Rachel and Michelle Yeoh's journey to the Queen Charlotte's Debutante Ball
Rachel and Michelle Yeoh - the first 2 Malaysians to debut at the historic ball - share with us their journey through London Season 2015.
Heads turned and chatter quieted down in the midst of an elegant procession on the night of 11 September 2015 in Kensington Palace.
A host of royalty and some of the world’s richest paused what they were doing at the 235th Queen Charlotte’s Debutante Ball to take in the sight of a father – for the first time in history – escorting two daughters down the debut procession, one on each arm.
Michelle (left) and Rachel Yeoh
The double debutantes were none other than Rachel Yeoh and Michelle Yeoh, twin daughters of Dato' Sri Michael Yeoh and Datin Sri Tina Yeoh. The look of beaming pride on Dato' Sri Michael’s face was doubly deserving – his daughters are also the 2 first Malaysian girls to be debuted at the ball that is deeply intertwined with the royal history of Britain.
“It was really something else,” shares Rachel, the older of the two by 3 minutes, of the experience. “It was the first time we were in Kensington Palace.”
“It was also really international," adds Michelle. "We had debutantes from Kazakhstan, China, Russia, Nigeria, and, for the first time Malaysia.”
Michelle and Rachel Yeoh (bottom right)
Once reserved only for royalty, The Queen Charlotte’s Debutante Ball is a rich affair of diamonds, debutantes and dancing. Founded in 1780, it serves as the grand finale of the London Season, when the custom of returning to London after the hunting season was celebrated with a host of social events. Participation is now open to non-royalty, but stringent entry requirements still ensure only young ladies of the most refined roots and upbringing are debuted.
At 18 years old, Rachel and Michelle more than make the cut – the sisters who have had working experience at Chanel, have been personally invited to the homes of Italian designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, and have designer Anna Dello Russo on speed dial, are basically fashion royalty.
They may only be on the cusp of starting law school this September, but boarding school was made up of weekends flying to multiple Haute Couture Fashion Weeks when they’re not tied up with charity work.
Michelle and Rachel Yeoh
In this exclusive interview, Rachel and Michelle share with us their year-long journey to the grand ball from the moment they were recommended to go for the preliminary interview to the breathtaking moment they got to dance the Viennese Waltz with their father.
Every year, potential debutante candidates are recommended by a previous debutante, one of the chairmen or someone in the organising committee.
"We were recommended by a friend," divulges Michelle. "They asked us if we were interested and we thought, why not!"
"We had to go for an interview and send in a CV," adds Rachel. "That was just the first stage of many more stages to come."
"The interview took about an hour," recalls Rachel. "We did it individually in front of 6 different interviewers."
The interviewers this year included British peer and businessman Sir Tobias Clarke, chairperson of the London Season Jennie Hallam-Peel and vice-chairperson Patricia Woodall.
"They asked mainly about our background and what charitable and humanitarian endeavours we're into," quips Michelle.
"We shared with them how back here in Malaysia, we used to teach refugee children and feed the homeless," tells Rachel. "I think that was what really stood out about us.
Etiquette class #1
Approximately 20 girls aged between 17-20 years old will be handpicked and once they were selected, a year-long preparation awaits.
"The first thing we did with the other debutantes was this etiquette class at the Ritz Hotel, London, with the Duke of Somerset, John Seymour," reveals Michelle. "We were taught how to speak, how to address people and table manners."
"It also covered communications," continues Rachel. "We learned how you should write emails and letters. It took up one whole day."
Official presentation at the House of Lords
After covering the basics, the year's debutantes were officially presented at the London House of Lords to mark the start of the season. This year, the girls played models in a colourful fashion show.
"We did this charity fashion show where we modeled for this royal milliner called John Boyd," tells Michelle.
It was an affair of flowers, flamboyant hats and fanciful fascinators. "That’s when everyone got to properly know everyone," adds Rachel.
