Last month, I judgded a child beauty pageant that was taped for Toddlers & Tiaras. I covered this for work. You can watch video, see pictures and read my write-up here. I don't need to say that it was amazing, but it was amazing.
My narrative was actually several times the length of what's running in The Daily today, and with my editor's permission, I am posting the writer's cut below. Everything you ever wanted to know about attending 12 hours of a child beauty pageant and scoring children should be below. If it isn't, let me know because I'm sure I can tell you.
"You better sissy that walk, girl!"
If every mode of expression has a hierarchy, then I spent the weekend before Halloween in the apotheosis of unreasonable demands placed on children. I was one of eight judges of the Universal Royalty Nationals pageant, which was held in a dingy ballroom in the Holiday Inn located in midtown Austin, Texas. On a taped-together, three foot high stage hovering above faded black carpet with colored swirls that sat in room bordered by walls of beige paneling, about 60 girls (and two boys) ranging in life phase from infant to adult were given the difficult task of bringing glamour to where it wasn't. Or, to quote one of several brassy, tenors that rang out from the audience behind me throughout the day:
"Sparkle, baby! Sparkle!"
I came to appreciate the oddball entertainment value of child pageantry via Shari Cookson's documentary Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen. It was captivating, heartbreaking and hilarious (often simultaneously). Living Dolls is breathing camp, over-the-top and real enough to inspire a subgenre of reality TV years later focused on pushy parents and the children who endure them. Along with Painted Babies, it paved the way for TLC's endlessly shocking and trending Toddlers & Tiaras.
When that show's fourth season started earlier this year, I was writing for TVGuide.com, and I interviewed Annette Hill, whose Universal Royalty pageant circuit is regularly featured on Toddlers. My angle was simple: Present Annette with the typical points of criticism that are brought up (most often online) from the hand-wringing, laypeople whom the sociological-experimentation nature of reality TV has seduced into fancying themselves as experts. Annette impressed me by answering criticism frequently flung at pageants without flustering, circumventing topics or saying anything implausible. She maintained that her pageants judge on more than appearance, that it's more than pageantry that fuels our cultural obsession with beauty, that it takes two to sexualize (and surely, the person who is lusting is the one to worry about) and that reality TV has a way of stringing together the extreme. She assured me that plenty of her clients are far from monstrous. (Annette herself founded her circuit after her two now teenage daughters told her they weren't enjoying the pageants she was enrolling them in. She says it broke her heart, but clearly she's over it.)
At the end of the interview, Annette asked me what I thought of her. That was bold. I told her that I was impressed by her willingness to answer what amounted to a barrage of criticism. She told me that she had a big nationals pageant coming up in October, and asked if I'd be interested in judging it. "OK," I said, practically fawning over this key to Bizarro World that had been placed in my lap. "Think about it," Annette implored. "I don't have to. I'm there," I insisted. "I'mma hold you to it!" she said. I told her she wouldn't have to. She didn't – I kept in touch and made sure that my opportunity to see this world first-hand would not be missed.
"You better do it, girl!"
And so, on the morning of Saturday, October 29, I woke up at 7 am and changed into the tuxedo Annette told me to rent, so that I could be in the Holiday Inn's Hill Country AB room by 8 am. The pageant was to start at 9 am, but I'd need training. None of my fellow judges were as formally dressed as me, but oh well, I figured. At least I'd go toe-to-toe with the kids onstage. Three others sat at my table with the remaining four sitting at a table about 10 feet away at a separate table (the Toddlers & Tiaras production crew was back a little but between us). Next to me was Heather Mathias, an HR manager for a food chain who'd participated in pageants as a child and twirled baton competitively. Next to her: Kylie Drew, who runs the Follow Your Dreams pageant circuit in Melbourne, Australia. And at the end of our table sat Estela Hernandez, a real estate advisor who also competed in pageants. I was the novice, but we were all trained equally. Marie, a Universal Royalty employee, went through what would be expected from us as judges. She pointed out that three of the participants – one child in the 4-5 group named Mia, and two in the 6-7 named Saliz and Isys – were being profiled by Toddlers and Tiaras and that we were to, "Keep it positive" and, "Put on a happy face," while they were onstage.
