Top Pageant Coach Lu Sierra Tells How to Transfer Runway Skills to the Boardroom

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(Miss Universe Organization.)

From the outside world, commanding the stage as a top beauty contestant seems flawless. But there is a lot of work that comes into honing that confidence. And one woman has had an incredible winnings steak for helping contestants take the crown.

As one of the top pageant coaches in the world, Lu Celania Sierra is the woman behind the winners. Lu Sierra (as she is known), who is also the runway expert for the Miss Universe organization has coached: Olivia Culpo, Miss USA and Miss Universe; Deshauna Barber, Miss USA; runner-up Chelsea Hardin Miss Hawaii; Kara McCulloug, Miss USA; among many others. She has traveled all over the world to coach, from China to Lebanon.

Lu Sierra knows a lot about fashion and a lot about winning. She is a former supermodel during which time she modeled for such top designers as Oscar de la Renta, Givenchy, Bill Blass, Patrick Kelly, Bob Mackie, and Yves Saint Laurent. And she still models for designers such as B Michael.

Here, Lu Sierra tells TNJ.com how she became a top coach and how it can also help business people.

TNJ: Why did you want to get into coaching?

Lu Sierra: Honestly, I was not looking to get into coaching. As a model, when I was called back, I would pretty much book the job. A fellow model asked me what did I do to book so many jobs and if I could help her. I did and she began to book jobs. The agency we were with was so impressed, they asked me to work with other girls. Those girls began to book jobs. So, while I was modeling, I was also teaching other models how to walk, how to make their photos better, and how to be present in a callback. I think that’s how I knew it was my calling.

My role as runway coach with the Miss Universe Organization (MUO) came also by a referral. My friend and amazing photographer Fadil Berisha knew I was coaching models on the runway and knew the organization was looking to give the pageant a high fashion runway energy. He referred me for the job.

It’s not something I planned but, it is great! I’m doing something that I love and I’ve been graced with amazing opportunities and smart women to coach.

TNJ: Did being a former model help you land clients?

Lu Sierra: Yes. Absolutely. My first clients were models and some still are. I’ve just been expanding and been very successful at bringing my knowledge to the pageant world. Being a model is about selling a product. Landing the job begins by selling yourself. Standing out in a positive way, high self-esteem, being prepared, all these things are what I had to refine, what models need, and what I teach young ladies to win.

Also, what helped me land clients was, I was always open to sharing my techniques. I never felt that teaching another model my technique might compete with me getting or doing my job. I was a top model with my technique and using it the way that fit me. See, I can teach you a turn or a walk but, then you’ll take it and make it your own.

TNJ: What were some challenges in getting started as a coach?

Lu Sierra: I’ve been modeling for more than 20 years for some of the top designers in the world so, I must admit the coaching opportunities came very naturally and word-of -mouth recommendations happened very quickly. So starting as a coach was not the challenge. What can be a challenge in coaching is knowing your expertise and standing firm in your knowledge. Often clients, their mothers, or other members of their team doubt your advice. I had to learn to not take offense, know what I know, and if they choose to listen to my advice they will see results. Also, learning to remain the professional consultant can be a challenge. This means knowing when and how to navigate being friend, confidant, and hard-line coach. There is a lot at stake for individuals and organizations when they come to me. I understand this and it is imperative that I know what my client needs to bring out their best.

TNJ: Are there many women of color who are coaches?

Lu Sierra: There are some and I’m proud of that. However, we don’t come into contact with each other. In addition, I don’t let girls discuss other coaches and I don’t investigate other coaches. It is my objective to keep my message focused–So I make a point of it to stay out of the language and heads of other coaches.

I think it is great to see women of color mentoring and coaching. Young girls of color need to see positive role models that spirit them forward. However, in the pageant world, coaches don’t enter girls into pageants. So it’s not like having more women of color as coaches would increase women of color in pageants. I teach girls from all over the world. Who really draws more ladies of color to the pageant world are the state pageant directors and the winners. The states have the seminars and entry-level events that start the ladies on the pageant path. Don’t forget that a Miss USA had to also win her state and sometimes region to be on the stage for Miss USA. By far, the biggest influence is seeing Miss USA 2017, Kara McCullough or the 2016 Miss USA Deshauna Barber touring around the U.S. interacting and speaking to young ladies from all different backgrounds. They are the inspiration.

TNJ: How does the coaching work?

