It's Thursday evening at Foothills Mall, and there's something odd happening in front of Sears. Eight giddy young women line the front of a T-shaped hardwood stage, flanked by awkward clusters of fold-out tables covered with two-foot trophies and ornate golden crowns. They're staring out at a gathering of some 80-odd shoppers, and they're all beaming like the Cheshire Cat, smiling so hard that their teeth are dry and their jaws are starting to ache.
The reason for all the painful grimacing is that each woman is holding, in outstretched arms, a cooing and squirming baby girl. Each bubbling babe is impeccably packaged, festooned with frills, swathed in silk and chiffon, and spooned into gleaming white patent leather shoes the size of complimentary bars of soap. As the mothers stand there, staring and grinning, most of them nervously bounce their precious bundles up and down in classic tike-on-the-knee fashion.
The moms' anxiety is understandable. This is the final cattle call for contestants in the under-one age bracket of a Sunburst Beauty Pageant and Baby Contest preliminary. Like most national beauty pageant systems, Sunburst offers categories for babies and children as well as teens and young women, and this is the last chance for contest judges to admire all the cherub smiles and dollhouse dresses on display in the tiny tots division.
For some people, the whole notion of children's beauty pageants--parading kids across a stage and deeming one of them somehow more beautiful or worthy than the others--seems inherently wrong. According to Dr. Melissa Groves, assistant professor of Child and Family Studies at the University of Tennessee, children's pageants may introduce skewed value systems (stressing appearance over inner qualities) to impressionable young minds, and force fragile little psyches to bear potentially crippling competitive pressures.
"I think (children's pageants) foster a sense of competition at ages where, developmentally, we try to focus on cooperation," says Groves. "For a four-year-old child, the question becomes 'I didn't win this contest--is mommy still going to love me?'"
On the other hand, the people who sponsor shows contend that the contests foster poise and self-confidence even in pre-teen competitors, teach youngsters how to be charitable winners (or graceful losers) and provide young girls with the same competitive opportunities that pee-wee football and little league baseball afford their male counterparts.
And for the winners of big pageants, the payoffs are considerable. The Sunburst preliminary winners will have a shot at $10,000 savings bonds if they move on to regional finals in Gatlinburg, and most larger pageants award scholarship money to winners and runners-up.
But none of the parents on stage seem overly concerned with the larger implications of beauty pageants right now. They're too busy beaming and bouncing their bewildered tots, pausing periodically in mid-bounce to nuzzle a chubby cheek or administer a fond cootchie-coo.
When the judges finish their evaluation, babes and parents disperse, anticipating the awards presentation at the end of the show. Most of the contestants receive a good mouth-wiping or dress-dabbing as soon as they exit the stage.
"Was she spitting up on stage, too?" one young woman asks a fellow pageant-mom. She's smiling, but still curious as to how the less-than-decorous display might affect the final outcome.
"Just a little bit at the end. I think it was all the bouncing."
WALKING DOWN THE RUNWAY
Baby and kiddie pageants are nearly as old as the adult contests they mimic. Dr. John Kandilakis, a West Knoxville psychologist, remembers entering his eldest son, Steven, in a local baby contest nearly 37 years ago. One-year-old Steven was a charmer, Kandilakis recalls, and claimed first prize in his first and only dalliance in the world of pageants.
But the episode also fostered ill will between Kandilakis and a colleague, a fellow psychologist who took umbrage when his infant daughter lost the first-place plaque to young Steven.
"There's lots of ego investment in your child being the most beautiful in the world," Kandilakis says. "My wife and I were amused that some people took it so seriously. I think some people became very narcissistically invested in their kids. Others, like ourselves, just viewed it as a lark."
Kandilakis believes children's pageants can help entrants build self-esteem and increase social skills, provided that judges don't place too high a premium on physical appearance. But since the impetus for entering tot contestants inevitably comes from parents, Groves warns that children's needs are usually, at best, a secondary concern.
"Do very young children really say 'I need to be in a beauty contest?'" Groves asks. "I think what you're seeing is adult needs being met, not children's. The better thing to do would be to wait until they're old enough to make that choice for themselves."
