The murder of JonBenét Ramsey brought them a barrage of media attention. But as Julia Reed reports child beauty pageants have long been a world unto themselves. Photographed by Mary Ellen Mark.
June 1997

THE TROPHY LIFE:Ten-year-old Brittani Barbo, like her mother, is a veteran of child beauty pageants.

I have to admit that there was a point during the Tiny Miss division of the 1997 Miss Delta Pageant when I began to understand why Newsweek chose the word peculiar to describe the world of child pageantry. It was during the sportswear segment, when the audience was told that the hobbies of contestant number one, a two-year-old with a purple pom-pom on her head, included "horseback riding, singing, and shopping." While the contestant stood onstage sucking her fingers, her mother waved from the audience like a madwoman, in an unsuccessful attempt to get her daughter to do the same. "Her ambition," the announcer said of the disoriented toddler, "is to make everyone smile."

Next came contestant number two -"She has brown hair and green eyes and is three-and-a-half feet tall"-followed by contestant number three, a four-year-old with diamond studs in her ears who prefers watching Barney and playing bingo to singing and shopping, and who responded so well to her own mother's waving that she wouldn't stop. But the real excitement came with the announcement that an eight-year-old contestant in the Little Miss division would perform with her pet monkey. Having already sat through an earnest but interminable "vocal interpretation" of the theme from Disney's Pocahontas, I thought the monkey was good news indeed. And the monkey's owner was a natural -a beautiful girl in bubble-gum-pink satin who ate up the stage while she belted out "Animal Crackers in My Soup." I punched my companion: "We are looking at a future Miss Mississippi." The monkey, though, was a great disappointment -he was stuffed.

It had been three months since JonBenét Ramsey was killed; I was home for the weekend, the contest was in the paper, so I went. I'd never been to a live pageant before, which is not to say I'd never seen a live pageant queen. Mississippi is so famous for its beauty queens -or "titled women," as my father insists on calling them- that "to queen" is actually a verb. We have queens representing almost every agricultural product as well as every mall, municipality, and local festival. The whole state has been in a Miss America frenzy since Mary Ann Mobley and Lynda Mead won back-to-back titles in 1959 and 1960. In the years between 1980 and 1990, we had more consecutive swimsuit winners (women do not wear "bathing suits" in the Miss America pageant) than any other state, "a record that still stands," Miss Mississippi affiliate Pat Hopson proudly tells me. Last year, the first year that viewers were allowed to phone in their votes for Miss America, I called everybody I know and told them to turn on their televisions and vote for Miss Mississippi, who should, of course, have won.

For every titled woman, for every Catfish Queen and Poultry Princess, there is a Little Miss Catfish Queen and Baby Miss Poultry Princess. Child pageants are not only not "peculiar," they are a way of life. If you're willing to drive a hundred miles, it's possible to hit a child pageant almost every Saturday night-the same week I attended the Miss Delta Pageant there was an article in the Jackson paper about a four-year-old who had already been in 48 pageants, one for every month of her life so far. Mississippi's last Miss America, Susan Akin, started out at six as a Miss La Petite and reigned as Little Miss America before she became the real thing.

All this early queening gave rise to a famous quote from a resentful Yankee pageant contestant who complained that "there ought to be a different category for Southern girls. They've been doing this since they were born." But they are no longer the only ones-the three states that currently hold the most child pageants are California, Florida, and New York. Nationwide, more than 100,000 children under the age of twelve compete in 3,000 pageants. In the past 25 years, the number of contestants has grown along with the number of "pageant systems," for-profit organizations modeled after the nonprofit Miss America system that promote community service and award scholarships. Also, state pageants that are part of the Miss America organization itself increasingly allow child pageants to be held in conjunction with their local preliminary contests for the simple reason that they are expensive to put on, and more events mean more parents and grand-parents and friends to buy tickets and ads in the pageant program.

It's a lucrative business-at the national level contestants pay as much as $500 to enter, meaning that the promoters can clear more than $100,000. Further, the pageants have spawned numerous support industries, including costume designers, grooming consultants, interview coaches, photographers, and publishers. One Sacramento quarterly called Pageant Life Magazine has a circulation of 60,000.

