Pretty Babies

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

On the other end of the line, one new mom laments that the night before, her daughter should have won the bathing suit in a small pageant for rookies. But the judges read a nine as a seven and added the score wrong. Kelli advises her to discuss the matter with the director.

As Kelli talks, Lindsey fetches the hot-pink satin jacket that she will wear later that morning, pulls it over her tank top and flops back onto the bed. When Kelli hangs up, she gripes that Lindsey will wrinkle the jacket.

"But I'm cold," Lindsey says, hugging the jacket close. Kelli explains patiently that the A/C has to chill the room because otherwise the girls' hair will fall after they curl it.

Lindsey doesn't budge. Beauty requires sacrifice, but Lindsey has her limits.

Three floors above Lindsey Harvey, her main competition is already dressed and posing for photos. Three-year-old Skye McCole, 24 pounds of drop-dead cuteness, is decked out in a white ultrasuede rodeo dress covered with blue rhinestones. A riot of blond curls surrounds her face, already in stage makeup. She whips off her overskirt, revealing an even more sparkly rhinestone skirt underneath.

She grins, and her mom, Helen McCole, snaps a photo. Skye poses quickly and professionally, and it's no wonder: after all, she is a professional model and has worked in front of cameras since she was five months old, earning $75 to $100 an hour posing for Foley's, Palais Royal, Auchan and Oshman's. She places her tiny hand in Helen's, and the two dissolve into a nearby elevator.

Skye is one of two professional models in today's pageant. Helen, a former dancer and freelance casting agent, also coaches the kids who act in commercials. She says she didn't intend to start Skye in modeling so young; it just happened. Her ten-year-old son Stephen is also a professional children's model. One day, when Helen and Skye accompanied Stephen to a shoot, a photographer needed a baby and proposed trying Skye. Helen said no at first, because Skye was too young and colicky to boot. Eventually, of course, Helen relented, and photographers kept calling, impressed by Skye's extraordinary concentration -- extraordinary, that is, for a three-year-old. "She loved it," Helen says.

Helen and Skye head for the Marriott ballroom, which at nine is nearly empty. Pageant families -- little girls, their mothers, their unruly brothers and a few dads -- are only beginning to drift in.

Helen and Skye settle into chairs and wait. At three, Skye is on the young end of the pageant's age spectrum, which ranges from two to the late teens. Like most of the 60 contestants, she's from the Houston area; on Friday afternoon, she and Helen drove here from Clear Lake.

"My feet hurt, Mommy," Skye complains. Helen removes the left boot and tries to fix the problem.

"Don't let them know on-stage," she advises.
Former Miss Texas D'Juana Oxford founded the Miss American Rodeo Pageant six years ago. It's one of about 20 kiddie pageants in Houston, and has no formal connection to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Pageant moms see the frosted-blond Miss D'Juana, now 63 years old, as the grandmother of Houston-area pageant directors.

"Miss D'Juana's pageant," as this one is called, differentiates itself from the crowded circuit in two ways: all the girls will win something, be it a title or a tiara; and it requires all its contestants to perform community service. Last year's girls appeared in 23 parades, plus county cook-offs, AstroWorld shows, the Pasadena Strawberry Festival and local radio and TV programs.

Helen approves of the service requirement. Last year, Skye racked up 200 hours of good deeds, singing in old folks' homes and riding on floats in various festivals around town.

Helen also approves of Miss D'Juana's reputation for running a smooth, fair pageant -- and one that doesn't allow parents to act out if their children don't win. Cursing and yelling have erupted at other local kiddie pageants this summer, but at Miss D'Juana's, decorum reigns.

The Western theme is perhaps no accident; Texas and beauty pageants seem inextricably linked. Ask pageant insiders about Texas, and they unspool the litany of names of Texas women with national titles: 1995 Miss Universe Chelsi Smith, 1985 Miss USA Laura Martinez Herring, 1996 Miss Teen USA Christie Woods.

"Texas is the pageant capital of the world," explains J.J. Smith, a Houston-based writer for Pageant magazine. "People in Texas grow up with the old adage that girls are always prettier in Texas. It's like an aura or mystique, and people start believing it because they hear it so much."

At Miss D'Juana's, a table outside the ballroom is blanketed with fliers announcing future contests. One beckons, "If you ever dreamed of being a star .... There's only one place to be! Hollywood." Then there's a Miss & Mrs. National Mardi Gras Pageant in Galveston this January. And a Krown Royalty Productions Pageant in October at the Howard Johnson's on Airport Boulevard.

A four-page newsletter, Pageant Headlines, offers more news on the subject at hand. Published in Huntsville, the newsletter includes mention of a beauty pageant on the Internet.

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