Nancy Bounds, Timeless Arbiter of Fashion Beauty, Glamour, Poise
Imagine my surprise when I searched for images of the late Nancy Bounds, the subject of this story, and could not find a single one. My surprise stems from the fact that Bounds was a much photographed stylish woman whose entire career was built on image enhancement work with aspiring models and actors. She was a personality and celebrity whose all about town comings and goings were grist for the Omaha society mill pages. She frequently appeared on television, too. So, instead of pictures of Nancy I bring you pictures of one of the talents who came out of her modeling school, indeed the most famous graduate of all –model-actress Jaime King, an Omaha native like me. My search for Nancy Bounds images continues and I expect before long to have her lovely, smiling face and well-outfitted figure gracing this post. For now though, Jaime King is not a bad compromise. If you’re into all things fashion and style, you’ll find other articles of interest on this blog.
NOTE: Special thanks to fashion photographer Michael Dar, who got his start under Nancy Bounds in Omaha, for his photo of her.
Nancy Bounds, Timeless Arbiter of Fashion Beauty, Glamour, Poise
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
For 40 years, Nancy Bounds was Omaha’s saucy arbiter and symbol for good looks and social graces. The owner of a string of modeling/finishing schools bearing her name, she applied her tastemaker’s role as television host, magazine columnist, pageant director and self-improvement guru. This former model, singer, dancer and actress best embodied her own beauty ethos. Whatever the gala, she was always the stylish, well-turned-out fashion plate looking like she was poured into her haute-couture designer clothes, which her closets overbrimmed with.
Bounds shared her story with the New Horizons a few years before her passing. Her repuation preceded her and she proved to be everything and then some that was said about here.
An expert in the rules of attraction and feminine wiles, Bounds is just what you’d expect from a Southern-born and reared beauty queen. She exudes a soulful, sassy, sweet, sad quality that almost makes you think that at any moment she’ll utter Blanche du Bois’s famous line from A Streetcar Named Desire. You know the one: “I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers.”
A coquettish charmer with milky skin and sun-dappled hair, Bounds greets visitors to her resplendent Dundee home in the warm honey glow of her broad smile, sparkling eyes and sultry voice. Wearing an antique blue silk ensemble and a pair of high-heeled silver sandals, she’s still every inch the fashion maven and beauty diva who’s made men weak-kneed at the sight of her since her ingenue days.
It took all of her cheeky guile to get where she is today, which is a long way from her rural Arkansas roots. It may surprise some that this sophisticated lady, who’s the epitome of chic, owns a background closer to Dogpatch than Fifth Avenue.
Growing up the youngest and brightest of six children, the former Nancy Southard was born, on an undisclosed date, in the Ozarks, where her gentrified father owned land, saw mills and other interests. Despite such backwoods environs, she comes from good stock. She said her mother’s family, the Tayloes, are descendants of George Washington and her father’s family is related to the Astors of old New York high society. Still, there wasn’t much in the way of culture where she lived.
And her precocious bordering-on incorrigible personality didn’t sit well in her “very strict Christian” home that her father ruled with an iron fist. “I was an obstinate, self-confident tigress. I don’t know how anyone stood me,” she said.
Her rearing came in a series of small towns — Rodney, Norfolk, Mountain Home — she felt confined in and pined to escape. The rote learning of a small school was torture for a girl bursting with starry-eyed dreams and ideas inspired by the books and magazines she devoured. In class, which she found “boring,” she’d either fall asleep or break out in hives or draw the ire of a teacher, and be sent to the principal’s office, where she played duplicate bridge and chess with the headmaster. As a young schoolgirl she exhibited an extrovert’s expressiveness and a knack for makeup and performing, but had no real outlet for her gifts.
If not for her astute godmother, Maude Washington Arthur, Bounds may not have broken away from the shackles of that constraining life. A kind of down home grand dowager duchess holding court in a cabin atop a mountain, Maude was an educated, well-traveled woman who saw the potential in Nancy and held out the possibility she could live out her dreams. Nancy lived for a time with Maude, who became her personal finishing school mistress.
