"Her!? She's ugly!" I didn't say that aloud, thankfully. But I thought it—about a baby. What a horrible thing to think about an infant, even if it's totally true. Oh, how far I'd fallen from my lofty position of being "above it all," only to land in a stackable banquet chair in the ballroom of an airport hotel in Hartford, Connecticut, deeply invested in the results of a kiddie beauty pageant, bitter, shifty-eyed, and seriously considering starting some shit with the judges.
Shut up. I'd like to see how you'd react after your 10-month-old with a gorgeous head of thick locks just lost "Best Hair" to a bald child.
It was 10 am on a Sunday morning. While God-fearing people were in church, I was worshipping at the altar of camp: the 2012 Miss & Mr. Elegance Pageant. The event lacked the refinement and luxury its name would suggest.
You couldn't look in any direction without seeing something trashy that had been made exponentially so, either by default or design. Errant toddler-sized French manicure press-on nails littered the carpet. An 11-year-old girl wearing lucite-like heels was on stage, the backdrop of which was an airbrushed rendering of a grand marble staircase a la Musik Express. A dog — a pit bull mix, maybe — lounged on top of the pageant organizers' table, where cash transactions were taking place. Jessie J's "Domino" blared through the sound system as a four-year-old, who was heavily made-up — complete with expertly contoured cheekbones — sang the song's opening verse with a great deal of conviction: "I'm feeling sexy and free…"
And I loved it. My sensibilities afford me an appreciation for this kind of vulgarity. According to Susan Sontag, the "essence of camp" is the "love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration." You can't get much more unnatural than a pit bull masquerading as a lap dog, little girls impersonating drag queens impersonating women, and all of it being billed as "elegance." How could you not laugh at this? It was all such a joke!
During the crowning ceremony, though, it stopped being so funny. I sincerely wanted my daughter to win. That title actually mattered. I had transformed from "pageant mom" into an actual pageant mom. How had this happened to me?
Like most of the world, I was introduced to child beauty pageants after the late '90s murder of JonBenét Ramsey became a fixture of the tabloids in the supermarket checkout line. The images of the 6-year-old little girl made up to look like a woman were jarring; JonBenét's participation in pageants essentially convicted her parents of her murder in the court of public opinion. They were sickos who sexualized their little girl. And if the Ramseys didn't actually kill their daughter themselves, then they certainly invited the attention of the pedophile who did by putting her on display. That's what everyone said at the time, anyway.
In the midst of the hysteria that surrounded the Ramsey case, filmmaker Shari Cookson set out to learn more about child beauty pageants. The result was the 2001 HBO documentary Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen. It instantly became one of my favorite movies.
Living Dolls revealed that the child beauty pageant circuit is actually a subculture supporting a booming cottage industry—seamstresses, designers, makeup artists, hair stylists, false teeth molders, wig makers, photographers, pageant coaches, etc.—populated with homosexual men who were embraced by otherwise conservative, Southern families. In some ways, for me the sheer magnitude of the kiddie pageant circuit was more bizarre and shocking than seeing a three-year-old with a spray tan wearing false eyelashes.
Savvy reality TV producers picked up on the phenomenon and created a sort of pageant sub-genre with Little Miss Perfect, Toddlers & Tiaras, King of the Crown, and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Parents hungry for the vicarious thrill of the spotlight are constantly upping the ante, dressing their daughters for competition in Madonna-style cone bras, sexy cop outfits, and, literally, as hookers. The shows were and are huge hits, and now pageants more popular than ever.
Intellectually, I find this behavior problematic. Emotionally, I find it hilarious.
Cognitive dissonance aside, here's just something so endearing to me about passionate failures. These parents invest all this time and effort and money into this activity presumably to impress pageant judges, when in reality, outside of that airport hotel ballroom, their parenting choices are being judged by everyone else—and they're getting remarkably low scores. They are trying so hard and getting nowhere—like sprinting under water. It's folly! It's the ultimate banana peel!
