Pretty Babies

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

A mail-order form offers the new Top Notch Pageantry & Modeling Directory, published in La Marque. The $35 directory promises announcements of upcoming pageants -- plus listings of 2,500 photographers; more than 5,000 salons for nails, hair and electrolysis; more than 600 dentists and orthodontists; and 5,600 places to buy gloves, hosiery and handbags.

Skye McCole sits quietly next to her mom, the boot ache resolved. While waiting for the modeling/beauty portion of the pageant to begin, Helen discusses Skye's upcoming appearance on a syndicated talk show, a pilot for a new series with "inner child" guru John Bradshaw. Skye's agent has been encouraging the appearance, but Helen worries out loud that she's setting herself up for major criticism. "You know how controversial children's beauty pageants are," she says.

Like all the pageant moms, Helen believes the competitions are worthwhile, that they give her daughter poise and self-esteem. She also thinks the pageants offer Skye an outlet for her talents -- a hard thing for a three-year old to find. Besides, Helen argues, "The pageants give her a real social life."

Despite her obvious commitment, Helen maintains a bit of ironic distance. On the surface, at least, she takes the business less seriously than Kelli Harvey. For this pageant, Helen helped organize a Saturday-night parents' show, with songs and skits spoofing Miss D'Juana's penchant for handing out titles to every contestant. And later this afternoon, Skye will perform "Beauty Pageant Blues," a flip song that Helen wrote with a friend. It starts, "Rhinestones, sequins, glitter and glue / You got me started when I was just two / I got the beauty pageant blues."

Show tunes and easy listening ditties signal the start of the pageant, and the buzzing crowd falls silent. The emcee, a young woman, announces that it's time for the two- to three-year-olds in the modeling/beauty portion of the pageant to line up.

Skye and Helen claim a place alongside a wall near the stage. Because Skye won in her age class last year, she's not actually competing with these tykes, but with last year's other winners -- including Lindsey -- to be named the Queen of Queens. For that reason, Skye will go on-stage last, after the eight other two- and three-year-olds.

A pageant mom compliments Skye's dress. Helen complains that the seamstress didn't finish the dress in time; it still needs more rhinestones, she says, pointing to empty spots. The dress cost $900; the ultrasuede alone commands $125 a yard. McCole explains that she'll recoup some of the money by selling the dress for $700, a common practice on the pageant circuit.

The three-year-olds, some with pouffed big hair and big skirts, waddle onto the runway past the judges. Lindsey from Buna, Texas, wears a blue denim dress and looks like a frightened deer. Her mom holds her hand and accompanies her on-stage, gently leading her through the first few steps.

Helen sniffs at the ensemble of a girl named Cara. "Her boots don't match her dress," Helen notes. "If it's between two girls, the judges will deduct points for that."

Cara's mom stands behind the three judges, signaling her daughter. The mom pivots, and on-stage, Cara shadows her; the mom smiles, and Cara smiles.

When the emcee announces Skye's name, Helen bends down and says, "You're on, kid."

Skye strolls across the stage with the confidence of a million-dollar baby. Her mom goes to stand behind the judges.

At the tip of the runway, a few feet from the judges, Skye spins, holding one arm like a waiter carrying a tray. Helen points to her eye, signaling Skye to make eye contact with the judges. Still looking at the judges, Skye puts her hand under her chin as if in thought.

Suddenly, pointing her finger as if shooting an imaginary gun, she shouts, "Bang, bang, bang!" The audience explodes into warm laughter.

"Ya hoo," yells Skye -- again surprising the crowd.
Near the end of her two minutes, she leaves the judges with something else to remember. As she is about to exit the stage, she pauses, looks at the judges and waves. "Bye-bye," she says.

She runs down the stage steps and into her mother's arms. "Did you hear them laugh?" Skye asks.

Kelli Harvey, Lindsey's mom, has been leaning against the wall, watching the judges' faces during Skye's performance. Harvey concludes the judges are quite taken with Skye. She needed far less coaching than the other girls her age, and she's the only one who talked to the judges -- a cute ploy that Lindsey's too old to try. Kelli looks glum. Lindsey's competition is every bit as tough as she'd feared.

After another hour, Lindsey Harvey's 12- to 14-year-old category is called. The girls line up against the wall near the stage. Except for Lindsey, all are dressed in fancy black Western wear. Lindsey's satin cowgirl outfit is hot pink with silver beaded fringe. Her black cowboy hat has a hot-pink band, and her long hair is swept into a ponytail wrapped in a glittery silver ribbon.

It's not just the ensemble that makes Lindsey stand out. Her classic, model-style beauty is startling, even in the company of other pretty girls. The Neal Hamil Agency has expressed interest in Lindsey, saying she may have the right stuff for high-fashion modeling. Jeff Smith, a Hamil booking agent, says that she has great hair, skin and eyes, and notes that she's already tall enough for runway work. But at 12, her body is still growing, her dress size changing. Before marketing her to clients, the agency will wait a decent interval -- at least, says Smith, till she's 14.

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