Audience participation had begun to reach a manic level. Several mothers were poking thumbs in their ears and wiggling their fingers, crossing their eyes, sticking out their tongues, leaping and clowning.
Up on the stage of a ballroom at Anaheim's Inn at the Park hotel, their 3-year-old daughters were posing prettily, obligingly producing the hoped-for response. Others, their composure collapsing, were laughing outright at the adults' silliness. It was all too much for one mother.
"Smile, dammit!" she shouted.
But the children's attention had wandered. Most of the girls had become absorbed with the contents of a small makeup kit each of them had been given. One child, dressed in white satin and lace, her short blond hair neatly curled, opened the kit and began applying the makeup to herself and anyone else who would let her.
"Look at that," a member of the audience said, laughing. "Only 3 and already a beauty consultant."
One mother, watching the makeup fly, became concerned.
"Someone should take that kit from her," she said. "If she gets any on that dress, she'll ruin it, and it cost a small fortune."
And so these dresses do, sometimes upwards of $200. They are, after all, designer creations and are considered by some to be de rigeur for the dozens of children's beauty pageants held in Southern California each year.
There are half a dozen major children's pageant systems, as they are known, that hold competitions in the county, but pageant directors and parents of contestants said it is possible to find a pageant to enter somewhere in Southern California on almost any weekend of the year.
They are, in a sense, scaled-down versions of adult pageants, complete with awards in subcategories such as talent, modeling, personality, bathing suit and individual physical features--smile, eyes, hair. Each entrant is announced by a master of ceremonies as the child strolls down a runway, smiles and often does a model's turn for the judges. Winners are given crowns, tiaras, sashes, flowers and trophies.
Some pageants award toys to young entrants, while others give the winners prizes such as videotape players, savings bonds or money for college scholarships.
From infants to pre-teens, however, the idea is to produce a maximum of cuteness in a minimum of time before the judges. At the recent Little Miss and Mr. Elegant pageant at the Inn at the Park, the kids got plenty of encouragement.
"Stephanie comes to us from Riverside," the announcer said, introducing the first of a long list of 4-year-old competitors. "Her ambition is to become a model. Her favorite food is mashed potatoes, and her greatest achievement is that she cuts her own hair."
The girl walked with assured poise to the center of the stage, performed a model's turn, then walked to the end of the runway and paused to smile at the judges and her mother in the audience. Her hands rested lightly on her fingertip-length skirts, flared by several petticoats, giving the impression of an upside-down carnation.
Jackie Parker of Yorba Linda, one of the judges, said she thought the girl's performance was a bit too pat.
"We like to see children with natural smiles and sparkle," said Parker, the mother of four former child competitors and herself a former contestant in the Mrs. California pageant. "With the youngsters, we are not as strict about modeling technique. We look for good grooming, a coordinated outfit of proper length as well as that sparkling personality. Too many of the children come out like little robots."
Sherry Lagasse of El Toro said such artificiality caused her to pull her daughter, Kelly, out of the pageants after she competed for the first time in the 5-year-old category--and won.
"It was so ridiculous," she said. "Here are these tiny girls moving like little robots, completely programmed, blowing kisses at the judges, winking. It really made me sick. Kelly won her competition, but I decided that this just wasn't something I wanted to be involved in. If she wanted to do it when she was older, then fine."
She did. Kelly began competing again at age 11 because, she said, one of her best friends was competing and talked her into it. She now competes in the 11-12 age division.
"She's won every competition except one, and in that competition she won all the optionals," Lagasse said. "Now I enjoy the pageants because I know Kelly is doing this because she wants to. I've noticed that since competing she has become very self-confident. She has no fear of getting up in front of people."
Patty Kahaunaele of Riverside said she began entering her daughter, Danielle, 9, in pageants to accomplish the same thing.
"She was quite shy," Kahaunaele said. "and I wanted to see her become more outgoing. She's been competing for 1 year now, and she's won more than 100 awards. This is the girl who used to stand behind me when she was asked a question. And now she's come to this."