained some of the finer point of the service industry and shed some light on the alleged incident between her and student Lisa Kirkpatrick that day.

"Is it okay to put your hands on anyone, under any circumstances?" a student now asked.

"Well, maybe not, but I turned her around to look in the mirror," said Starkey, her petite figure, clothed as usual in a black velour jumpsuit, alternating between sitting and pacing at the front of the classroom. "I wasn't pushing her, I wasn't angry. I turned her around and said, 'Look in the mirror.' I was in a hurry, frankly. I didn't mean anything."

Another student, Skip Muller, spoke up. "Mrs. Starkey, we all paid a lot of money to come here," he said, referring to the $13,000 cost of the eight-week household-management program. "And we expected the highest standards of a professional environment. And we as a class have talked about it and we don't feel that is the environment here. And not just because of today. From day one." Muller had become the class's unofficial leader and mouthpiece — and now, clandestine chronicler. He had a recording device running on his desk.

Over the next hour, Muller and his classmates detailed the concerns they'd amassed over the program's first five weeks. Starkey and faculty members belittling and yelling at students and employees. An inconsistent and limited curriculum. Substandard meals and class trips, despite the large amount of tuition supposedly allotted to them. Fears that some students had been admitted and strung along for purely financial reasons, with no real hope of job placement. Anxiety that the pin each successful graduate would receive — a pin symbolizing that they were all official Starkey Certified Household Managers and ready to supervise the upkeep and administration of some of the most glamorous homes in the world — had little real-world value.

Starkey became defensive, her tone ranging from even-tempered cordiality to emotional shouting. "I am not your enemy. I am here to get you placed, period. And pulling out of you what's best for you — whatever that is," she said, her hands aflutter. "Some households are pretty drama-centered, and I am not excusing anything. This, by state board standards, has to simulate a private home. We are not a black-and-white educational environment. If we did not do whatever happens in a home, we would not be licensed to be doing what we are doing.

"I don't think anyone, after 25 years, is feeling like my credibility is an error. I've had way too much success," Starkey concluded with finality. "You could be upset about [the school], you can be angry with me about it, but in the end, after 25 years of doing this, I've never had anybody say, 'You didn't do what you said you were going to do.'"

Skip Muller was halfway around the world when he first learned of the Denver mansion where he could learn how to care for the world's rich. "Inside the Billionaire Service Industry," an Atlantic Monthly story he came across last October while vacationing at a swank hotel in Hanoi, described the current "Gilded Age" in the United States, swept in by a burgeoning population of newly wealthy Wall Street mavens and tech wunderkinds. Over the last twenty years, the number of U.S. millionaires had tripled to eight million, and the number of billionaires skyrocketed from thirteen to 374, the article reported. But the unseasoned ultra-rich didn't have things easy. Having grown up leading normal-sized lives in normal-sized homes, they now found themselves overwhelmed by their 30,000 square-foot homes that required a small army of housecleaners, security guards, gardeners, personal chefs, nannies and personal assistants — operations that seemed to demand almost as much management and administration as the businesses that had earned them their fortunes. In response to such demands, a new breed of butler had evolved. Gone were the days of subservient manservants standing at attention; now there were household managers overseeing estate personnel with spreadsheets and organizational charts, up-to-the-minute budgets and digitized itineraries (See "The Butler Did It," Page 22).

And one of the people most responsible for this development was an unlikely entrepreneur named Mary Starkey, the Atlantic article noted. In 1990, Starkey, the daughter of a well-off South Dakota family and divorced mother of two, had decided it was time to move beyond the Denver cleaning service she'd built out of a housecleaning job she'd taken years earlier to make ends meet. She'd created the term "household managers," then designed a one-of-a-kind school, Starkey International, to generate them. "We produce butlers, American-style," she announced at the time. "What I am trying to do is set an industry standard." And she did.

