THE MOST REMARKABLE THING about the little girls who gather at the Chula Vista Woman’s Club is the way they don’t quite fit in. The pink crepe paper and plastic bunnies and gold-colored trophies splashed around the large clubroom don’t do them justice; the hall, underneath it all, is still just a club room, ordinary and plain. Parents and relatives who pack the room, interchangeable with any Little League audience, look incapable of producing such living dolls. For, like television children fresh from their electronic stages, the girls glow with perfection—curls hot off their mothers’ curling irons, clothes as crisp as those in any magazine ad, smiles breaking angelically from subtly colored lips.
They are transformed, and that is part of the magic of the beauty pageant. From the countless hours in innumerable women’s clubs, from the many dollars measured out in dance studios and children’s clothing departments, from the unstinting motherly labor, arise these contestants, ruffle- and lace-covered bundles of charm and talent and smiles, who look curiously older than their years. The competition elevates them to another realm where today the trajectory aims them at the plastic and rhinestone crowns on the clubhouse piano. Tomorrow’s vision gleams even brighter: certainly bigger and better crowns; possibly television commercials; and for the rarefied few, the hope of even stardom.
The competition begins in settings like the Chula Vista club, where the youngest contestants, three years old, seem barely able to talk. Although individual children’s beauty pageants can be found all over the county from time to time, two major pageant systems. Our Little Miss and Cinderella Girl, compete in San Diego. Since the Cinderella contests began only last year when an Our Little Miss executive struck off on her own, the two compete jealously, each snatching up children who in turn are forbidden from trafficking with the opposite organization. Each group complains about the lack of publicity it receives, but word of mouth draws about 200 local youngsters into the game every year.
Newcomers start with the “preliminary” contest, and from the beginning they must brace themselves for work. Our Little Miss state director Dorothy Shreve concedes at the Chula Vista affair that preliminaries usually make for a long, hard day, and “the winner has to be the one who can stand the pressure.” That pressure begins early, bringing girls and their mothers out of the Saturday sun and into the clubhouse for a nine a.m. rehearsal. Entrants seldom rehearse on a separate day since “the girls simply forget what they’ve learned,” Shreve says. This drill runs smoothly, followed by a lunch break, and all is set to begin by 12:30.
Much earlier, the mothers have set up their camp, in a long narrow room to the side of the pageant hall. They import clothing racks and hairstyling devices; stocks of make-up and costumes; countless boxes stuffed with petticoats, ribbons, pins, and other paraphernalia. Soon the room overflows with women and noise and clutter. This is the pageant nerve center, where half of the battle will be won. Armed with hairbrushes and costume changes and ferocious concentration, the mothers are up to the challenge.
The seasoned ones know what they must produce, and the inexperienced catch on fast. Alice McCapes of El Cajon, the county’s current, unofficial Our Little Miss director, is used to explaining the “look” for which mothers must strive. “You go on the theory that they’re looking for a natural child; not a made-up, done-over, plastic shadow of a child. And you hope for the best.” Instructions from a judges’ manual bear her out: “You might say that we are looking for a modern version of Shirley Temple who stole the hearts of all America. . . .”
Projecting artlessness is an art in itself, and mother after mother labors silently, big girls playing a serious game with oversized dolls. One trim blond woman, working on her five-year-old daughter (already a veteran of seven pageants), remembers how the two of them entered the pageant game one Sunday afternoon “when I was bored and had nothing else to do.” She laughs grimly, remembering how they did everything wrong—and lost. Now they are doing everything right, from the mirror-shiny patent leather shoes, to the perfect, lace-trimmed anklets, to the cascade of yellow chiffon ruffles. With the impersonal efficiency of a technician, the mother applies imperceptible mascara and lipstick to the child’s flawless features, then gives a last fluff to her daughter’s breathtaking blond tresses. She briefly nods approval at the tiny nymphet. now ravishing enough to create Humbert Humberts right and left, and sighs. “She looks just like a piece of sherbet, don’t she?”
The piece of sherbet and her sister contestants are ready. Like all pageants, this one includes a number of hurdles, beginning with an “interview,” in which both judges and contestants whisper barely audible questions and answers in the crowded hall. Judging are three young women, blond, brunette, and redhead, a San Diego version of Charlie’s Angels. Elaborately coiffed and made-up, one is a local beauty queen, one is a modeling student, and one is a journalism student from State College. They beam and giggle softly to each other as they toss questions at the girls who step up before them one at a time. The session wracks the nerves of a few of the littler girls whose chins barely clear the judges’ table, but the older girls smile and smile (one of the secrets of winning, several later confide). They have reason to smile: the questions (“Do you like having freckles?” “What’s your favorite subject?” “Why do you like math?") give no one pause and the girls retire easily to their seats.
