Sitting at a table in New York’s Plaza hotel, I’m being taught how to use a knife and fork. I am 33, but it turns out I have been doing it wrong all my life.
Instead of gripping them in my fist like a toothbrush, apparently I should hold them lightly between my thumb and middle finger and run my index finger along the top of each.
‘Scoot your hands back so you’re not holding them too far up,’ instructs Myka Meier, who is patiently advising me like a kindergarten teacher encouraging a small child with a crayon. I move my hands down the knife and fork. They wobble in the air. ‘Perfect,’ says Myka, beaming at me proudly.
Welcome to The Duchess Effect, a one-day course designed by Myka (rhymes with ‘biker’), an American etiquette expert who aims to transform her students into Kate Middleton. To make them more polished. More elegant. More sophisticated.
Sophia Money Coutts (pictured right), 33, shared her experience of Myka Meier’s (pictured left) one day etiquette course
I was pretty confident before I went. Etiquette lessons? Ha! I worked at ‘society bible’ Tatler for five years. I know the difference between an oyster fork and a fish fork. No Yank was going to teach me how to eat a banana, thank you very much.
Except within seconds of arriving at The Plaza, Myka says I’ve been making endless faux-pas. These include finishing everything on my plate, putting mustard in the wrong place and loading too much on my fork.
Crikey. Why are these wrong? Well, says Myka, I should always leave something on my plate to indicate to my host that I’m not still hungry. Sauces like mustard should be placed on the bottom right hand of my plate, whereas ‘discards’, like fish skin or fat rinds, should go in the top left area.
And when I spear a tiny bit of cake with my fork, a crumb so small it is almost invisible to the naked eye, Myka tells me it is ‘borderline’ too much for one mouthful. Too much? Myka, it wouldn’t fill a mouse!
I’m so anxious I start sweating into the expensive Catherine Walker dress I’ve brought to New York with me, since it’s Kate’s (ergo Myka’s) favourite label.
These rules are confusing to me, because the irony is that the truly posh don’t care about the minutiae of etiquette. They don’t give a fig whether you eat your Dover sole with a fork or your hands. Obsessing about how you hold a knife or putting your ketchup in the wrong place is deemed awfully middle-class by the very grand.
And yet, Myka tells me, this is exactly the kind of etiquette training Meghan Markle is currently undergoing to transform herself from foxy starlet into demure duchess before marrying Prince Harry in May.
‘She’s literally having training right now,’ says Myka.
I imagine poor Meghan sitting at a table, frowning down at an array of knives and forks like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. According to Andrew Morton’s new biography, she practised tea-drinking at an English tea house in California before meeting the Queen. ‘Is she now having lessons every day?’ I ask.
Myka (pictured left) revealed most of her students request to be taught the etiquette of the Duchess of Cambridge
‘It will be event-dependent,’ says Myka. ‘If she has a big event that week, someone will go through it with her beforehand.’
‘Who’s teaching her?’ I ask, wondering whom the palace deemed posh enough for the job. Nicky Haslam? Jacob Rees-Mogg? Myka shakes her head. ‘It’s internal aides. They don’t bring anyone in. They already have the best in the world.’ Myka should know. She was taught by a former member of the Royal household herself. ‘And they’ll be helping her family,’ she adds. ‘Think about it — her mother’s a yoga teacher coming to the wedding from California.’
There are 22 of us here for the Duchess Effect course, all women between 19 and 65, who have paid $599 (£426) a ticket. They are mostly from different states across America, although there’s an image consultant from Mexico and a Canadian called Marina who’s here because her husband is British and she wants to polish her manners. Plus two friends from Brazil who are big fans of Myka’s Instagram account. (She has more than 26,000 followers).
Myka says Meghan’s been having sitting lessons. We do the ‘Cambridge Cross’. My thighs burn. How does Kate do it?
The course kicks off at 10am in The Plaza’s Palm Court restaurant where we learn how to hold a teacup properly. ‘Pinkies in,’ instructs Myka, waggling her little finger. ‘When I lived in London the joke was you could spot an American a mile off because their pinkie would be out. So Ms Markle will have to learn to keep her pinkie in.’
Bingo. Three minutes in and we have the first mention of Meghan. There will be dozens more during the course, plus numerous slides of Meghan and Kate. Or ‘Ms Markle’ and ‘the Duchess’, as Myka calls them.
