Documentary reveals ugly side of children's beauty pageants 5/12/2001 (Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen)
Documentary reveals ugly side of children’s beauty pageants
Since I don’t have children or live in the south, where kiddie beauty pageants are seemingly a way of life, my initial reaction to this rather disturbing subculture came with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, whose body was discovered the day after Christmas 1996. I was shocked by the footage shown on numerous news programs of pageant princess JonBenet prancing around in sequins, makeup and enough hair to wrap around her little body twice. She was very freakish to me. She no longer looked like a little girl.
She scared me.
I had similar feeling while watching HBO’s Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen. This documentary (9 p.m. Sunday), which is part of HBO’s America Undercover Sundays, deftly chronicles the motivations of the overzealous parents who push their children – some as young as 18 months – onto pageant stages to strut their undeveloped stuff; and the unsettling effects that all this primping and pampering have on the little princesses and princes.
This, too, is scary stuff.
Much of the 90-minute program focuses on Swan Brooner, an adorable little blond-haired, blue-eyed 5-year-old from Cape Coral, Fla., who has an uncanny resemblance to JonBenet. Swan’s mother, Robin Browne, is a no-nonsense ex-military disciplinarian. Although Browne is relentless in her goal to get Swan to the top of the heap – she adamantly states that she’ll work three jobs to help Swan become a national queen -- she doesn’t appear to be a stereotypical stage monster. Browne seems more interested in experiencing the rush that one gets when overcoming obstacles than she is any financial awards.
To help elevate Swan to the next level, Browne enlists the services of Shane King and Michael Butler, two thirtysomething guys who make a living by transforming little girls into miniature versions of Dolly Parton circa 1970. Based in Alabama, these highly sought-after coaches have trained more than 500 kids in the art of head-tilting, flirting, freeze-smiling, walking, dancing and singing. Their claim to fame? They can take an ugly girl and make her beautiful.
“We’ve had girls who were just literally butt ugly,” says King. “I’m being serious. It’s the truth. And I take them and take their eyebrows off and put eyelashes on them, put hair, contour here [points to the cheeks,] contour her [points to the nose,] and they’re beautiful.”
Are you getting that uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach yet?]
Other stories include a profile of Leslie Butler, daughter of a pageant coach who has won 27 titles. Leslie’s back on the scene after a mandatory yearlong retirement after her national title win. But thanks to a common childhood rite of passage – she has lost one of her front teeth – the chances of her winning again seem nil. That is, until King and Butler come to the rescue with a dental devise to ensure that Leslie’s smile will be picture-perfect for the merciless judges.
Reaching for the Maalox yet?
Then there’s Reed, a boy whose mother refuses to allow her son’s growth hormone treatments to eat into her pageant budget, and 18-month-old-title-winning Sidney, whose mom apparently made a wise investment when she bought those hair extensions.
The program concludes at the Gingerbread Pageant in Dallas, a two-day event that packs more drama into 48 hours than The Young and the Restless does in 52 weeks. It is here that we’ll find out whether Browne and Swan beat the odds and whether Leslie’s mouthpiece does the trick. You’ll also see if the far-too-giddy King and Butler reap the rewards of their efforts.
And what exactly would those rewards be?
Yet despite these disturbing realities, Living Dolls, which written, produced and directed by Shari Cookson, is extremely well-done and definitely worth tuning in to. This documentary accomplishes two things. It gives viewers a glimpse at how far some people will go to achieve a chunk of the American dream, even at its most nightmarish. And it serves as a viable resource of anyone considering entering a child into one of these baby-doll stag parties. If after watching Living Dolls any parent wants to rob his or her child of priceless childish pleasures in exchange for worthless treasures, then we all should be very afraid.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Pages 79 and 84
Transcribed By: S Cookson