Keeping it positive was an objective that extended to all contestants. Under each category, we were to give scores on a variety of traits: In the opening event of Party Attire, there were blank lines for facial beauty, overall appearance and personality/modeling. For each criterion, we were to rank the children on a scale of 9.4 to 10, with the option for an additional plus point (it was suggested that we award our pluses after the participants had presented and were in their final category lineup, should one stick out then). This is, of course, a scale of 1 to 7 (plus), and while no one filled me in on why we judged using those particular numbers, it was pretty obvious that it was because the parents could request their child's score sheets and would receive them typically two months after the pageant (so that time could heal wounds). Losing with an average of 9.6 probably hurts a lot less than losing with an average of 3. Nine-point-six just looks prettier. Or something!
Below the lines for Party Attire and the Special Event (today's would be "Celebrity Wear") was a box for "positive comments," and Marie told us that the critiques for that section could be no harsher than, "I'd like to see you in orange." Clearly, not only is it wise to encourage adults to have as soft a hand possible in the ultimately brutal judging of children, it's a wise business decision to put such a positive spin on things. Who would want to return to funnel hundreds of dollars in registration fees for a daylong insult? To that point, no child leaves a Universal Royalty pageant empty-handed: Those who don't place are dubbed "future winners" and receive small trophies. Annette encourages rapturous response to every child onstage and a few times took the audience to task if applause was noticeably lower for one than the child who had just left the stage.
Marie offered us a few more helpful pointers, for example that a child doesn't need to have what's known as "flipper" (or dental appliance used to fill in the pesky childhood occurrence of missing teeth) and furthermore, if she does, "Does it look right?" She let us know that this was a high glitz pageant (i.e. full-on, painted-baby, giant-ruffles-and-hair-curls-to-match, formal pageantry as opposed to a more "natural" scene) but that "Just 'cause you're glitz doesn't mean you're orange." Good to know.
When she left, I turned to Heather, who was sitting next to me, and told her I was going to have a problem with the "facial beauty" score. I'd come with my own agenda: To compensate for the world's cruelty as much as possible (giving overweight girls, for example, an advantage just for having the confidence to challenge the standard of beauty) and be as vigilant against overbearing parents as my position would allow (taking off points for children whose routines could not be performed if their parents weren't leading from the behind the judges' tables). For some reason, I thought I'd pull this off no problem because there'd be a more vague set of qualifications, perhaps a general 1 to 10 to be rewarded per category or something. I did not expect to be faced first and foremost with the specific question of how pretty a child's face is. How pretty is any child's face? In a state of constant flux, the child's face might as well be a blur. And no matter how pretty it is, it will change in a year, six months, two months. How does one even start making that kind of a call?
Heather offered that what she looked for was, "a full face, big eyes and bright smile." Those words make sense and if forced at gunpoint, I'm pretty sure I'd make that call, but then I still wouldn't be certain. Heather told me that she understood why it'd be harder as a man for me to make that call. I didn't mention that I'm gay, and I'm not sure if it would have complicated or simplified her point, but it certainly made my task no easier. Before any child neared the stage, I made the decision that I would give each one a 10 in "facial beauty" and think nothing more of it.
(I will admit, though, that I gave one child in the 0-11 month age group a plus in facial beauty because she had the dissociated gaping and toothless smile of a meth addict that had just scored, and I found that hilarious.)
"Rock. That. Stage. Girl!"
Annette runs her pageants both behind and in front of the scenes, and at 9 am she began her announcing. She referred to us as "very prestigious judges," which made me feel even fancier than my pre-tied bowtie did. An aesthetic-based flatterer by nature, Annette would go on to tell us how gorgeous we all looked, how well-dressed the audience was (I glanced over my shoulder at this point and in the audience I saw an older woman in a belted, leopard print dress with three-quarter sleeves) and how lovely the sub-Muzak stock soundtrack supplied by Toddlers & Tiaras was. Recently, when she direct messaged me on Twitter, she told me that I'm going to "look so good" on TV.
The pageant started and we watched children in each of the 11 divisions (Boys of 0-35 months and then girls of: 0-11 months, 12-23 months, 2 year-olds, 3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-10, 11-13, 14-17 and 18 and up), come on stage, hit some marks, leave and then come back on as an entire division group for a final lineup for the Party Attire portion of our show. Sometimes these children were accompanied by their parents because they were timid, confused or not yet able to walk.
