With more trophies than birthdays, the tiny veterans of beauty pageants learn early in life about the importance of appearance. 

Living Dolls

It's 11 a.m. on a sunny summer Sunday and already the second-floor atrium of the Holiday Inn Central on Boulevard resembles a discount beauty-supply store following a tornado. Mascara tubes, pressed-powder compacts, hair ribbons, teasing combs, barrettes, lip-gloss wands and tall aerosol cans of superhold hairspray are strewn among lonely Goldfish crackers on the geometric pattern of the industrial-grade carpet. An arsenal of curling irons and hot rollers overloads the hallway's few — and coveted — electrical outlets.

As children toddle, skip and shriek their way through this mess, their mothers follow, clutching miniature hangers holding poufy pink dresses and spangled swimsuits covered in dry-cleaner's plastic. One by one, the moms dump their burdens onto the carpet, staking out a few precious square feet of space to use as a personal dressing room for the afternoon.

Wendy Schomp, her mother and two daughters, Elizabeth, 4, and Katie, 6, are lucky. They got here early from their home in Virginia Beach and have claimed not only a bench, but an electrical outlet, too. As grandma applies rose-colored blush to Katie's smooth cheeks, Schomp struggles to set Elizabeth's long, silky brown hair in oversized hot rollers. "They always have their grumps about getting ready," she says as Elizabeth starts to whine about being hungry. "When we do bigger nationals they have a hairdresser from Louisiana. They never complain about her."

At their tender ages, Elizabeth and Katie, and most of the children roaming through the scattered beauty paraphernalia, are veterans of children's pageants. While other children their age are out fielding Little League balls, scoring soccer goals and splashing in the neighborhood pool, these kids are suiting up for their activity: the 2000 Richmond Preliminary Pageant of America's Gorgeous Girls.

Most Americans got their first look at the world of children's pageants when 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was brutally and mysteriously murdered in Boulder, Colo., on Christmas night, 1996. JonBenet, who had been a contestant in numerous national pageants, was immediately labeled a "child beauty queen," and provocative images of her performing at pageants played on news broadcasts for months, suggesting that her participation in pageants was linked to her murder. Nearly four years later the image of JonBenet, with her teased blonde hair, glossy red lips and seductive poses, is still etched into our collective consciousness.

"The media has made [pageants] an ugly thing because of the JonBenet scenario," says Sheila Call, national director of the America's Gorgeous Girls pageant. "It has made a mess of pageants. They are just starting to come back now."

In fact, the local pageant scene is surprisingly vibrant. At Milby's Just Kids Pageant Headquarters in Meadowbrook Plaza on the South Side, registration forms for a half-dozen upcoming pageants are prominently displayed near the store's entrance. Today's Richmond Preliminary Pageant of America's Gorgeous Girls, directed by Darlene Craft of Powhatan, has 19 registered contestants, ranging from 4 months to 7 years old.

The parents whose children are involved in the pageant circuit are acutely aware of JonBenet's legacy, and it makes some skittish about talking to the media — or even their friends and families — about their daughters' hobby. They know people have preconceived notions about children's pageants from what they have seen on TV, and worse yet, negative images of evil, back-stabbing "pageant moms." They insist pageants have gotten an unjustly bad rep since JonBenet.

"I see no difference between pageants and Little League," says Gloria Lathrop of Powhatan whose two granddaughters, Brittney, 13, and Lyndsey, 2, are involved in pageantry. "How many horror stories have you heard about that? ... There are a lot of really good things about pageants that people don't understand."

Pageant director Craft, whose 2«-year-old daughter, Carrington, has held more than 40 pageant titles this year, says she got her daughter involved in pageants "just for fun." "We're a stay-at-home mom and kid," she says. "It gets her out of the house. … If we go and she's having a bad day, we'll pull her out. But as long as she wants to do it, we'll let her do it."

Lathrop credits "Miss America-type pageants," which include an interview component, with helping her 13-year-old granddaughter Brittney develop self-confidence and poise. "Brittney can go in and talk to anyone and there are not many people who can do that," she says. Lathrop adds that pageants have made her closer with her daughters and granddaughters, giving them "a common bond."

"If you keep the right attitude it can be a great experience," she says.

The mothers gathered at the Holiday Inn Central for the America's Gorgeous Girls pageant echo Lathrop's sentiment. After all, if this weren't a positive experience for their children, why would they be involved in pageants?

Allison White Twente, Ph.D, of Westhampton Family Psychologists, understands all of the arguments parents make in favor of pageants, but says she can't help but "get a gut feeling of concern about the focus on appearance."

"It really sends a message that what's on the outside matters more than what's on the inside and that seems to be at odds with everything we're trying to teach kids," she says.

Lathrop says she avoids the beauty trap by entering her granddaughters mostly in the "Miss America" type pageants, where there is more of an emphasis on personality, talent and academics. "It's not all on how you look," she says. "That's why we like the pageants that have the interview, they're judged on their poise and personality … how can anybody fault that?"