Lu Sierra: The process differs from girl to girl. I begin with an evaluation of where they are. Have they modeled? Have they walked in heels? What’s their personality? Just as women in the world vary so do my young ladies. I have to evaluate the high-heeled fashion divas, sporty volleyball players, or classroom geniuses on their strengths and weaknesses. I identify their strengths and play those up while I work on their weakness. A girl’s weakness might be her sex appeal or interview. I have to identify those and then build them up, while lifting self-esteem during the process. Self-esteem increases the inner beauty and inner beauty is the layer that brings about winners.

Then I pull the whole package together–that means hair, makeup, interviewing, photos, walk, speech, etc. all accentuated by a good dose of self-esteem. All of this combined brings presence or some call it the “it factor”.

TNJ: Have you coached business people as well? If so, what do you teach them?

Lu Sierra: Business people–Absolutely–Men and women. I have a highly successful woman who lives in Asia. She came to me to learn how to take pictures. I taught her how to slim herself down, and how to position herself on the outside when with a group. We worked on her smile, and other elements she wanted to improve. What people don’t understand is that photos can capture things or miss things that we don’t see with the human eye. I teach both men and women how to present their best self.

I coach women for other pageants such as Mrs. America. One of my clients won Mrs. New York and went to nationals for Mrs. America USA. She’s a powerhouse attorney on Wall Street.

I also coach young people for career and business entry. Teaching them about eye contact during interviews, how to enter a room with purpose, how to shake a hand and other social graces. Young ladies and guys today are going to events, conferences, black-tie dinners, and even elegant weddings. They want to know how to understand a dinner table, how to take pictures. Also, many final job interviews take place in restaurants. Often executives use a restaurant or outing as that final test for a new associate. I’ve especially found this to be the case in large firms where the position requires lots of travel or customer interaction. I am that resource for both those entering the workplace and professionals who want to refine their public interaction skills. People think networking is about looks and personality, however, there is a skill to working a room.

TNJ: Why do you feel you have had so many clients who have become winners?

Lu Sierra: First, I get some amazing young ladies who trust me enough to listen and take my advice. They let me do my job. I take away the unnecessary and refine the positive. Sometimes they are too sexy or wear too much makeup, or don’t know how to honor their height. Often, young ladies don’t really know what flatters their body type. I bring my expertise in fashion and styling to these young ladies. My objective is to add tools to their arsenal be it turns, body movement, facial expressions, clothing, ways to present themselves, all while building up their confidence and self-esteem at the same time. Also, I make them realize this is a job. We must begin from a place that this is an opportunity, an honor and a responsibility. Yes, it’s called a beauty pageant, however, beauty alone doesn’t make you a winner in life nor does it get you the crown.

TNJ: What is the most common misconception about the beauty pageant world?

Lu Sierra: Still today, people think these young ladies are not smart–that it is literally about looks only. In reality, the interview is the most important thing. Confidence, presence and intelligence is the whole package. You have to remember that the Miss Universe Organization looks for women who can represent the Miss USA and Miss Universe brands. Ultimately, they are spokespeople for the organization, for causes and for women around the world. To handle this, a winner needs to be a self-sufficient independent woman with high self-esteem. The young ladies I coach are very smart.

Also, the beauty pageant world is an area where women get to know and develop skills to sell themselves, to be strong and to accomplish a dream in the face of anxiety, competition, and real business pressure. When you look at the past winners, they’ve gone on to have amazing careers in various areas. I think it’s the experience of pageants that helped propel them to that next level.

TNJ: What is the most common misconception about coaching?

Lu Sierra: That anyone can be a coach. Just because you’ve been successful or an expert in an area doesn’t mean you can be a good coach. It’s like saying that every expert can be a good teacher.

There is a professional objectivity and a selfless passion that you have to bring along with the expertise you share. For example, if I recommend a dress or a look for a client, it can’t be because I like the color or style of the dress. I have to step back and be objective to recognize what is best on or for my client. And this goes for every element, even the interview. I might think a question should be answered one way, but, if my client can own and stand by an answer I don’t agree with, I have to step back and let her own it. This is crucial to building a person’s self-esteem. I’m not here to tear a client down; I’m not here to impose my opinion. What I do is craft and mold what they bring to the table by removing the negative things, softening the rough edges, and polishing up their positive attributes.

TNJ: What next for you?

Lu Sierra: For me personally, there are great things being presented. Some I can’t discuss the details but, TV and media opportunities are being presented and hopefully a book. In the meantime, my schedule is packed with clients for pageants. I’m excited about the Miss Universe pageant. I’m working hard to get another crowned winner at Universe. Miss Universe 2012 Olivia Culpa was my first. She’s gone on to do amazing things. Then we’ll have Miss USA again. I’ve been working with some amazing young ladies, so watch out!