So despite the national news media's horrified discovery, in the wake of JonBenét's death, of this "subculture of pageants and spangled finery" (Newsweek), not to mention "the strange world of children's beauty contests" (Time), there are a whole lot of people for whom these pageants are not in the least bit strange.

A lot of them seem to live in Laurel, Mississippi, where I was directed by a staffer in the Miss Mississippi office who knew a woman there famous for her pageant dresses. It turned out to be a good move. The pageant culture is so ingrained in Laurel, a timber town of 18,000, that voluntary pageants are held in the public schools starting in the first grade. And Linda Grantham not only has made dresses for just about every girl who has been in them, she was organizing the Jones County preliminary for the International Miss Youth Development Program, for ages "0 to l7" to be held on Easter weekend.

The International Miss program was founded three years ago by Dot and Mike Brown, a couple from Mobile, Alabama, who had been involved for years with the Louisiana-based Our Little Miss pageant. The Browns' daughter, Brandy, who opened on Broadway at ten in Les Misérables and who is now International Miss Youth Development Spokesperson, began competing in Our Little Miss pageants at three and won the Alabama state title at six. When Brandy was seven, the Browns quit their jobs (Dot taught baton twirling and Mike worked for ITT) and took over the state Our Little Miss franchise, which meant that Brandy had to quit competing. "She was disappointed," Dot tells me. "But it was a business decision." They started their own program with a partner from Arkansas when the Our Little Miss leadership became dominated by women they didn't approve of.

International Miss is now a national program with its own "master host," whose actual name is Mister Lynn and whose official biography says he is the first master of ceremonies to have been inducted into the Beauty Pageant Hall of Fame. International Miss winners receive scholarship money, and winners and losers alike are invited to participate in events throughout the year, including riding in local parades, participating in charity walkathons and telethons, and visiting nursing homes. National winners go to New York at Thanksgiving, where they meet with modeling and talent agents and attend the Macy's parade.

Linda Grantham followed the Browns to International Miss from Our Little Miss. Linda's daughter Misty, now a stunning sixteen-year-old, began competing in Our Little Miss at nine, winning the state title in the Little Miss division at ten, before going to International Miss, where she won the Teen Miss state title (there are five standard "youth development program" divisions: Baby Miss [0 to 2], Petite Miss [3 to 6], Little Miss [7 to 9], Young Miss [10 to 12], and Teen Miss [13 to 17]). Like the Browns, the Granthams treat the pageants as a family affair. Linda, a former home-economics teacher who now works at the state school for the blind, has been recruiting contestants, sewing like mad, and publicizing the pageant (which includes taking me to the local country radio station and the local paper). Her husband, Larry, the principal at Northeast Jones County High School, would rather be fishing this weekend, but the pageant is being held at his high school's "gymnatorium," making him de facto host. Misty's talent is ballet, which Linda credits with keeping her out of trouble-"You can't do a pas de deux when you're pregnant"-and she will perform at the pageant rather than compete, since she's already won her division at the state level.

Registration takes place Friday night. In the gymnatorium, Mike Brown hangs silver tinsel as a backdrop on the stage, while whole families arrive to sign up their kids. In all, 20 girls register. The Baby Miss division, with seven contestants, is the most popular but also the most controversial. Some critics of child pageants say they actually don't mind when infants participate, because they're too young to know what's going on. Dot Brown herself says she thinks the baby division is "ridiculous" but added it to her program because the parents demanded it. She would prefer, she says, to start with the Petite Miss division, "when they can function on their own. At three, they know if they want to be on that stage or not, or if they want to go home."

In each division, $50 buys "the complete package," enabling the children to compete for side awards like "prettiest hair" and "prettiest smile." There are eight extra categories, a device that not only makes more money for the promoters but also ensures that even if a contestant doesn't place in her division, she will more than likely take home something, thereby dramatically lessening the chance of tears. Two of the side awards involve photographs -"most photogenic" and "best portfolio" (usually a Naugahyde-bound collection of eight photographs) -staple categories in every pageant system and the reason there are so many dozens of studio photographs of JonBenét Ramsey available to the press.