I desperately wanted to immerse myself in the live experience of all this. I saw it as the difference between listening to an album and going to see a concert. But you need to be with a kid who's competing in the pageant in order to gain entrance into the room, presumably to keep the weirdos away from the children. For some reason, nobody I knew would let me borrow their kid for the weekend. I even applied to Big Brothers Big Sisters so I could offer a pageant sponsorship to a young girl. That didn't work out either. So eventually I just went ahead and had a baby of my own.
I knew that if I was really going to do this, I needed to do it soon, while my daughter was young enough that she wouldn't be emotionally scarred by the experience. I also liked the idea of how fucking stupid it is for an infant—with no talent or skills, not even the ability to walk—to be a competitor in anything, nevermind a beauty pageant.
I chose the Miss & Mr. Elegance Pageant because it was glitz (see sidebar) and nearby, but mostly because it was being hosted by a man named Mr. Tim, who emceed most of the pageants featured in Living Dolls. He's been a fixture in the circuit for like 20 years. His presence legitimized the pageant for me, kind of like how a grade A inspection certificate makes me feel better about eating at McDonald's.
The entry form was poorly organized and difficult to understand. After studying it for over an hour I surmised that you have to pay a registration fee of $75, and then $125 to be entered into the Beauty portion of the contest. From there, you can enter your kid in a slew of other optional categories and side awards—about 9 or 10—that cost an additional $50 each.
Sure, you can just enter Beauty alone, but good luck winning a Grand title with that. The Grand titles sound like the sizing system at Taco Bell—Grand Supreme, Ultimate Grand Supreme, etc.—and they are what you are there to win. They're the only ones that award cash to the winner. Your kid's scores for the optional categories and photos are factored into your overall score, which makes you eligible for a Grand title. Naturally, the more categories you enter your kid in, the higher your overall score. So if you don't pay to enter those extra "optional" categories, then you don't have a shot. It is such a fucking racket.
To save you from having to do a lot of math and to make it look like you're getting some kind of bargain, the pageant organizers created an "All In" option, in which you pay a $350 fee that covers registration, Beauty, two optionals, one Composite, one Photogenic, and side awards. I'm pretty sure that's what everyone else does, so I did that too. Even though the website for the pageant promised "everyone goes home with a crown," I didn't want to hinder my daughter's chances at winning one of the 56 available titles up for grabs. How embarrassing would that be? To get beat by my moral inferiors? That cannot happen!
(Also, I thought that my daughter had a real shot at winning the side award of Most Beautiful. That's an unbiased opinion. Really. Strangers stop me in public all the time just to tell me how gorgeous she is. I basically know what it's like to be one of the Beatles, because I can't push the stroller down the street without girls and women giddily shrieking over her good looks. She looks just like me, BTW.)
I still had a lot of questions, so I called the pageant director, Tammy, a woman with a raspy smoker's voice who was prone to coughing fits. I asked specifics about what I needed to bring to the pageant. She explained that there were no real attire guidelines for this specific pageant and described it as "anything goes," which to me sounded like the tagline of a swingers' club or something. "Anything goes" immediately conjures up imagery of leather harnesses and water sports and a husband reaching an arm over his wife to finger another guy's butthole.
I've watched so many child pageant documentaries and episodes of Toddlers & Tiaras that I was really confident in my ability to produce a winner. I knew all the elements that comprise the glitz aesthetic: the spray tan, the flipper, the wig, the dress, etc. But since my child was so young—10 months—I figured that her age group wouldn't be held up to the same standards as the older kids. So when a woman associated with the pageant who goes by the name Desiree Class attained the contact list of participants and offered me her services of spray tan, hair and makeup, I turned her down.
I seriously considered getting a baby wig, but my daughter was born with a full head of hair and received two professional haircuts before her first birthday. Her natural hair would be so impressive for her age division that it would give her an edge, I just knew it.
