Youth pageants thrive, 15 years after JonBenét Ramsey's death (Op-Ed published in The Denver Post)

CLICK HER TO READ THIS AT THE DENVER POST! What did Santa bring the little girl in your life? A Barbie or an American Girl doll? Perhaps it was a gift certificate for a manicure or a facial?

Don't be surprised if it was the latter, as girls young as 6 are making appointments at salons across the country for chemical hair straighteners, eyebrow tweezing and pedicures.

Fifteen years ago, the 6-year-old girl who helped start this beauty craze never got to open her gifts from Santa. On the morning of Dec. 25, 1996, John and Patsy Ramsey awoke in their Boulder home to find their daughter, JonBenét, missing. A few hours later, they found her, murdered, in their basement.

The ensuing media coverage helped propagate the child beauty pageant industry, along with a beauty culture increasingly directed at younger and younger girls. JonBenét Ramsey's short life continues to rivet, as her murder remains unsolved. Her death was a harbinger of today's media-saturated girlhood focused on princesses, competition and the pursuit of beauty.

In the years immediately following JonBenét's death, the child beauty pageant industry, which I have studied since 2001, took a serious financial hit as thousands began to avoid participating in the now publicly tainted activity.

But now, 15 years later (and somewhat perversely), child beauty pageants are a bigger business than ever, and the industry has profited from the spotlight provided by the murder. Without JonBenét, there would be no "Toddlers & Tiaras" — and no scandals to report on the cover of People or families to feature on ET or TMZ. Hundreds of small, local pageants have sprung up across the country since JonBenét participated in them.

Beauty pageants had long been part of the culture of JonBenét's family, as they are for many women from the South. JonBenét's mother, Patsy (nee Paugh), was Miss West Virginia in 1977. Patsy competed in the Miss America pageant, winning a non-finalist talent award.

In their 2001 book on JonBenét's life and death, "The Death of Innocence," John and Patsy Ramsey wrote that after seeing her mother judge a beauty pageant, JonBenét declared that she wanted to be a beauty queen as well. Patsy was delighted. She had loved her experiences in pageantry and always felt that if she had started participating in pageants when she was younger, she could have made the top 10 at Miss America, or maybe won the whole shebang.

Over the next two years, with the help of her sister, Pamela (also Miss West Virginia, in 1980), Patsy enrolled JonBenét in a total of nine child beauty pageants in Colorado, Georgia and Michigan.

JonBenét, with her sequined costumes and baby's breath hair adornments, showed little girls that modern princess-hood was possible, before these girls could take their dolls to the hair salon (at the first American Girl store, which opened in Chicago in 1998) or look like their favorite Disney princess, with the assistance of special beauticians (Disney started marketing princesses to young girls in 2000).

Patsy Ramsey, who died from ovarian cancer in 2006, also served as a role model for some mothers. In many ways she seemed to be a throwback to the stage mothers of the past, like Shirley Temple's mother, who exhorted her daughter to "sparkle, sparkle, sparkle" before each take. But in other ways, in raising her daughter to compete to win, she was a new type of mother — an early version of a Tiger Mother, albeit a bedazzled one. She wanted to give her daughter a competitive head start in a world focused on beauty — a world that she thought would bring success, achievement and glory.

Fifteen years after Patsy Ramsey's only daughter was found dead in her home, little girls will spend the afternoon playing with their new kiddie make-up kits and strutting down homemade, makeshift runways in new sequined mini-skirts. They'll watch DVDs featuring their favorite Disney princesses, or even catch a repeat of one of the faux princesses on "Toddlers & Tiaras."

American girlhood may have been sashaying toward unreasonable competitive beauty ideals before JonBenét's murder. But ultimately her death and media exposure hastened the explosion of the girly glitter bomb in the early 21st century.

Before Painted Babies, JonBenet, and Swan Brooner there was... Blaire Pancake

To outsiders it might seem like there are lots of links between the world of child beauty pageants and the world of adult beauty pageants (which do not exclusively include the Miss America, Miss Universe, and Miss World systems, but those are certainly the most prestigious and well-known). But that isn't quite right. Lots of child beauty girls say that they want to grow up to be Miss America or Miss Universe, but they often drop-out long before they are age eligible.  Or, they are seen as being "Pageant Patties" who are too programmed/robotic to succeed in the adult pageants that place more value on spontaneity and "natural"-ness, so those who stick with pageants over the years often aren't successful in their pursuit of the "big crowns." Outsiders also often wonder what becomes of child beauty pageant contestants as they age. Are they successful? Happy? Married? It's usually difficult to answer these questions as it's hard to track down contestants and keep track of them over the years.  One exception are the two girls featured in the 1996 documentary Painted Babies. This BBC-produced special focused on five-year-olds Asia Mansour and Brooke Breedwell as they squared off in a Georgia child beauty pageant-- long before the world ever heard of JonBenet Ramsey. The filmmaker, Jane Treays, visited the girls again, twelve years late, in Painted Babies at 17, which came out in 2008 and was shown on TLC (FYI- Asia was still doing pageants).

But even before Painted Babies, there was Blaire Pancake. Blaire was eleven-years-old when she and her family were featured in a nine-page spread in Life in 1994 (click here for a link to my own copy of the piece, which unfortunately does not reproduce the pictures well; to read the text of the article, click here). Even with shocking revelations for the time—like the fact that Blaire had competed in over 100 pageants, that she wore glue-on nails, and that she had been accused of wearing hair extensions and having plastic surgery performed by her father (a plastic surgeon)—there was little public outcry about this American subculture.

I have always found this Life piece, by sports journalist Pat Jordan, quite powerful. If you read it now, seventeen years later, you'll be struck by how little has changed in many ways in the world of child beauty pageants. There's clearly continuity in the tensions and practices (flippers, coaches, rumors and accusations, involved parents, etc.). And then there is the memorable Blaire Pancake. The images of her are striking, and the name, for me, has always been unforgettable.

Recently Bloomberg Businessweek ran a story on US beauty queens who have gone on to pursue MBAs.  They tracked down 14 state title holders from Miss America and Miss USA who had worn the crown in the past decade. The article highlights how the women's experiences as state beauty queens helped prepare them for the business world, highlighting networking and marketing skills.

Well, guess who number 12 was in the slideshow that accompanied the article? You guessed it-- Blaire Pancake. Pancake competed as Miss Tennessee in the 2007 Miss America Pageant.  While she didn't place in the Top 15, or win any special awards, she did compete at the Miss America Pageant, which is no easy feat.  True, she didn't fulfill her stated childhood dream of becoming Miss America (per the Life piece from 1994), but she got pretty close.

Pancake apparently stopped doing pageants in high school, and didn't compete in college.  But at 23, at risk of "aging out" of the Miss America system, she decided to try for the Miss Tennessee title. And she won on her first attempt. All those years of pageant prep had paid off.

I was really delighted to read about Blaire Pancake's success. She received her MBA in 2009 and is now working as a "marketing and business development director." A quick Google search revealed that she is married as well. While Blaire Pancake (thankfully) never become a household pageant name like JonBenet, she does show that even child beauty pageant contestants thrust into the national spotlight at a young age can go on to lead successful adult lives. So, there is hope for girls like Swan Brooner (from HBO's critically acclaimed 2001 Living Dolls [and my favorite child beauty pageant documentary]) and for the pint-sized princesses from today's Toddlers & Tiaras. Only time will tell if they can pull off a Blaire Pancake.