A woman who read about the pageant in the local paper signs up her eighteen-month-old daughter, Emileigh. I ask if this is her first pageant. "No, it's her second. She won first alternate at America's Showcase of Beauty at the Dixie Golf Club back in August." On her card, which Brandy will use to introduce her during the pageant, her mother writes that her talent is "being cute," her sport is "peekaboo," and her hobby is "talking on the phone." Next, a daddy signs up his eleven-month-old daughter, Madison Kate. Eric Johnson is a nice guy, a highway patrolman who is entering his first child in the pageant, he says, "not for the competitive aspect but because it'll be a fun thing to do with the family and the baby. It'll be fun to see how she reacts, to see how her little personality comes out onstage." He fills out the most honest registration card so far. Madison Kate's hobby, he writes, is "watching cows," and her ambition is "to walk before she is one."

The daddies are actually prouder than the mothers. Doug Barnett introduces me to his eighteen-month-old daughter, Keri Dawn. Her mother has already asked me if I know how to get kids into "baby commercials"; Doug just wants to talk about his daughter's blue eyes. "They just stare right through you, don't they?" he asks me, and they do. (She will win 'prettiest eyes" the next day.)

LITTLE MISS PERFECT, FROM LEFT: Kara McIlwain, age twelve, Natalea Thomson, nine, and Candice Wade, eight, wait their turn.

Brittani Barbo, ten, is accompanied by her grandmother, who tells me, "I did all these with her mama. I started putting her in pageants when she was three." She started Brittani at just six months, and they still try to make a pageant almost every weekend. Brittani is a thin, polite, and extraordinarily controlled child who won Miss Pre-teen Junior Mississippi at nine. "In her interview they asked what she would say to lure tourists to Mississippi if she were the state's spokesperson," her grandmother says. "I thought to myself, She don't even know what a spokesperson is." But Brittani didn't miss a beat. "I told them that they could go to Tupelo to visit Elvis's birthplace, and to the Biloxi coast to see marine life, and they could stay in beautiful motels wherever they went." Brittani won a $1,000 scholarship and a trip to three states of her choice. I ask her if she likes spending all her free time this way. "Oh, yes," she says, smiling sweetly at me as though I were a pageant interviewer. "You get to meet lots of different people. I think pageants are fun."

One child definitely not having any fun is three-year-old Lauren Lewis. She has not stopped crying since her family brought her into the gymnatorium, and she is not thinking about cooperating with filling out the registration card. "What's your favorite thing to eat?" her mother asks her. "Pizza? Hamburgers?" Lauren wails. "Tell Daddy what you like to eat," Mom says, trying again. "Don't you like French fries?” Lauren sniffles: "I don't know." Mama gives up, but Daddy's got the answer. "Put down French fries," he says. "That'll work."

After registration, Dot lectures the parents. "Sportsmanship plays a very, very big role in our program. Your child may not place where you think she should, but as a parent we have to support our children wherever they place. If you're a poor sport in front of your child, if I were the child I would feel like I had let you down." (I am very relieved at this admonition. I've already been told a story by a former Miss Florida who judged a children's pageant in Mississippi where, she says, "the sponsors had the judges turn in their ballots and leave before the results were announced because they were afraid of what the parents might do to us.") Dot moves on to the touchy subject of makeup. She's already told me she has never seen a child wearing as much makeup as JonBenét, but I point out that there are girls in the International Miss national pageant book who look just like her. Dot sighs and says she can't control all the parents. To these she says, "They are allowed to wear makeup because the lights do wash them out, but it should be applied very discreetly. The babies shouldn't wear dark, dark blush. The makeup should actually enhance the child's beauty, not cover it up. It should be age-appropriate."

