white shoes are the first thing you notice about the female contestants who have gathered at the Fayetteville Ramada Inn. And the white anklets with tutu lace. One of the contestants, wearing earrings, points at a door and says, "Doo! doo! doo!" "That's right!" her father says. "Door!" Her mother bends over and applies a fresh coat of lipstick to the toddler's mouth.
"They can wear a little bit of makeup and get by with it," says Patricia Maestri, director of America's Tots & Teens Beautiful Baby Contest & Youth Pageant. "But we don't want a real made-up child. We want a natural appearance." Not like JonBenet Ramsey, whose massively publicized murder has made child beauty pageants almost as notorious as O.J. Simpson.
"We're not like those pageants they keep showing on TV," says Maestri, a 40-ish brunette in a black pantsuit with leopard-print collar and cuffs. "There's lots of pageants out there. We're not all bad."
Maestri's organization, based in Fort Smith, Ark., conducts pageants in eight Southern and Midwestern states. The contests are open to girls and boys, newborn to 19 years. Baby Miss is for contestants aged 0-11 months; Toddler Miss, 12-23 months. Then there's Peewee Miss, Tiny Miss, Little Miss, Deb Miss and Teen Miss. Boys have just two divisions: Toddler Mister and Tiny Mister, and have no place after the age of 6. "I've had contestants 2 weeks old," Maestri says. "I may even have had one younger." She ponders for a few seconds. "I think maybe I had a 1-week-old."
But there are no song-and-dance routines -- one of JonBenet Ramsey's specialties -- no swimsuit competitions, no 6-year-olds with garishly painted faces shaking their little fannies at the audience. America's Tots & Teens is interested only in beauty, personality and presence
Cynthia Douthit, the reigning Mrs. Arkansas International and one of the judges at the Ramada, explains the scoring system: "The facial beauty category is 1 to 15. Personality projection is 1 to 10 -- that's for things like eye contact and if they're happy on stage. And overall appearance -- style of the dress, fit of the dress -- is 1 to 10. When a kid hits the stage, they have a perfect score with me. And then I start looking at little things. Like, she has on black shoes when, for the overall appearance, it would be better if they were dyed-to-match or white shoes. White shoes are just kind of a pageant given."
At the Ramada, four numbered masking-tape X's have been laid on the floor near the judges' table, marks so that the contestants can be inspected from all angles. Maestri opens the show. "This is our first beautiful contestant. Let's give her a big round of applause. Cynthia Kimes!" A mother carries a baby sucking on a wristwatch to the first tape mark. "She is a 7-month-old beauty of Matt and Janetta Kimes. Her favorite TV program is 'Sesame Street.' She enjoys animals and new faces. She has big blue eyes and auburn hair." Cynthia's mother carries her to all four X's for the judges' inspection.
Sitting next to me is a man holding a 1-year-old Toddler Mister entrant in his lap. The boy is wearing black tie and tails, and is sucking on a baby bottle. He sticks the bottle in my face. "He don't want any," the man says, and pulls the bottle away from me.
The next Baby Miss contestant, Skyler Davis, aged 1 month and 1 week, makes her entrance. She has big blue eyes and auburn hair. Next up is a 5-month-old, also named Skyler. After the final contestant leaves the stage, all the girls in the Baby Miss division are brought out together to give the judges and the audience one last look.
Now it's the Toddler Miss contestants' turn. The girl who was saying "doo! doo! doo!" at the door is whining "no! no! no!" as her mother carries her to "X" spot number one. This gets a big laugh from the audience. She jerks around in her mother's arms to see what everyone is laughing at.
The other contestants in this division are better behaved, and so are the ones competing for Peewee Miss, with one exception. A girl 2-and-a-half years old, wearing a royal blue dress and a white bow in her hair, screeches and kicks her feet in midair throughout her time on stage, making it difficult for us to hear that her favorite TV program is "Barney and Friends" and that she enjoys playing in the kitchen, getting dressed up and taking baths.
One contestant, Kayley Cabalero, 2 years and 3 months, is an old pro. She skips from "X" to "X" while her mother coaches her from the wings, signaling her to smile, to mime laying her head on a pillow, to wave. (Waving is permitted up until the age of 3; after that, contestants are penalized for it.) "Say 'bye judges,'" she's prompted. "Bye," she says. "Who says 2-year-olds don't have personality?" Maestri says to the audience.
After the contestants in the older age divisions have been trotted out, there is a 10-minute intermission to allow the judges to reach their decisions. A local TV reporter approaches one of the mothers and asks her why she entered her daughter in the pageant. "Because she likes to get the crown and she likes dressing up," the mother replies.
The mother, or the child's sponsor, has paid a $35 fee to enter this preliminary Tots & Teens pageant. For an additional $15 fee, contestants may compete for lesser prizes, such as Most Photogenic, Most Beautiful/Most Handsome or Best Fashion. The major winners receive a $200 prize, which is credited to the $200 entry fee for the national finals, to be held in November in Branson, Mo.
"Any of you all could have won," Maestri says, preparing to announce the winners. "It was that close." There are trophies representing Winged Victory, trophies of beauty queens, crowns, banners and medals with a fist clenching a torch stamped on them. Every contestant gets at least one prize. Some are indifferent to their prizes, others curious to discover how they taste. Skyler Davis, third runner-up in the Baby Miss contest, remains sound asleep throughout the presentation.
Kayley Cabalero is the big winner in the 0-3 group. "She is a natural," Maestri says as Kayley is draped in a banner reading "Overall Winner" and a crown is placed on her head. "I don't think this is any acting here," Maestri adds. "I don't think this is Mom. I think this is all Kayley. She likes these pageants, don't you Kayley? Looks like a little doll in that dress" -- a turquoise blue chiffon number adorned with rhinestones. "She loves pageants," Kayley's mother, Mary, says a few minutes later. "Can't get her off the stage."
Kayley's prize, a model of a beauty queen perched on a marble base, will join the others on the Cabaleros' mantelpiece. And far grander prizes await Kayley and others at the national finals, including a $5,000 savings bond, a "magnificent crown for queens," a "satin and white fur king crown" and an "official America's Tots & Teens satin monogrammed title banner."
The contest is over and the audience heads for the exit. The TV reporter lifts her microphone and gives the camera a solemn look. "Since the death of a beauty queen ..." she begins, alluding to the JonBenet Ramsey case. The reporter goes on to describe all the bad publicity and how people have become concerned over the possible harm committed by child beauty pageants.
Then her mood brightens. "But not all pageants have to be that way."
Return to sender
Of course I am not going to jump off a mountain because she never replied to my letters and did not come, but it is strange.
--Petr Sila, the mayor of Letohrad, Czech Republic, who wrote three letters to Madeleine Albright in 1994 with details of her Jewish father, and of other Jewish relatives who died in Nazi concentration camps. Earlier this week, Albright, the new U.S. Secretary of State, expressed "major surprise" at a Washington Post story revealing her Jewish heritage. (From: "Czech Hometown of Albright's Father Sent Her Letters on Family History," in Friday's New York Times.)