HBO’s ‘America Undercover’ examines child beauty queens’ May 13, 2001 (Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen)
HBO’s ‘America Undercover’ examines child beauty queens’
By Walter H. Combs
Tribune Media Services
What would make a mother want to parade her pre-school daughter around in public as if she was a full-grown beauty queen?
“Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen” attempts to answer that question Sunday night at 10 on HBO.
Swan Brooner is a tiny, well-appointed waif who has been trained and coached in etiquette, poise and makeup. Her mother, Robin Browne, is a “military brat” whom her other daughter, 15-year-old Silva, bluntly calls a “drill sergeant.” Swan and Robin spend much time and family resources on the pageant circuit, seeking top honors. Robin estimates the family spent more than $60,000 on costumes, makeup and travel. A designer dress for Swan cost $1,200.
Compounding expenses are the payments made to professional pageant coaches, Shane King and Michael Butler, who have coached and instructed Swan. As “Living Dolls” progresses, it opens up to the general public the lives of people who spookily seem much like regular people, except they devote much time and resources to what many would find a rather odd preoccupation.
Shari Cookson, co-producer, writer and director of “Living Dolls,” was introduced to producer Linda Otto, and signed on to the project because there had been so much publicity on the JonBenet Ramsey case. “Everybody had an opinion about the whole shock value of child beauty pageants, and I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to go deeper into the culture.
She notes she spent a year filming “Living Dolls,” and the time gave her the chance to “look at a culture, a group of people, who had pretty much been closed to mainstream America. It was something people thought they had a lot of opinions about, so it was an issue of exploring what the truth was.”
But getting the trust of many people in the pageant world was a problem, Cookson recalls. “After the media out-rage over JonBenet,” she says, “the whole pageant world really decided that the media should not be admitted into their inner world. Just about the time we were starting to do research was the worst time, when the directors of the pageants and the parents had gotten together and decided, ‘No more. We don’t want any more media. It’s hurting us.’
“And it’s very hard to get access to that world. It’s the hardest film I’ve ever had to research because no on trusted me at all. And so I would have situations where I would be calling up pageants and they would just hang up on me. In one case, they even said, ‘OK.’ I went down there with the crew, and then they went, ‘No, you can’t come in. We’re changing our minds.’
“Not only are you trying to build a trust and build a connection with your subject matter, it was a very awful situation through much of the film. At one point, we were just shut down for six months. We couldn’t get in anywhere. We couldn’t move forward. We were just stuck. We were filming Robin and Swan. They were our main characters, but just because they were going to a pageant didn’t mean we could get in, and it was very frustrating.”
“You can’t do a film like this in (a) weekend or you’re not going to get any depth or resonance. It would be easy. You could put in a narrator and make a film about these shocking pageants. But you’re really looking for human drama and for something to happen, so, yeah, you get to know people quite well. And in a way, I think it’s extraordinary that you entered their lives that way. It would be hard for me to let someone into my life. So, good, bad or indifferent they’re opening their lives up.”
Tampa Tribune Times
Tribune Media Services
May 13, 2001
Transcribed By: S Cookson