The Strange World Of JonBenet

IN PHOTOGRAPHS, HER CHARACTERISTIC expression is a fixed smile of concentration, earnest and studied. It could be perky, coy or sweet, although the only sure way to tell is by her costume. Strapless ball gown, sailor suit, swimsuit--JonBenet Ramsey, who was found murdered in the basement of her parents' home in Boulder, Colo., the day after Christmas, worked hard at winning beauty contests, but her mother must have worked even harder. And her father paid for her portfolio of professional photographs, a world beyond the artless family-album snapshots we are accustomed to seeing when a child is killed. But the effect is distancing rather than illuminating: in all the miles of film that were lavished on JonBenet it is hard to find one frame that captures her soul.

But that's the point--the pictures come from a world in which she was rewarded precisely for appearing to be something other than what she was, a 6-year-old little girl. Awful enough that a child should die, and JonBenet's death was both gruesome--sexually assaulted, tied and strangled--and mysterious; late last week the police were still trying to crack the case (page 46). But she was also a star, at least in retrospect: a little girl of striking beauty and presence, inhabiting a subculture of pageants and spangled finery that many Americans barely knew existed--a consuming passion in some families, and a source of concern to many child psychologists. There is no reason to think that her murder had anything to do with her career as a child beauty-pageant winner, but now and forever the two images are joined in the public mind: the doll-like little girl in her pink cowgirl suit, belting out "Cowboy Sweetheart"; the battered body behind the basement door. She touched millions of Americans--and her sad end intrigued millions more who were struck both by the grisly nature of the murder and the novelty of putting mascara on the lashes of a 6-year-old.

Her death illuminated the peculiar world of child pageantry, which enlists thousands of girls below the age of 12, plus an equal number of mothers and grandmothers, supporting a nationwide industry of contest promoters, costume designers, grooming consultants and publishers. In almost any town big enough to support a Ramada Inn, particularly in the South and Midwest, you can find girls prancing down the makeshift runways for the chance to win (in ascending order of desirability) trophies, crowns, scholarships, cash or modeling contracts. They are child-women in boas and high heels, teeth clenched with the effort of balancing the yin of "charm" with the yang of "poise." Seemingly oblivious to advances in feminism that have brought women into Little League, military academies and the Supreme Court, the pageant world keeps churning out champions in singing, dancing and the timeless art of catching men's eyes.

'A natural': And JonBenet was a standout in that world, winner of the Colorado State All-Star Kids Cover Girl, America's Little Royal Miss and Tiny Miss Beauty, among a long list of other honors. With her swirls of blond hair, she possessed what Colorado pageant promoter Eleanor Von Duyke calls "that great Southern look that pageants really like." Not long before she was killed, she was chosen for the cover of the spring issue of Babette's Pageant and Talent Gazette, one of the several bibles of the pageant world. Publisher Buffie Davenport described her as "a natural, a real dynamo . . . she was one of the up-and-coming 100 who could win the cars and the cash." The picture will appear, as scheduled, next month.

JonBenet had the breeding to make a beauty queen. Her father, John, is a handsome former navy officer and a private pilot, but just as important, in a field where little girls compete in gowns that can cost $1,000, he is rich. Access Graphics, the computer company he helped found and still runs after its sale to Lockheed, just reached $1 billion in sales, an achievement proudly noted in the Christmas letter his wife, Patsy, sent to friends last year. (Other Ramsey family news: JonBenet's brother Burke "is a busy fourth grader where he shines in math and spelling..."; "JonBenet is enjoying her first year in real school... She continues to enjoy participating in talent and modeling pageants.") Patsy herself was Miss West Virginia in 1977, as was JonBenet's aunt Pamela, two years later--making them only the second pair of sisters ever to compete in the Miss America pageant. NEWSWEEK Contributing Editor Frank Deford, who was a Miss America judge the year JonBenet's mother competed, said his notes show that she listed herself as 5 feet 6, 110 pounds, measuring 35-23-35 ("although that's what they all wrote," Deford added). He wrote down that she "speaks well," but described her as "a little automaton." Twenty years later, photographer Randy Simon, who put together a portfolio of JonBenet's pictures, noted that the girl "could hold a pose forever."