There is more, much more to sort out winners from losers throughout the afternoon. The talent section allows would-be Our Little Misses to show off the hundreds of hours of dance lessons. For variety, two girls offer acrobatic routines, and one 11-year-old vamp from Santee mouths the words to “Wouldn’t Anybody Care to Meet a Sweet Old-Fashioned Girl?” She alternates a girlish saunter with bumps and grinds; the audience stares transfixed. The sportswear and party dress section (where entrants from both categories parade along a makeshift ramp) lets the girls show off their modeling and wardrobes.
Clothes are a sore point. “All participants compete on an equal basis!” the contestants’ pamphlet insists. “Pageants are not a clothes show and your pageant wardrobe should be kept simple and appropriate for the age group. The judges are judging the children and not their wardrobes.”
The injunctions don’t work and it’s easy to see why. As child after child floats by in the perfectly tailored play suits and the S40 dresses, they look like ancient, preliberated visions of paradigmatic Girlhood. “If they want to go out and buy a lot of clothes and do a lot of things, that’s their thing. We tell them they certainly don’t have to," Shreve wails helplessly. One mother, a veteran of both pageant systems, described the pressure. “They say it’s not a clothes show, but if I dressed her in what she goes to school in and I took her to state or national, she’d look like some kid playin’ out in the dirt! What it all adds up to is making ’em look like little dolls.” Another mother ruefully showed off hanger after hanger of Dorissa dresses, completely feminine creations almost superstitiously sought by the mothers. “You know it’s kind of silly, but you want them to look perfect. You can’t, or at least I can’t, resist buying them,” she explained.
That vision of the perfect child tantalizes; mothers working furiously in the dressing room touch upon it when they ponder what brought them into the system. Many describe how they knew their little girl was the most beautiful one in the city; the pageant successes only confirm their beliefs. “You turn around and you look at this little child and you would do anything for this child,” one veteran mused. Other mothers see the magic the pageants work on their daughters, and McCapes describes their feelings. “Most of the mothers are drawn simply because they see a chance for their child to gain some valuable experience... the poise and the composure that come from being in it. Also, there’s a little bit of an ego trip thing. All mothers want to see their daughter looking like a fairy princess. When you have a daughter and you love her, you want to see her shine!”
Few mothers mention the scholarships about which both systems boast. Shreve implies that the scholarships give the shows dignity, elevating them from the realm of mere beauty. (She is vague about specific amounts, however, and as it turns out, the handful of awards bestowed at the state and national pageants each year are held in trust for the girls until they reach college.) Mothers seem far more intrigued by the prospect of developing show business contacts, and they mention with awe, almost reverence, girls who’ve appeared on television. Finally, one other element ignites the young mothers’ imagination and a few are candid enough to mention it. “It’s just something I always wanted to do myself, but never got a chance at,” one newcomer explained simply. Her daughter would have a crack at being Miss America— and 15 years to practice at it.
For all these reasons, the mothers lay out time, patience, and money—and the monetary contribution can be hefty indeed. Most veteran pageant participants wince when the subject comes up and a few like Gwyn Krewson of La Mesa are blunt about it. Krewson points to the group of trophies collected by her five-year-old, Holly, and estimates, “For every one of those you can figure we’ve spent about $1,000.” At first glance, it’s hard to see how. Both systems charge a preliminary pageant fee of only $25 per child, plus $2 for insurance. Furthermore, many parents obtain commercial sponsors who absorb the entrance fee for them. Entering a pageant is only the beginning, however, many mothers testify.
Behind every successful contestant are the endless dance and modeling lessons which sharpen her onstage skills, but few veteran pageant-goers count these costs. What they do count is the wardrobe worn by the perfect girl in that vision. The $30-$50 party dresses, the slips, shoes, socks, tights, bows, and other accessories “don’t seem like much, but boy do they add up!” one mother groused. Then, victory itself is expensive since victory is neither an end to competition nor to spending.
Also, victory in the preliminary pageants blesses many. In Chula Vista, for example, over 70 percent of the girls competing in the various Our Little Miss categories will receive awards which will allow them to move on to the state level. The Cinderella Girl organization, with even more categories and more winners, crosses sexual lines with a Prince Charming category for young men 18 to 26.
More significant than the pageant systems’ easy-winner structure is their attitude toward losers. While each preliminary has a geographical designation, like the South Bay contest, preliminaries are open to anyone living within a 35-mile radius—obviously any girl in the San Diego area. Furthermore, any child who competes in a preliminary (except for the crowned and talent winner) may go on to compete in the next preliminary, or the next seven of them—competing and re-competing until she captures some title which will enable her to proceed to the state level. “Our motto is ‘A winner is never a quitter and a quitter is never a winner.' ” Shreve chirps.