“She somehow picked on me and wanted me to have the sophistication she thought I was lacking at school,” Bounds said. “She helped me to choose the good books to read. That lady — she knew I was going to be something in the world. She believed in me. She was my mentor.”
Making a mark is what Bounds wanted more than anything.“I didn’t have so much a dream. I just knew I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to be well-known. I wanted to be a star. It never crossed my mind I was going to fail,” she said. “I had more guts than good sense, in some cases, but for some reason there’s always been a little star following me around all of my life, and it’s always sort of taken care of me.” Consumed by a sense of “ambition, wanderlust and loneliness…a lot of loneliness,” Bounds just wanted to be free and Maude encouraged her to try her wings. “She kept saying, ‘You can do it.’ And I knew I could do it.”
So convinced was Bounds that her future lay in the wider world that the first book she bought was “a book on manners,” she said. “I wanted to be able to move in whatever kind of society I was ever going to be in.” Her intuition served her well, too, as she’s lived a storybook life that’s found her mixing with everyone from world famous designers, models and entertainers to politicians to royalty.
Emboldened by Maude and by a grandfather who also recognized her destiny, Nancy one day just packed up and left. She was only 14, but her exasperated parents let her go, knowing she had to try. “That’s how much I wanted to get out of Arkansas and to get out where it was happening in the world,” she said. Her destination? Springfield, Mo. It was as close to cosmopolitan as she could get. Why Springfield? “I had enough money to get there –$35. I got on a bus. It stopped every 20 minutes and I’ve never ridden a bus since. That was not going to be my style,” said Bounds, who nowadays tools around in a chauffeur-driven limo.
Without knowing a soul in Springfield, she put on a brave face and made herself up to look older than she was, quickly landing jobs as a waitress and cosmetics clerk. Then, she really showed her brass when she auditioned for a singing slot on a local radio station. She got the gig and sang a few times a week on live broadcasts.
Then she met a man who looked good in an Air Force uniform. She was 15. They got hitched. Before she knew it, he was off flying Goonie Birds in the Berlin Airlift. “I didn’t see him for a year,” she said, “and by then I’d forgotten what he looked like.” While he was away, she found she was pregnant. She moved back home, where she’d kept the news of her marriage a secret from her father, who’d warned her to stay away from those “hound dogs.” After “having it out,” she went to Wichita, where family lived nearby.
On her own again, Bounds made do. A couple of sailors, Ronnie and Jean, befriended her in the weeks leading up to her giving birth. “They both fell in love with me, but they were always like brothers to me. Better than brothers,” she said. They were with her when the labor pains began and flagged down a taxi to take her to a military hospital. She was still so young and naive she thought doctors “cut you open to get out your child.” To show her undying appreciation to her friends, she named her daughter Ronnie Jean after them.
When her long-absent husband returned from overseas, she greeted him with, “I’ll take you to meet your daughter.” The couple’s ill-advised union fell apart when he took her to live with his family in Minnesota. After three months, she said, “I had to get out of there. So, I got up and packed at three o’clock in the morning and snuck out with about equal amount the money I had when I left home.”
She fled to the Ozarks. He found his child-bride, but she would not have him back. She filed for divorce and went to Minnesota to get it. “I didn’t want anything except the right to my daughter for the rest of my life and that he was never to come near me or her.” To her dismay, she learned the state only granted divorces then on the grounds of adultery. “Well, I wasn’t about to do that,” she said. “So, we picked one of his good friends and he and I sat up all night long and played gin rummy. We came down the next day and he went to court and swore he spent the night with me. Totally staged. But I got my daughter back, which is all I wanted.”
