Health & Family

Michelle Icard’s ugly duckling story

On the first day of middle school, Michelle Icard discovered that real-life rich kids don’t dress like the ones on TV sitcoms.

She learned that painful lesson in the sixth grade at a New England prep school that her parents struggled to afford.

Her grandmother bought her first-day outfit. And when Icard walked into the classroom in her puffy shirt, bow tie, dress pants and home-done haircut, someone laughed. From that moment on, she aspired to become invisible.

Thirty years later, Icard of Charlotte hides no more. She turned adolescent anguish into a career that thrust her into the spotlight on kids and parenting. Poised, confident and funny, with the air of a best friend who will tell it to you straight, but gently, Icard is a favorite on local talk shows, expert panels and at family seminars.

Athena’s Path, the program she designed to empower girls, is now 10 years old and taught in dozens of public and private schools in six states; as is Hero’s Pursuit, geared toward boys.

And just this year, Icard sold her first book, “Middle School Makeover.” With positive reviews and national exposure, her Carolinas fan base is expanding.

The book’s intent is to help parents deal with their kids’ changing brains, bodies and behavior. And their own: many middle-school parents are middle-aged – struggling with changing bodies, work stress and aging parents.

Icard, who is married and has two children, can relate to both generations. Her message to families: Let’s make this easier. And she’s worked relentlessly to become a voice people trust.

“Michelle is tireless,’’ says her husband, Travis Icard. “She doesn’t wait for folks to give her things, she doesn’t expect anything – she creates her own way. … It’s not monetary for her – it’s a social need and a real passion and love.”

‘I was an outsider’

Michelle Icard considers herself an introvert who loves public speaking.

It’s not the career you’d expect for someone who spent years of her childhood feeling isolated and avoiding attention.

She was 6 when her parents divorced. Her two older half-sisters stayed with their father. She and her mother moved from the Washington, D.C., area to Boston and started a new life when her mom remarried.

She attended four different elementary schools. The last was filled with out-of-control kids and apathetic teachers. She hated it, and was excited when her mom and stepdad, with budget-busting loans, got her into a prestigious middle school.

She only knew about rich people through TV shows she immersed herself in, such as the 1980’s sitcom “Silver Spoons.” She figured kids at her new school would dress and act like them.

Then she got there.

“I was such an outsider,” she said. “It was such an emotional moment. I was making an honest effort to fit in and I thought this would be it.”

“Instead I learned helplessness in the first 60 seconds. … This happens in social lives of kids all the time.”

Parents: Give kids space

Today, Icard tells parents their kids are in the midst of a construction project – on a beach with shifting sands. The parents’ job is to be an assistant manager (the manager, their child’s brain, is often off duty). Give them space. Let them make mistakes. Listen more, yell less. And don’t be so afraid of social media. Just pay attention.

She gives specifics on what you might do if your kid is an outcast or bully, fights with her brother, or wants to wear shorts that are way too short.

She often shows parents a picture of her middle-school self. It’s one many adults might keep hidden. Some wince and some laugh to see the earnest little girl with the oversized glasses, choppy hair and goofy smile.

“Nailed it,” Icard jokes about her attempt to look rich.

If this were a TV show, it would be one where the shy, gawky girl turns into Sofia Vergara. But that would be against type. Perhaps the brainy, pretty Tina Fey, Icard’s favorite actress, would be a better fit.

Acting helped Icard conquer anonymity.

In a ninth-grade burst of bravery, she won a spot in her high school musical. Newly confident, she smiled and made eye contact with people.

She jokes that years of watching the soap opera “Days of Our Lives” as a child taught her everything she knew about acting.

“Part of what appealed to me was that I could be someone else,” she said. “I didn’t really like the role that I’d been given in real life.”

Life got much better at Wittenberg University in Ohio, “which must be the friendliest campus in America.” There, she formed friendships that had eluded her before. After graduating in 1995, she and two friends moved to Charlotte on an adventure to find careers. She first worked as a cocktail waitress at Southend Brewery. She met and quickly fell in love with a waiter working his way through college.

Michelle and Travis Icard, now a Wells Fargo senior manager, have been together since.

From setback to success

He describes her determination this way: Wen she wanted a career in public relations, she called her way through the telephone book’s yellow pages – alphabetically.

She got a lot of rejections, but one company needed someone to answer phones during a staff Christmas party. That turned into a temp job that eventually led to a corporate path.

She was seven months pregnant with her second child when the company took a dive, and she lost her job. They worried about how they’d get by.

They cut back drastically. Then she turned it into an opportunity to spend time at home with their children and find a career more suitable to her non-corporate leanings. An English major and education minor in college, she started a tutoring service. As she worked with her first client, she realized the girl’s problems stemmed from social pressure, not academics. The more kids she tutored, the more she saw that pattern.

She read, researched and consulted educators and psychologists.

Icard created Athena’s Path, a series of exercises designed to help girls rise above everything from bullies to gossip. She sold the program to Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other schools, then trained teachers in the curriculum.

She started a camp for kids and now runs 15 every summer.

Like many things in her life, getting a publisher to buy her book didn’t come easily. She submitted query letters to more than 60 book agents before Bibliomotion books and media in Massachusetts published it this year.

Along the way, she heard from many who said it would never sell, that her targeted audience wasn’t big enough. One agent told her she was a terrible writer.

The rejection hurt. But Icard responded as she always does, family and friends say:

“She can be overly critical of herself,” said Dawn O’Malley, a child psychologist and longtime friend. “If she has a great idea and it doesn’t get the outcome she wants, she’ll be sad, but then she’ll come up with a new plan.”

O’Malley, clinical director of Alexander Youth homes, says Icard has won respect as an expert. O’Malley has steered people toward Icard’s book and programs, and often talks to Icard about her own parenting challenges.

“She’s smart, loving and funny. She’s got a great sense of humor, she can see the joy in life easily and is willing to laugh at herself, “ O’Malley says.

Icard’s appeal as a speaker has grown over the years, most dramatically since the book’s publication. She recently wrote an essay for the Washington Post, which resulted in speaking requests at schools from Ohio to California and even to Mozambique in Africa.

While she is in the midst of advising others, her two children are now in the throes of adolescence. She says she lives what she teaches. (She admits to getting a little too much into her daughter’s space during Ella’s first week of high school, but she needed details.)

An important lesson: the Botox brow. When a kid tells you something, keep a neutral expression or they’ll think you’re mad at them. Even if you’re furious, think Botox.

‘She wants to help’

Ella Icard agrees her mother practices what she teaches.

She often helps her mom during camps and seminars and thinks it’s good practice for her future. Ella, 14, wants to be a psychologist for children who’ve suffered trauma and life-threatening illnesses.

“I’ve learned from my mom how to treat other people and notice when people are going through a rough time,” Ella said. “My mom is really loyal. She sticks with stuff. She’s really compassionate – she really wants to help everybody and do a lot of good.”

Kate Weaver met Icard when her daughter went to Icard’s first camp. Her daughter is now in college, and Weaver considers Icard a close friend.

“I can remember when she was very uncomfortable speaking in public,” said Weaver, who’s a professional photographer in Charlotte. “She has come so far. Building confidence was something she really had to develop.”

“She’s compelled by what happened to her and what is happening to our kids … she can’t help but do this. It makes her really happy.”