Winners literally need not be quitters, for any girl who does proceed to the state competition automatically receives an invitation to re-compete at the state level each succeeding year until she moves on to the next age category. The pageant organizations only pay the $60 state entrance fee, however, for the current year’s crowned winners in each of its three categories. Thus, while Our Little Miss pays the entrance fee to the state competition for only two or three crowned winners from each preliminary pageant, a theoretically unlimited number of (paying) veterans of state competition may return each year—in addition to (paying) talent winners and recipients of other special awards generated during the preliminary season.
It all makes for a substantial amount of money flowing into the system, but that money isn’t fattening up local directors, according to Charlie Allen. They and the children lose big, to the benefit of the state and national organizations, he charges. “When you get right down to it, it’s not a good deal for the kids,” Allen says bitterly.
A stocky, white-haired man who likes to wander barefoot around his Spring Valley home, Allen first became involved with the pageants several years ago when his wife, Florence, signed on as the San Diego director for Our Little Miss. For her, it was a labor of love, one on which she worked until last spring, when disillusionment drove her to establish the local Cinderella Girl system. Florence died last fall, however, and Charlie followed her request to continue the work. Now he’s pulled out of both, and he admits he’s deeply soured on the entire pageant experience.
“I’m angry when I think about all the money I lost on it,” he says, leafing through cartons of old pageant files. “You see, it’s a pyramid deal. The local people lose money and the national makes it." The $25 entrance fees don’t even begin to cover costs, he claims, whipping out pen and paper to sketch the financial picture.
At the heart of the arrangement is a cost not even seen by most pageant participants, Allen points out. Both systems require directors to purchase kits for each preliminary pageant from the national organization. Standard kits for both organizations cost about $480, he says. Add to that $75 to rent a hall, $100 in printing costs, $50 in mailing costs and $100 for miscellaneous expenses like flowers, lunches for the judges, and so on, and you end up spending around $800 to stage one preliminary. “And that’s just gettin’ by, honey ... I put all this into it and all I’m feeding is the big bread basket. Sure, there’s a few scholarships at the state and national levels, but most of those kids put all that money into it and they never see nothin’.”
Furthermore, Allen says contracts oblige local directors to stage a certain number of preliminary shows each year (although neither system has had an official director in San Diego since Mrs. Allen quit). Finally, the contracts forbid dissident directors from staging any other children’s shows for three years after quitting. “And they expect people to be sucker enough to go for this,” Allen says with disgust.
Why did he and his wife do it? “We did it because we could handle the money and it gave my wife so much pleasure. She’d been sick for quite a while and, really, it was a medicine for her. I could have gotten a lot more people involved in it if I’d been a shyster,” he claims. As it was, Allen says he and his wife used to send out about 200 fliers to attract 10 to 20 entrants per pageant. They’d sell some ads in the program to help cover expenses, but most of the time they’d lose money, he says, while the national organization profited.
At Our Little Miss national headquarters in Baton Rouge, Marge Hannaman, the ex-professional basketball player from Iowa who founded the organization in 1962, denies that her corporation is cleaning up. “I’ve got figures to show our profit margin only runs about $56 per kit,” she claims, inviting the curious to come to the national organization and check them out. A nonstop talker, Hannaman says her organization won’t even become profitable until it nears the size which she sees as optimal—about five times the present scope.
But, Allen’s criticism goes far beyond the high costs to local directors. He claims the whole local system— both Our Little Miss and Cinderella—are geared toward herding as many children as possible into the state level, where much bigger money is spent. That’s why all the awards are given out, he says. “If they don’t get enough, that’s when they start gettin’ nervous and givin' out their special awards—to make sure they get enough. You just look at the pattern and one way or the other they’ll fill the hotels.”
To go to state, each mother and child are looking at spending close to $500, Allen claims. All entrants except for crowned winners must pay the $60entrance fee, then five days of room and board for a mother and child run about $300, he says. When you add the cost of transportation to Palm Springs (Our Little Miss) or San Mateo (Cinderella), the total package easily meets the $500 figure. State directors’ costs don’t come anywhere near that, he claims. “The state director of Cinderella last year personally told me she was feeding every person there for $7 a day. And at Our Little Miss they were feeding ’em chili for breakfast.”
The thinnest sliver of sharpness edges into Dorothy Shreve’s voice when questioned about the finances of the state pageant. State directors “don’t make any money at it. You’re just having a vacation like the other judges!” she says with a slight laugh. Both she and Hannaman deny that Our Little Miss ever offers special awards to push more kids to the state contest, and Shreve says she charges $194 for room and board for a mother and daughter for the five-day affair. (She doesn’t mention that that charge is for sharing a room with another mother and daughter.) Shreve says talk of expenses greater than that spring from people who choose to spend a lot more. “You talk to these people and they’re usually talking about bringing mother and daddy and grandma and brother along. If they want to bring all the rest of the family, sure they’re going to spend more.” In any case, the state pageant is one big party, she insists. “It’s a wonderful vacation for everyone!”