The next morning by eight, the contestants in the Baby and Petite Miss categories, who go on first, have already gathered for hair and makeup. Kim Thomson, a former pageant girl who is now public-relations director at Laurel's art museum, is making up her four-year-old daughter, MaryLacey. She's been in only one other pageant, but she stands, patient as a pro, with her hands on her hips and her face tilted toward her mother. I ask Kim if this particular makeup job qualifies as age-appropriate, and she laughs. "Not hardly. Lipstick of any color is not appropriate for a four-year-old, but the lights do wash you out." First she applies Clinique Confetti lipstick and pink blush. Next she dips a toothbrush into brown powder and brushes Mary Lacey's eyebrows. "We don't pluck our eyebrows, so we have to do like Brooke Shields." She asks MaryLacey if she'd like some eyeliner. "What's eyeliner?" "That stuff Mommy puts under her eyes." Mary Lacey shakes her head no. "How about some mascara?" Mary Lacey shakes her head again, but Kim talks her into it, telling me she uses only Mary Kay mascara "because it doesn't burn when you wash it off." When she's finished, she says, "If I had to guess, I'd think you were the prettiest four-year-old I'd ever seen in my whole life." MaryLacey agrees-she cannot stop grinning at herself in the mirror.

BLONDE AMBITION: MaryLacey Thomson, age four, from Laurel, Mississippi, wants to be "a rock star like Madonna." At the International Miss local preliminary, her mother, Kim, a former pageant winner herself, gets Mary Lacey ready for the party-dress segment of the Petite Miss division.

Lauren's makeup session is not nearly so successful, because for one thing she is still crying. Her two aunts (they've enrolled her; her parents are there only to watch) explain to me that "she's just real shy." Why then, I ask, are you putting her in this pageant? They respond that they loved doing it when they were children, that sooner or later she will, too. It seems unlikely to be sooner, since each application of mascara has ended up as charcoal tears down Lauren's face. "Don't cry," says an aunt, putting on the sixth coat so far. "You're smearing your makeup."

The aunts take her to the stage for the interview segment (this is done with the curtains still drawn before the pageant actually begins) with the two out-of-town judges. There are only three contestants in the Petite Miss division, and Lauren sits between MaryLacey and six-year-old Case-Lee Newell. MaryLacey, in her pink plaid cotton interview dress, stands while Dot asks her what she does to help her mother around the house. "I help her bring my brother's diaper and I help her bring him his bottle." Dot asks what she likes best about school and MaryLacey says playtime. When it's Lauren's turn, Dot tells her to “stand right there where MaryLacey was standing," but Lauren presses her back hard against the chair. Dot asks if she's been to see the Easter bunny, but Lauren looks blank. Dot says, "Lauren, would you like to tell us how old you are?" No response. "Lauren, do you go to school?" Lauren lets out a shriek. "Do you have any brothers and sisters?" An aunt has appeared behind her and is whispering frantically in her ear, but Lauren is still shrieking. At this point, Dot whisks past the aunt and helps Lauren off the stage. Brandy shakes her head. "I have never seen a preteen that bad."

While the Petite Misses change into their "party dresses," the show officially begins. The audience, made up of about 50 parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends, applaud the Baby Misses as Brandy announces them. "Contestant number five is Alex Sullivan. She is 28 months old with black hair and brown eyes." We're told that "her hobby is getting into things" and that "her ambition is to be the best that she can be." Contestant number seven is Madison Kate Johnson, who is carried onstage by her highway-patrolman father. Linda, sitting next to me in the audience, whispers that she'll do well: "Those judges love for the daddies to be involved." Madison Kate, in a ruffled white dress and a white garter around her mostly bald head, does indeed do well, winning the title of "princess and successor to the crown" in case the winner can't fulfill her obligations. I can't imagine what those obligations could be, since the winner is Madison Kate's fifteen-month-old first cousin Hayden Davis, who won the judges' hearts by blowing kisses at the audience and smiling throughout. The only time Hayden cries is when the blue-and-white garter around her own head is replaced with her new rhinestone crown.