In the Party Attire section, Annette read out answers to a survey that every parent/child fills out. We learned what each children's hair and eye color is (which helpful for the seeing-impaired, or in the case of a brunette child who was said to have "beautiful blonde hair," for parents with wishful thinking), hobbies, ambition, favorite TV show, favorite food and a description of his or her outfit. These descriptions were never more specific than: "A beautiful white dress accented in rhinestones and ruffles." They also rarely deviated from that exact description, since almost all of the dresses were accented in rhinestones and ruffles.
This section is hilarious, obviously, as an interface between parental projection and a child's will. We were in the realm of the former force entirely in the earlier divisions, specifically those featuring children who cannot yet speak to share their interests and ambitions. We heard that a child named Ethan's ambition was to be a physician. He could not yet stand by himself. A few of the really young ones had "to learn to walk" listed as ambition, and upon repetition, I recognized that this as a hallmark of pageant humor. Haaaa.
"You still got it, girl!"
I scribbled furiously, having to judge in three categories for each child, take notes for this piece and generate positive comments that didn't betray me as some generic hack. (For Makynzi: "Gorgeous beyond her years." For Lauren: "A younger, more beautiful Laura Dern." For Grace: "Grace is a wonderful name for this serene child.") I got through the first few categories fine, and then at around Age 3, they start looking at you. If you have never been stared down by eight expectant, spray-tanned children in liquid eyeliner and ornate hairpieces, you have not seen what I have seen.
But then, soon after that, they start flirting with you. This was more disarming than being asked to judge a child's facial beauty. On one hand, I understood that the 7-year-old locking eyes with me and winking with an assured coyness that I've never experienced coming from an adult is just going through the motions of what she's been trained. In most cases, I assume that it is as meaningless to her as the widespread pageant practice of tracing the perimeter of one's face with each index finger simultaneously running down each side, meeting them at the mouth, kissing the finger tips and then pushing them out, arms extended in front and then moving toward the sides, as if to kiss the entire room (soooo many variations on that throughout the day). It's just a pleasantry, a thing that you do when you are where you are.
And yet, this is not a pleasantry that I enjoy. Any female who tries this with me is barking up the wrong tree, and ones several decades my junior are in the wrong forest. The very suggestion of romantic connection with a female makes me want to avert my eyes and hide under my covers, but in this case, that would have been rude. I was there to watch those children. And so, after momentary shock, I was completely aware of what was going on and able to do so from a detached perspective: It's not personal, it's a performance. Pageants are a genre that come stocked with their own conventions, ones that I had no chance of altering. That perspective – understanding so much of what I was seeing that people consider shocking actually comes with the territory – is what kept my jaw intact as opposed to it spending the day in my lap. I don't know if I drank the Kool-Aid, but I respected its deep, artificial red. On one child with a particularly sly flair, I wrote objectively on her sheet, "A fantastic winker." In my notes I wrote, "Eye contact is nauseating."
"Me too! I love Golden Girls!"
These children had palates seemingly developed my chain restaurants. The amount of children that listed macaroni and cheese as their favorite food was staggering. I couldn't help but wonder how long they'd be allowed – by their parents, by society, by themselves – to keep that love requited. And then someone in the 13-17 group listed her favorite food as cucumbers and I had my answer. One little girl in the 8-10's, Zanna, listed her ambition as "becoming America's Next Top Model," apparently unaware of the uphill struggle she would face on that show given her pageant background (Tyra hates the pageant girls!). Another girl, Megan, practiced the Banks-prescribed technique of smiling with one's eyes (or "smizing") so hard that it looked like she was being shot in the face with a stream of nitrous oxide. "She smiles not just with her eyes but with her entire existence," is what I wrote, impressed.
The other highlights of Party Attire were a girl in the 14-17 group named Suheily wearing a teal gown with a giant slit up the front that revealed a leopard print miniskirt underneath and that same print lining the entire lower half of the dress. It felt like satire, but it wasn't. One girl, Lauren, in the 11-13 had a wet/crunchy hair thing going on straight out of early period Samantha Fox. Soon after she stepped onstage, the stock sounds of Toddlers & Tiaras flipped into a smooth saxophone thing and it all felt so Skinemax. No one's fault, but still. Finally, when it was announced in the 18+ group that one of them wanted to be a cardiologist or transplant surgeon, someone in the crowd shouted in response: "Tummy tuck! I need one of them!" I couldn't really blame her for having no ambition to challenge the status quo.
