It’s eight a.m. The lobby to the Riverfront Hilton in Little Rock, Ark., is crowded with pretty young girls. Their faces are elaborately made up—lipstick, mascara, false lashes; their hair is in curlers. The girls are not playing or giggling. They are just standing there.
These girls are some of the 100 contestants, ranging from infants to 21-year-olds, who will compete this afternoon in the second annual America’s Queen of Queens beauty pageant. They want to be named Baby Queen, Toddler Queen or Empress Queen—and win the cash prize that goes with each title. The overall winner, Grand Supreme Queen, will get $5,000. In room 2046, Dr. Bruce Pancake, a Chattanooga plastic surgeon; his wife, Debbie, a former Miss Chattanooga runner-up; and Tony Calantog, their 23-year-old “pageant coordinator,” are preparing the Pancakes’ eldest daughter, Blaire Ashley, for the event.
Blaire started entering contests when she was five. Now, six years later, she has competed in more than 100 beauty pageants—and won 90 percent of them. It’s a costly hobby: Entrance fees for national contests range from $250 to $800, and that doesn’t include the elaborate gowns, voice lessons, drama lessons, Tony’s $40-per-hour fee, or traveling expenses. Blaire’s prizes range from hair dryers to television sets to a red Ford Festiva to, last year, $12,000 in cash. “I like the cold cash,” says Blaire’s mom, Debbie. Blaire likes the crowns. “I fell in love with this one crown,” says Blaire. “God! I wanted that crown.” But, she says, she sympathizes with girls not as wealthy as she, girls for whom a crown is not enough. “I feel sorry for them,” she says. “They have to win a car because they don’t have one. Their parents yell at them. One girl dieted so much she fainted onstage.”
Child beauty pageants—3,000 or so a year—take place mostly in smaller southern cities but are spreading rapidly; more than 1.5 million contestants vie for the money, cars, trips to Disney World and, most important, the experience that will take them one step closer to becoming Miss America. There is even a magazine—Babette’s Pageant and Talent Gazette—to fuel their dreams. The cover features recent pageant winners wearing crowns and sashes. One section announces innovations like pageants for children missing an arm or with cerebral palsy. Ads pitch banners, robes, crowns, trophies, costumes and the services of makeup experts and pageant coaches. Articles advise little girls on the importance of eye contact and offer tricks for overcoming puffiness and dark circles. But the real problems are saved for the Letters page.
“The kids end up victims,” according to one mother; another writes, “There is more to life than pageants.” Perhaps, but for some girls and for some girls’ families, pageants are the past, present and future.
Blaire Pancake’s bedroom at home looks like Cinderella’s—after she married the prince. It is filled with crowns, tiaras, batons and trophies, all glittering with rhinestones, that make her old Little League trophy look shabby. She has a bulb-lined makeup mirror and two walk-in closets overstuffed with evening gowns just perfect for a miniature adult. (When Blaire was crowned Little Miss Hollywood Babes Superstar, she had a dress named after her. The Blaire is tulle-skirted and sequined in a herringbone pattern.)
Blaire doesn’t play organized sports anymore, though she skis occasionally with her family, and she’s just started to make time for a sleepover or two. (School is no problem: Blaire gets A’s.) “Pageants are my only interest,” she says. “They’re all I want to do. I love what I’m doing. I want to become Miss America.” Which is why there are no posters of Blaire’s favorite rock stars in her room. No posters of a fantasy heartthrob. Blaire’s room is a shrine to her own fantasy.
Room 2046 of the Riverfront Hilton is something else altogether, a shambles of toys, clothes, rumpled beds, potato chips, Pop Tarts, curling irons, makeup, cans of Coke. The Pancakes have brought three of their four daughters along. Alexis, one, also a pageant winner, is home with a sitter. While their mother, Debbie, hides in the bathroom—where she will stay until she is totally made up—and Tony prepares Blaire, Bruce plays with Elise, three, Miss Southern Charm 1993, and Erin, eight, who used to win pageants until she discovered art and sports.
“When Erin quit, we were sick!” Debbie calls out from the bathroom.
“White-blonde is the perfect look,” says Bruce, dreamily fingering Erin’s hair. Bruce says, “I’m a plastic surgeon only from the neck up. I enjoy the beauty of the face. No doubt that’s why I’m so involved with Blaire.” Bruce is captivated by his daughter’s beauty but prefers it enhanced: He apologizes to strangers when she is not wearing makeup. Some parents have accused Bruce of enhancing Blaire’s looks with surgery.
Debbie, from the bathroom: “They can be ugly.” “It’s ridiculous to operate on children,” adds Bruce. “But if Blaire wanted me to do something when she’s older, I’d consider it.”