MaryLacey, not surprisingly, wins the Petite Miss division. She blows kisses to the audience during the party-dress segment; she dances the Macarena as her optional talent. In a limegreen miniskirt, matching flowered blouse, and laceup brown boots, she brings the house down, applauding for herself at the end before throwing her arms up victoriously. Lauren's talent is listed as "singing Peter Cocktail [sic]," but this is wisely not attempted. She heaves and sobs during her turn onstage -leaving little doubt about the accuracy of Dot's theory that at three they know whether they want to be out there or not -but is nonetheless awarded medals for best portfolio and prettiest eyes.

After lunch, during the Little and Young Miss divisions, I sit with the judges. Theda Clarke, a veteran judge from Alabama and the mother of the reigning International Beauty in the Teen Division of the national International Miss Youth Development Program, explains that "our girls don't have to be skinny, they just have to be well proportioned. My own daughter's a little heavy." When the first contestant, eight-year-old Candice Wade, walks out in a floor-length red Linda gown, Theda says, "She needs to slow down a little bit and enjoy." MaryLacey's older sister, Natalea Thomson, is on next, and like her sister she's a natural. "See," Theda says, "this one enjoys."

She scribbles on her pad: "Great lipstick" (it is a deep shrimpy pink), "Great dress too" (it's one of Linda's -short white satin and lace with a full skirt and puffed sleeves), "Great smile." Theda's only criticism is that Natalea's eye makeup is too heavy. "Her facial makeup is perfect, but it's too heavy under the eyes. Otherwise she is really right on. We just need to get to her mother about the makeup."

The Young Misses are on next. Twelve-year-old Kara, by now an old pageant hand who wants to be a singer and a model, loses points for her open-toed shoes. They are actually very fashionable clunky-heeled sandals, but "unless they are clear," Theda explains, "opentoed shoes are a nono." (Clear plastic high heels are very big in pageants because they go with everything, except, I am told, in the Junior Miss system, where they are frowned upon.) Brittani Barbo walks out as though she is walking on eggshells. "She needs to speed it up a little," Theda says. "That is not a natural glide." Both judges write that she needs more lipstick, and I am mortified to realize that I agree. Twelve-year-old Shaina Herrington was penalized during the interview for wearing her dress too short (it was also quite fashionable -a turquoise piqué shift with daisy appliqués- but "too teenage" for the judges), and now when she sings the current Deana Carter hit "We Danced Anyway," Theda tells me the song has too much "dead time" in which Shaina basically stands around holding the microphone. "You always want to be careful picking a song with a lot of dead time unless you're choreographing," Theda says. But it's clear that Shaina, with her infectious smile and bubbly personality, is still the favorite. In the end, Shaina is crowned International Miss Young Miss. Natalea wins International Miss Little Miss, but Candice wins International Beauty, a side award based only on facial beauty that allows the recipients to compete in the state pageant with the division winners. Linda is thrilled. "Candice didn't place in a school pageant last week, and her little face just fell," she tells me. "This will be good for her self-esteem."

Self-esteem is what pageant supporters say the pageants are all about. "I think a big part of it is the confidence that you gain preparing for that stage Saturday night after Saturday night," says Angela Griffin, a flight attendant for American Airlines who is a former Mrs. Mississippi and owner of Pageant Complete, a pageant consulting business in Laurel. "It develops character." I talked to more than a dozen girls who've grown up in pageants, and each one mentioned the word goal. Kim Thomson, the mother of MaryLacey and Natalea, entered her first pageant at twelve, against her parents' wishes. "I loved getting dressed up, and I loved the competition. Competition makes you set goals for yourself, makes you never be satisfied with what's present; there's always something better, you can always be better."

The problems arise when the goal is the parents' and not the child's. Misty Grantham introduces me to her friend Dana, whose experience in pageants was a traumatic one. "It just seemed like the more I competed, the more tension there was in the family. If anything went wrong or if I lost, my mother wouldn't think I'd done my best, and my daddy was always the go-between." At seventeen she got pregnant, and "that solved that." Her parents were furious. "They wanted me to be Miss Mississippi and Miss America." Larry Grantham points out that parents who want to live through their children are hardly limited to pageantry. "Working in the school, I see boys going out for football because their fathers never played." Misty tells me about another friend whose mother wanted her to be a cheerleader so badly that she locked the child out of the house until ten o'clock at night when she had finally perfected her back handspring.

