"Try it again," she instructed. "Come in with a firm hand. See how my arm is? Use that strong arm, and give a good, firm push."
With just over 48 hours to go before the Golden Globes, Debbie Williams was trying to prepare her pupil for the big day. Her student was Corinne Foxx, the 21-year-old daughter of actor Jamie Foxx, who has been selected as this year's Miss Golden Globe. In the role — which always goes to the child of a celebrity — Foxx will be tasked with handing out trophies to all of the award show's winners.
And as she was learning, there's more to that gig than just imitating the models on "The Price Is Right." Because film, television and a few music stars attend the Globes, it's a major show filled with intimidating faces. This year, Foxx could be handing out trophies to Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith or Matt Damon — and making sure they don't get lost on stage. Which is where award show veteran Williams comes in.
"Everyone thinks it's so simple, but it's not," said Williams, who this year will serve as the Globes' lead stage manager for the 29th time when the show airs Sunday night. "Winners come up, and they're in a fog. They're lost in a time zone. Sometimes they're crying. You have to be our traffic cop."
Foxx, a model who is studying public relations and marketing at USC, nodded attentively. "It's more information than I thought it was going to be," she said, twirling her braid anxiously. "My dad doesn't have anything up his sleeve, does he?"
"I'm sure something's going to happen," Williams said with a telling smile. "I hope! That's what the Globes are all about!"
They walked off the stage, which was still under heavy construction, and made their way through the Beverly Hilton's ballroom, the site of the Golden Globes. "You'll be fine. You don't seem shy," said Williams, who has offered advice to Joely Fisher, Rumer Willis and Freddie Prinze Jr. in years past.
"Oh, and you have a beautiful smile. So smile! You're on camera a lot. Some of them get out here, and they're terrified. Look like you're having a good time, even if you're terrified."
Williams walked over to a folding table filled with seating charts and eased into a chair, entirely unfazed by the beeping of a cherry-picker or the electricians rigging lights overhead. She was wearing a crisp blazer over a hoodie and a pair of wedge booties. She proudly showed off the tattoo on her wrist, "Girly girls forever," which she got with her daughter on her 18th birthday. She refused, however, to reveal her own age on the record.
"If you print my age, I will kill you," said Williams, only half-jokingly. "We are a youth-oriented business. It doesn't matter that I'm not an actress. I know producers and men that never tell their age."
Williams has been around show business since she was a child, when she was a part of her family's ice skating act. Eleven months out of the year, she would travel the country with her brothers and parents, spending each week in a different town while performing in Ice Follies. The act, called "The First Family on Ice," ended when Williams was 15.
But her ice skills helped her land her first gig in Hollywood as a roller skater and dancer on "Donny & Marie." During the four years she spent on the television program, she started to observe the crew behind the scenes and developed an interest in production. When she told a colleague that she might want to pursue stage managing, however, she was discouraged from entering the male-heavy profession.
"This guy said, 'Why do you want to stage manage? That's for men to do,'" she recalled. "And truly, it was. It's a very demanding job. But as soon as he said that I shouldn't do it, I was like, [forget it]. And I did it."
In the nearly four decades since, Williams has become the go-to stage manager in Hollywood. Name an award show, she's worked on it — the Oscars, the Emmys, the Grammys, the People's Choice Awards. She typically comes in five days before a big show and starts "putting the jigsaw puzzle" together — going over scripts, director's notes, entrances and exits, shot lists.
"I like the puzzle," she said. "I'm a process person, so figuring out the logistics and how to solve things is my favorite part."
And the Globes, she insisted, is her favorite award show. Everyone's packed into the room like sardines. There's alcohol. And something crazy usually goes down.
Like the infamous Elizabeth Taylor incident, which was such a disaster it was even spoofed on "Saturday Night Live." In 2001, when Taylor was a presenter, Williams attempted to debrief the actress before she went on stage. But Taylor was so preoccupied with getting her makeup touched up, Williams recalled, that she refused to take any instruction.
As a result, Taylor walked on to the stage, tore open the winner's envelope and nearly announced the evening's best picture before reading off the nominees. It was only after the audience yelled at her that she realized her error. Dick Clark, whose production company runs the Globes, then ran on stage to help her proceed.
"But Dick knew the value of that, because he did bloopers," Williams said. "Before we even knew what social media was, he said, 'Well, that's what everyone will talk about in the news tomorrow.' Our whole mode in doing award shows has always been perfection. But as we've now learned — like on 'Miss Universe' — people like watching a live show because it isn't perfect."
Come Sunday, Williams will wake up at the Hilton — she stays at the hotel Saturday night instead of at her home in Manhattan Beach — and come down to the ballroom at 10 a.m. After a dress rehearsal, she'll get into her show blacks and take her place in the wings, where she remains throughout the telecast on a headset.
There, she'll make sure the three-hour show isn't running too long. If producers have to cut time, she'll have presenters start at the microphone instead of making an entrance on stage. She'll also keep an eye on the teleprompter, which has been known to malfunction. One year, she had to rip a page out of her script, run on stage and hand the paper to Jonah Hill.
"You only saw my hand — with a manicure, of course — in the shot," she said with a laugh.
She'll also be there to offer encouragement to nervous stars, especially newcomers, like Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, who presented together last year.
"They were so scared," she recalled. "This is weird for them. They're not acting. They're just being themselves in a live situation. And part of our job is making them feel confident. They look to me for that."
As for Foxx? Williams thinks she'll pull it off.
"She seems like a take-charge girl," she said. "If their body language is kind of soft and demure, you can tell it'll be harder for them. But she's confident. I can tell she's going to be fine."