At 11:35, Party Attire was over and we broke for what was supposed to be a 20-minute period, in which we'd get to eat lunch but it ended up being an hour, in which our lunch never arrived. As they didn't want us to be eating our club sandwiches and, in my case, blackened salmon on a bun while judging, we'd have to wait another two hours until the end of the next event to eat. Because I am a professional, I did not let hunger pangs influence my scoring.
Our score sheets for each contestant were collected diligently by a Universal Royalty employee after every age division presented and then, at the beginning of each event, we were given stacks back. These were a mixed batch containing not necessarily our score sheets, which meant that my somewhat glib but effort-filled comments were exposed to my fellow judges.
"'This kid's got swagger'?" Kylie read out loud with her nose scrunched.
"No!" said Heather on my right. "Someone wrote that?"
I didn't let on that it was me, but my fine pen whose ink was dark way beyond the ballpoints everyone else was using betrayed me. No further comments were read aloud.
"You better work that White House, honey!"
A word on the "celebrity wear" portion of our day: Hilarity. What is expected of the children during this event seems to be murky, and so it was one big, costumed free for all. Some children would merely roam the stage and nod at the judges, much as they did in the former event. Others would launch into full-on performances, like Mia, who sang "Animal Crackers in My Soup" into a hands-free mic, and then launched into a bizarre, interpretive coda in which she ran around banging a pair of spoons.
Mia was one of six Shirley Temples ("She started pageants!" a voice rang out when the first Shirley stepped onstage). Mia's Shirley was weird, but Kayla's was off the rails, as clips from old Temple songs (including "Crackers" and "Good Ship Lollipop") would alternate with Black Eyed Peas' "Boom Boom Pow." When the newer song came on, she balled up her fists and banged her body like Rosie Perez at the beginning of Do the Right Thing. This was met with screams of audience approval. She was in the 2-3 age group.
There were four Marilyn Monroes, two Audrey Hepburns (one Breakfast at Tiffany's Audrey, one My Fair Lady Audrey), two Sandys from Grease (Lakyn swiveled her hips at the "We made out under the dock" line in "Summer Nights"), two Janet Jacksons (both of the "Rhythm Nation 1814" all back everything era, though only one had a hoop earring with a key in it and yes I did reward her for the attention to detail), two Jennifer Lopezes (one in the dress, or at least something that was supposed to look like it) and one and a half Beyoncés (Megan started her routine as Chaka Khan and then threw off her afro wig in the middle to dance to Bey's "Diva" – I read this as a Myra Breckinridge-esque critique on the ever-renewing pantheon of female soul singers).
There was a Michelle Obama, a Nicki Minaj (it will never not be weird for a prepubescent child to be emulating someone whose name is a vague reference to threeway sex, but certainly that little girl who sang "Superbass" on YouTube and then with Nicki on "Ellen" helped normalize the phenomenon), a Lady Gaga replete with hair-bow whose routine was so camp, it brought tears to my eyes. The weirdest celebrity emulation was Sofia Coppola, as brought to us by a child in the 11-13 group named Courtney. Her dress looked like an old-time director's slate, bordered in thick, diagonal black and white stripes and featuring a blank template on the chest ("Movie: ________"). Clearly, someone had found this and thought, "Who's a reasonably young, attractive, brunette, gawky director? Oh right. You're Sofia Coppola." She danced around with an actual slate to a disco version of "Hooray for Hollywood," much as I presume Sofia Coppola does on her days off.
At 2:00, Celebrity Wear ended, we ate and then at 2:47, it was time for talent. I never got a clear picture on what was required of the contestants as far as participation went because some took part in Celebrity Wear and not talent, some did talent and not Celebrity Wear and a few did neither. All did Party Attire, or the most unabashed for-beauty's-sake portion of the pageant. I thought that in order to dignify the pageant's existence to pearl-clutchers who couldn't bear the thought of children competing on their looks alone, talent should be required participation for all contestants. But it was not, and then I watched it and I understood why: Not everyone is talented.
