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Millie Lewis owner a model of success |

Millie Lewis owner a model of success

In the lobby of Millie Lewis is a stack of magazines that owner Barbara Correll never saw in the shop that was attached to her childhood home. Titles like Glamour and Elle.


“My mother’s beauty salon had magazines, but it was Family Living. She couldn’t afford to have Vogue come in,” she said.

But even without the quintessential manual of fashion to page through, the statuesque young woman felt drawn to that world and would eventually make her way there, first down the runways of local fashion shows and then at the head of Greenville’s most well-known modeling agency and school.

Growing up in rural Greenville County, Correll watched with some envy as her high school classmates donned the trendy fashions of the day.

“All the girls carried John Romain pocketbooks and wore Weejun loafers and had Tina Agnew dresses. I got none of that,” she said.

“I remember saving up money from doing things around the house and bought my first John Romain pocketbook when I was a senior in high school. It probably cost $18.”

That lesson of hard-earned satisfaction carried Correll through her future career when building a business practically from scratch in an untapped local industry would entail a lot more than household chores.

The past 30 years of entrepreneurship for Correll have been a lot more than lipstick and smiling photos. Changes in the local and national economies have put a strain on the business at times, but Correll said she’s held true to her mission to be a place of encouragement for Greenville’s girls.

Carport to runway

Correll’s path to a career in the modeling industry followed more of a dirt path than a red carpet.

The middle of three sisters raised by a widowed mother, Correll grew up in a rural Piedmont area within “screaming distance” of aunts, uncles and a slew of cousins, most of whom were girls, she said.

“We just did fashion shows and talent shows. There was nothing else to do, so every Saturday night in someone’s carport, we had a show,” she said.

Her aunt was a seamstress who made most of her clothes, and her hair was always well done thanks to her mom’s shop off the family’s kitchen.

“We were good old country people,” she said.

As a teenager, Correll was invited to be part of what was called the “teen board” for the local Belk department store. Two girls from every high school were asked to participate.

“My high school asked me to be one of those. I have no idea why other than that I was tall and I liked to dress up,” she said.

She and the other girls participated in fashion shows and other promotions for the store. There was no pay but enough prestige and glamor to cement Correll’s draw to the modeling world.

But it was still a hit-or-miss prospect in Greenville, where there were no modeling agencies or training schools at the time.

“There was nobody to tell you how to do that unless you just had enough money to get on a plane and fly to a big city,” Correll said.

After graduating from Hillcrest High, Correll stayed in Greenville and went to Greenville Tech for secretarial training, continuing with some modeling on the side.

“If a store wanted to do a show, they’d say, ‘Call that Barbara Correll girl. She works cheap and she lives here,’” she recalled.

(She was really called Barbara Pepple in those days, but nearly 40 years of habit is hard to break.)

Millie Lewis, a famed model, founded the Greenville office of her eponymous modeling school in 1974. Correll first came through the doors as a student to refine her runway technique.

Within a couple of years, Lewis asked Correll to take over managing the office.

Correll, who was working at a local advertising agency at the time, had her misgivings.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m giving up a real job to go work at this little modeling school in Bell Tower Shopping Center,’” she recalled with a laugh.

For the next eight years, Correll worked tirelessly to build on Millie Lewis’ reach and prestige in Greenville, including drastically expanding the agency side of the business.

“She was growing the business long before you used that term,” said husband, George, who has been in business with his wife for 30 years.

Then, Barbara Correll said, she decided it was time for a change.

Lewis had been acting an absentee owner, residing along the coast and infrequently visiting the Greenville school.

“It was just crazy for me to be working 12 hours a day and sending more than half the money to Millie,” she said. “That was in the good days, and I was sending her a lot of money.”

She started giving some thought to a drastic move.

Taking the leap

It wouldn’t be the first time Barbara and George had a little drama in their lives.

They met when George, a WYFF news anchor at the time, participated in a press event arranged by the Greenville Tech public relations office where Barbara worked.

Smitten by the dashing PR rep who was leading the event, George called back a few days later and asked her out.

Barbara was engaged to another man at the time and declined.

“I felt like the village idiot,” George recalled. “I kept talking about her to my friends, and my friends kept saying, ‘Call her again.’”

And so he did.

“A week later he called back and said, ‘I just feel terrible about this. Can I just take you to lunch to apologize?’” Barbara said. “I gave my diamond back that night.”

The pair dated for more than three years before marrying in 1975.

“It could’ve been the best line of my life, and it worked,” George said.

Several years later, they faced another life-altering moment. They took Lewis out to dinner at Vince Perone’s City Club and offered her a deal: Let them buy the business or they’d go off on their own.

Barbara Correll said that first option was the one they really wanted, in order to capitalize on the name recognition she’d cultivated for years.

“We’d worked too hard to build it to where it was to just close it down and call it Correll Modeling. Who knows if that would’ve worked,” she said.

Lewis agreed. It was even better than the day Barbara got the John Romain purse.

Shortly thereafter, George joined the business. His time as a WYFF news reporter and anchor and later producer of TV commercials equipped him with certain skills, and Millie Lewis introduced an acting division.

The pair continued to expand the business, eventually constructing a new building on South Pleasantburg Drive where Millie Lewis remains today.

Millie Lewis includes a modeling and acting agency, a full-service salon and classes for girls, teens and adults. The primary classes focus on boosting confidence and comportment. More advanced classes train prospective models for a career on the runway.

“What we really want more than anything is to have people come through our doors who walk out of here feeling better about themselves,” George said.

Girls seek comfort over life’s transitions and school-day struggles. Teens divulge problems with bullies or fights with parents.

Shelly Massey, a Millie Lewis instructor for more than 20 years, said Barbara cultivates an environment of support and encouragement for everyone who walks through the door.

Rolling with the punches

The 1980s proved a heyday for Millie Lewis, Barbara said. The textile industry was still booming, and her company did a lot of work with Milliken and others.

Gradually things began to slow down and then took a dramatic dip several years ago during the Great Recession.

Companies looking to trim their advertising budgets decided a dress could be photographed on a hanger rather than on a model, or fruit would look just fine on a plate rather than in the hands of “Walter,” the longtime name and voice for BI-LO’s produce department.

“Thank God for the home equity line,” George said frankly. “That’s what it’s taken to be here.”

During the depth of the recession, Barbara turned one of the facility’s runway rooms into a small accessories boutique, and they recently added a spray tanning system as well.

“We’ve tried to have lots of pieces of the pie so at least one or two of them are thriving at a time,” she said.

The approach has worked, and fortunes have at last begun to turn in the last 18 months, she said. Millie Lewis is on the rebound.

Barbara, 62 and smartly garbed in red-and-white striped slacks with red pumps and a stack of trendy, jangling bracelets, said she’s not quite turning her sights to retirement, but it’s a glimmer in the future after 38 years in the modeling business.

“Never did I dream that would happen,” she said. “Of course, we never dreamed we’d be working this hard at this age either.”

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