It was surprising to me that, after all these years and the Toddlers & Tiaras exposure, no one had properly merchandized the goods and services associated with pageants. There's no one-stop glitz shopping experience online where I could get a dress and shoes and frilly socks and a costume. And the websites that do exist are totally shitty, shady, and unorganized, with people on pageant message boards often hurling accusations about various scams. One example is a middleman racket: a site will claim to sell a certain glitz dress, but they actually wait for an order to come in, purchase the dress from another vendor, and then sell it to the buyer at a marked-up price.
Left to my own devices on how to dress my child, I resorted to a Google search of "Teresa Giudice children's clothes" and happened upon a store that sold lots of ridiculously over-the-top outfits that could easily be mistaken for clown costumes. Perfect.
However, shopping for a glitz dress for the Beauty category proved to be shocking. For a national pageant like the one I'd entered, most people get their dresses custom made, which can run upwards of $2000. I was willing to piss away some money on this giant "joke" but there was no way in hell that I would ever buy $2000 worth of shitty crinoline and Swarovski crystals, not for any reason, and most definitely not for a baby.
Now that I know what the dresses alone cost, I am actually appalled that people actually throw around this kind of cash for this bullshit. And it's not like they are investing in something that would actually pay off; the grand prize for this pageant was a $500 savings bond and a Kindle. The entry fees and hotel stay alone cost more than that.
I figured that a used dress would be my best bet, and obsessively checked eBay until I finally found a well-worn glitz dress for $150. Which is still such a stupid amount of money for an infant's dress.
It was at this point that I felt I should tell my husband that he would have to participate in a beauty pageant as her escort who would carry her on stage. He was pissed off—not that I entered her in the pageant, but that I wanted to write about it.
"I thought you said you didn't want her picture on the website," he said.
"Yes, but she'll be wearing so much makeup she'll be unrecognizable!" I insisted.
Which brings me to her photos. I took her to the mall for a professional headshot and had Gawker Media's in-house designer, Jim Cooke, completely work it over so that it would like those creepy pageant portraits that are so Photoshopped they look like paintings. While the result became the most amazing piece of art that I own, I was also a little worried that her chubby face with all that makeup made her look like a middle-aged Delta Burke. The idea was for her to look kind of like a whore—not a madam. You know?
This was when I first recognized a change in myself. Others noticed it, too.
"Just don't get horrible," one friend told me.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, the experience will still be worth it even if she doesn't win," he explained.
"'If she doesn't win'? You say that like it's even a possibility," I said before hopping on my broomstick and flying back home to pack our bags for our big weekend.
When I say the pageant was held at an airport hotel, I mean that it was located directly next to the terminal. The "street" that the hotel was on doubled as the drop off/pick up lane of the airport. We were miles away from the closest retail or eating establishment. If you couldn't drive—like, say, all the children participating in the pageant—you were stuck with no way out. It made our stay feel less like a vacation and more like a detainment.
In fact, the whole weekend was a practice in discipline, drilling, and adherence to strict schedules. After a restless night sharing a bed with my family — who are annoying sleepers; my husband snores and my daughter has no respect for personal space—I had to wake up at 6 am on a Saturday to get ready for the first event of the day. It was a nightmare.
I just cannot fathom how people could find this fun enough to make a hobby out of it, how they actually enjoy waking up at the buttcrack of dawn with the express purpose of forcing cranky children to spend beautiful summer days in windowless ballrooms, swathed in uncomfortable formalwear that restricts their movements. But evidently they do, as I was to find out downstairs.
Checking out the early-morning scene at the Sheraton, I happened upon the communal dressing room where I finally saw it: glitz incarnate. This was what I came here for, after all, the reason why I dragged my family out-of-state and onto a stage.
My eyes soaked up the aesthetic phenomenon of wall-to-wall trash-and-flash before them. Styrofoam heads donning elaborate wigs straight out of an early '70s showcase at the Grand Ole Opry; rolling racks of garishly colored costumes; a suffocating cloud of hairspray refusing to dissipate; little girls everywhere in various states of dress and makeup application. Between their hairpieces, false lashes, contoured faces and uncovered, flat chests, they really did look like a pack of miniature drag queens, driving home the notion that these pageants aren't about kids' cuteness, but rather, woman-as-performance.