For most of the parents at small local pageants like the Sunburst mall show, the point is probably moot; at Foothills, there are more first-time entrants than veterans, and most of the rookie parents indicate their child probably won't enter a second pageant.
"I'd never thought about entering Peyton in a contest until a friend called me up today and suggested it," says Mindy Walker, a Knoxville dental hygienist. Walker went to Dillard's on her lunch break the day of the Sunburst preliminary, purchased a $15 royal blue velvet dress at a children's clothing sale, and hauled her nine-month-old daughter out to Maryville just in time for the 6 o'clock show.
When asked if Peyton will compete again, Walker responds with a shy smile and a hesitant shrug. "I really don't know--it just depends."
But for contestants like five-year-old Sabrina Moranto, a veteran of eight pageants, or Tiffany Spears, a three-year-old Kodak resident showing off her sparkling pale blue eyes at contest number four, shows like the Sunburst prelims are springboards to deeper contest waters, training grounds for more prestigious pageants with bigger payoffs.
According to Darleen DeLisle, a former teen contestant herself, pageants come in three sizes; small, locally-produced pageants--so-called "Saturday Night Live Shows," where winners take home little more than a trophy, a sash and satisfaction; large-system pageants, like Sunburst, Universal Southern Charm, or Glamour Dolls, where local and regional shows lead to high-stakes state and national finals; and the "granddaddy" pageants, the Miss America and Miss USA systems, where the rewards are substantial at every level of competition.
DeLisle is familiar with all aspects of pageantry. She's a former contestant, the mother of a contestant and the founder of her own pageant system--the Knoxville-based Teddy Bear Baby Pageants, a national company that caters exclusively to children five and under.
DeLisle says Teddy Bear entry fees usually run $40 to $50 at local preliminaries, $135 at state contests and $150 at the national level. Some large national contests, however, charge entrants more than $500 just to toddle across the stage in a ruffled dress.
And though even small-pageant competitors can often find sponsors, the fees serve to underscore a point; for those parents and children who go beyond entering that first tiny local contest, pageants can be an expensive proposition.
"If you can't afford it, you don't need to get into it," says Freda Scates, a Sevierville native. Besides organizing a host of small pageants across Sevier County, Scates entered her daughter Melissa in contests from the time she was three until she rebelled at age 14.
"Even in the '70s and '80s, I'd spend $200 or $300 per pageant, and that didn't include modeling classes," Scates says. "If she had been entering national pageants, it would have easily been $500 or more."
PAGEANT PRIMA DONNAS?
If you poll a handful of experienced pageant parents, most of them will tell you that they enter their child in hopes of instilling the kind of unflappable confidence you see in big-time pageant winners, those serenely poised twenty-somethings who grab the mike at the end of a televised contest and rattle off self-assured answers to questions about career goals and world peace.
"Taneesha was so shy as a child--I really didn't know what would happen to her as she got older," DeLisle says of her daughter, now 18. "You'd put her in a room with several other children, and she'd always find her way to the corner and stay by herself."
DeLisle entered Taneesha in a Golden Girl system preliminary at age three (she was fifth runner-up). Fifteen years and 30-odd pageants later, Taneesha seems a walking advertisement for the value of children's pageants; she's beautiful, bright (she graduated, with honors, a year early from private schools in Florida and Alaska) and possesses the graceful, unaffected sense of self of a woman 12 years her senior.
"If I go into a room full of people now, I feel very comfortable walking up and saying 'Hey, how're you doing?'" she says. "When you've been on stage a few times, in situations where you really have to think on your feet, you overcome that self-consciousness."
The flip side, says Scates, is that for some young girls, ballooning self-confidence can easily turn into swollen-headed self-centeredness. She remembers that many of the more experienced contestants at her daughter's pageants would make fun of awkward, less experienced competitors.
"The children who knew what they were doing would sometimes get snotty, giggling and laughing at the kids who had on the wrong clothes or whatever," she says. "I saw really young children say awful things to the other kids. Most of them grew up to be what I call beauty pageant brats."
Including, she says, Melissa, now 27, whom she characterizes as a "big, beautiful brat." And although Scates says she's glad Melissa gained poise and fashion sense from her experience, she admits that her daughter's distorted values have caused problems in her adult years.
