'Who can waltz in heels?': backstage at the Debutantes Ball
Hair in rollers and wrapped in puffy white dressing gowns, pretty teenagers pick at a fruit buffet between fittings and photoshoots, lending themselves pliantly to the media merry-go-round that is the Debutante Ball, 21st-century style.
The Crillon Hotel in Paris was a hive of activity on Friday with 24 hours to go before the ball, a high-society highlight that updates a custom stretching back to the royal courts of France and England.
Like a luxury pyjama party, half a dozen girls -- daughters of a global elite of actors, business leaders and aristocrats, the youngest still in high school -- clustered at the breakfast table, some chatty and outgoing, others shy and looking every bit their tender age.
Theresa Horne, a vivacious brunette from London attending with her identical twin Misha, was worried her dress, a provocative black number with sheer skirts and corset by House of Worth, might not fit.
"The last time I tried the dress was September -- and since then I can't stop eating cookies," she joked with her tablemates.
"Have you seen the dancer?" one whispered admiringly, referring to Andie MacDowell's dark, graceful daughter, Margaret Qualley.
Qualley, just 17, was among the youngest of the 23 girls stepping out into the public eye. So was Tallulah Willis, the daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, heading for 18.
The celebrity pair were firmly in the spotlight as they were shepherded through back-to-back photoshoots from Teen Vogue to Vanity Fair.
"I'm used to exposure to the press -- but I'm never usually in the middle of it," Tallulah told AFP. "It's a bit nerve-wracking. But you get to feel like a princess, even just for a day."
The Hollywood princess wore a black silk Lanvin gown, its bustier adorned with crystal and rhinestones, created specially by designer Alber Elbaz, "a very dear friend."
Despite her mother's film career, Margaret grew up in small town North Carolina.
"I've had a regular childhood, this is really exceptional for me," she said, stunning in a gem-encrusted, chocolate brown Elie Saab gown. "But for the waltz, I think I'll be OK with my dancer background."
-- Seventeen is the ideal age --
Downstairs, the tableful of girls in their bathrobes were not so sure.
"How are your waltzing skills? Can you waltz in heels?" the young Countess Olimpia Emo-Capodilista asked her neighbour.
A worried debate ensued about the challenge ahead, despite the two dance classes planned into their last-minute schedule.
Charlotte Dawney -- niece of London mayor Boris Johnson -- was confident her fuschia stilettos, custom made by Jimmy Choo, would see her through.
Fortunately for the less sure-footed, skilled cavaliers were on hand.
"Hello! We are your playboys -- or escorts if you prefer," Octavian Donnelly, a Cambridge graduate and ideal son-in-law type returning for the third year running, quipped as he and a fellow cavalier stepped into the room.
And when the dancing is done, the girls trade gowns for a pair of jeans and head out clubbing, with the cavaliers as de facto chaperones.
In centuries past, the daughters of Europe's aristocracy were presented to the Queen after leaving the convent on their 18th birthday.
"They used to call it the season -- and the aim was to get married," explained organiser Ophelie Renouard.
France's modern ball was launched in 1957, held up until the student uprising of May 1968.
Renouard revived the event 20 years ago as a charity fundraiser, with proceeds this year going to the Feed Foundation of Lauren Bush -- who made her debut there in 2000.
Debutante balls have a modern following in the United States but what sets the Crillon event apart is haute couture, with top names lending out fairytale creations for the night.
Part of the ball's raison d'etre today is to introduce the young women, no longer to potential husbands, but to the press, who are granted close-up access to feed glossy spreads.
Renouard travels the globe for much of the year, scouting for the next crop.
Seventeen is the ideal age for a debutante, she explained, on the cusp of womanhood. "At 16 they are still too child-like. But by the time they hit 18, they are already too well known."
Past debutantes include the daughters of actors Forest Whittaker, Clint Eastwood, the blockbuster author Daniele Steel or car tycoon Carlos Ghosn.
And when Vogue editor Anna Wintour brought her daughter Bee Schaffer in 2004, the organisers stepped politely aside.
"It was a straightforward affair. She had the final say on everything," said Renouard. "And she chose Chanel."
On her wish-list for the future? Renouard has her sights on Barack Obama's eldest, Malia, who would come of age just after her father steps down from office if he wins a second term.
© 2011 AFP