More etiquette lessons with Princess Olga Romanoff
The first etiquette class was more of a trial run, according to Michelle. "We had another etiquette class at Princess Olga Romanoff’s house in Kent. Then we were also given a private tour of her house."
"At this one, we had to impress the people and guests who were there," says Rachel. "The first was more chilled, we were really just learning the basics then; this was more like the real test."
Weekend Finishing School with the Duke of Somerset
Following that was a weekend at Bradley House (pictured above), home of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset, for what is known as 'Weekend Finishing School'.
"We stayed for 2 days over the weekend," recalls Michelle fondly.
"We went clay pigeon shooting which was really fun, quips Rachel. "It was our first time."
Dance and deportment lessons with the English National Ballet
At the ball, the debutantes would, of course, be expected to dance -- in this case, a father-and-daughter Viennese Waltz. It came down to the English National Ballet to ensure they were prepared.
"We’ve never done anything associated with the English National Ballet," gushes Michelle.
"We had 2 sessions of that," tells Rachel. "First was just for the debutantes and the other is with the fathers because they will have to dance with us at the first dance at the ball."
Charity auction with Christie's
Each debutante would have to take on a charity project that would determine who gets awarded 'Deb of the Year'. For theirs, the girls threw a charity auction and tea party alongside the chairman of Christie's, Pedro Girao.
"The chairman of Christie’s was the main auctioneer," tells Rachel. "He hosted a private exhibition of what they’re going to sell. We got to see that and have tea with him."
"For sale was a lot of art," adds Michelle. "There was a lot of emphasis on Chinese art this year."
Makeup and styling lessons at Harrod's
After the serious business was out of the way, it was on to the fun stuff.
"We also had a makeup class at the penthouse of Harrod’s," shares Rachel. "We learnt about personal styling, that was a lot of fun."
Part of being a debutante also means knowing how to carry the tiara with grace.
"We also went to Wartski Jewellers and got to try on Queen Victoria’s tiara," tells Michelle.
The ball - the preparation
On the day of the ball, preparation started as early as 8am. Hair and makeup was taken care of and the girls were dressed in custom Emma Victoria Payne Bridalwear.
"All 20 of us were so excited," recalls Rachel. "There was a photoshoot and there were TV crews as well as news reporters."
The Queen Charlotte's Debutante Ball
The ball started with a procession where all the debutantes were walked down the isle by their fathers to be debuted. For the first time in history, this year's ball saw a father walk with 2 debutante daughters.
"I was on the right," tells Rachel. "Michelle was on the left."
The Queen Charlotte's Debutante Ball
The highlight of the night was when debutantes lined up in front of the 6-foot Queen Charlotte's cake and each curtsied in front of it as per tradition. This is a custom that dates back to the conception of the ball in 1780 when King George III first organised the Queen Charlotte’s Ball to celebrate his wife’s birthday.
"The 'Debs of the Year' -- there were 2 this year -- got to cut the cake while we all curtsied in our gowns," shares Michelle.
"After that it was dinner where we got to relax a little," tells Rachel. "It was really fun because we also got to hang out with previous years’ debutantes. Then there was the dance."
The father-daughter dance
The grand finale of the ball was the waltz each debutante does with her father.
"I got to dance with my dad first," tells Rachel a little sheepishly.
"The organisers were really sweet, they arranged for me to dance with a friend first, then we switched and I got to dance with my dad," says Michelle.
"It's something we've never done before"
Exciting, eye-opening and life-changing – that’s how Rachel and Michelle describe that evening.
“It's something we've never done before,” says Michelle. “We went into it really open-mindedly, without knowing what to expect. That made the whole experience a lot funner."
“I had some expectations, in terms of outputs, the gowns and everything,” says Rachel. “But all of them were met, if not exceeded.”
Well-said, just like a modern day debutante.
(Photos: Rachel Yeoh and Michelle Yeoh; Getty Images; www.thelondonseason.org)
More debutante balls around the world: The Le Bal des Debutantes Paris, another equally glamourous affair of youthful exuberance and haute couture.