03/22/2013 05:06 pm ET Updated May 22, 2013

What I Learned About Image From Miss America Ericka Dunlap, Part One: Preparing for the Big Event

The call came in around 5:00 pm. My dear friend Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004, was on the phone.

"Can you be my date at the Miss America Alumni Dinner this Saturday, March 18th? It's in honor of Mallory Hagan, the new Miss America, and there will be at least ten former Miss Americas there to support her. The fact that Miss Hagan was the first New York City woman to win the nationals since Vanessa Williams will make the evening all the more spectacular," said Ericka. I pretended to hesitate as my heart pounded with excitement.

"Oh, I guess so," I muttered, feigning insouciance to accompanying one of the most elegant women in the world to see her support her sisters in the Miss America community. Friends for 12 years, Ericka and I had been communicating regularly this year. In my quest to reinvent myself as I turn 60, Ericka had become my image and confidence coach and I was dying to learn the secrets of poise and style so that I could be a better leader and teacher by changing my image. A lifelong indifference to clothes and a learning issue with colors had limited my stylistic image to that of a "professorial" look. I was ready to recreate myself and then try to use what I had learned to help low-income youth develop their brand.

As an image coach, Ericka's skill set was perfect for what I needed. She had won the Miss America contest in 2004 and I knew how prestigious that competition was -- attracting some of the most talented young women in the country -- gifted with intelligence, social awareness and talent, it was one of the top honors an American can win.

To help me, Ericka broke the lessons on image into five parts: walk, posture, poise, attire, and essence.

I was determined to improve so that I could be a good companion for her to the alumni dinner and then be a better leader within the educational community.

The 12 things I learned about image and confidence from my friend, Miss America 2004, Ericka Dunlap:

1) Perception is key. First, I began to realize that my image is a large part of my job; to be a good leader and educator I have to look the part. Sadly, I never considered working on my image because in my opinion, image is superficial. A big mistake! The opposite is true -- a person's image can be used as a leadership tool to help others. I began to relax and enjoy the time spent working on my personal brand once I realized just how much it influenced my work.

2) Belts matter. I had never bought a belt directly before so this time I tried each one on to see what was the best size. The minute I got the right size on, my pants fit better, and I no longer worried about the possibility of pulling and tugging at my trousers.

3) You can tell a lot about someone's personality by their shoes... and socks. I got really nice shoes. I have learned they matter. Furthermore, I thought no one ever looked at socks, but as we were driving down the street my friend pointed out a man walking along and said, "can you see his socks?" Sure enough, I could.

4) Tailor-made is the way to go! Getting the right size and fit for your clothing is pivotal and you have to try things on with someone who knows shapes, sizes and proper fit. I spent two hours trying on shirts and learned that even if my neck size is 15.5 and my arms are 32 that the shirt still may not fit. I never knew that and it was a huge breakthrough to finally find shirts in a slimmer size that fit appropriately.

5) Identify a style that works for the image you wish to reflect. I am still learning this craft, but the key concept for me is that I should probably stick to buying at 'upscale' stores where my suits and sport coats can be sized and fitted to my body specifications. The tailor is becoming my best friend.

6) Go shopping with someone who cares about you and will give you constructive feedback. Never shop alone!

7) Details in fashion are key. For 59 years I had ignored everything about fashion.

8) Keep a watch on your watch. I generally lose watches, but a nice timepiece is a statement piece for men. I purchased a $70 Swatch. Although it's not fancy, it's nice, and not so expensive that I cannot lose it.

9) Shaving is a craft. I took a two-hour course on how to shave and it has made quite a difference.

10) Walk like you have somewhere important to go at all times. Head up, eyes forward, shoulders back and arms at ease by your side. This was a big change for me as I had patterned my frenzied walk and sunken posture after Sir Winston Churchill who walked hunched over with arms crouched inward.

11) Prepare clothing before bed. I am essentially learning a whole new field and using parts of my brain that I never used before. Every day it takes me 45 minutes to lay everything out and think about what to wear. Now, I am investing my energy into taking care of things at night rather than misusing valuable time at the start of my day.

12) Your personal essence is your fragrance. Smell is the sense with the keenest memory. If you want people to remember you, select a fragrance that will jog their recollection of you each time they are in the presence of that scent. This is a genius concept! For instance, each time you enter a room that smells like your grandmother's house you begin to vividly recall experiences with your grandmother, correct? The implication is to get your fragrance to match your image.

Most importantly, Ericka taught me that "you act according to how you are dressed." When well-groomed and well-dressed, I feel better about myself, and I am a better educator because I am confident. I know if I can recreate my image, I will be able to share with millions of young people around the world how to improve their image; that could be a key part of their strategy to get out of poverty.

Steve Mariotti with Ericka Dunlap, Miss America 2004