All in the family with Young Men Illinois Club
Debutante Lauren Elizabeth Bagneris will be following in her two older sisters’ footsteps when she reigns as queen of the Young Men Illinois Club on Jan. 15. It breeds sibling rivalry of the nicest kind.
“Yeah, we’re competitive,” says Lauren with a laugh. “You should see us on family game night – cutthroat karaoke. But we’re also each other’s biggest cheerleaders.”
The oldest Bagneris daughter, Brittany Bagneris McBride, reigned as Young Men Illinois Club queen in 2004. Middle daughter Jessica Rene Bagneris wore the crown in 2011. And the three girls, daughters of Suzette and Emile Bagneris, are merely the latest generation in a clan that claims a royal lineage.
Their great-aunt, 105-year-old Amelia Hendricks, made her debut in 1929 with the Original Illinois Club, a historic black Carnival society that has roots in the Illinois Club, founded in 1894. That club split into the Original Illinois Club and the Young Men Illinois Club in 1926.
“Things have changed,” she says. “It wasn’t like making a debut today. There was no write-up in the paper. We wore tulle dresses in different colors, like a rainbow. Mine was fuchsia. Others were green, blue, yellow. There were 12 debutantes.”
Grandmother Sandra Peychaud continued the family tradition in 1959, debuting with the Original Illinois Club on a beautiful spring night at the Rosenwald Center of New Orleans.
“They were filming that night. We were the first of the Original Illinois Club courts to have a movie made,” recalls Sandra. “I wore a white dress and carried red roses. At that time it was a very big deal to be presented to society. We had a lot of parties outside of the city, and I remember being exposed to various cultures.”
The ruling line shifted to the Young Men Illinois Club when a family cousin, Karen Becnel Moore, reigned as its queen in 1966. It was the first time a black social event was allowed to be held in the Municipal Auditorium. Another cousin, Sabrina Duncan, wore the Young Men Illinois Club crown in 1984, and Suzette Bagneris made her own debut with the club in 1986.
“I married into the tradition,” says Emile Bagneris with a smile. “This was not in my world view. But my wife wanted our three daughters to have the experience.”
“I did fall in love with the experience,” agrees Suzette. “It’s a very special thing, and you make friends for a lifetime.”
So, when Brittany was of age, she was sponsored by a friend to make her debut with the Young Men Illinois Club. Then, as Emile explains it, “we dove in head first.”
Discovering that any deb who sponsored a party could be eligible for the court, Emile agreed to host an event. It was a rare year when no senior club member had a daughter or granddaughter on the list to be queen, so the club interviewed the court to choose one.
“Mom had pulled out her pictures and video and programs, and I was really excited about the feather headdresses,” Brittany recalls. “The first ball I ever went to was the one at which I was queen. One day I was a deb, the next day a maid, and then I was going to an interview to be queen.”
The reign, she says, was intense and transformative. “It’s much more than a one-night experience. It’s a lifelong commitment. The Sunday after the ball I went to my first Queen’s Luncheon with 75 former queens and was welcomed into this rich culture. I was jealous to see whole families there.”
“What I like about Young Men Illinois Club is that there is no king, so it is all about the debs,” agrees Emile, who became a member of the club soon after Brittany’s reign. “They get a spotlight and all their accomplishments are highlighted. That is the focus of the entire season.”
Being a Young Men Illinois Club debutante is not a closed affair; selection is by application. Each girl, usually a senior in high school, is interviewed by members, and first, second and third maids are selected based on these conversations. Nowadays, the queens generally are chosen from a list, based on seniority, submitted by members. Emile put Jessica and Lauren on the list as soon as Brittany had reigned.
“The families who do this have very accomplished young ladies. We see high GPAs, college scholarships,” Emile says. “I’ve always seen it as a reward to these young ladies for years of hard work. The families make sacrifices to do this, for girls who deserve it.”
The debut is a yearlong affair. It begins with a small party to introduce the court, followed by a debutante tea for the girls, while their families have brunch. In between is an etiquette seminar that teaches poise and details like how to curtsy. And then, of course, come lots of parties.
For the three Bagneris girls, the sovereign experience has been a collective one from the very beginning. When Brittany was queen, Lauren was her page and Jessica served as a princess on the court.
“I made sure her train was perfect,” Lauren says.
“She talked through the whole ball,” Brittany quips.
“I was by myself on that one,” Jessica agrees.
For their grandmother, the opportunity to see all three girls in the spotlight was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Can you imagine sitting in the stands and watching all three of your grandchildren on stage? I can’t remember any other ball with sisters as page, princess and queen.”
All three girls instantly fell in love with the pomp and pageantry of the affair. All have practiced walking in the family train, a 40-pound gold lame mantle lined with fox fur and filled with Austrian crystals. And the younger girls learned from Brittany’s plunge into instant royal life.
“We didn’t even know Brittany would have to give a toast to Orpheus at Gallier Hall until they called her to the podium,” Suzette says.
“And I didn’t know there would be a smoke machine that night, until I had to walk onto the floor through all the smoke,” Brittany adds with a laugh. “Someone hit me with a bead and broke my crown.”
The theme of the Young Men Illinois Club ball is kept secret until the night of the event. Lauren is getting ready for her reign by working out – she’s a star volleyball and tennis player at Ursuline Academy, where she will be a senior next year. She hopes to go to medical school. But, first, she plans to top her siblings’ Young Men Illinois Club experiences. After all, she picked up a tennis racket at age 3 upon seeing her sisters play.
From them, Lauren knows the fun of the parties, the routine of dress fittings, the practiced walk. Her best big-sister advice: Just enjoy it.
She’s also putting a lot of thought into the father-daughter dance the night of the Queen’s Party, a week before the ball. She hasn’t chosen her song yet, but wants it to be particularly special.
“Hey, we killed it,” Brittany recalls of her own dance, to Because You Love Her.
“Our dance made your dance look simple,” adds Jessica, who chose Daddy’s Little Girl.
“Well, we’re going to do flips,” Lauren announces.
That friendly family rivalry promises to continue. Brittany’s daughter, Lily, is already on the list to be Young Men Illinois queen in 2030.
This story was written for and first appeared in The New Orleans Advocate.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]