Starkey now says she's graduated more than 1,000 certified household managers, and news reports and books cite her business's annual revenues at upwards of $2 million. Starkey International's website mentions Starkey textbooks, Starkey software, Starkey seminars around the world, an annual Starkey-sponsored industry conference and Starkey military training for four-star generals' enlisted aides. Former Starkey staffers say there was even talk of a Starkey reality series. "I don't consider myself anything but a female who for 27 years has gone after creating a profession," says Starkey. "There would not be an industry without me."

To Muller, that industry sounded ideal. The article noted that a recent Starkey International graduate had landed a $125,000-a-year job in the industry, and Muller says that the school admissions counselor he called after returning from vacation confirmed that he could find a similar position if he went through the program. Muller made a comparable amount as a Florida-based software company consultant, but he was ready for a change. As an officer on a naval warship, he'd enjoyed serving the personal needs of the captain — knowing when his superior needed his coffee or how to coordinate an on-board meeting with a visiting VIP. He'd lost that pride of personal service in the corporate world, and this seemed a way to get it back. "When you are working for a corporation, it's hard to put a dollar value on what you are providing for the company," he says. "As a household manager or personal assistant for a person of means, I don't see it as demeaning at all. I think it is more realistic. Your place and impact is very clear."

"People like this are service hearts. They want to please. They want to learn, they want to be the best of the best," says Gail Hamilton, a former Starkey employee who now co-owns Feigon Hamilton Partnership, a domestic and corporate staffing firm based in Colorado and Nevada. "A lot of them are following their bliss into private service because they have discovered that their happiest moments have been in their own homes, puttering around, working on their garden, cleaning and caring for their guests. It's almost like taking nesting to another level."

Muller decided to follow his bliss and enrolled at Starkey International for the eight-week session that began at the start of this year.

Service is defined as 'the act of meeting a specific expectation,'" Mary Starkey wrote in an article about luxury hospitality published online last year. "When that special experience of service occurs, everyone knows it. There is an endorphin kind of feeling felt by both the giver and the receiver that is unmistakable and unforgettable."

But there was no endorphin rush when Muller arrived at the Starkey Mansion. The 13,000-square-foot building sat squeezed between parking lots and offices just down the street from a seedy stretch of Colfax Avenue. The double bedrooms on the second floor looked to be furnished with old and mismatched bed linens, the halls were dotted with mousetraps and the heating system seemed nonexistent on that cold January day. For the first meal, staff served microwaved pizza and soda in the grand dining room. Later, when the students had several meals in a row involving nothing but carbohydrates, they remembered that initial dinner fondly. Muller and his eleven classmates wondered about the $13,272 they'd paid for the eight-week course — especially the $1,960 reportedly dedicated to meals.

"The mansion that was described as luxurious was downright scruffy," says Karen Murphy, a student in that class. "I know how much food costs, and we aren't getting anywhere near that. Where was the rest of money going?"

Muller and his fellow students might have overlooked their high-priced yet shabby surroundings if the Starkey Household Management system seemed worth the price — but many soon concluded that it wasn't. While they'd been told that the majority of a household manager's job involved professional administrative tasks, they claim that most of their training seemed little more than basic housekeeping. Short lessons on contract negotiations were eclipsed by endless hours of unsupervised cooking and cleaning, they say. A half-day discussion on estate security was overshadowed by numerous military-style drills on the "Ballet of Service" routine — an old-fashioned formal dining presentation more appropriate for butlers of the first Gilded Age. And while an appointment at a local art-conservation business seemed a relevant use of the $520 ascribed from each tuition check to field trips and specialty classes, many students scratched their heads over a trip to the Cherry Creek Shopping Center to visit Burberry and Louis Vuitton stores. "It was really embarrassing to be paraded around as a group of adults and have people point out stores to you," says student Natasha Madison. "The culinary section of the course could have been valuable, but they just threw us into the kitchen and told us to prepare a recipe list and a grocery list. There were people who had never boiled a pot of water. People were cutting themselves. There were some hygiene issues."

