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Scott Harris

A Judgment Call on Children's Beauty Pageants

January 16, 1997|Scott Harris

Months before the murder of little JonBenet Ramsey found its way to the evening news and the cover of Newsweek, a Santa Clarita woman, Marie Sprague, was troubled by the sight of children wearing cosmetics. As the proprietor of a pageant company called California's Cutest Kids, she had seen plenty.

"To see girls who are 3 and 4 and 5 years old with all that heavy makeup, well, I just think little girls should look like little girls."

Sprague is a former model and modeling instructor who entered the bustling child pageant biz 1 1/2 years ago. She has staged the San Fernando Valley's Cutest Kids, Santa Clarita's Cutest Kids, Antelope Valley's Cutest Kids, Thousand Oaks' Cutest Kids. Similar events have been organized by such companies as America's Darling Little Darlings, California Young American Miss International, Miss American Beauty, Enchanted Pageants and Ebony Beauty Pageants.

Sprague says she's "99% sure" that California's Cutest Kids will add a new rule: no makeup for girls under age 13.

Judges, she explains, are instructed to look for natural beauty. "How can they see natural beauty when they're wearing all that makeup?"

*

Interesting question. A better one is whether children should be paraded on stage and subjected to such judgments at all.

That was the question I brought to an assignment several years ago. An editor had opened a Manila envelope and found a studio-quality head shot of a stunning teenage cover girl with an unmistakable come-hither look. He did a double take and read the press release. This girl was 5 years old.

The girl--call her Tiffany--was very much like JonBenet. Her proud papa boasted how she had entered 19 pageants and won 12, how she was always named Most Photogenic, how she already had a Hollywood agent.

Expecting the worst, I visited with a photographer. Very soon dad was coaxing Tiffany to favor us with a song. Shyly, she did so:

Start spreading the news

I'm leaving today . . .

I would spend several hours over three days with the family, following Tiffany's progress through a statewide pageant. Perhaps they were on their best behavior, but the impression of overbearing stage parents soon melted. Tiffany seemed happy, her parents decent and loving. They weren't at all like, say, the father of my old Little League teammate, a man who once entered the dugout to spank his crying son for a boneheaded play.

No, Tiffany's folks seemed OK. The pageant, however, had some creepy moments.

Tiffany was in the "missy" division, ages 3 1/2 to 5 1/2. For some reason there was a swimsuit competition. The emcee jokingly described one girl as "a perfect 22-22-22."

The emcee would introduce each contestant. "And here's another cutesy-wootsy girl."

At one point he asked Tiffany whether she was "pretty just a little or pretty a whole lot?"

Tiffany paused. "Maybe not a whole lot."

Good for Tiffany, I thought. The judges, however, didn't choose her queen or even a member of the court--a first in her pageant career. Oh, she was selected Most Adorable and, as usual, Most Photogenic--nobody goes home empty-handed from these events--but Tiffany knew she'd flopped. "I didn't win anything," she said. "I didn't win any trophies or flowers or"--she slurred this last word--"accessories."

Later she cheered up and sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

*

Beauty may only be skin-deep, but certainly the media takes note. If the video of Polly Klaas had depicted a plain girl on a backyard swing, would she have become a household name? The murder of JonBenet Ramsey would have been of no interest to Newsweek, the networks or this newspaper--and the tabloid Globe--if not for the image of her performing coquettishly on stage.

Marie Sprague says it's unfair that JonBenet's murder has cast unflattering attention on kiddie pageants. Ideally, she says, this pastime is wholesome fun, a chance for girls, and sometimes boys, to develop poise, personality and confidence, though sometimes parents get carried away. "I've had some scream and yell at me because their daughters didn't win."

Sprague assured me that swimsuits aren't mandatory in her pageants. The events, she suggests, are much like youth sports. "You can't win all the time. You have to teach your children that this is for fun. . . . Teach them to be happy for the ones that make the queen and their court."

But in sports, the race usually goes to the swiftest. Beauty is always a judgment call.

Marie Sprague seemed nice and thoughtful. She invited me to cover the next Santa Clarita's Cutest Kids pageant.

Then she had a little brainstorm: "How would you like to be a judge?"

I told her thanks, but I'd have to pass.

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