Even girls who have been victimized remain pro-pageant. Dana is currently resisting her mother's efforts to enroll her child, now two, in pageants ("They had big plans for me, and I ruined them. Now they want to take over my child's life"). But she says one day she'll do it herself. "Eventually, before she even asks, I will. I know every mother says they don't want to make the same mistakes her own mother did. But it's good experience."

JonBenét's mother, Patsy Ramsey, is a classic example of a former pageant queen who wanted her child to have the same experience (she was Miss West Virginia, as was her sister). It's not unlike sending your daughter to the same prep school you attended, and it ensures that, for better or worse, pageants are anything but a passing fad. It also means that just as there will always be battalions of former preppies roaming the land clutching hockey sticks and Filofaxes full of good connections, there will also be legions of former pageant girls: hyperfocused, goal-oriented but extremely well groomed women who put their husbands through school while working in their own high-profile jobs. Because, in fact, there are more success stories than sad ones, despite a recent article on child pageants in The Independent newspaper in London, in which the writer made the sweeping statement that "what usually lies ahead for these girls is pubescent depression, anorexia, bulimia, and other crippling disorders."

The man from The Independent should have talked to the pageant vets of Laurel. Kim Thomson's cousin Laurie Daniel, for example, says that in "elementary school I was very, very shy, and pageants helped me come out of my shell a lot. They taught me how to sit down and talk to people." She began as Miss Southern Sweetheart in a local mall pageant and became Mississippi's Modern Miss. Now at 25 she is a registered nurse who runs the nurse-recruitment program at the state psychiatric hospital. "I chair a lot of committees. I have to be able to speak, to direct meetings, carry out interviews. Pageants gave me those skills." Laurie is currently putting her husband through dental school. "I had to hurry and get out of school and go to work so I could put him through school. I am very goal-oriented." Her next goal is to be Mrs. Mississippi.

Twenty-three-year-old Alex O'Neal heads the speech-pathology unit at the Laurel hospital, appears in television commercials publicizing the unit, and just coauthored a book called Promoting Communication in Infants and Toddlers: 500 Ways to Succeed. She said pageants were "basic training" for her. Not only does she credit them with enabling her to get into a graduate program that accepted three applicants out of hundreds, her pageant scholarships helped pay for both her undergraduate and graduate education.

The scholarships are a big draw. "I'm already thinking that we have three kids to put through college," Kim tells me. "And these scholarships help. I don't see what's wrong with celebrating being smart and feminine instead of celebrating being athletic."

But important as the skills and training and scholarship money were to these women, the real reason they stuck with it is that pageants made them feel special. For her first junior high school pageant Alex wore a fuchsia dress by Linda Grantham drenched in "cracked ice." "You could see all the sparkles on it. It was just gorgeous. I put it on and felt like Cinderella." Kim says that from the time she was a child she wanted to be Cinderella. (She jokes that now she's the "liberated Cinderella. I'm the next chapter. I put my husband through school; I am the disciplinarian of my children, the provider for my family. I own a house, I drive a car, I have a career. And I still love to dress up and look my best.") Another veteran, Sandi Lyon Flynt, who now teaches business at the school where Larry Grantham is principal, says, "Look, this is a small town, and there are not a lot of occasions for dressing up. You don't get to feel glamorous that often." Sandi remembers the first pageant she won. "It was like a fairy tale. You feel like a million dollars, and I guess that projects."

Even two-year-olds like to feel like a million dollars. The mother of Ashlyim Craney, who won "best party dress" in the Baby Miss division, said she'd been waiting to put Ashlynn in a pageant since she was born. "Boys like to play in the dirt. Little girls like to look pretty." As long as that's true, the child beauty pageant will remain not only not peculiar but a firmly entrenched part of mainstream American culture.