Living back in Wichita with her baby girl, Bounds screwed up her courage and reinvented herself again. “I learned a group was looking for a singer. I auditioned, but I didn’t like the group. It gave me an idea, though. Why don’t I get my own group? Of course I had no money, but I had the audacity to start doing interviews.” Soon, she assembled a pianist, bass player, drummer and saxophonist. She fronted with her vocals. After some Wichita area gigs, her group moved west, landing jobs in Colorado. When band members began bowing to pressures from home, she disbanded the group and went solo. “I had to support my daughter,” she said.
She headlined at a nightclub in Denver and a hotel in Estes Park. What her voice lacked, her sex appeal made up for. “I sang love songs and lots of blues. I had a soulful, smoky sound. There’s something about a saxophone that could really turn my voice on. But I was never a fabulous singer. I was a much better performer than I was a singer. I could sell a song. And I had a great bod,” she said.
Her hunger next took her to Chicago, where she variously modeled, sang and danced for a living. She also acted in TV spots. Her growing interest in acting led her to join a repertory summer stock company in Boston, where she appeared in several plays over three seasons. Theater, for her, fed a desire to improve her mind and broaden her knowledge. “I wanted to improve my ability to articulate my feelings,” she said. “I learned a lot about the language by doing different parts.”
Back in Chicago, the ever-enterprising Bounds continued her education by hiring a Northwestern University professor as her private tutor. “He was a wonderful guy who wanted to teach me what I wanted to know — everything. He was interested in my life and in my mind and I was incredibly interested in all that he knew. I always called him Webster.” With the prof’s help, she lost her Southern accent and further refined herself. He was her Dr. Higgins and she his Eliza Doolittle.
She eventually found romance with a man, Carmen, who became her husband and dance partner. She, her new hubby and her daughter moved to Kansas after her little girl was diagnosed with asthma and doctors advised the child live in a dry climate. Nancy and Carmen were performing as a dance team in Wichita when an agent saw them and recommended her to band leader Xavier Cugat. The Latin maestro signed her up and she happily performed with his band in the Dallas area. “Oh, play me some Latin music and watch this body and hear this voice work it. I’ve always loved Latin music,” she said. Cuggie or Papa, as he was called, became her newest Svengali. “Oh, he was such a puppy dog…the sweetest guy.” She recalls him painting surrealistic images in his spare time as she “sat at his feet and watched him” work. “His courage with color was amazing. He said I was a muse for him because I was so enthusiastic about his art. He said, ‘When I see you, I see golden…yellows…rainbows.’ He painted my personality. I adored him.”
Meanwhile, her marriage to the dancer fizzled. Her life turned again when she bought some Fred Astaire Dance studios in Kansas and fell in love with and married an Air Force colonel, Robert S. Bounds, who gave her her professional name. She wound up in Omaha when he was transferred to Offutt. At first, Nancy thought she “would be happy playing golf, playing bridge and just being an officer’s wife. Well, that lasted about three months.” Restless, she looked into working for a local modeling school. Instead, she ended up running it. When the owners of another school noticed her business savvy and offered her a 50 percent piece of their place, she held firm for a controlling share. She soon made over the business as her own, moving it into the suave penthouse quarters of the old Fontenelle Hotel.
Marriage number three ended when the colonel got reassigned and she balked at moving. Besides, she said, he’d run her burgeoning modeling business into the ground after she sold it to him. “It’s then I decided it was I who had the brains,” she said, “when he had me believing all the time it was him.”
Every time she’s started over, Bounds has gritted her teeth and feigned her famous moxie, but it was all a facade. “I felt frightened, but I never let anyone know it. I was scared to death about half the time, but I kept saying, I can do this.”
Do it, she has. A breakthrough for Bounds occurred in the 1970s. Tired of her models being snatched up and under-used, she made elite agents, such as Ricardo Guy in Milan, take note of Omaha as a rich talent pool and launching pad for serious careers in modeling, films and television. As soon as agents learned her models got magazine covers and film-TV roles, her annual graduation show at the Orpheum Theater drew talent scouts from New York, L.A., Milan, Paris and Tokyo. Several of her graduates have gone on to major careers, most notably model-actress Jaime King.