As we stretched into the seventh hour of this marathon sitting session, I was crankier and less diplomatic than ever. Before this my scores rarely fell below 9.7 unless a child made it clear that she did not want to be there (such as Kayla, whose routines were variations of the word, "No!" like she was practicing in public her one line she'd been given in a sitcom walk-on role). I figured very little could get through to an overbearing parent who didn't want to face the reality of their child's displeasure like a low score could, but I'm an idealist so who knows what they'd think.
"You better work that pink ribbon, girl!"
But judging talent was not like judging a child just standing onstage. As a full-time critic, I judge talent as part of my job description, and so evaluating this portion of the show felt very natural to me. Helping matters was that "overall performance" and "entertainment value" require separate scores within the talent category (rounding things out is "costume appearance"), so that I could express my love of camp and unintentional entertainment. A contestant in the 4-5 group named Rayne mumbling the entirety of Beyoncé's "I Was Here" (a Diane Warren-penned ballad on 4 that basically amounts to Beyoncé singing her own epitaph about where she fits in with the world, which sounds ridiculous to be sung as early as age 30) did not strike me as particularly accomplished, but it did strike me as hysterical. 10+ for that one.
A 10+ also went to another 4-5'er, Kali, who was almost entirely unsmiling (I read this as "fierce"). She was dressed in a karate uniform fastened by a pink belt. Sequined pink stripes ran down each side of her pants, and pink ribbons sat on both sides of her chest. She performed to a dubstep soundtrack in front of a poster reading, "LET'S FIGHT BREAST CANCER" that wasn't further explained. Her routine consisted of a screechy series of punches and kicks, ending with her breaking planks of wood with both her hands and her feet. I was dying, and it was for a cause. I gushed about how great it was to Heather, and she was like, "Eh..."
My lowest scores went to the children participating in talent who were under 3-years-old. Trust me, they don't have talents yet before then, and if you don't believe me, witness the parents who carry their infants onstage and then slowly lift them up and down, not even in time to whatever music is playing, for entire stretches of songs. One woman did this with her child in the 0-11 month group and then when her song ended and the audience (way too) politely applauded, she announced that there was another song and so we had to endure that time wasting all over again. It sucked. Definitive 9.4 there.
"Whoo! Pretty doll!"
Mia, one of the Toddlers & Tiaras subjects, dressed in a gorgeous, ornately patterned red dress and headpiece that, if not traditionally Russian, did a great job of pretending to be. She started her routine in a life-size doll box (one of the day's motifs, as several children jumped out of boxes their fathers had assembled during break and then precariously wheeled onstage) and then kind of ran around a makeshift set that also had on it a giant Russian doll cutout and a table that had real Russian dolls on it. I don't know how much dance training this 4- or 5-year-old had, but she was well versed in the art of faking it till you make it.
No matter how much these kids practice, real oddness comes out in talent. It's an opportunity for unbridled kid-ness to come galloping through. They may aspire to dolls (or aspire to pleasing the parents who'd have them be dolls) but few could transcend the weirdness of the flesh. Saliz, another Toddlers & Tiaras subject, half-sang/half-…didn't sing a medley of Beyoncé's "Upgrade U" and "Diva" and she was only in front of her mic about half the time. The performance included an outfit change behind a curtain that was wheeled out (she went from baggy casual wear to midriff-baring top and miniskirt combo). A child named AnnaBella performed a hyper dance to The Time's "The Bird," and I praised her for song choice on her score sheet. Zanna whipped her hair with the conviction of Willow Smith. By the end of the song, I could see the birds flying in a circle around her head.
"Shake your boom boom boom!"
There was a gorgeous girl in the 14-17 year old group, Angelica, who performed a belly dance as her talent. Her body was flawless. I can't say for certain how seduced I was supposed to be, having no frame of reference, but I know that I was supposed to find her hot. Naturally, when Michelle in the 18+ age group did a can-can routine, my comment on her sheet was, "Great cans!" Just kidding.
Talent ended at 4:24, and we were then asked to discuss the pageant as a group for Toddlers & Tiaras, putting special focus on the three girls being profiled by the show. I was selected to lead and moderate the discussion, which thrilled me. I'm never going to have kids, and so I should have never had a shot of appearing on Toddlers & Tiaras and yet, there I was seriously discussing the events of the day. It was the cherry on top of over-the-top. I had interacted little with the four judges that weren't at our table, but I found them to be reasonable people who were able to articulate why they thought these children did or didn't perform well without a trace of malice or pettiness in their voices. One of them whose name I never caught talked at length about the dresses the children wore in Party Attire and I thought, "Oh right! Dresses!" I had no sense of nuance there, figuring if you'd seen one wearable lace cake, you've seen them all. I was glad at least someone was paying attention.
