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Getting a Head Start on Miss America : Contest: 200 children compete for fame and prizes at pint-sized pageant.


Austin Sponsel strode across the stage with the practiced moves of a professional runway model, the one-piece white bathing suit contrasting sharply with her black sunglasses. After a few spins, she turned her back to the crowd and shot the judges her favorite pose--her face tilted rakishly downward, her long blond curls swept smartly to one side.

It was the work of a pro. Her mother stood in the wings, smiling approvingly. They both knew the routine so well--after all, the reigning Mrs. Minnesota and her daughter practiced it so often together. But Sheila Sponsel already had her crown. Her daughter was still shooting for one.

Not that a pedigree makes life any easier on the national beauty pageant circuit. Future fame exacts a price, even if, like Austin, you are only 6 years old.

Austin was one of nearly 200 girls and boys competing for fame, cash and prizes at the annual Little Miss of America Pageant at the Century Plaza Hotel last weekend.

The ages are about all that separate this spectacle from the grown-up beauty pageants. The pressure is great, the rivalries real, the stage mothers abundant.

Sandy Regan, whose daughter Chelsea has been competing against Austin Sponsel for years, said she quit her job to devote herself to the pageant circuit full time.

"I feel like I'm investing in her future," the Minnesota resident said. "Ultimately, the goal is to land a career in modeling or commercials."

Susan Gibson, a former Miss Oklahoma, started the national pageant in 1979, and the event has grown so much that this year it moved to a larger hotel.

The pageant, based in Beverly Hills, offers titles for Tiny Miss, Little Miss, Master, Young Miss, and Miss Teen, as well as prizes ranging from a Burbank apartment (six months' free rent) to an interview with a top Hollywood casting agency.

Many of the children already have agents and have done commercials. Some have done films.

For most of their parents, it's a large business expense. In lieu of an entry fee, pageant contestants pay up to $350 to have their photo included in the pageant catalogue. Throw in air fare, hotel expenses, clothes and other essentials, and each stop on the multi-legged tour costs about $4,000. Beverly Hills resident Tina Brosius, a three-year veteran of the circuit, has a wardrobe alone that is worth about $10,000.

Austin Sponsel impressed the judges, but against a lineup of professionals, she fell back into the pack.

On this day, it was Beverly Hills resident Tina's turn to shine. With dozens of pageants under her belt, more than 300 national awards and numerous television and print commercials to her credit, Tina can cry on cue and belt out "Ain't He Sweet" at the first casting director's call.

Her version of "The Tennessee Waltz" was such a knockout that even the judges, most of them professional casting agents, were motionless.

And when she finished, it was clear that all those years of voice and acting lessons, auditions and rehearsals had finally paid off. Tina took home the talent trophy and was named 1990 Tiny Miss of America.

And with that, Tina's mom, Beverly, announced that Tina would now retire from the circuit--at least until she's eligible for the Miss America Pageant.

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