Inside the World of Child Pageants

The mystery of JonBenet Ramsey’s murder lies not only in the unusual circumstances of her death—she was found in her own basement, garroted with rope and covered with a white blanket—but also in the unusual experiences of her life. Just 6 years old, she was already a beauty pageant star. Images of her strutting across a stage in full Vegas showgirl regalia and shaking her hips in a fringed cowgirl outfit, played endlessly across 24-hour news programs and shed light on the otherwise obscure world of child beauty pageants. NEWSWEEK’s Julie Scelfo spoke with Carl Dunn, CEO of Pageantry Magazine, the industry's leading news source with a quarterly magazine and widely read Web site , about how the JonBenet case impacted the world of pageants. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: How has the JonBenet case impacted the pageantry industry?

Carl Dunn: Ten years ago we were inundated with calls, e-mails. The crime really didn’t have much to do with pageantry per se, but that was the image. More than anything else, the video footage made more people aware of the industry, and many new pageants and local events came into existence.

So you’re saying it actually helped the industry?

Exactly. It gave it more of a national exposure and it gave people the idea that this was a business model they could be a part of. A lot of business people and possible participants became more aware of the opportunities that are out there, so the industry experienced a growth in participation.

Have there been other cases where beauty pageant contestants were victims of abuse?

Not that I’m aware of. This was a tragic story of a mother who competed in pageants and put her daughter in what are called Glam Pageants, more of a costume-type event as opposed to what is a natural-type event.

What is the difference?

A glam pageant is where they’ll have custom-made clothing, Western outfits, fringe. At the natural pageants, children are not allowed to wear any overtly performance-type makeup. Most wear clothes off the rack from a clothing store, a confirmation dress or a party dress, that type of thing. Glam pageants are more rare, more of a fringe part of the industry.

A lot has changed with the Internet since JonBenet’s death 10 years ago. What new steps are pageants taking to help keep kids safe?

That goes back to parents themselves teaching their kids responsibility on Internet use. I don’t think the pageant industry is any more susceptible than any other organization, whether Little League, cheerleading or modeling competitions.

Perhaps. But I went online this morning and found tons of pictures of children dressed up like adults, wearing heavy makeup and posing provocatively.

That is true. Lots of times, those photos are posted by parents, event organizers or even photographers. Again, you have a huge umbrella of an industry called pageantry. In any industry you have those who make a conscious effort to contribute positively to society but you also have those who entered a business for strictly monetary gains and give nothing back.

You are so diplomatic. What about the idea that the pageants themselves exploit these young girls who don’t get to make decisions for themselves about whether to participate?

You’re talking about an industry with tens of thousands of events. You can’t take fringe events and use them to paint a broad picture of the whole industry. Just like you can’t say the whole cheerleading industry is corrupt because one Houston mother hires a hitman to kill her daughter's competition.

Do pageant organizers work to protect their contestants—whether on the Internet or in person? For example, do they keep an eye out for possible pedophiles who might show up in person to watch the contests? Any precautions along those lines? Security staff?

There are tens of thousands of events and I can’t speak for every one. Big televised events always have security there. When Miss USA contestants travel from the host hotel to the convention center, they always have a police escort and they always have security there. But as for every pageant, I don’t know of any child event—Little League baseball, I was just at a modeling event—security guards are not at anything like that. Our whole country is not based on a police state. Everybody can't prepare for every possible situation.

I think people who run pageants are diligent. With anything else, this is an event and it’s open to the general public, and I think any businessperson should take necessary precautions. Do I think people should sit in a corner and handwring and worry? No. But you do have to be diligent for situations that may not seem appropriate for the context of that event.

How big is the beauty pageant industry? Is it fair to say it’s a multimillion-dollar industry?

There’s literally thousands and thousand of events out there from Miss America and Miss Universe to county agricultural fairs. I don’t know if it’s a billion dollars, but it’s definitely a multi-multi-million dollar industry. There’s also the periphery of evening wear, modeling-skills classes, etc. Internationally, it’s definitely [a billion-dollar industry], but there’s no way to ascertain that number for the U.S. Could be close!

Do you think JonBenet’s death should still be news?

No. It’s an unfortunate tragedy of a young lady that had nothing to do with pageants. The man arrested had nothing to do with pageants—he’s a teacher. Should we be looking at teachers at school? Tragedies like this unfortunately happen everywhere, all over the world, every day. With the images that were broadcast this was more a sensational news story than [something meaningful]. They’re almost blaming her that she was murdered because she was in that event. Her death had nothing to do with what she and her mother were doing together. That’s what Patsy always said: pageantry was like their Little League.