Shreve’s memory doesn’t agree with that of several San Diego area mothers who attended the state competition in years past. For one thing, Shreve recalls that breakfast for the littlest youngsters was at nine a.m., and “they didn’t have to get up for that if they didn’t want to.” Several mothers recall late, late hours, six a.m. reveilles and eight a.m. breakfasts for the littlest children. “You had to be up and dressed and pretty for the judges at eight a.m., and even though they gave you crap to eat, everyone made sure they were there because you were paying so much for it. Plus you had to be there because they were always changing the schedule. That’s the only way you could find out what was going on,” Krewson recalled.
Some state veterans tell of having a fantastic time, marred only by the intense pressure of competition. One mother, Carol Lewis, remembers a grimmer experience, however. She claims she, her daughter Tricia, Mrs. Lewis’ mother, and husband paid $2,000 for their small hotel room, which included only two twin beds and two rollaways. Air conditioning broke down in the blistering heat of Palm Springs in the offseason, and ice cost between 75 cents and $1.50 per bucket. Food was inadequate, often cold and unappetizing. Worst of all, she remembers, was the way organizers treated the children.
“When we first got there they got up on stage and they were all smiles. They said, ‘Now this pageant is for the kids and we want you all to have fun.' Then, the first thing they did was to get up and start yelling at the kids.” She recalls one chilling rehearsal for a production number involving the youngest girls. “They told ’em they had to do good or they wouldn’t give them any lunch or any water. The kids were all cryin’ and it was terrible.”
Talk like that infuriates McCapes. “You wouldn’t believe some of the petty things that people complain about,” she says. “I’ve been to state four times as a contestant and if that was the kind of thing that was going on. I’d certainly never have gone back.” McCapes concedes the food has always been a sore spot but claims that’s mainly because menus were geared toward children’s tastes and “they didn’t have nummy plates for Momma.” In any case, the food will be improved this year, doing away with breakfast, McCapes promises.
There’s more than just the self-interest of a local director in what McCapes says; many mothers seem to overlook the problems that Krewson and Lewis mention. In fact, even Krewson and Lewis returned to enter their daughters in the Cinderella system, reported to have better state contests. While Krewson can say, “It seems we put a great deal of money into both systems and we don’t get anything back,” she still persists. One mother analyzed it: “It’s like a hypnotism, like a magnetic thing. You always say maybe next time she’ll win.” Allen looks at it similarly. “It’s sort of like gambling or alcoholism,” he said.
In the Chula Vista Club, where the girls smile their bright pageant smiles, the eagerness shines through and disillusion seems faraway. Of course they like the pageant, they say, as if the question were a bit odd. Mother got them into it, most readily admit, but mother was right, they can see now, in the flush of performing, rushing out of one perfect outfit and into another, longing for the cluster of plastic crowns. They like it because “it’s fun!” they exclaim, some with real fervor.
Their chorus is the adults’ sanction—the parents’ refrain and justification. They enter their children because their children have so much fun. If the girls occasionally complain about the pageantary demands, well, you should just hear them when the bright pageant promotional mail pours into the house each year. You can’t keep them away from it.
Shreve’s explanation of the allure falls a bit flat. “They make friends and they learn to communicate. In just five minutes they’ve made friends with each other!” she beams. Few girls mention those friendships, however. It’s far easier to draw out stories about “monster children” which the combined pressures sometimes produce. Krewson, for example, recites tales from the state pageants of girls whose costumes were mutilated or whose hair was cut off. “You didn’t dare leave your child more than three feet away or someone might cut her throat!” she joked.
If it is not the vague scholarships dangled before them, if it is not the friendships which they make, the girls are touched by one other factor which everyone mentions. The very process of competing alters them—and the girls like the change. Mothers mention the charm, the poise, the femininity, which the contests teach. “It’s given her self-confidence. Now she knows what she can do. She feels like she’s special at this,” one mother said proudly. Shreve says you can see the beginnings of change at each preliminary show. “You look at these girls who are new today and a year from now you won’t believe it’s the same girls. That’s w hat’s really exciting.”
That’s also the crux of the appeal, Hannaman gloats from Baton Rouge. After all these years of pushing kiddy crowns, she’s used to the flak. “A lot of people want to dig into the pageants because they figure if you’re doing something with kids you must be doing something wrong. But the parents disagree. In the early days we had to take all the pounding about ‘aren’t you exploiting children? Now I must say it’s nice to say, ‘look, the parents are making the decisions and this is something parents want!’ ”
With 15 years of experience to back her up, Hannaman has seen both parents and participants approve of the transformation of ordinary kids to “superkids.” Far more deeply satisfying, however, she knows the changes will last and seeds of continuation are built right into the system. “You see, the kids who entered at 12 now have babies of their own, and they're entering them in the pageants now.”