This contest has the Pancakes worried. Blaire will be competing against 12-year-olds, some of whom, according to Bruce, “have the breast development of women.” Blaire is tall and thin, like a stick figure, but this talk of breasts does not seem to bother her. She sits in a chair, dressed in a nightshirt, her hair in curlers, and watches cartoons while Tony fusses over her. Blaire is used to hearing adults talk about the tools of competition. Like the fake tooth she’ll wear today to hide the missing baby tooth. When Tony begins gluing on Blaire’s fake nails, she holds out her hands, limp-wristed, like the delicate wings of a bird. Finished, Tony dabs makeup on Blaire’s eyelids, which flutter shut, then open.
“Now Maybelline Great Lash,” says Tony. “All the models use it.” Bruce looks over. “New makeup! Oh, perfect!” he says. Finally, smiling, Tony holds up a lipstick. “Lasting Kiss,” he says. “We can kiss collars and napkins, and it won’t come off.” He turns, puckers his lips and blows a kiss across the room.
“I love pageants,” Blaire interjects, speaking in a precise, adult voice. “Except when I have to do two back-to-back. Then I have to tell my father I can’t take it anymore. I need a break.”
At 14, Tony Calantog weighed 250 pounds. He went on to play offensive and defensive tackle on his Pensacola, Fla., high school football team. His teammates called him Otho, after the interior decorator in Beetlejuice. But Tony preferred to decorate the faces of little girls. Word of Tony’s expertise in makeup, dance, modeling, dressmaking and fashion coordinating soon spread throughout the child beauty pageant subculture.
”I saw Blaire five years ago in a Jacksonville pageant,” Tony says. “I didn’t think much of her. Come on! She wore blue eye shadow!” Bruce asked him to help redesign Blaire. After he did, Tony says, “she became glamorous. She had a certain look, and beautiful hair.”
“Some parents said it was hair extensions,” calls out Debbie.
“Blaire loves the stage,” says Tony. “She totally turns on. She becomes… Blaire! A total package. It’s who she is.”
“She comes alive,” adds Bruce. “She has that sparkle of spontaneity judges look for.”
“I love pageants,” Blaire interjects, speaking in a precise, adult voice. “Except when I have to do two back-to-back. Then I have to tell my father I can’t take it anymore. I need a break. Pageants are easy for me, except for doing my hair. I’m very tender-headed. Oh, and the interviews. I try to make the judges like me. If I don’t win, I try harder to make them like me next time.”
“In our first pageant we had no talent,” Debbie says. “She, not we, honey,” says Bruce. “Now Blaire looks the judges in the eye,” boasts Debbie, still in the bathroom. “She smiles, turns on that charm that makes them look at her. That’s talent.”
“We try not to enter too many pageants where the interview is important,” says Tony.
“We put Blaire in a package deal,” says Debbie. “Clothes, beauty, talent, because she’s got a blah personality, like me.”
“Oh, honey,” says Bruce. Blaire is oblivious.
When Tony begins combing out Blaire’s hair, so thick with curls it almost obscures her face, Debbie emerges from her lair. “Hi!” she says. “I’m the mom.” Her face is heavily made up, her blond hair stiffly curled. She is wearing a black velvet pant-suit trimmed with gold brocade. Debbie has a doctorate in pharmacy, which comes in handy whenever Blaire is sick, like now. She has had the flu and was coughing and nauseated until Debbie gave her Dimetapp and an antibiotic. Today Blaire is feeling better. She is eating grapes, grasped delicately between her red fake fingernails. She eats each grape in three bites, with her front teeth, her lips curled back so as not to muss her lipstick. Debbie looks at Blaire’s hair and frowns.
“It’s too full.” Tony says, “It’ll fall.” Debbie says, “The main thing is to frame the face.” There is a knock on the door. Tony cries out, “Oh, my shoes! My shoes!” He rips open a box and takes out a pair of shiny silver high heels. “Cinderella’s slippers,” says Bruce. Blaire puts them on. “They’re too big,” she says, without expression. “Just watch out for the cracks in the stage,” says Debbie.
Tony holds up a black rhinestoned cocktail dress and stares at it in the mirror. “I couldn’t wait!” he says. The dress is for the talent competition, in which Blaire will sing “On My Own” from Les Misérables as one of her numbers. Blaire usually wears coral (“her best color,” says Tony), as she will in the western-wear, sportswear and formalwear competitions, which are really exercises in modeling. (The girls walk up and down a runway, posing, hands on hips, a little turn here and there.) Tony and Debbie make most of Blaire’s costumes. When she outgrows one, they sell it, often at a profit because of Blaire’s winning reputation. Everyone wants an original Blaire.
