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Part 2

Living Dolls


An Internet search reveals sites for more than 190 national pageant systems. Since she started her pageants less than a year ago, Ocasio has built up a mailing list of 150 pageant families from Fredericksburg to Virginia Beach.

At her pageants, Ocasio says, all participants receive a trophy with the winners taking home large, 6-foot trophies and good-sized crowns. She keeps her registration fees low - as little as $25 for some pageants — and encourages natural beauty. "You see some kids caked with makeup, false nails, false eyelashes," she says. "Most of my judges will take off if there is too much makeup."

After she witnessed incidences of bad sportsmanship among parents of contestants — things like sock stealing and shoe hiding — she put together tips on good sportsmanship ("Please do not boo other contestants. Let's make everyone feel like a winner!") that she sends out prior to each pageant.

Ocasio enters Nia only in regional pageants because of her young age. "I'm not going to enter her in state [pageants] until she gets older," Ocasio says. "Because at states she has to compete against girls who can walk. They have an advantage."

Ocasio says she will never force Nia to enter pageants. "It's basically time for me and her to spend together," she says, adding that she has hopes that Nia's pageant career will lead her into show business. "If she doesn't like it when she gets older, we'll try ballet or swimming."

While she says Nia enjoys collecting trophies, Ocasio acknowledges that, for now, she enters her daughter in pageants mostly for her own gratification. "There's nothing like watching your child win something," she says. "It makes you so proud. ... It's just the fact of thinking you have a little king or queen. It's kind of sickening when you think about it, but that's just the way of the world. If you're pretty you're going to go places. If you're pretty you're going to be popular."

As New Agey, smooth jazz music plays on a boombox, America's Gorgeous Girls contestants line up according to competition number, with the youngest age group - 0 to 23 months — going first. National pageant director Sheila Call approaches the podium and microphone and calls contestant No. 1, 8-month-old Rylee Gowin, a chubby, fat-cheeked baby with thick, straight dark hair. She is escorted by her father, who must hold her, because she cannot yet walk. He motions in front of her face to try to get her to look at the judges, but her attention is diverted to the children playing offstage.

After the four baby contestants come the 2-year-olds, who are also accompanied by their parents — though they can walk at this age, there's nothing to keep them from toddling off the runway. Contestant No. 9, Jordan Sipe, of Gordonsville, waves and blows kisses as her mother beams, the baby blue of her dress matching her wide blue eyes. No. 8, Kaylee Bryan-Brown of Chesapeake, makes a cute, "surprised" face at the prompting of her mother, then promptly sticks her tongue out at the judges.

The 3- to 5-year-olds seem to have a better sense of what's going on. As they make their way down the stage, each one of these four young contestants has her eyes fixated on her mother, who stands behind the judges, giving her cues as to what to do. Smile. Turn. Walk slowly. Pretty hands and pretty feet.

Pretty hands are achieved by holding your arms straight down at your sides, with your hands extended at right angles from your wrists, fingers together and pointed just so. With pretty feet, the girls have to make sure that whenever they stop in front of the judges, they have one foot slightly in front of the other, forming a sort of "V" with their ankles.

Pretty hands and pretty feet and the stylized step-step turn executed by these girls, are all typical moves of Pro/Am pageants like America's Gorgeous Girls. These are the "glitzier" children's pageants, where kids are judged on how they look, what they wear, and perhaps most importantly, how well they conform to Pro-Am standards. The children are expected to wear makeup, curl their hair and wear a sparkly and poufy pageant dress in just the right color. There's little room for error — or individuality.

No. 12, Courtney, takes to the stage, a pint-sized pageant pro. Her little face lights up into a huge pageant smile. She winks at the judges, keeps her hands pretty, and when she does her step-step turn looks like a rotating disco ball, there are so many rhinestones on her pink dress.

When she steps off the stage, her pageant smile vanishes. She is once again a 3 «-year-old girl, albeit one wearing a lot of mascara. "You've got to do your nod, remember?" her mother, Jessica, whispers. "You forgot to nod."

The 5- to 6-year-olds are next, followed by the oldest group, the 7- to 9-year-olds. This is Shelby Smith's age group, and she is competing against two other girls. Shelby approaches the runway slowly, turns, smiles, gives the judges a confident, final nod and is done. When she lines up with her age group after all of the contestants have done their walk, one can't help but notice that Shelby almost looks too much like a little girl. Her hair isn't as poufy as the others. She wears less makeup. Rather than the megawatt pageant grin, Shelby's smile is a little shy.

The girls will be judged in a number of categories. For Overall Best Dressed, which is based solely on what they are wearing and how well it fits, and Overall Gorgeous Girl, which is based on "facial beauty only," they are judged against the entire field. The judges also name a beauty "Queen" in each age group, and each queen is awarded a trophy, crown, banner and $75 off her $525 entry fee for the America's Gorgeous Girls national pageant. All contestants receive a small trophy, regardless of how they place, as well as a small bag of candy and toys. There is also a swimwear competition and a "most photogenic" contest in which the girls' photos are judged.

