Australia’s queen of grace and poise has a lifetime of experiences to share
Many an Australian mother has threatened their wayward daughters with a stint at June Dally-Watkins Deportment School. Today, however, it’s the young girls who are begging their parents to “be the best they can be, the Miss Dally way.” The 81-year-old entrepreneur is a national treasure.
Born June Skewers, Miss Dally, as she prefers to be known, never knew her father. Encouraged to overlook the first 13 years of her illegitimate life, she started a new life as June Dally-Watkins upon her mother’s marriage to Major David Dally-Watkins in 1940.
Blessed with natural grace and refined looks, the young June’s modelling career took off in 1949 when she was named Australian Model Of The Year. But she was much more than just a pretty face. She used her modelling crown to help her become the country’s most successful businesswoman of her time. “My mother suggested I take what I had learned the hard way, and turn it into a business where I could teach other young ladies, not just etiquette, but the confidence which would see them be the best individuals they could be,” she says.
With her mother as her business partner, Dally-Watkins opened the nation’s first ever deportment schools in Sydney and Brisbane in 1950. “I started with just six students, which quickly grew to 24 and then continued from there,” she says proudly. “After seeing the beautiful swans who would emerge from our training, I decided to open the June Dally-Watkins modelling agency as well in 1951.”
At the peak of her career as one of the few businesswomen in Australia, Dally-Watkins travelled to Hollywood where she quickly became the toast of the town, mixing with the likes of Bob Hope and Spencer Tracy. There she met Gregory Peck with whom she shared a brief romance. “It was a romance and not an affair. There is a difference, you know? My mother was very conscious of me not being let down by a gentleman, and as much the gentlemen that he was, Gregory was also very famous and that could have been difficult.” Smitten with the Australian model, Peck invited Miss Dally to continue the romance in Paris, an invitation she politely declined. “I had my mother back home, I was her only child. She and the business needed me. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.”
Her attraction towards a refined speaking voice led her to the arms of her husband, John Clifford. “ I heard him speaking at a party from across the room. He sounded so much like Gregory, and was a dashing looking man. You could say it was love at first sound,” she recalls.
The 15-year marriage had its share of pressures from the outside, prior to dissolving. The concept of a working woman was a social taboo at the time and Dally-Watkins recalls receiving random abusive phone calls from stay-at-home wives. “They would call and tell me they thought me disgusting to be pregnant and working whilst my children were home, and my husband sat without dinner on the table,” she says.
Although Miss Dally makes no excuses for the choices which have led to her success, she has always appreciated the pressure her husband faced by having a working wife during a time when it was frowned upon. “It was very hard on John, and I knew it.” The marriage blessed Dally-Watkins with two daughters and two sons, as well as seven grandchildren who have afforded her an incredibly rich family life.
Today, the June Dally-Watkins School Of Education And Training continues its classes in etiquette and deportment from Clarence Street in the CBD. However much of its 58-year success is credited to its business classes, which offer a number of professional courses to both young women and men.
Through her entrepreneurial nature, Miss Dally has expanded her business to include Qantas, and business schools in China, where Western etiquette is regarded as a business asset.
As the patron for Hong Kong-based charity, Cross Roads International, Dally-Watkins finds almost all of her downtime spent abroad assisting a great number of charities.
Dally-Watkins confesses she is often disappointed by the lack of manners she observes in public.
“Unfortunately, we live in a time where people don’t make time for manners. But a smile and true kindness can make everyone feel better about themselves.”
Her own beaming, graceful smile is June Dally-Watkins’ calling card – a timeless beacon of hope for the survival of fine manners in a country which once embraced them.
1927 June Skewers is born in the NSW town of Watson’s Creek
1949 Crowned Australian Model Of The Year.
1950 Opens the southern hemisphere’s first deportment schools
1952 Takes Hollywood by storm, catching the eye of Gregory Peck.
1954 Marries John Clifford. (Divorces in 1969)
1976 Honoured on TV show This is your Life
1989 Closes Sydney modelling agency
1998 Ambassador for Crossroads charity
2008 Celebrates 58 years of minding Ps and Qs