Pretty Babies

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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