Text by: Katie Breen
During their eight-week training course, butler students wait for guests at the entrance to the Huize Damian mansion in the Netherlands. This old monastery, with its 135 rooms, is home to The International Butler Academy.
This is a great time for women to become butlers, even though the training is as good as a battle drill. Marie Claire met women who went to the International Butler Academy in the Netherlands, slipped on the traditional butler’s suit, learned to be invisible and flexible and improved on their smile with a pen stuck between their teeth
It’s hard to imagine how a woman could put her steps into those of a butler such as the character played by Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day (based on a novel by Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ichiguro), or, closer to us, Mr. Carson, the Downton Abbey’s butler. Such elderly men, often authoritarian and easily grumpy, are not the most attractive of characters… Yet, for some women, these quintessential English men are unforgettable, and 25% of students at The International Butler Academy (TIBA) are female.
Maria Hernandez, 30, currently working as a nanny in London is helping fellow student Olympia Mouka, 43, a Greek restaurant manager, to get ready for the day. White gloves, cufflinks and suspenders are part of the butler costume, but not jewellery or make-up.
After completing her training at Ana Lago Rey, 44, a Spaniard, holds a temporary position as a butler in London. She really has a crush on these men: “I immediately felt a connection,” she says, “I can only admire them. To me, a butler has what we should all strive for: to be a good person with strong principles and will power, a person who is trustworthy, loyal, humble and discreet.” Discreet? One might even say: invisible. While the world is obsessed by self-promotion on social media, Ana strongly believes in one of the school’s mantras: “A butler must be invisible and just focus on delivering the service.”
Being invisible starts with the uniform. “One is not there to make a statement about oneself,” says Ana, “No one is interested in you as a human being.” When you start the now 10-week programme, you receive, together with your pocket-knife and shoe-shine kit, the three-piece butler attire with two white shirts, cuff links, a tie, suspenders and four pairs of white gloves. Jewellery and accessories that would bring attention are not recommended. No heels for female butlers, they should wear only black flat shoes, have their hair up and stick to natural make up. “My strongest sign of femininity was my smile,” says Ana.
Some women said that they felt stronger with no sign of their inner self on display. For Olympia Mouka, 43, a Greek restaurant manager, wearing this masculine outfit was very positive: “I felt proud of myself because I had managed to get this far. For me, being a butler was like living a film for real!” Her dream is now to be hired in a five-star hotel.
If clothes could speak, the butler suit would say: familiarity with upper class culture, competence and self-effacement. Some women adapted to the costume, others did not: “I felt bad,” said Maria Hernandez, 30, who works as a nanny in London. “Those suits were made for boys and they looked ridiculous on short girls like me… It was difficult to preserve our femininity with those suits on, but we had so many things going on, so much work, that the way we looked was not all that important.” After the training, Maria returned to her job as a nanny, but she says this can be boring. In the future, she would love to be a butler in “a small house, with only three or four employees.”
They’re many items in the training programme: future butlers learn how to make a bed, to iron tablecloths, polish silver forks and make glasses glitter. They learn the correct way to cut salmon and to pour wine, they have to memorise the etiquette and protocol when dealing with cars and clients. They also learn how to set tables, placing forks, knives and spoons in the right spots, with the required distance between them, as well as from the plate. For all this finicky positioning they make use of special rulers. Several of the trainees mentioned how much they enjoyed looking at all the details, leaving no loose end untied. They learn how to serve nine-course formal meals, using the synchronised “ballet of service”. Last but not least, they practice how to smile while doing the job, with a pen firmly stuck between their teeth.
The students, who have each paid 14,500 Euros for this course, learn the correct way to make a bed, to slice smoked salmon and make glasses glitter, among hundreds of other tasks, which, as a butler, they will have to supervise.
“Don’t forget to smile” is the number one rule for Robert Wennekes, the TIBA’s Chairman of the Board and General Manager. This is not easy for the students as the Academy builds much of its training around real events: the owners of the estate receive guests who expect to be looked after and waited. This supposedly replicates the real-life experience of a butler, for whom a hundred hour week is not uncommon. “It was very strict and we had to work too hard to get through the daily routine,” remembers Olympia. The British Patricia Shiels, a Customer Service Manager and Chief Stewardess for a leading airline, talks about the lack of sleep, “Four hours on average,” she says, “It was really hard.”
Maria, for her part, did not appreciate that students were treated in a “harsh way”, in a style that was too military. “It’s more than harsh, it’s extremely harsh!” shoots back Robert Wennekes. “There is so much for them to learn in a short time! And a lot of the training is based on personality, on attitude… Our employers are very wealthy, very specific in their needs, our butlers need to be flexible, very flexible. This message has to get across.” “Listen, Understand, Execute” – another of the school’s mantras.
“Women and men were treated equally,” says Patricia, “We had no preferential treatment. However we were never expected to do any heavy lifting or other male related duties.”
“The sexual aspect of the story is where you could find a little difference,” says Robert Wennekes. As a female butler, you have to be very careful when an employer starts asking you more than what your duties are. So we discuss that question with the female trainees.”
One estimates there are now between two and three million professional butlers worldwide. According to the International Guild of Professional Butlers there has been a steady increase since the 1990s and a surge in the past ten years. This is not surprising when you know that the number of millionaires has more than doubled since the year 2000, mostly in the US and China – where, after Chengdu, there will be, in 2018, a second TIBA, in Shanghai this time. While Mr. Carson might have solely been in charge of the wine cellar and of dispensing liquors, the 21st century butler has been re-invented into a 100-armed Shiva, an all purpose household manager, whether in middle Eastern and Chinese palaces, sumptuous Monaco yachts, New York 5th Avenue condos or North London mansions.
Increasingly, the rich and famous are turning to women for this role. Middle and Far Eastern families are in great demand of female butlers since, traditionally, women are not allowed to communicate with men who are foreign to their family. Western female celebrities and rich single mothers may also prefer to hire female butlers, just as in luxury hotels they have become a real asset. “More generally, the prospects for female butlers are very good at the moment,” says Robert Wennekes. “They do better than men, one of the reasons being that they’re better at multitasking.” Some placement agencies will add that women are more relaxed than men, better at picking up moods and more likely to advise on child care. But female butlers remain in short supply.
Is this because a 100-hour week can make your private life impossible? Or that the butler’s invisibility transforms you into a dull, ghost-like person? How do you navigate from professional to personal? “In my work,” answers Ana, “I am always trying to be objective, to forget feelings, to remain cool. At the end of the day, I may scream, cry or… jump with joy. I do have a private life, in which I express myself. But, even in private, I often remain cautious, I first listen to the facts rather than to my emotions.”
Ana now works for a Russian family with two adults and five children in a grand North London house. The staff is made of 25 employees of which five are living-in nannies and five are butlers. Her duties, she says, “include setting the table, serving meals, maintaining stocks on durables and consumables, coordinating the daily agenda with the other staff (housekeeping, maintenance, gardeners, florist…). I also have to take care of valuables, to manage rotas, household accounts, creation of check-lists as well as other lists and procedures in order to ensure the smooth running of the household.” Luckily, Ana has learned how to keep her cool, and provide her masters with “this extraordinary service you may not notice but simply couldn’t be without.”