[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Shelby, Alicia and Rosie model their pastel pageant dresses in the 7-9 age group. At this age, the girls are well-versed in pageant techniques and know how to work the stage and play to the judges.Twente also questions the participation of young children in pageants. First there's the question of the elaborate hair and Twente also questions the participation of young children in pageants. First there's the question of the elaborate hair and makeup. "I'm bothered by how pseudo-adult the kids are expected to be," she says. "It has really struck me as kind of an odd thing when really what we need to emphasize is kids being kids." In addition, she asks, "How much of this is emanating from the kid, and how much is the parent imposing? [What] we have to recognize is that anything involving kids 3 and under is being motivated by their parents. … There is the sense of it coming out of a parent's unmet needs — maybe someone who felt like they were an ugly child or wished they could be in pageants will get their children involved, so it feels like a loving, helpful thing to do. They are giving their children opportunities they never had. But it becomes sort of a distorted, narcissistic extension of yourself."

Twente cautions parents to be careful about their decision to let their children compete, to keep their lives balanced and maintain a lighthearted outlook on the whole experience. "Parents who proceed into pageants have to be really guarded in how they expect it to affect their kids," she says. "Self-esteem is about more than appearance. To have it so focused on how curly your hair is or how pretty your dress is the wrong direction to go."

Seven-year-old Shelby Smith of Richmond nibbles on a bologna sandwich as her mother, Patty, organizes her daughter's outfits for the day. First, she will wear a pink pageant dress with a sweetheart neckline, puffy sleeves, full, short skirt and sewn-on pearls the size of penny gum balls for the beauty part of the competition. Similar dresses sell at Milby's from $70 to more than $300. Then Shelby will change into a $6 electric-blue swimsuit from Wal-Mart that her mother has transformed with pink silk flowers and pearls into a pageant-worthy (though not pool-worthy) swimsuit.

Shelby, who has creamy skin, wavy brown hair and an irresistibly silly giggle, entered her first pageant about a year ago, the Cover Miss Pageant in Fredericksburg, and won. "I won a crown, four banners, four ribbons and some bathroom stuff," she proudly recalls. She became interested in pageants after her mother was named Miss Virginia Achievement 2000 and won her own crown and banner.

"I'm really picky and choosy about what I let her do," says Smith, a single mom who works as a home-healthcare nurse. "We don't do all of them. One, I don't have the money. Bills come first. And I always ask her first, 'Do you want to do it, yes or no.' If she's not having a good time, we don't do it."

Patty says she's seen her share of pageant-crazy moms and that she's very careful not to take it too far. "I really hate it when they say, 'We won this and we won that,'" she says as she fluffs Shelby's dress. "No. She won. It's her victory. I just iron the clothes."

Across the hallway, 5-year-old Alexandra Harris of Virginia Beach sits silently as her mom, Diane, works on her "pageant pouf," the standard hairstyle of the pageant circuit. The pouf is achieved by rolling the child's hair in hot rollers, back combing it, teasing it until it stands out like a fright wig, spraying it until it is shellacked, and teasing it some more into the perfect beauty-queen hairdo.

Next to them, 3«-year-old Courtney Painter of Weyers Cave silently sniffs a tube of lip gloss as her mother, Jessica, applies layer after layer of mascara to the fine-featured child's huge, Precious Moments eyes.

In the bathroom, mothers help their daughters into their pageant dresses, taking care not to smear lipstick or flatten a pouf. The girls' dresses, some custom-made, are virtually identical but for a few minor variations in details. One may have more rhinestones than sequins, another has a cutout back, another has a high ruffled collar to highlight the wearer's face. The dresses are overwhelmingly pink, and all are most certainly pastel.

Inside the Windsor Room, a small hotel conference room where the pageant is to be held, a few of the girls who have already dressed practice their walk down a T-shaped stage. To the left of the stage is the awards table laden with trophies, crowns, pageant banners and toys such as Furbys, Beanie Babies and Barbie dolls. At the foot of the stage is a table where the pageant's judges will sit. It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and today, the beholders that matter most are the three judges who will crown Richmond's version of America's Gorgeous Girl.

Kim Ocasio, 25, is one of the pageant's judges. As a pageant director and pageant mom herself, she knows how difficult it can be to choose the most beautiful child from among a group of beautiful children.

"I wish there was another way to do pageants except for beauty," she says wistfully, a few days before the pageant. "But that's just the way of the world. People are going to judge a person from the outside. ... When you lose you have to deal with it."

Ocasio sponsors about a pageant per month through Nia Productions, a pageant production company named after her 13-month-old daughter Nia, herself a pint-sized beauty queen.

"I'm trying to change the pattern of pageants here in Richmond," she says of her events. "This is a big business, you can make a lot of money. But I just want to keep it small and local so the kids can have fun."

An Internet search reveals sites for more than 190 national pageant systems. Since she started her pageants less than a year ago, Ocasio has built up a mailing list of 150 pageant families from Fredericksburg to Virginia Beach.

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