After our discussion, I was interviewed by a Toddlers producer individually and I really gave her everything I had. Up to that point, I'd kept things polite, and though the other judges could probably tell that I felt like I was on another planet, I certainly didn't explicitly say that to them. That changed in front of the Toddlers & Tiaras camera, when I in fact did say that, and a bunch more about my befuddlement and delight. I really went in and was way more open about my feelings than I'd been all day, and while I never turned particularly hostile, I was prepared to find out that I'd alienated my fellow judges through my candor (it was, at the very least, not very pageant-poised of me). But a funny thing happened as I was going on and on to the camera: They listened and laughed. When I returned to the group after about 15 minutes of nonstop yammering, a few of them told me they appreciated my honesty. They thought it was funny. I knew they were all pleasant people, but I had no idea they had a sense of humor about this stuff. We got along even better from there.
It amazed me how pleasant and normal everyone that I worked with was. Annette is unfailingly nice. For example, she had an incident with a photographer that she'd hired skipping out before the pageant was over and while she shared this under noticeable duress, she moved on immediately. It was her opportunity to freak out and steal some shine on a day set aside for extreme human behavior, but she just got it out and that was that. It was emblematic of how perversely disappointing the pageant was: I expected to show up and have people say bizarre stuff to me all day long, and that writing this piece would amount to transcription. No such luck.
Really, the weirdest thing about the day was how not weird it was. Granted, I could not speak with the parents or the children, so as to preserve my integrity as a judge (a fact I mourned initially but then treasured – my designated focus kept my head from exploding). That said, the overall vibe reminded me of the recitals my sisters would dance in when they were young in the '80s. I understand the revulsion people feel when they see kids trotted out like they're pigs at a fair, but watching so much of it made it strike me that it's also illustrative of our societal values, namely the premium we put on looks. There's an extreme cynic in me, even, that wonders if introducing children to the notion that they will be judged based in part on what they look like isn't in fact giving them a head start on a harsh reality of the world. Maybe Earth would be a nicer, fairer place if it were populated with more people devoted to changing that reality. Surely, few if any were in that room with me, but then again, the very definition of the word "iconoclast" suggests that not everyone will be one. At worst, I think, pageants are a symptom and rarely a cause.
The crowning ceremony began around 6:00 and lasted for over an hour and a half. It barely matters who won what because I could barely remember the children upon even when they were in front of me. Sixty similarly painted faces are a lot to remember, and as a result I've found myself truly puzzled while going back over notes I took down like, "Looks high and also kind of like Amy Sedaris." I don't know what child I was talking about, but she sounds like someone that I would enjoy hanging out with.
Crowning includes several phases. After a few similar preliminary awards (one of them resulting in the distribution of a fun-size pink couch rimmed in rhinestones), the age groups were handled individually, and via several divisions like "most beautiful" and "photogenic." The winners (or queens) in these categories took home five-foot trophies, teddy bears and crowns. But these are not the divisions one actually aspires to win in (if one is able to make sense of a complicated policy) – because Universal Royalty doesn't "double crown," if one wins Queen in her age division, she is not eligible for a supreme title and the supreme titles are the ones that yield the cash. I mean that literally: Grand Supreme winners were given giant fans of cold, hard cash to hold as they posed for their pictures. The top winner was given a figuration of $10,000 — yes, bills — to hold. Beautiful people holding money is what it all comes down to.
"We might give out two $10,00 prizes next year!" Annette teased the crowd.
The day was largely devoid of big revelations for me. This is a thing that people do, and lacking any scientific proof or a sizeable percentage of case studies illustrating the damaging affects of pageantry, who are we to judge? (Except, I guess, the judges.) I will say that for all the talk about forcing children to grow up too quickly by participating in these things, nothing makes you more aware of a child's youth than the contrast that comes from dressing her up years beyond it.
Oh, and the right girl won, I think. She didn't have to present a talent or anything. I don't even think she sissied her walk, but I can't quite be sure.