"She's always had the attention, and had the best of everything, and she wants it kept up," Scates says. "It's been hard on her relationship with her boyfriend. She always expects beautiful clothes and jewelry--Nieman-Marcus, not Wal-Mart. I'm just glad she's on her own now and buys her own clothes."
But DeLisle claims the dressing-room dynamic at most pageants has changed markedly over the last ten years. She says contestants at Taneesha's shows were always friendly and supportive, borrowing dresses and accessories from one another and helping less experienced entrants learn the ropes. And rather than insisting on new clothes for every show, DeLisle says Taneesha won several pageants wearing $50 gowns purchased at consignment stores.
That alleged attitudinal shift seems to correspond with attempts by most pageant systems to institute criteria that stress talent, poise and stage presence as much as, or sometimes more than, appearance. Even at shows (like Sunburst) that don't require talent, judges look at contestants' poise and personality, and all but the youngest children will introduce themselves onstage.
"If you went backstage a few years ago, it would probably have made you ill," DeLisle says. "Nowadays, you can't be just another pretty face."
SINGLING OUT STAGE MOMS
Most people associated with children's pageants seem to agree that parents, more often than contestants, are responsible for any less-than-admirable behavior that goes on behind the scenes. Scates calls it the "stage mom" syndrome, when mothers (and sometimes, but much less often, fathers) live vicariously through their child's onstage exploits, measuring their own self-worth in terms of trophies and sashes won, sometimes venting their frustrations on their children when they come out second best.
"When it comes to babies and children's pageants, it should be more cute than competitive," Scates says. "But the parents can make it ugly. It's like they're entering their prize horse in a race. You have to realize that sometimes your horse isn't the fastest."
Everyone with any significant pageant experience seems to have at least one stage-mom horror story. Scates remembers a Sevier County woman who stood up and cursed judges and mothers alike when her child lost to Scates's nephew. Pam McKay, a Pigeon Forge mother who's been both director and judge at local and regional pageants, recalls an Alabama mom who dragged her six-year-old daughter offstage by the hair after a miscue and whipped her mercilessly. (McKay says the woman was reported to police and arrested later that afternoon.)
And Cyndee Harr, publisher of Winner's Circle, a Tri-Cities-based pageant magazine that covers seven states, watched one local child contestant grow into an overweight, underachieving teen after suffering routine spankings at the hands of her mother when she lost or performed poorly at shows.
Harr says stories like these are anomalous, and that many of the moms at her own daughter's shows became close friends, socializing after contests and hosting birthday parties for one another's children.
But in some ways, stage moms are like sudden odors--everyone holds their nose and points a finger, but no one owns up to the stench. Scates, for instance, acknowledges her daughter's misplaced priorities; she acknowledges buying prepubescent Melissa $250 dresses and diamond jewelry, and running her through the hoops and paces of modeling, music and dance classes; she even acknowledges withdrawing Melissa, in a huff, from one contest because she felt the judges gave special consideration to handicapped contestants.
"I told them it was a beauty pageant, not a pity pageant," she says, bristling at the 13-year-old memory.
She also says she has no regrets, regardless of how her daughter's values may have been affected by all those years of buying pricey clothing and seeking trophies at all costs.
"It was like an addiction or a sport," Scates says. "It gets in your blood. You want to win, and the more competitive you get, the more expensive it gets. But Melissa has flawless makeup and clothes now, and lots of self-confidence. If I had it to do over again, I would."
Vera Henry, a Louisville (Blount County) grandmother who started entering four-year-old granddaughter Jordan Elmendorf in pageants to foster self-confidence as she approached her grade school years, puts her finger on what might be the pulse underlying the entire phenomenon--that even the sagest pageant parents (or grandparents) harbor at least a trace of stage mom, maintain a certain selfish personal investment in every step their child takes down that spotlighted runway.
"If they succeed, we've succeeded," Henry says. "It's a direct line--it's human nature. It's like you're the only butterfly in the cocoon, and everyone wants their butterfly to be the most beautiful."
FROM TYKES TO TEENS
It's not easy to gauge the effects of pageant-going on young children. More often than not, tots don't know why they're prancing across the stage or waving at the friendly ladies with the pencils behind their ears. And most pageants blur the lines between winners and losers by handing out prizes to every contestant.
