In the Eye of the Beholder
“Shake it, baby,” a parent coaches a child in Shari Cookson’s film, which delivers a strong message without overtly taking a position on the subculture it chronicles in 1999. Think JonBenet Ramsey, and you’re close.
“You can be flirty with ‘em,” Shane King urges Leslie Butler, 7-year-old superstar of the under-8 pageant circuit, where her 27 titles have earned $60,000. Blond Leslie is at once a pretty child and bizarre, if not garish because of being packaged to look sexy at her tender age when vamping competitively in heavy makeup. She does it under the scrutiny of her flamboyant coach, King, and his partner, Michael Butler, who also happens to be Leslie’s father.
Meanwhile, the tuxedo-clad emcee of Glamour Doll USA National Patient in Bowling Green, Ky., walks slowly behind a line of sexualized Barbies, crooning, “You are the love of my life” and “You are in my soul.”
What’s wrong with this picture? While driven off by her mother, one 18-month-old contestant is in a car seat with her bottle. And Butler recalls Leslie being asleep when winning her first pageant at 3 weeks ago. Yes, weeks.
King and Butler appear to make a handsome living coaching, outfitting and glamourizing pageant wannabes in their extravagant Decatur, Ala., home. Before Swan and her single-parent mother, Robin Browne, reach that level, Cookson follows them on a lesser pageant circuit, where Swan sweeps, taking home trophies taller than she.
“It’s not the crowns, it’s not the trophies,” Robin says. “It’s that little girl out there saying, ‘Hey I can do this.’” Or her mother saying it. Robin to her 5-year-old: “This song you gotta nail, hear me?”
The mother is an attractive waitress entering middle age with hard edges. Beside Swan, the occupants of her small ranch home are her boyfriend and three other children: a toddler and a pair of teens from a previous marriage, 15-year-old Silva and Bubba, a troubled 14-year-old in and out of jail.
Judge for yourself whether Swan, too, is in a kind of prison even while appearing to enjoy the pageant grind and have a loving relationship with her laser-focused mother.
“She’s like a drill sergeant,” Silva, a beauty herself, says of Robin who spent four years in the military.
“On the one hand, you have to be the nurturing mother figure,” said Robin, “On the other hand you gotta kick their ass.” Even fanatical Little League parents may question that.
Trying out the major circuit, Swan goes on a losing streak despite intense practice, elaborate costumes and a stack of teased hair rising a foot above her tiny head. Time to upgrade, as she and her mother drive 700 miles to Decatur for a make-over and crash course from King and Butler. Robin also buys Swan a used designer dress for $1,200. Soon the poorer, happier mother and gaudier, better Swan are off to Dallas for the season-ending Gingerbread Pageant.
Robin says she’s dropped $70,000 sustaining Swan in this activity. It’s money her critics will say could be set aside to enrich all of her children, especially as the two eldest approach college age.
You wonder what she was thinking when granting the filmmaker such intimate access, appearing clueless that she could be condemned for the values she’s teaching Swan when rolling her out like a commodity and tying success in life to phony smiles and being gorgeous, even sexy..
Most of all, who is being fulfilled here? Is it the daughter – or her mother?
“Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen” will premier Sunday night on HBO> The network has rated in TV-G (suitable for all audiences).
Howard Rosenberg’s column appears Monday and Fridays. He can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.
Los Angeles Times
Transcribed By: S Cookson