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."

"Really, what she had to say set the tenor for the whole course," remembers Muller. "From the first moment we talked to her until graduation, every moment was negative." Greetings would be met by grimaces, smiles by rolls of the eyes. Screams and curses emanated from her office. The behavior seemed to spread to faculty members, who would thunder at their classes or demand students prepare meals following specific lists of personal "flavor profiles." "At times I felt inferior and broke down crying," says student Cass Sullivan. "It's not worth it. You get maybe two weeks' worth of training and six weeks' worth of hell."

Madison's hell was more personal, she believes. "I was the only black person in the class, and I felt that some people made a point of that," she says. "In my weekly assessments, Mrs. Starkey told me to soften up my edges, that I was too 'street' and too 'urban' for private service. One time she patted me on the top of the head and told me how cute I was. That pat was heard around the world."

Some former employees say that Starkey treated them no better than she did her students. According to Bartels and Trujillo, Starkey was always hesitant to provide overtime and bonus checks, and would read through employee e-mails.

"In her defense, she absolutely believes her own line," a former employee says. "She really thinks she's the best of the best of the best. She doesn't make a lot of money from Starkey. Whenever she talks about expanding, it's never for personal gain. She always says her main goal in life is to create an industry. She has taken it out of servitude and into a profession. She talks the talk, but does not walk the walk. She always talks about the relationship of service, putting the giver on the same plane as the receiver. But she just treats everybody like a servant."

"You have to differentiate between Mary Starkey the person and Mary Starkey the guiding light of the service industry," adds Bennett, who says Starkey picked on students and employees for being too fat, too old, too ugly or just not Starkey material. "On the one hand, she has pushed and pushed and pushed for household service to become a profession. On the other hand, she has done it at the expense of so many people's lives, physically and emotionally castigating them."

"I have a hugely positive record," argues Starkey. "I have a reputation that has afforded me to be able to stay in business in a very difficult industry for all of these years." That reputation has also helped her add excellent hires to her staff, including a former White House employee — but Starkey also has a reputation for losing them. "She has a real knack for hiring the best people," says Miller, her former educational director. "She's charming and in most cases she is well-spoken. All of that smoke and mirrors is great until you get down to the basics of the day-to-day management, and that is where she falls apart. I went to work with some of the best people on the planet who would have made her shine if she had let them."

Starkey's behavior hasn't just resulted in massive staff turnover, it's also landed her in court. In 1995, former Starkey International student and employee Edward Passino filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Starkey had fired him for having AIDS and told the rest of her staff about his condition. Starkey claimed no wrongdoing, and the lawsuit eventually settled; Passino has since passed away.

But since then, nothing at Starkey International had created the same level of hubbub — until this past February 7. That morning, Muller and several of his colleagues were working in the mansion's basement classroom when they heard noise upstairs. When they went up to investigate, they were told that Starkey had grabbed their classmate Kirkpatrick in a fit of rage over her appearance. "The next thing I knew I was hearing yelling and I felt arms on me and shaking me, and then I was slammed against a wall and my neck popped several times," Kirkpatrick says now. "At that point she grabbed me by the neck and threw me against a mirror. 'You got it?" she said. 'You are not going to be put on a website with your hair like that. You got it?'"

Several other students had witnessed the incident. "I saw Mrs. Starkey grab Ms. Kirkpatrick," Murphy says, "and, while shaking her and spinning her around and pushing her towards a wall with mirror on it, say things like, 'Look at yourself,' and, 'Don't you get the point?'" Sullivan, who was in the kitchen, looked out the door to see what was causing the commotion and caught the tail end of the incident. "Starkey still had her hands on Ms. Kirkpatrick," she remembers. "Even then she could have been hurting Ms. Kirkpatrick by the way she had her hands on her."

