As a winner of countless little girls' beauty pageants, including Little Miss Colorado, 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey had what pageant insiders knowingly call "the look."
A cascade of blond hair. Bee-stung lips. Prominent cheekbones. Wide eyes, not unlike every female lead character in every recent Disney animated movie. (Belle, Jasmine, Ariel, Esmeralda--the list goes on and on.)
But more than just looks, JonBenet had that indefinable "it"--a preternatural poise and grace. In a videotaped performance of her singing at a pageant, she exhibited a coquettish allure that stopped barely short of seductive, one that transformed her from an adorable 6-year-old into a chillingly adult-like woman-child.
The videotape was riveting, not only for the obvious reason of JonBenet's death, but because it raises troubling questions about the way in which some children's beauty pageants objectify and even sexualize their participants.
V.J. LaCour, for one, has all but stopped judging those children's pageants that strictly emphasize looks. And she's no feminist crusader. LaCour, of Citrus Heights, Calif., near Sacramento, has been involved in pageants for 20 years as a pageant judge and now as publisher of the glossy Pageant Life magazine, a quarterly trade publication that reaches 60,000 industry participants, directors and vendors. (Pageantry--now a $5-billion industry--supports numerous such magazines and newsletters.)
LaCour is a vocal disciple of pageantry and for what it can offer girls: discipline, fun, mother-daughter togetherness, poise and confidence in public speaking and performing.
But she is repelled by that slice of youth pageantry that rewards Lolita-like participants who look and pose well beyond their years.
A review of photos of these little girls in the pageant magazines proves the point. In one, a 6-year-old blond from Ohio could easily pass for 12, with her frosted, wind-swept hair and dark mascara. In another, an 8-year-old Philadelphia girl with flowing black curls and snapping black eyes might as well be a senior in high school, so mature is her mien. And in still another, a 6-year-old Michigan girl could have walked onto the set of "Designing Women" with her big hair.
"They don't remind me of kids. They're trained. They all look the same," LaCour said. The winners' families, she said, pay smartly to achieve that look. Many spend upward of $800 on custom-made pageant dresses--sartorial confections of satin and taffeta, net sleeves and rhinestone-studded bodices. Some even hire hairdressers to accompany them to competitions. And many hire coaches who work to sharpen the girls' talent presentations and interviewing skills.
"They go from one pageant to another, constantly, and the emphasis is put on win, win, win," LaCour said.
She prefers the "scholarship pageants," competitions in which judges also consider a participant's academic record, talents and personality. "They allow children to be children," LaCour said.
Many of those, such as America's Darling and Lil' Darling pageants run by 69-year-old Adelyn Foreman of Orlando, Fla., strongly discourage makeup. More than once, Foreman said, she has urged mothers who slather on blush, lipstick and mascara to "please, please don't do that, please tone it down."
She also eschews fancy, expensive pageant dresses. "In the beauty division, someone with a cute little Sunday Easter dress will win," said Foreman, whose nonprofit pageants are held in 10 states.
(She donates all profits to children's charities such as the Children's Wish Foundation in Maitland, Fla., for children with life-threatening diseases.)
"I say, 'Please let your children look natural,' " Foreman said.
Yet, decades after the feminist movement sought to reduce the emphasis on girls' looks, guess which type pageant--scholarship or beauty--is most popular?
"The beauty pageants still reign," LaCour said.
And not only do they reign, but they are growing.
Sunburst Beauty Pageants out of Tallahassee, Fla., has become one of the largest youth pageant systems, a 19-year-old concern with events in 40 states and Canada. "We're simply looking for a pretty little face," said executive director Theresa Spooner.
She believes Sunburst has thrived because parents see the pageants as a way to build their children's self-esteem. Everyone gets a trophy. And, she said, the prizes--savings bonds, toys, television sets, jewelry and 6-foot trophies--make their events "look like Christmas."
"Basically, at our pageants, everybody's happy. Maybe that's why we've done so well," Spooner said.
When Mike Maki began keeping tabs on the pageant industry a decade ago, he counted about 130 national pageant systems. Those included pageants for girls and women from babies to grandmothers--systems that included local, regional or state, and, finally, national competitions. (He doesn't even begin to count the local beauty contests that crown their own peanut- and rose-festival queens.)