Blaire unself-consciously strips down to her panties, a seasoned performer in a crowded dressing room. Tony helps her pull on her pantyhose, then her black dress. Blaire grabs a cordless microphone. (“You should have heard her before voice lessons,” Tony says.)
While Blaire performs in front of the mirror, Tony stands behind her, pantomiming her act. He spreads his arms at the finale and bows, mouthing silently but with great exaggeration, “Thank you!” Behind them, Erin faces the wall, drawing furiously. Elise, meanwhile, is holding up a bruised finger to her mother. Debbie looks at it and says, “Did you cry? No. Good. Don’t ever make a scene.” Bruce stares lovingly at Blaire.
The ballroom at the Hilton is packed with parents, many of them overweight women in sweat suits or jeans, and their beer-bellied husbands in long-haul truckers’ caps. Bruce, Debbie, Erin and Elise, all wearing badges on their chests with Blaire’s photograph on them, are standing against the back wall, trying to be inconspicuous. Some of the parents have complained that the Pancakes get too much attention. Blaire is waiting in line with about 20 other girls. She stares, without expression, at the floor while Tony fusses with her hair. A few places behind her stands Ariel Murray, her main competition. Ariel has already won three cars, and last August she defeated Blaire in an Atlanta pageant.
”Blaire won Miss Photogenic,” says Debbie. “And we were missing teeth.” When Blaire goes on, it is a seasoned performer who stalks the stage, belting out “New York! New York!” moderately well, except for the high notes. For the first time in hours, Blaire is truly alive. She bows and leaves the stage. As Blaire and her mother walk back to the hotel room, Debbie says, “If you had held the mike closer, you would have been more dynamic. But you wouldn’t. Ariel did it.”
“It’s not hard for me to talk to adults,” she explains in her precise voice. “I like to spend time with adults, even though I have to act older because they expect more from me.”
Back in room 2046, Blaire wraps herself in her mother’s white satin kimono. Outside, little girls race down the hall, squealing. But Blaire has work to do.
Debbie: “What’s your favorite color?”
Debbie: “Say ‘Because it looks good on me.’ ”
Bruce: “If you could be anyone in the world, who would you be?”
Blaire: “Myself, so I can obtain my goals.”
Bruce: “What’s your secret weapon?”
Blaire: “When people have problems, I try to help them.”
Bruce: “You mean, help your sisters?”
Blaire: “Aw, yeah, help my sisters.”
Debbie: “Don’t say ‘Aw.’”
Bruce: “If you went to the moon, who would you take with you?”
Blaire: “My mom, because she never goes anywhere.”
Bruce: “If you could be like anyone, who would you be like?”
Blaire: “Leanza Cornett, because she was Miss America.”
Bruce: “When you look in the mirror, what do you see?”
Blaire: “Myself. I like what I see.”
Debbie gets down on her knees and begins rubbing moisturizer into Blaire’s legs because she will be wearing shorts for the interview. “If you cough, say ‘Excuse me,’” Debbie says. Blaire holds out her arms, and Debbie rubs moisturizer into them. “If they ask what the smell is,” says Tony, “say ‘Wings.’” He throws out his arms. “Tra-la!”
Tony takes Blaire to the interview, which is conducted in private, and Bruce goes out for some fast food. With them gone, Debbie expresses her true fears: “You got to watch out for them Louisiana girls. They pull ’em out of the swamps. They’re dumb but gorgeous.”
When Blaire returns, she says she thinks she did well. “It’s not hard for me to talk to adults,” she explains in her precise voice. “I like to spend time with adults, even though I have to act older because they expect more from me.” Maybe Blaire, who has given up a child’s spontaneity, shows so little offstage emotion because she’s so busy editing herself with adults.
On Sunday morning, the third day of the pageant, all the girls, in their gowns, and their parents assemble in the ballroom. When last year’s Grand Supreme Queen gives up her crown, the pageant organizer, a short, bald man, begins to cry. Then the winners in each group are announced. When Blaire’s name is not called for her group, the Pancakes turn to leave. But the pageant organizer urges them to stay. Finally, after each of the group winners has been introduced, the name of the Grand Supreme Queen is called out: “Blaire Ashley Pancake!”
Her parents scream with joy as Blaire takes the stage to receive her crown and her five $1,000 stacks of $1 bills. The huge piles weigh heavy in her hands, like bricks. Blaire stands there for only a moment, smiling, looking slight and a little bit lost, before she leaves the stage. On the nine-hour ride back to Chattanooga, Bruce, Debbie and Tony are still too excited to sleep. Tony says, “I feel great. I did everything correct.”
Debbie says, “My parents think we go overboard with pageants.”
Blaire says nothing. She is asleep, clutching her crown in her hands.
[Photo Credit: Gjon Mili c/o LIFE]