Pretty Babies

Inside the Miss American Rodeo Pageant: A tale of big hair, big money and little girls

First comes the plum lip liner. Then the raspberry lipstick. Matte foundation, brown eye shadow and a touch of pink in the corners of the eyelid.

Twelve-year-old Lindsey Harvey sits in a hotel chair, barely stirring as her mother-cum-makeup-artist applies goop to her face. It's 7:30 a.m., and Lindsey is still wearing red plaid boxer shorts and a white tank top. In two hours, the Miss American Rodeo Pageant will begin downstairs in the Greenspoint Marriott's ballroom, and she will compete for the pageant's top honor, to be named Miss All-American National Queen -- or, as the contestants call the title, the Queen of Queens.

Lindsey shows no signs of nervousness. The pageant is just one more stop on her summer circuit, a ticket to be punched, a been-there, done-that affair. Almost a decade after entering her first kiddie pageant, the leggy brunette has stashed more than 250 crowns and trophies in the attic of her northwest Houston home. She's won about $5,000 in cash, a $750 scholarship, a Bahamas cruise, a color TV, two boom boxes, a designer telephone, a trampoline and a three-piece set of pink Samsonite luggage.

When the makeup is finished, Lindsey sprawls across the hotel bed, remote control in hand, Saturday-morning cartoons on the television. Her nine-year-old friend Laura Harrell, a sandy blond still in her blue nightshirt, lies beside her, blue eyes riveted to the screen. Laura's mom couldn't make this pageant -- her son was graduating from college the same day -- so Lindsey's mom, Kelli Harvey, is helping both girls with their last-minute preparations. Several years ago, Lindsey took Laura, a neophyte, under her wing. In the pageant world, the difference in their ages counts as a plus: contestants rarely socialize with competitors in their age group, lest rivalry damage the friendship.

On the bed, Lindsey and Laura laugh about the night before, when prepageant festivities kept them up until 11:30. They also missed dinner: by the time they were free, the hotel restaurant was closed. Laura giggles, describing how she rattled a jammed vending machine, trying to shake loose a bag of cookies. When that failed, the girls went to bed hungry, eager for 6:30 to roll around so they could order room-service French toast.

Last year at this pageant, Laura was named the Queen of Queens, the same title that Lindsey is competing for today. The title -- the most prestigious in this pageant -- is open only to the girls who, the previous year, won the top honor in their age categories. The odd structure pits three-year-old up-and-comers against 12-year-old pros like Lindsey.

If all goes as planned, Laura will crown Lindsey on Sunday. Laura laughs, picturing herself stretching to reach the head of her five-foot-nine-inch friend, a good 18 inches taller. "I'll have to stand on a chair," she jokes.

Pageant paraphernalia -- costumes, ribbons, shoes, makeup, hot rollers -- blanket the suite. "This is not a cheap hobby," Kelli notes. Costumes generally cost $300 to $1,000, and she says that to compete on a regular basis, a girl needs a minimum of four: one gown, two sportswear outfits (both glitzy and tailored), and a Western-wear ensemble. Today, Laura will have four costume changes, and Lindsey will have three.

Kelli, 34, bears a faint resemblance to actress Kirstie Alley; she's shorter and more intense than her lanky, laid-back daughter. In the beginning, Kelli says she entered Lindsey in pageants just for fun. Now, Kelli and her husband approach the contests as business propositions, comparing their expenses to the prizes Lindsey could win.

But even for a top contender, turning a profit is unlikely. It costs $75 to enter each of this pageant's two main events, beauty and talent, plus $25 to enter most optional categories, such as historical costume. Entering certain categories requires a photograph; a sitting with a pageant specialist costs $200 to $300. And that's not to mention travel costs, hotel fees, makeup, singing lessons and the dozens of incidentals, like the pageant's $80 official videotape.

The Queen of Queens will collect a $150 bond -- which means she'll break even if she entered only the beauty and talent portions, and if you don't count her other expenses. And even with that low rate of return, the Miss American Rodeo Pageant is something of a bargain; fees for a pageant of its stature generally run between $200 and $400.

Although Kelli works full-time in hotel marketing, she used to devote two weekends each month to pageants during the summer high season. Now, she says, she concentrates only on the larger events, including pageants in Dallas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Kelli sees pageants as her daughter's ticket to college scholarships and professional modeling, Lindsey's dream career. (Lindsey also says she'd like to earn an interior design degree from Texas A&M, so that she has "something to fall back on.")

Lindsey is right on schedule, according to Kelli's plan for world beauty-contest domination. She's already conquered the "kiddie pageants"; the Miss American Rodeo event marks one of her last appearances in that circuit. This fall, she'll graduate to teen beauty contests. Next, Kelli figures, comes Miss Teen Texas, then Miss USA and Miss America.

Naturally, Kelli has become a pageant expert over the years. She's organized her own pageants and coaches would-be Lindseys. For $25 an hour, she teaches them to model, answer questions, sit, make eye contact with the judges and smile; she tells them what to wear and which photos to enter in the contests. Just as crucially -- though less officially -- she instructs the pageant moms on their conduct and stays on call in case of emergencies. Today the phone rings almost constantly, interrupting makeup sessions, conversations and rehearsals.

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