Pretty Babies

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

The Hamil agency already boasts a roster of other former pageant winners. "They know how to walk, talk to clients, and they have a lot of poise," Smith says. And, too, clients often like the celebrity value of a Miss Texas or Miss Teen, who can serve as a spokesperson for a product. The only drawbacks to pageant girls, laments Smith, is that they're often too short and unable to shed the "pageant mode" and seem spontaneous.

When Lindsey's turn comes, she bursts onto the stage "voguing" -- that is, displaying not the traditional slow, smooth modeling style of most other contestants, but a hipper hybrid of posing and dance -- one part modeling, one part Madonna. Lindsey hops, spins fast and opens her mouth wide as if in surprise. Her hands fly. Her face constantly changes expression.

"Can you believe that girl is 12?" a woman in the audience whispers. On-stage with her makeup, costumes and poise, Lindsey could pass for a drop-dead 22, a cross between Cindy Crawford and Brooke Shields.

Meanwhile, Kelli Harvey once again stands against the far wall and monitors the judges' reactions. When Lindsey bounces off the stage, her mom looks grim.

"I could see their faces," Kelli says. "They didn't like it."
In fact, a split second before Lindsey went on-stage, Miss D'Juana had warned Kelli that the judges took a dim view of voguing. The judges complained they couldn't see the contestants' faces or their clothes because they were moving too fast.

Kelli fumes. The category -- "free-style modeling" -- is supposed to incorporate all styles, she says. The judges should have been informed.

A few minutes later in Room 710, Lindsey has shed her hot-pink Western wear for a green striped T-shirt, shorts and chunky leather sandals. She goofs around, singing phony Italian opera into a yellow silk rose. Laura laughs while pulling tissue paper from the puffed sleeves of the teal Southern belle dress she just wore for the historical costume competition.

In another room of the suite, Kelli is taking orders for lunch. A pageant dad is making a run to a nearby McDonald's.

Lindsey can't decide what to sing in the talent competition. She's considering a Natalie Cole number called "Orange Colored Sky" but doesn't have an orange dress. She rehearses "Cry," a Patsy Cline standard, but says it might not be a good choice because she might forget the words. She slips a tape into her boom box and begins a rendition of "Dixie."

"I wish I was in the land of cotton," she sings.
"Sing it again," her mom says. "You're missing notes."
The phone rings in another room, and Kelli rushes to answer it. Laura's mother, Wanda Harrell, is on the other end. She wants an update on the morning competition.

"I think we are going to be in for some shocks," Kelli Harvey tells her. "I'm just getting you prepared." She warns Wanda that voguing may have hurt Lindsey's and Laura's scores.

Wanda asks how Lindsey's doing. "It's going to be tough against Skye," Kelli says. "She went 'Bang, bang, bang.' "

Upstairs in Room 1012, Skye has just woken from a short nap. She's changed into her costume for the next event, a high-collared dress studded with red rhinestones.

Like Lindsey, Skye rehearses her songs for the talent competition. She lifts the microphone tethered to her boom box and sings to the tape of her first song, Tanya Tucker's "Texas (When I Die)."

"When I die, I may not go to Heaven," Skye warbles. "I don't know if they let cowgirls in." Her mom listens from a few feet away. When Skye's voice flags, Helen coaches, "Stay exciting! Keep the energy up!"

Skye tugs at her dress collar. "It's itchy," she complains.

In the younger age categories, "talent" is loosely defined. Most girls sing country and western standards; the overall effect is of a daycare center emptied into a C&W karaoke bar.

A girl named Chelsea, whose ponytail sprouts from the top of her head, goes first. She sings "Be Optimistic" off key, forgets a few words and waddles off the stage.

When the emcee calls for a girl named Cara, Cara's mom shakes her head. "Cara is too tired to sing right now," the emcee explains. "The girls didn't get to bed till late. She's going to come back later."

The emcee then calls for Skye.
She is waiting in the wings and is clearly ready. She grabs the mike, strides to the center of the runway and announces:

"I'm going to sing 'Texas (When I Die).' And I hope you enjoy it. This for all the people born in Texas and love it here."

"Hee-haw!" she shouts, and launches into her song. The red rhinestones on her dress sparkle. She bounces, bending her knees in time to the music.

"Everybody sing!" she urges at the chorus.
The crowd starts to clap, and a few do sing. Skye waves her arm in the air and says, "One more time!"

A smile crosses one judge's lips.
"Hee-haw!" Skye yells again at the end, throwing her arm in the air.
An hour later, Lindsey's age group is called. She's wearing a black stretch jumpsuit with filmy puffed sleeves of white organdy, and belts out an Al Jolson classic, "Rockabye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody." As always, her presence commands attention. But for 12-year-olds, expectations run high, and the teen talent competition is stiff.

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