Video: Meet Michele Strom
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Near the beginning of the first episode of “Obsessed With the Dress,” a new reality show set at an Omaha pageant gown boutique, a minor character is introduced with a somewhat horrifying YouTube clip.
That character, Miss Nebraska contestant Jessica Littlejohn, is standing in a rodeo arena with several other beauty queens, waiting to be introduced to the crowd. As an announcer calls her name, a bull rushes into the frame, tossing her into the air like a rag doll. The commentator wonders if she'll be able to make her scheduled appearance at a demolition derby the following week.
But she gets back up, and aside from some bruising, she's just fine.
The clip, like “Obsessed With the Dress” itself, illustrates the less glamorous, somewhat gritty side of the beauty pageant world.
It also serves as a metaphor for the types of characters the WE television network tries to portray in its reality lineup, which currently includes “Bridezillas,” “Pregnant and Dating,” “L.A. Hair” and, as of Friday at 9 p.m., the new reality show set at Omaha's Winning Crown Boutique.
“They get knocked down, and they get up again,” said Lauren Gellert, senior vice president of original production and development at WE. “That's what we strive for with all of our characters.”
The resilient star of “Obsessed With the Dress” is Michele Strom, Mrs. Nebraska 2007 and owner and founder of the Winning Crown.
Strom, a tall, blonde, somewhat intimidating divorced mother of two, opened the Winning Crown out of her home not long after winning her own crown. In preparation for the Mrs. Nebraska pageant, she had collaborated with a widely known pageant gown designer, designing aspects of her own dress. But she realized that wasn't an option for many pageant contestants.
“There was just nowhere to go,” she said.
By late 2008, business had grown so much that she moved into her current location in Rockbrook Village. A few years later, she expanded, adding a runway and more space for gowns.
After just a couple of steps, Strom can tell a dress is too long or too short. Even before that, she can tell if the fit is off, if the proportions are wrong, if the color isn't quite right for the client's complexion.
When Littlejohn and her mother visit the Winning Crown in the first episode, Strom focuses on finding a gown that will make Littlejohn, a petite Miss Chadron, look taller and generally more formidable onstage.
“I think what I have the eye for is fit,” said Strom, who prides herself on dressing and coaching women who win state and national crowns. Her most famous client: Teresa Scanlan, the Nebraska teen who won the 2011 Miss America crown in a custom gown Strom specifically designed with sleeves, which she thought would made Scanlan look more mature.
According to Gellert, Strom also has star power.
She's bold. If she thinks a dress is wrong for an aspiring beauty queen, she doesn't mince words.
“We thought she was perfect,” Gellert said. “We thought she really had the personality of a TV star.”
Strom never considered potential TV stardom as a career track. After graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she worked in pharmaceutical sales, though she also worked as a makeup artist on the side. After working with Mrs. Nebraska 2006, she accepted the challenge to try for the crown herself, and over the course of the next year, she lost 85 pounds, became involved in the Teammates Mentoring Program and ultimately won the title.
Winning changed Strom's life. After having two children, she felt she had lost her own identity. Preparing for the pageant — and carrying out her duties afterward — restored her confidence and reminded her of her passions. She wanted to help other women.
She divorced a few years after winning the title.
“He supported my dream, but he maybe wasn't interested in the whole pageant world,” Strom says of her ex-husband during the show's pilot episode.
As she contemplated changing careers, they began to grow apart. But she felt she was doing what she needed to do.
“Opening my own business was definitely more who I am,” she said.
So that's what she did, offering pageant coaching in addition to selling gowns. She focused especially on helping contestants develop their interview skills.
“Walking probably isn't going to be able to help them get an upper level job later in life,” Strom said. “But if they can do well in an interview, I feel pretty good about that.”
And then, in 2011, the boutique's phone rang. The bewildered receptionist told Strom that someone selling pies had called.
The call actually was from Pie Town Productions, the reality television production company that developed “House Hunters” and “A Baby Story,” among many other programs. Late that year, a crew flew to Omaha for preliminary filming. Not long after, the company sold the show to WE.
The show was appealing for a number of reasons, Gellert said. Dress shows — such as TLC's “Say Yes to the Dress,” which chronicles brides finding their dream gowns — and pageant shows suck viewers in, but Gellert hadn't heard of a show combining the two elements. And she loved that the focus was on the Winning Crown's staff, instead of on the pageant crowd that shops there.
“We don't want to do a show that's been done before,” she said. “This show was a workplace reality show. It is a show that (portrays) a woman who was a screaming success as a beauty queen, and now she has a shop.”
Omaha native Russell Heldt,who has spent more than a decade in the reality television business, heard about the show before filming began and jumped at chance to return to his hometown to produce it.
Working in his hometown was almost like vacation for Heldt. But he also was impressed with the concept for the show and with Strom and her staff.
“I was surprised how much drama could come out of a little shop,” he said.
From the very beginning, tension runs high between Strom and her four employees — two former beauty queens, a heavily tattooed designer and a vivacious and slightly diabolical man who wears bow ties.
Tiffany Headley, the tattooed designer, had worked at the Winning Crown for about a year and a half before filming started. She was wary at first of working in an environment filled with cameras.
But she went for it, and while she didn't always enjoy shooting, she's ultimately glad she did. Headley is an aspiring fashion designer — she'll show a collection inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's “The Raven” during Omaha Fashion Week later this month and again at Kansas City Fashion Week this fall. She thought the exposure she'd receive from “Obsessed With the Dress” couldn't hurt her aspirations. The crew even filmed one of her fashion shows.
“It really could be a really awesome launch pad,” she said. “Something could come of it, or nothing could come of it.”
Strom didn't always enjoy filming either. It was a bit overwhelming to have cameras around all day for weeks. But she, too, is glad she did it. Pageant contestants were filmed only when Strom was working with them and while they were onstage during pageants.
They don't provide the drama for the show. The staff does.
Strom hopes that helps viewers see pageant contestants in a way they might not have before — not as drama queens, but as beauty queens.
“It's really capturing what I call the Olympic moment for those girls,” she said.