A distressed lady at a table behind me beckons Myka over. She’s worried she can’t hold her teacup the correct way — the handle pinched between forefinger and thumb — without spilling her tea.
Meghan Markle (pictured centre left) has embraced sitting in the Cambridge cross style by sitting with her legs crossed
Myka, in a bright yellow Karen Millen dress and nude LK Bennett heels (on which more later), hurries over. ‘I’ll show you a technique the Duchess uses, supporting her teacup with two fingers,’ she reassures her.
After tea, we shuffle through to an oak-panelled room for a two-hour morning session. Myka, 35, talks us through her background. A normal American girl, daughter of an Irish-American mother and a marine surveyor father, she grew up in Florida and went to university there before moving to work for a PR firm in London.
One day, at an event sponsored by one of her clients, Prince Charles made an appearance. There was a panic about who would give him his gin and tonic. Myka ended up offering Prince Charles his drink from a silver tray while trying to curtsy. Technically, she says, this is not correct.
You don’t bob while holding something heavy like a silver tray, but Prince Charles apparently made a joke about it and that was that. Crisis averted.
It was a eureka moment, however, because it sparked Myka’s ‘passion’ for etiquette. And her obsession with the Royals, although Prince Charles remains the only one she’s met. In London, she took classes with Alexandra Messervy, a former adviser to the Queen, before going to the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, a finishing school in Switzerland.
Meghan Markle (pictured right) is reportedly having etiquette classes ahead of her wedding
She returned to London and started teaching privately, while still working in PR, until the demand for etiquette classes became so great, she quit and launched her own business.
She and her Swiss husband Marco moved back to New York for his private equity job in 2014 and she’s been non-stop ever since. She now juggles running her business from The Plaza with travelling the globe for private clients (she teaches general etiquette to children as well as adults), and raising her one-year-old daughter Valentina.
She’s taking The Duchess Effect on tour across America later this year and today there are cameras at the back of the room, filming Myka for a forthcoming Netflix documentary called The Renaissance Of Etiquette.
So, here we all are at The Plaza, listening solemnly to Myka’s wisdom. Highlights include instructions on how to sit. Myka’s deadly serious and demonstrates two specific positions adopted by Kate Middleton.
Firstly, the Duchess Slant, a name Myka coined having studied hundreds of photos of Kate. It means sitting straight on a chair with your legs uncrossed, but slanted at an angle, your knees and ankles together ‘to protect modesty’. So you don’t flash your knickers, in other words.
Following her engagement, Meghan (pictured) now uses the Windsor wave (pictured right) when greeting instead of having her fingers splayed
Myka encourages us to try it, sitting forward so there is an egg’s gap between our bottoms and the back of the chair. This feels deeply uncomfortable, not unlike a pilates move. How does Kate sit though all those events without her thighs burning?
Then she demonstrates the Cambridge Cross, which is the same as the Duchess Slant but with your ankles crossed. My thighs start burning again. Meghan’s been having sitting lessons, Myka adds, showing us another slide with two photos. One is Meghan sitting cross-legged on a stool at an event before she was engaged to Prince Harry. The next is of the Royal Foundation’s Make a Difference forum in February. There, between Harry and Kate, Meghan is sitting primly with just her ankles crossed.
Myka also shows us a picture of Meghan waving before the engagement and afterwards. Before she’s waving like you and I might, hand held high in the air, fingers splayed. ‘But in the past couple of weeks, she’s started waving in a completely different way,’ says Myka, pointing at another photo.
There, quite clearly, Meghan’s fingers are together, her hand is closer in towards her body. This is called ‘The Windsor Wave’. Gasps ripple across the room. ‘That’s astonishing,’ murmurs a blonde lady at another table.
Myka coined sitting with your legs uncrossed in a chair as The Duchess Slant after studying photographs of Kate Middleton (pictured right)
We spend a good half hour on the difficulty of holding a clutch bag, because Myka says you should hold them in front of you with both hands, not under your shoulder in your armpit. She then demonstrates with her own LK Bennett bag. And talking of LK Bennett, next we’re into heel heights (maximum 4in during the day; 6in at night). Myka likes the LK Bennett sledge pump because it’s what Kate wears. ‘I have them in every colour, it’s ridiculous,’ she says. And, top tip, apparently Kate wears insoles made by a British company called Alice Bow because their padded heel makes the shoes more comfortable.