The irony, of course, is that the real women in the room had seemingly given up on being "women" themselves—or at least the conventional (if not cartoonish) definition of it that they applied to their daughters with mascara wands, aerosol cans, and verbal coercion. Blowzy, with their own personal grooming and sartorial choices leaving something to be desired, their relationship to "beauty"—which obviously means something to them or else they wouldn't spend their weekends at events rewarding it—is just really, really fucking weird.
And then suddenly, they were all looking at me with narrowed eyes. For one illogical moment I feared that they somehow heard my cunty internal monologue about their appearances. But then they quickly turned back to their conversations in hushed tones, occasionally glancing at me as they whispered. I realized that they were actually sizing me up—the new girl, the outsider, the one who hadn't spend the early morning hours fraternizing with the other parents, pageant's organizers, and official sponsors.
"I bet those bitches are talking shit about me," I thought. Of course, they could've just been concerned about the stranger staring at a room full of underage girls. Either way, I stormed off to the ballroom to go kick their asses vicariously through my daughter's good looks.
There was a line of people waiting to enter the pageant. The giant doors to the ballroom were closed and adorned with homemade flyers advertising secondhand pageant clothes and services like spray tanning, listing the hotel room number where the huckster could be found. You know, the kind of contact information found on matchbooks or cocktail napkins in seedy bars. Very elegant.
Once inside, I saw the aforementioned stage with the airbrushed grand staircase, a table selling industrial-sized Pixie Stix (which pageant moms notoriously feed to their children to keep their energy up throughout the long day), and a woman—who turned out to be Tammy, the pageant director—dancing with her pit bull mix in her arms, as the two swayed to One Direction's "What Makes You Beautiful." Little kids immediately ran up to the animal to say hi and I winced, thinking about how much Judge Judy would disapprove of that.
At the front of the room I saw an exhausted-looking Mr. Tim standing behind his podium, which was draped in crushed velvet bedazzled with what I guess is his logo: a tiara with a microphone.
The Beauty competition started at 9 am sharp. (By that time I had heard "What Makes You Beautiful" three more times.) The youngest age group, ours (0-12 months), went first. I was happy to finally have the opportunity to size up our competition during the lineup at the side of the stage.
It turned out that my daughter was only up against one other baby—a scrawny bald girl with beady little eyes whose father, her stage escort, was wearing flip-flops and cargo shorts. He looked like a bum compared to my husband, dapper in the three-piece tuxedo I made him wear.
"This isn't even a fair fight," I thought. My daughter has that covetable chub, a blunt-cut bob and giant saucer eyes. I felt sorry for the competition, but that pity was quickly displaced by the thrill of our favorable odds. The pageant hadn't even started yet but we were so close to getting that title I could taste it. And it only made me hungrier for the win.
"She may as well just go home now," I snorted to my husband. "We're gonna wipe the floor with this kid!"
I took my seat in the audience and daydreamed about using a photo of our daughter being crowned Miss Elegance 2012 as our family's Christmas card.
The other baby went first. She was a pile of giggles as her father levitated her up and down and her mother mugged with some toys behind the judges' table. I noticed that she had a rather large cheering section, and I wondered how they'd made so many friends so quickly.
Then it was our turn. My husband looked just as handsome as he did on our wedding day, which makes sense, since he was wearing the same outfit.
An older woman sitting one seat over from me leaned in and said, "The tux is a nice touch."
"We mean business," I replied, without taking my eyes off the stage.
All smiles, my husband paraded our baby around for the judges. Her face was frozen, as though she were hypnotized by the repeated popping of the photographer's large flashbulb. When she finally broke out of her daze, she grimaced.
"She's bombing," I realized. I panicked. I ran up behind the judges and frantically tried to play peekaboo with her. She didn't smile. Instead, she sucked in her lips to form a straight line with her mouth, which somehow emphasized her toothlessness, making her look like a poverty-stricken old woman.
