Pretty Babies

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

After the long segment ends, the judges mill around in the hallway. Duc Nguyen, who runs his own pageant and has judged many others, notes that Lindsey is having an off afternoon. "I've seen her do better," he says. "It's her song choices."

He waxes eloquent about pageants, opining that some parents are reliving their youth through their daughters. Skye McCole, he says, will do well in the circuit if she doesn't get burned out. Parents, he says, can't keep girls in competition if they don't want to be there.

Sunday morning, the award ceremony finally begins at 11, half an hour behind schedule. "In my pageants, there are no losers," D'Juana Oxford tells the crowd. And she is stultifyingly right; the awards flow endlessly.

As in any awards ceremony, the least exciting are the first announced. There are door prizes: cowboy boots, puzzles, coffee mugs, teddy bears and a $25 Kmart gift certificate. Then come somewhat more meaningful awards: Miss Physical Fitness, Baby of the Year, Supreme Star of the Future and Most Beautiful Face. Every age group has its own Miss Congeniality. In the Western Wear Swimsuit competition, a denim banner goes to the girl who best modeled a Texas-themed bathing suit.

Ironically, in this pageant for beauty and talent, the fattest monetary prizes go not to the beautiful and talented, but to the enterprising. Miss Round-Up is the girl who collected the most products for the queens' gift bags, soliciting freebies such as koozies and lipsticks from stores and companies. She wins a crown, a banner, two pins, a telephone and $200. The Pageant Sweetheart -- the girl who sold the most ads for the pageant program -- rakes in a similar haul.

Laura Harrell wins Miss Centerpiece and Most Photogenic, two awards based on a photo Lindsey helped pick out a few weeks before. The picture, shot by an Arkansas pageant specialist, makes the nine-year-old look like a glamorous college coed.

In the People's Choice division, anonymous judges select Skye as one of the three finalists for Most Talented; but when the audience votes, she loses to a girl at least ten years older. Lindsey is voted Top Model.

The crowd grows a little quieter as it waits to hear who won the juried talent and beauty portions -- the awards pageant moms consider most significant. Miss D'Juana calls girls in each age division to the stage, one group at a time. Every girl may win a title, but not all titles are created equal: in any other pageant, Miss Tumbleweed, Miss Show Biz and Miss Dixie Bell would be losers.

It's about 2:15 when Miss D'Juana finally calls the last group, the Queen of Queens hopefuls. The four girls line up side by side. Skye reaches for Lindsey's left hand, and Lindsey folds her hand over Skye's. Skye comes up to Lindsey's wrist.

As "Isn't She Lovely" blasts over the sound system, a girl named Katie is named a "Princess." Amanda is designated "new national talent winner." Two contenders remain: Skye and Lindsey.

The audience is quiet.
Then Miss D'Juana announces the first runner-up: Lindsey Harvey, new National Beauty Winner.

Which leaves Skye McCole as the All-American Queen. The Queen of Queens. The real winner.

The crowd claps. Laura Harrell crowns Skye, placing a rhinestone tiara over her cowboy hat, and another girl hands her an armful of roses.

Holding hands, Skye and Lindsey walk to center stage and down the runway. They both flash their best pageant smiles -- the same smiles they've deployed all weekend. If Lindsey is disappointed, it doesn't show. And if Skye is particularly elated, that doesn't show, either.

As the tired crowd spills out of the ballroom, Kelli Harvey leaves the room for a second and returns holding Lindsey's score sheets. As Kelli suspected, Lindsey lost points in the modeling section. "The judges should be informed this is the '90s, not the '80s," Kelli grouses. But Lindsey says she's satisfied. After all, she's the people's choice for top model; forget the judges. Kelli continues to flip through the score sheets.

In the center of the room, Skye stands next to her dad. Her arms are full of flowers, and people are congratulating her. Someone asks Helen whether Skye understands that she won the pageant.

"No," Helen replies, "I don't think so." But Helen herself is beaming -- a million-watt winner's smile.

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