CHILD PAGEANTS' WORLD A BLUR OF CROWNS, GOWNS : EXPERIENCE CAN BE HEALTHY, PARENTS SAY.
As her mother tucked her into bed one night, little Gabrielle Citrino laid it on the line: ``I don't want to do it anymore.''
For nearly five years, she's been traveling from state to state dolled up in rhinestones, feather boas and lipstick. She's been tap dancing, singing ``Bye Bye Baby'' and turning on the charm for countless judges. Finally, just shy of her sixth birthday, she's burned out.
``Pageants are hard and you try to remember all those steps,'' says Gabrielle, who has been on the beauty pageant circuit since she was 11 months old. ``Sometimes they give me crowns that are hard to balance.''
``It's her decision,'' says her mother, Ann Diantonio. ``She's 5. She has a mouth. She knows what she wants to do.''
Murder has suddenly thrust the world of children's beauty pageants into the spotlight. Since 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey was found strangled in her Boulder, Colo., basement last month, national magazines and TV shows have run photographs and videotapes of the dyed-blond woman-child vamping across stages in showgirl costumes and heavy makeup.
There are thousands of children like JonBenet. Charles Dunn, publisher of Pageantry magazine, estimates that, every year, beauty pageants show off 100,000 children under the age of 12.
It's a subculture of bleached hair, blue contact lenses and false eyelashes. Little girls sashay in sequined gowns and swimsuits, sometimes adding a touch of striptease by removing wraparound skirts.
Parents pay entry fees of up to $500 and buy thousand-dollar gowns so their girls can compete for 10-inch crowns, 6-foot trophies and $10,000 savings bonds. Some of the children travel with an entourage of makeup artists, hairdressers and talent coaches.
It pays to start young. Jo-Ann Guerin, director of All Star Kids U.S.A. Pageants, once got two entry forms from a woman with only one child. When Guerin asked why, the woman explained she was pregnant.
Babies too young to walk are paraded down pageant runways, their mothers holding the confused children out in front of them to display their chubby cheeks.
Pageant life isn't for everyone, industry organizers acknowledge. But for youngsters and parents who can handle wins and losses with aplomb, pageantry can foster poise and self-confidence, they say.
``I've never said that this is the greatest thing in the world for your child,'' says Guerin, who runs All Star Kids from her home in Yonkers, N.Y. ``Are there mothers that are nuts? Absolutely. But there are hard-working people who are devoted and want their kids to enjoy it.''
Others are more critical.
If parents keep pageantry from consuming a child's life, it can be a positive experience, says William Pinsof, a clinical psychologist and president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University.
However, he says, ``being a little Barbie doll says your body has to be a certain way and your hair has to be a certain way. In girls particularly, this can unleash a whole complex of destructive self-experiences that can lead to eating disorders and all kinds of body distortions in terms of body image.''
For many parents, pageantry starts when they see an ad for a local pageant. Usually, all it costs is a $20 entry fee and the price of a party dress. But when the winners move up to state and national pageants, the costs escalate.
``You can go $10,000,'' says Noreen Williams, the mother of a beauty contestant in Yulan, N.Y. ``Some mothers get loans out for the pageants. Those are the ones that get angry at their girls when they lose.''
Guerin got started with beauty pageants when her daughter, Genevieve, won a few pageants in New York as a preteen several years ago. With Genevieve's godmother, they set out for a huge pageant in Dallas. They coordinated their outfits for each day of the weeklong competition.
``If she was in pink, we were in pink. Of course, I thought I was bringing home a national winner,'' Guerin says. ``We weren't in the lobby for 10 seconds when we thought, `What are we doing here?' The Southern girls had it all - the coaches, the makeup artists, the clothes. My daughter did not win anything at that pageant.''
Some mothers lie about their daughters' ages so they can appear more poised and mature compared to younger girls, Guerin says. For her pageant, she now requires birth certificates with entry forms.
Sometimes, mothers accuse each other of trying to buy influence by spending upward of $250 a page for advertising in pageant directories.
``Let's face it, they'll cut your throat in a minute,'' says Williams, whose daughter - a beauty contestant since age 4 - was runner-up in the Miss New York Teen U.S.A. pageant last spring.
But for the most part, she says, it's healthy competition. Her 16-year-old daughter, Dorothy, has been taking part in pageants for 12 years. She gets good grades and has a fledgling career as a model.
One day, she hopes to win a place in the Miss America Pageant.
``It's a little girl dream,'' Dorothy Williams says. ``Dreams have to start somewhere.''
Photo: Gabrielle Citrino, 5 and quitting beauty pageants after more thanfour years, holds a book as mother Ann Diantonio, sorts gowns.
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Jan 19, 1997|
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