I did anything I could to elicit a happy face: waving my arms around in the air in windmills, crouching on the floor, jumping up behind chairs, making farting noises. I could've easily been mistaken for a psych patient having a psychotic break.
I screamed, "Smile, baby, people are looking at you!" but no one could hear me over music blasting through the speakers, which was about as loud as an outdoor concert.
And then my husband put her on his shoulders.
"What the fuck is he doing? Oh God, he's going rogue. He's going rogue," I thought. That's not glitz!
Chalking up my daughter's lackluster facial performance—and my husband's unsanctioned improvisation—during Beauty to inexperience and first-time jitters, I was still certain that the judges recognized her gorgeousness (I mean, they aren't blind) and appreciated that we took the pageant seriously enough to not wear flip flops.
Now that we knew what to expect, we were all much less nervous during Casual/Runway, and my daughter even smiled, which restored my confidence in her scores.
Next up was Outfit of Choice. There were lots of Shirley Temples, some cowgirls, an impressive toy soldier routine, a few '80s themes, etc. The other baby in our age group came out to some upbeat, instrumental patriotic song (contestants were allowed to use their own music for this event), wearing a simple sailor dress, which, it was announced, was inspired by her father's naval career.
"He's in the service and his wife didn't have him wear his uniform!?" I was incredulous at these people's lack of effort and attention to detail.
At that point, people had been sitting in the ballroom for hours, watching the same shit—little kids walking or being carried around a stage—over and over and over again. They were bored and had completely given up on even politely clapping for other people's children.
That is, until the raucous synth-drummed version of Beethoven's 5th burst out of the speakers, as a voiceover let everyone know that we were about to drop a bomb with my daughter's costume.
"You are about to enter the courtroom of Judge Judith Sheindlin. The people are real. The cases are real. The rulings are final. This is Judge Judy!"
When my daughter appeared on stage in her judge's robe and white, lacy collar, gumming her rubber gavel, she brought down the house. People were cheering and squealing! My husband wore a state trooper costume similar to the uniform that Judge Judy's bailiff Petri Hawkins Byrd wears. Except that this one was for male strippers—the entire thing was one piece, fastened with velcro that could rip off in one easy double-handed pull. I kept my fingers crossed that it wouldn't explode off his body in front of all the children.
Thankfully, it did not. And he did a really good job strutting to the beat of the music. He hadn't even practiced! I was so proud. For his grand finale, just before exiting the stage, he and the baby twirled around twice, perfectly in sync with the song, landing the move by plopping her on his right shoulder. And that's when it happened.
You'd be surprised at how long it takes a few tablespoons of vomit to fall to the floor from seven feet up in the air. It seemed like an eternity had passed before it finally made contact with the stage. My eyes darted toward the judges table to see if anyone noticed. It appeared that most hadn't, but the the one who had was telling them, pointing at my baby and husband, scrunching her nose. That fucking bitch.
With all of our events finished by noon, my husband and daughter went back to our room to nap while I stuck around the pageant to watch the other age groups' Outfit of Choice performances, which were much more elaborate and rehearsed than the babies'.
But the real show was in the audience, where mothers were emphatically miming their children's routines, as a form of cue cards for the kids. They looked like lunatics, with their exaggerated facial expressions, mouths wide open, eyebrows practically touching their hairlines, prancing around. If you think that four-year-old girls look ridiculous doing some of those "flirty" moves (blowing kisses, wagging fingers, shaking their hips while winking, etc.), you should see 35-year-old women do it.
One little girl who looked to be about seven or eight came off the stage after a forgettable performance, bounced up to her pursed-lipped mother sitting next to me and asked, "How'd I do?"
"You did fine," she replied brusquely, unsmiling. "The other girls are trained. You're not." Obviously pissed, she looked away, pretending to be interested in something else across the room as her daughter silently melted into tears.
If I were that kid, I would've been like, "Then why am I here? Why didn't you get me ready?"
I felt awful for that girl. I reflexively gave her a sympathetic smile. She responded to my kindness with a dirty look and a combination grunt/whine.