She feels Nebraska’s gold mine of talent springs from something in the water or gene pool here that creates “The Look” everyone’s after. Then, too, she adds, “I think I was blessed with good eyes. I start watching them when they’re 9 or 10.” She said the model standard hasn’t changed much in 35 years. “It’s just gorgeous, gorgeous and more gorgeous. It’s the beauty of the face and the personality. The naturalness.” She said one difference is more women of color are now top models.
As her Nancy Bounds International Modeling Agency and Nancy Bounds Studios thrived, she opened schools in other cities. Helping her grow the company was her fourth husband and business partner, Mark Sconce. “He just believed in me 100 percent,” she said.
Eager to improve the image of the modeling school field, which is plagued with disreputable operators, she formed the International Talent and Model School Association. It was an attempt to create industry-wide standards and practices and, via ITMSA conventions, provide showcases where models from many schools could strut their stuff before top agents. After a rough start, when she “chewed out” school directors, the association proved a success. Then, she said, it all fell apart and the “rip-off” artists took over. It’s a long-standing problem, even in Omaha.
“People enroll and pay some thousands of dollars, and they’re taken to these conventions and they’re lucky to get five seconds on the runway,” she said. “There isn’t regulation. Before I got here, you didn’t even need a license. There’ve been 17 schools open and close here since I’ve been in business.”
She got an improbable ally in her efforts to clean-up the industry when state Sen. Ernie Chambers came to her bristling over modeling schools reneging on promises made to constituents of his. When he asked Bounds — What can we do about this? she said, “We can write some laws.” They collaborated on a bill the legislature passed that requires operators be licensed. “She was extremely helpful and professional in guiding me through what was very strange territory for me,” he said.
Bounds is the first to admit that while models are the “X-factor,” most of her clients neither expect nor seek a modeling/acting career. Instead, she said, they come in search of personal image development.
“It’s the most exciting thing I do,” she said. “The real purpose for me beginning this school is that I had seen so many young people that didn’t stand a chance in this world of being successful because they were insecure. You gotta love yourself. And in my opinion the only way you can get self-esteem is to be proud of what you do. It’s a total growth process. We start with the facade and then we go deeper and find out who this person really is. We try to give them the best of who they are and, more importantly, we give them things to go out and accomplish.”
She said the training is really about life skills. “We teach kids how to communicate. We teach them manners. We teach them how to order food and what clothes to wear to an interview. We talk about romance and relationships. We have them sing and dance and do anything to pull out their personalities and to get them out of their boxes.” Nothing excites her more than seeing kids blossom before her eyes. “It just turns me on,” said Bounds, who regards herself a teacher.
She’s honed the image of everyone from aspiring models to corporate execs to politicos. Modeling career or not, grads come away with “great confidence.”
These days, Bounds oversees a modeling empire she’s franchised out, but still very much “involved in.” She has franchises in Omaha, Norfolk and Kansas City and is now looking to franchise Japan. “I train the teachers and the franchisees, because then I know things are going to be done right under my name,” she said. Her decision to franchise came in the wake of a dark period a few years ago when her 29-year marriage to Mark Sconce ended. She took a bad fall at home and suffered pain and depression. “I didn’t want to work every day. I became reclusive.”
Single for the first time in awhile, she’s not ruling out marriage. “I’m not finished with romance. Romance makes the world go round. Someday I’ll run into somebody I care about. I could never become somebody’s mistress. That’s not the way I do things.” As for the men in her life — “There’s been so many men in this world that have taken care of me, and I married most of ‘em,” she said with a laugh. “But I’ve never had one penny of alimony. Never wanted it.”
All in all, she said, “It’s been a fun ride, and I’m not finished yet.”
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- Timeless Fashion Illustrator Mary Mitchell: Her Work Illustrating Three Decades of Style Now the Subject of a New Book and Exhibition (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)