As Myka talks, she offers vocabulary advice. ‘In Britain, it’s pudding, not dessert,’ she says. ‘Sofa, not couch, afternoon tea not high tea, tights not stockings.’
‘What do we call the restroom in the UK?’ she quizzes us. ‘Lavatory,’ says Ormonde, a hospitality student from Arkansas who’s here today with her mother, a chic blonde with a southern drawl and a long string of pearls around her neck.
‘Very good,’ says Myka. ‘While Ms Markle won’t be expected to change her accent, she will be expected to change her vocabulary.’
Lunch is back in the restaurant, where we have our cutlery instructions. Did you know there is a different spoon for different types of soups? Nope, neither did I. One for clear broths; a more rounded spoon for creamy soups. The level of detail is mind-blowing. So many spoons! Everyone sits at the table nervously looking at the bread baskets.
‘Do we dunk bread into our soup?’ asks Myka.
‘No,’ someone says sadly at another table.
Myka claims Meghan (pictured left) will be expected to change her vocabulary but not her accent following her wedding
‘We do not,’ Myka agrees, before teaching us how to butter a bread roll properly, bit by bit instead of in one go. I take two bread rolls because I’m so greedy. Then we’re served our soup — butternut squash bisque — and have to practise eating it neatly, lifting the spoons to our mouths instead of leaning over the bowl. Then there’s salmon fillet (‘peel the skin off and place it at the top left section of your plate’) followed by the aforementioned cake.
I ask Myka more about Meghan over lunch. What is she doing right at the moment? ‘She is just so approachable,’ says Myka. ‘People feel like they can relate to her. She’s the most relatable soon-to-be-Royal. And I don’t think she should change that.’
And wrong? Myka says she doesn’t want to criticise Meghan when she’s still learning. ‘She’s used to walking red carpets and signing autographs, but that will stop. And she’s already taken herself off social media.’
Terry, a New Yorker sitting opposite me, suddenly sighs as if in ecstacy: ‘It’s just the most wonderful Disney fairytale,’ she says.
It’s a common sentiment among everyone on the course — while Kate is the poised duchess now, it’s Meghan who’s marrying into the British royal family next. And if one of their own can become a British Royal, that means anyone can.
Myka (pictured right) studied Kate’s beauty and hair regime by speaking to her manicurist and taking note of her hairstylists Instagram posts
‘People are still fascinated by the Duchess of Cambridge,’ says Myka. ‘That’s what we get the most requests for. ‘How do we become that?’ But in America some people are already calling Meghan a princess. For us this is a huge deal.’
After coffee, it’s back into our oak-panelled room for beauty and hair demonstrations. And again the level of knowledge is almost creepy. Kate’s favourite nail polish is Ballet Slippers by Essie, a pale pink, which Myka knows because when she was living near Kensington Palace, she once had her nails done in a salon after Kate and asked the manicurist what colour she used.
Apparently Kate uses a Mason Pearson hairbrush, which Myka discovered when, in January, Kate’s hairstylist Amanda Cook Instagrammed a photo of the tools she took on a royal trip to the Netherlands.
The photo has since been removed and Amanda’s Instagram account has been made private, but not before Myka divined what all the tools and products were — 13 brushes, seven combs, two hairdryers and three curling tongs. Plus several bottles of hair spray and mousse.
The day finishes with a lesson on walking the red carpet. ‘We’ve got paparazzi here, so you can feel what it’s like,’ says Myka.
We line up outside the room, and walk back in, one by one, to stand in front of a board while five photographers, prompted with our names, shout at us — ‘Show us what you’ve got, Sophia!’ I want to reply ‘sore feet from my heels and sweaty armpits,’ but that doesn’t seem terribly regal.
Then we’re given a goody bag — a bottle of Essie Ballet Slippers and the exact Natural Decay eyeshadow pallet that Kate uses, all browns and beiges — before everyone swaps Instagram details and says goodbye, happily gliding out of the hotel in our heels as Myka taught us.
Phew. I’m exhausted. My head is swirling with soup spoons, teacups and ketchup placement. When I was little I thought I’d grow up and marry ideally Prince William, Prince Harry at a push. To be honest, I’m quite glad Kate and Meghan have beaten me to it.