"Fuck you, then!" I said, but not loud enough for anyone to hear over the Chipmunks' cover of LMFAO's "Party Rock Anthem."
I'd had enough ugliness for one day of beauty. I got up and left.
Later in the afternoon by the indoor pool, I got a chance to socialize with some of the other moms.
One of them, an attractive pregnant woman, awesomely referred to me as "Judge Judy's mom." (It was apparently how I'd come to be known amongst the Elegance crowd). Her gregarious four-year-old had actually made me laugh during her Outfit of Choice routine in which she belly-danced around stage dressed as a fortune teller before holding up a handful of tarot cards and angrily pointing at the judges in an accusatory manner that seemed to imply that their future held some kind of karmic peril. She ended her number by sitting down, inexplicably pulling her ankle up in the air and freezing in that pose while staring at everyone with a face completely free of any kind of expression. I liked her.
The pregnant mom was there with her mother, who seemed to really be the driving force behind their involvement in pageants.
"She's already planning on putting this one in a pageant as soon as it pops out!" she said, rubbing her belly.
"When she told me she was due in February, I said, 'Good! 'Cause there's one coming up in April. You both better be ready,'" the grandma laughed. But she wasn't joking.
From what I could tell, pageants seemed to be a multigenerational activity. There were lots of grandmothers there with their daughters and grandkids. One family—which happened to be the biggest and loudest of them all—consisted of an effusive, heavyset woman who was maybe 40, a group of girls ranging in age from mid-teens to early 20s, and a two-year-old boy.
"Are you ladies all here for this little guy?" I asked, remembering him from the pitifully small boys lineup.
"Oh yes, he's in the pageant, but so is his mommy," she said, gesturing to a girl in a wig and bikini lounging on a far-off pool chair that I'd already observed being a snotty, stuck-up shit earlier in the day around the hotel. I never would've taken her for a mother, in part because she was super young, but mostly because the entire time she sat there she never once looked up from texting, even when her toddler was running along the edge of the pool.
"She's my daughter," the woman said.
I didn't know what to say in response. "Cool"? "Good job"? "You should be so proud"?
What I noticed over the course of the day interacting with the other mothers, whether in the ballroom, or the pool, or a shared elevator, was that off-stage pageant etiquette dictated that every conversation is opened with an exchange of compliments on the cuteness of the other woman's child.
Unfortunately, I was super slow on the uptake. People kept telling me how beautiful my daughter was, but it's nothing I hadn't heard before. I thought they were just pointing out the obvious, so I just said "Thank you," and never returned the favor.
That evening, the pageant threw a dance party in the ballroom for the families. There was pizza, a candy buffet, Tammy and her pit bull mix, ambiance lighting, and a professional DJ who wore one of those Rhythm Nation headset mics and talked repeatedly about getting the party started, even though it'd been going on for about an hour already.
I held my baby close as we stood on the dance floor and watched a nine-year-old girl vigorously fuck the air with violent hip thrusts for the duration of LMFAO's "Sexy and I Know It."
I looked around to see if anybody else was even remotely phased by such a display of age inappropriateness. They weren't. I guess it's really easy to get sucked into thinking that this kind of stuff is just normal if you're around it enough, I thought.
That was my cue to take my daughter back to our room.
Which brings us back to Sunday morning's crowning ceremony, when I temporarily lost my mind and sense of self.
The day actually started out on a high note, despite the bullshit early-morning call time. I really enjoyed the opening ceremony, which featured a terribly choreographed dance number performed by the previous year's "royalty," who were all barefoot for some reason. I was touched to see a girl with down syndrome and a girl in wheelchair among them.
For the grand finale, the outgoing Ultimate Grand Supreme—a girl of six or seven—hesitated with fear before doing a crooked cartwheel. I initiated a standing ovation for her.
And then it was time for the contestants' procession. There were about 55 in all, with the largest group being the five-to-six age division. I was shocked to see that there were also adult women in the pageant. There were three girls in the 20s age division, one rather hard-looking woman—with a messy yin yang and dolphin tattoo on her shoulder blade—in the 30s age division, and then three older ladies in what was referred to as the "classic" division, which was 40 and up.