"She's been in over 30 shows since she was two weeks old, and she's still pretty much oblivious," Cyndee Harr says of her three-year-old daughter, Lauren Ashley. "All the pageants give everyone a toy or something, so it's more like 'Do I get a whistle, or a doll?' than 'Did I win or lose?'"
But somewhere between ages 5 and 10, the stakes get higher, the dresses get more expensive, and young girls begin to understand that teddy bears and participation trophies don't mean quite as much as sashes and savings bonds.
"Right around 10 or so, that's where things start getting really competitive," DeLisle says. "That's where you start running into big pageants with $500 fees, or contestants who go out and buy $2,000 dresses."
It's also the point where many long-time child competitors burn out, exhausted by years of modeling classes, music lessons and dressing for success, weary from too many weekends spent cooped up in gymnasiums and convention centers. Pam McKay says at least half of all child competitors will drop out before they hit their teens.
The girls who continue will probably add diet and exercise regimens to an already expansive list of contest-related classes and activities. McKay holds classes for local competitors at Glamour Showcase, a prom and pageant specialty store she runs in Pigeon Forge, and all of her teenage pupils sport extracurricular resumes too long to scribble on a winner's sash--National Honor Society, Knoxville Performing Arts, youth choir, Beta Club, Who's Who ...
And since many of the more prestigious pageants factor grades into preliminary scores, most serious contestants maintain well-above-average GPAs.
"You can't get up on stage and say 'Well, I get C's and D's,'" DeLisle says. "That doesn't go over very well with judges."
Pageant-going doesn't seem to rid contestants of all the cumbersome insecurities that often accompany adolescence. Twelve-year-old Tiffany Nash of Pigeon Forge, for instance, says she still considers herself "ugly", even after winning a Miss USA Northeast Junior pageant late last year.
But Nash and most of her teen peers say that years of performing, speaking, or even just walking around on stage, sometimes for crowds in excess of 1,000 people, heightens social adeptness.
"I've had people come up to me and say, 'You looked so confident when you walked in,'" says Newport resident Adrienne Parker, the 17-year-old winner of Miss East Tennessee Teen USA. "It always takes me by surprise when they say that, because it's not necessarily the way I feel."
WINNING THE CROWN
It's 8 p.m. at Foothills Mall, and an impeccably-dressed emcee is doling out awards in the Sunburst pageant preliminary, distributing certificates and trophies until every contestant in every division has something to play with, drop, or slobber on. Most of the younger participants nap through the ceremony, underwhelmed by the spectacle.
The tiaras, reserved for first-place winners, are about four times bigger than the noggins they're supposed to top. As the diminutive queens are carried limp and snoring off stage, enormous crowns dangling from tiny necks, some of the also-rans drown their sorrows in the bottle (one with a nipple and plenty of formula) or seek refuge in the purple solace of a Barney doll.
Among older children, the facade of dignified behavior, erect throughout the contest, crumbles. Toddlers squall and wiggle, while many of the school-age children are screaming like so many pint-sized banshees through the aisles of nearby stores.
One misguided mother, however, casts a pall on the noisy but otherwise amicable proceedings, marching up to the judges' table dragging her five-year-old daughter behind her. For a few seconds, she bristles at the stunned judges, then turns tail and storms out through Sears, her would-be princess in tow.
Blount County resident Clara Moranto, mother of division winner Sabrina, watches from a distance and shakes her head. Sabrina, a curly-headed little brunette with saucer-sized brown eyes, is frolicking inside a dollar store, pulling knickknacks off shelves with help from a timid little man with wispy blond hair and a green suit, a first-timer who lost the boys' three-year-old division to the only other entrant.
"That's a shame," says Moranto, pity and disgust mingling in her voice as she watches the angry parent disappear in a maze of dress racks and mannequins. "You shouldn't enter if you're going to take it that seriously. She's got to learn to lighten up and have fun with it."
Sabrina, in the meantime, moves in closer to her newfound playmate, grabs another toy off the plundered shelves and plops down on the store's grimy tile floor, right on the seat of her lacy maroon crushed-velvet dress.