At the encouragement of classmates, Kirkpatrick went to the hospital, since she had suffered a spinal injury in the past. After she left, a Starkey employee approached the other students. Make sure you report the incident to the police and the Colorado Division of Private Occupational Schools, he told them.

And then, he reassured them, "The job placement opportunities are real."

The promise of that placement kept Muller and his colleagues struggling through the eight-week course. If no other part of the program lived up to expectations, they told themselves that at least they'd get a job. That helped them tolerate the last eccentric elements of the curriculum, like the stuffy formal "Ballets of Service" they conducted for Starkey International guests, and their final project: a massive book each created, filled with magazine clippings and other miscellanea, detailing their perfect, though imaginary, household management job.

"What we were getting was a lot of hot air," says Muller. "But in the end, who cares? If there is a rubber stamp that opens up this world of the rich, if the rest of the world is fooled and the billionaires are fooled, then let's get the pin and move on. If the job placement was real, that's all we cared about."

And all those glowing stories in the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes, on CNN and the BBC, in Richistan, the new book by Wall Street Journal columnist Robert Frank, made the placement possibilities seem very real. "I think the industry is two million deep," Starkey had said to one reporter. "If my little company always has 45 to fifty clients waiting and I only educate a hundred students a year, it's the tip of the iceberg." She told another the industry was so hot that, if she had the means, she could immediately place "hundreds of thousands" of household managers. And those placements came with good price tags. School materials have suggested that salary packages for Starkey-certified household managers range from $40,000 to $150,000, and that a graduate lucky enough to score an "estate manager" position, overseeing the operations of a wealthy family's multiple residences, could command between $80,000 and $250,000.

Muller, especially, seemed destined for success. Because of his corporate background, Starkey told him that he was perfect for a wealthy West Coast couple looking for a household manager, and he flew to California to meet them. During the job interview, Muller mentioned some of the drama transpiring at the Starkey Mansion. The couple told him they weren't surprised, he says: This was the third time they'd attempted to find a household manager through Starkey International; the first two placements had been utterly inept. "They'd had a terrible experience with Starkey," says Muller.

Other dissatisfied clients have taken Starkey to court, suing the school for allegedly placing incompetent workers in their homes and then refusing to fully refund the placement fee, which is usually 25 to 35 percent of the graduate's first-year salary. In 1995, Starkey's placement company took Washington, D.C. lobbying firm Liz Robbins Associates to court after a housekeeper placement didn't work out and the firm demanded a refund. Four years later, Wade Kirby sued Starkey for refusing to fully repay the placement fee for a poorly performing nanny he said he fired within the school's sixty-day "Placement Guarantee." In 2000, Mark Betts sued Starkey International over another unacceptable nanny. In the lawsuit, Betts alleged that while his family told the school he needed a nanny who could chauffeur his children, the school neglected to mention that the nanny they found for him had a drunk-driving conviction. All three suits were eventually settled out of court without admission of wrongdoing. "We thought we were going to be able to solve our nanny-search problem by going to the 'Cadillac' agency and paying the top rate in the industry for the best available nanny," says a former Starkey client. "But their background check was so sloppy that we had the worst situation we ever had in finding a nanny. And moreover, they were incredibly haughty in the process. They were obnoxious at times to deal with."

"I didn't really enjoy saying we matched people correctly when in reality we didn't," says a former Starkey placement specialist. "We told students we matched up people with their personalities. I kind of think we were throwing spaghetti against the wall. Whatever sticks."

Between 2000 and 2007, says Starkey International graduate Thomas Miller, Starkey placed him in three inappropriate households. "Her site reports on these homes were nothing but fluff and fantasy. It was not the real world," he remembers. "We as service providers sometimes go into a position blindfolded because Starkey or the other placement agencies don't do their homework."

Several potentially lucrative deals were jeopardized by the First Lady of Service's inappropriate behavior, staffers say. Allan Miller claims a military officer being taken aback when, during a discussion on a possible training program, Starkey told him he "had the bluest eyes." Champion says he was informed by a senior military aide that Starkey was not allowed to set foot on a certain Army base after she repeatedly referred to a high-ranking officer with whom she was meeting by his first name.