The hard woman in her mid-30s obviously swept every category in her age division since she was the only one competing. She didn't look embarrassed at all. In fact, she seemed to love all the attention. I guess it's better than living vicariously through your child, but it's still pretty sad to spend your weekend winning a tiara by default.
The way that the titles are awarded is so confusing because everybody gets a crown no matter what, so you can barely even tell if you've won or not. I think it's set up that way purposely to confuse the children so they can't tell if they've lost, thus minimizing tantrums. Additionally, each child receives a giant bag of pretty decent toys.
It works like this: Each age division lines up on stage and the side awards and category winners are announced and they receive cheap-y trophies, rhinestone brooches, and hair clips. Then each child's name gets called out in reverse order of how well they did (third runner-up, second runner-up, etc.) until one is crowned the "Beauty" queen. However, this title is actually second. What you really want is to not have your child's name called. Because that means that she won Miss Elegance of her age division, possibly qualified for a Grand title, and will be crowned at the end with the other big winners. They get a bigger crown along with a robe and scepter.
When it was time for my daughter's age division, my stomach began doing flips. I was genuinely excited for her to win. Except that she didn't. Mr. Tim read the results:
Best Smile went to the other baby. Alright, I was kind of expecting that. And it makes sense that they'd throw her a pity trophy.
Casual/Runway went to the other baby. Seriously?
Most Photogenic went to the other baby. You've gotta be kidding me.
Outfit of Choice went to the other baby. This is some bullshit!
It was at this point that I was getting angry. Like, what the fuck? How was my kid losing a beauty pageant to a less attractive child? Where had I gone wrong?
And then they awarded Best Hair to the other baby who spent the whole weekend wearing those disgusting headbands that look like garter belts—one of the only pieces of lingerie that somehow manages to be at once trashy and unsexy. "Ooh, I know! I can make my bald daughter look more feminine if she reminds people of a bride's thigh!"
The absurdity of it all finally hit me and I started laughing. Maniacally. They gave my daughter the crown and sash, as the other baby had actually won and thus her name was not called. Much like the children in the pageant, my husband was duped by the complicated crowning procedure.
He looked at me from the stage, pumped his fist and mouthed, "We won!"
I smiled and waved back at them.
Halfway through crowning the power went out in the hotel and an agitated Mr. Tim, who was so over our shit, insisted that the show must go on. He put the One Direction CD in his Discman (he had a fucking Discman!) and attached a single, battery-operated handheld speaker to it as he shouted out the rest of the winners.
The mother of the previous year's Miss Elegance winner didn't let the technical difficulties stop her from reading a prepared speech that she wrote on a little piece of paper, as though we were at the Golden Globes or something. She was thanking everyone and crying and shit. Ugh, I loved it.
She ended with: "Congrats, Lila. You will always be my Ultimate Grand Supreme."
The teen mom who had been ignoring her toddler by the pool won Ultimate Grand Supreme. She sunk down to the ground, crying in a dramatic display of emotion. Her mother, who somehow had ended up standing next to me, grabbed my arms, screamed in my face and then acted like she was going to faint.
I could not stop laughing.
I think the reason why I momentarily stopped having fun was because I had allowed myself to get sucked into the idea that the judges' results were indicative of, well, anything. I forgot that the whole reason why I wanted to do this was because of how nonsensical the entire concept of child beauty pageants are. I became so invested in winning that the fantastic nature of anointing a 10-month-old "Elegant" had morphed into an actual goal. It's a lot easier to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it doesn't so closely resemble your own.
On our way home in the car, after I'd explained to my husband that our daughter had actually lost, he said, "So what? She wins in life. She'll know she's beautiful because her parents will tell her. And that way, she won't be competing with herself when she's 35."
We sat silently for a moment, basking in his fatherly wisdom.
"She's so fucking lucky to have us as parents," I said.
"Because she looks like us?"
Photo art by Jim Cooke.