[image-1](Stephen Salpukas / Style Weekly)Alicia Truitt, 7, of Northern Virginia collects her loot after winning awards for "gorgeous girl," best-dressed and swimwear in her age group, as well as the pageant's "Grand Supreme" award.The judges also will choose two "Grand Supreme Winners," one in the 0 to 4 age group and one from 5 and up. The Grand Supremes are the contestants with the highest combined score in beauty, photogenic and swimwear. In addition to the other loot, the winners receive $100 cash on stage as well as $100 off their entry fee to the national pageant. The entry fee for today's pageant is $90 to enter all competitions.

While the crowd waits for the final results, Call confers with the three judges, who seem to be having a difficult time choosing their winners. "It's competition," she whispers. "There's winners and losers. That's just the way it is."

After the scoring sheets have been turned in, judge Kim Ocasio catches a quick breath of fresh air in the hallway. "It was tough," she says, shaking her head. "This was a glitzy pageant and they knew that, so we were looking for the hair and makeup."

Richmonder Donna Newlin knows all about the glitz of Pro-Am pageants. Nearly four years ago, her daughter Diandra, now 9«, quickly rose to the top of the rarified pageant world, representing Virginia and West Virginia in the 1996 Sunburst National Pageant, the same year JonBenet Ramsey was a contestant representing Colorado.

"Diandra wanted to do it," Newlin recalls of their entry into pageants. She talks by phone from New York, where Diandra and her 12-year-old brother, Colin, have spent the past two months modeling for the prestigious Wilhemina Agency.

First, Diandra entered the Little Miss Richmond pageant, an offshoot of the Richmond preliminary pageant for Miss America. Next came the regional Sunburst pageant at a local mall, which Diandra won. The director encouraged her to enter the state Sunburst pageant in Harrisonburg, and to please Diandra, Newlin decided to allow her daughter to do it. She won again.

The director once again encouraged Diandra to enter the national Sunburst pageant, but warned Newlin in advance: "If you're going to go to nationals, I want you to take a deep breath and get ready for something you never dreamed of in your life."

"I was curious," Newlin admits. So the family paid the $500 entry fee and packed for the three-day pageant in Atlanta. That's where, Newlin says, "all those tapes were taken of JonBenet."

She was shocked at the level of competition she saw: children with thousand-dollar pageant dresses; hair and makeup stylists who charged $500 to prepare a child for the pageant; $100 an hour pageant "coaching" in Pro-Am modeling techniques.

"There comes a point where the mothers and possibly the kids cross over the line from where this is a hobby to where it becomes an obsession," Newlin says. "It is like compulsive gambling. People think, 'I'm gonna get it next time, I'm gonna win the jackpot.' I was sick when I got down there. We certainly weren't ready for this."

In order to compete at the national level, Newlin says she felt like she had to "dog train" Diandra. "She just can't be herself. It was never to the level of a 6-year-old," she says.

The Sunburst nationals, where Diandra was a fourth runner-up for beauty, was her last pageant. Shortly after, JonBenet Ramsey was murdered and the pictures and tapes of her at the Sunburst pageant began to show up on the nightly news.

"It was because of that, that I said no more," Newlin says. "Sometimes you don't know what you're into until somebody exposes it."

After JonBenet's murder, Newlin and Diandra appeared on numerous television talk shows to talk about their pageant experience. "I did the shows because I knew I would not change the mind of someone who is into it on a national level," Newlin says, "but maybe it would help someone who is on the fence."

The Windsor Room is getting stuffy — and loud — as all of the America's Gorgeous Girls contestants, their parents and their cheering sections, gather for the naming of the 2000 winners.

Little Alexis Dixon, 4, Virginia's 1999 Grand Supreme Winner, is on hand to crown the local winners, and before any names are announced, she takes to the stage wearing her banner and crown and croons a song with incomprehensible lyrics.

The Gorgeous Girls are announced first — this is the category based solely on facial beauty — and sisters Katie and Elizabeth Schomp both win in their age groups, receiving a small trophy with a star on top and a bag of candy and small toys. Next comes the announcement of the winners in the best-dressed and photogenic competitions. The winners in the 0-23 months-old age group are almost all fast asleep in their mother's or father's arms.

After a queen is named in each age group, the crowd quiets for the announcement of the grand supreme winners — 16-month-old Lydia Fleshman from Mechanicsville, Md., and 7-year-old Alicia Truitt from Northern Virginia. The children beam, their mothers beam and wipe away happy tears. This is what they came here for — the knowledge that their little princesses really are the most beautiful children in the world.

The crowd instantly clears out of the room, with some parents approaching the judges' table to collect their comments. These people have spent a lot of time preparing for this pageant and they want to know why they did — or didn't — win.

The comments range from "needs mascara," "needs to curl hair" and "string on dress," to "she can walk a little faster in swimsuit" and "her composure is great."

The mothers listen intently to the judges' reasoning, making mental notes of what they need to change next time to win.

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