Graduates accuse Starkey of creating such tension at their job opportunities that it's often impossible to succeed. "You're stuck. You've gone to school, you need the money, and you can't just tell her to shut up because you need a job," says Anne Ginger, who graduated along with her husband, John Perkins, from Starkey International in 2006. The school placed Ginger and Perkins in a California home, but Ginger says Starkey called there so incessantly, demanding progress reports from the employers and yelling at her graduates, that the couple quit after two months. On their own, they found jobs at a Florida estate, but Ginger says that Starkey International's chief operating officer at the time told her the school would pursue legal action against her, her husband and the estate's property manager if it did not receive a placement fee for the job — even though the employer never signed a placement contract with the school.

Although Muller received a job offer from the California couple, he turned it down, believing the school would provide him with more promising opportunities. But the fact that he preferred a job in Florida could limit his potential, Starkey said, as did the fact that he was gay. "Your partner is a liability to you," he remembers her telling him. "It may be a problem bringing your partner into the work environment. A lot of these principals are very conservative. They may have a problem with that." Muller resented being punished for his long-term relationship — until he heard that he wasn't the only one feeling the heat from Starkey, who'd branded some of his classmates as downright unplaceable.

Natasha Madison says Starkey criticized her for putting her husband and child over placement opportunities. Karen Murphy, a native of Ireland who lives in France, says Starkey told her she was unplaceable because, contrary to what the admissions staff had said, the school couldn't place non-citizens. And even if she could find her a job, Murphy remembers Starkey saying, it wouldn't work out because "us Americans are much softer people than you Europeans." Another student was informed that he was too young for a job; several were told they didn't have enough experience. "When I originally called the school and asked, 'I don't have a degree and don't have any experience, can you place me?,' they pretty much guaranteed I would have a job," says Sullivan. "Now I have graduated and I haven't even had an interview."

Starkey blames the difficulties experienced by Muller's classmates — both in and out of school — on the students themselves. "I had a very negative class. And it was spurred by Mr. Muller," says Starkey, who declines to answer more detailed questions.

"What we determined was that because she didn't have placement opportunities, she turned it around and said many of us were not placeable," counters Muller.

"Starkey says she has hundreds of placements a year," says Bartels, the former head of placement. "That is not true. She would count people placed who were already in the military, who were client-sponsored, or who got jobs on their own or through another agency. During my tenure, I would say we had at least over half, maybe a 70 percent placement rate. And those placements didn't happen right away after graduation."

Another former placement employee is less optimistic. "When I was at Starkey, I'd say we placed 60 percent," she says, "and that may even be a little high."

"We had a lot of unemployed candidates at any given time," says the former placement specialist. "Basically, they would count people placed if they found themselves a job."

Julie Manning attended a new, one-month personal-assistant training program at Starkey in March. When she graduated, she says, Starkey told her that she'd have to find work on her own because she wanted to stay in town. "She said she really didn't do much work in Denver," Manning recalls, "so if I wanted to stay in Denver, she would suggest I run an ad on Craigslist or Monster."

By the time Muller and his classmates filed into the Starkey Mansion's living room in late February for their graduation ceremony, no one had yet officially lined up a job through Starkey — which is why the class had planned a subtle coup d'état. Muller, always the spokesman, gave an upbeat yet uninspired speech, then prepared to unveil the class picture. The photo, which would be placed on the main staircase wall alongside those of other classes, included a class slogan. Muller and his colleagues had thought back on their time at Starkey International and decided on the perfect motto. Now, in front of the school's faculty, employees and guests, Muller revealed it: "A Clockwork à l'Orange."

Amid muffled snickers from the audience, Muller returned to his seat. Starkey, puzzled, turned to him. "Wasn't that a really disturbing movie?"

Muller smiled back. "Yes ma'am, it was."

Skip Muller is now a Starkey International success story. He recently took a job on a fine-arts mega-yacht, acting as a household manager of the seas as he supervises millions of dollars' worth of art traveling from one illustrious East Coast port to the next. He didn't get his position through the school, however, nor does he think his education there will help him serve the needs of the wealthy connoisseurs he'll meet in his new career. "People think they can go through an eight-week course and be able to do this kind of job, but that's not how it works," he says. "People who are going to succeed in this industry don't need the course. It may help them, but as I learned, it's not rocket science."

Starkey reports that four of Muller's twelve classmates ultimately did find work through the school, "three of them in excess of $125,000 a year," she says. "That's unheard of in this profession."

But Starkey has been racking up some other interesting stats.

Since that class graduated, she's been charged in two Denver criminal cases. The first involves Kirkpatrick, who never returned to school. "I have been in pain every day since the incident," says Kirkpatrick, who hopes the school will pay for her medical evaluation and treatment, since she doesn't have health care. The second involves Champion, who left Starkey International not long after Muller's class graduated.

"I could no longer morally work there. I think Starkey International lost its moral compass," he says. "Mrs. Starkey was running Starkey International in the opposite way of how I was teaching. She was behaving in exactly the way I taught you don't accept." In the course of his departure, Champion says Starkey pushed him and threw a glass of juice on him — and he reported as much to the police. (Starkey accused Champion of threats and disturbing the peace in connection with the same incident.) Starkey is set for a jury trial on Champion's charge on August 14; her trial on Kirkpatrick's charge is set for a month later.

And although from 2000 through 2006 Starkey International had only one complaint on file with the Colorado Division of Private Occupational Schools, which certifies that Starkey and similar schools have the financial resources, facilities and personnel to meet the educational services stated in their catalogs and other printed materials, it is now recipient of two new complaints, courtesy of Muller and Madison.

"On those rare occasions where a student has problems and/or concerns, we try our very best to solve those problems and address those concerns," Starkey says in a written statement. "We continue to learn from our many successes and occasional failures and will continue to strive in the future to provide our students with the highest quality learning experience."

As word of the court cases, complaints and controversies leaks out, Starkey seems to be losing favor with some of her colleagues — and competitors — in the business she helped create. "The bottom line is, she is doing a disservice to the industry," says Robert Hanselman of the Robert Hanselman Domestic Agency in Georgia. "All the other agencies I've talked to, when a Starkey grad calls them, they just roll their eyes and say, 'Oh, no, here's another tragic story.'"

"Those of us who own agencies and work with each other have known for years about the high turnover of employees at Starkey and why," says another placement-agency owner. "We sadly shake our heads that Mary epitomizes the worst type of employer that we all try to avoid."

The International Institute of Modern Butlers, a Florida-based association, acknowledges the situation at Starkey with a written statement: "We prefer to distance the Institute from what could be seen as a travesty of the profession. No private service professional likes to be connected to an unsavory situation, but the very real danger of students' hopes and dreams being dashed by false advertising and unmet promises is of concern to the Institute's board. The profession is larger than the Starkey fracas, the demand for butler services is real, is increasing, and is appreciated by multiple employers around the world."

Starkey agrees that demand for butler services is increasing — that's why she dreams of a world where there are ten, twenty, a hundred Starkey Internationals. On that day last February when Muller and his classmates voiced their concerns about how she ran her school, she welcomed their criticism, saying it would help her achieve her dream. "Let me tell you what is going to happen to this industry," she told them. "In future years it will be taken over by a university and this eight-week program will take two years. In future years, there will be one in every city — or two or three. We just got [household manager] designated in the Department of Labor as an official title. Yes! We just got an association. Yes! We are just starting as an industry. Thank you for holding us to really high standards. Man, we are working our tail off to try to get there.

"You are pushing me," she concluded. "And you know what? I push back."

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.