Does cultivating a talent for immobility seem like an odd pastime for a 6-year-old? The adults involved in the world of child pageants are aware of how easily they can be made to look ridiculous by elitist journalists whose own kids are busy in Montessori play groups. And they readily concede that some little girls might get carried away into a distasteful parody of adult sexuality, although all the people interviewed by NEWSWEEK insisted that they would never be party to any such travesty of pageantry's high ideals. "We're not looking for the little girl who is all made up in a frilly dress," said Dolly Abbey of Traverse City, Mich., who was executive director of the Little Miss Charlevoix pageant when JonBenet won in 1995, beating out a field of two other 4-year-olds. "We're looking for what's inside the person, not for beauty. We shy away completely from the other kind of pageant." "We tried to take the good we saw in the world of pageants and eliminate the bad," says Wayne Dolan, who with his wife, Suzie, runs Denver's Royal Miss competitions. "Our pageant system promotes self-confidence and self-esteem. I've seen kids win in $60 dresses and I've seen kids win in $600 dresses."

Talent lessons: Basically, the defense of children's pageants comes down to a comparison with Little League, which also has its share of pushy parents and hypercompetitive kids. For the overwhelming majority of girls (and the occasional boy, although few boys compete past toddlerhood), the business of pageantry is an activity confined to a few hours on the weekend, and maybe a talent lesson once a week. Everyone who knew JonBenet agrees on what a sweet, normal, well-adjusted child she appeared to be; she was remarkable, according to Dolan, for doing "advanced first-grade work as a kindergartner." Her mother was also a prominent, and seemingly well liked, member of Boulder society, active in charities including the Children's Museum and the Colorado Music and Dance Festivals. Most people involved with pageants admit that some mothers--usually in a far-off city and a different pageant circuit--are pushy and ambitious. But, they hasten to point out, that hardly makes pageants unique in a world where gifted 12-year-olds spend four hours a day on the tennis court or the parallel bars.

Many people, though, are made viscerally uncomfortable by the sight of prepubescent girls, or for that matter preschoolers, showing off their bodies as a competitive activity. Partly, they don't think it's healthy for the kids, and psychologists tend to agree with them. "For most kids, [performing] is not a good psychological experience," says William Pinsof, president of the Family Institute at Northwestern University, who has studied child actresses and models and found them prone to drug addiction, eating disorders and depression in puberty. "You end up with hollow children and narcissistic parents." Even Page Parkes-Eveleth, owner of successful modeling agencies in Texas and Florida, thinks pageants are bad for children, as well as counterproductive to the goal of getting them big modeling contracts. "You do not put lipstick on your 6-year-old," she says flatly. "It's everything the modeling industry is against. We're looking for freckles and natural beauty."

But there is also a philosophical issue. For all the high-minded talk about recognizing children for their abilities, beauty pageants celebrate beauty. If a girl is smart, schools are designed to reward her for that, and if she's great on the saxophone, she can join the band; pageants are places where hair, eyes and clothes all are supposed to shine. "We're not asking them to practice, to get better at something, we're leading them to believe if they just look pretty, that's all they need to do," says Peter Adler, a sociologist at the University of Denver and an expert on school-age children. Excellence in sports is a measurable, objective quality inherent in the individual; the qualities that beauty pageants reward, including "charm," are, famously, in the eye of the beholder. This is the difference, Adler says, "between achieved and ascribed status." Girls who excel in beauty pageants are learning how to please other people--a useful skill in many arenas in life, but perhaps not the one that you would want to make the central feature of your child's personality from the age of 2.

Or maybe we should all lighten up, and cheer for 10-month-old Shayla Townsend, who walked away with the crown, infant division, in the Little Miss Lufkin (Texas) competition last Saturday morning. Shayla's talent was walking. Also, she let her mom turn her upside down and fall into what might charitably be described as an assisted somersault, an ability that will come in handy if she ever fulfills her supposed dream of becoming a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. Eight-year-old Jessica McCoy wowed the crowd by counting to 20 in Spanish. "Allie is a people person," Miss Teen Lufkin, Tiffani Green, pronounced of one 3-year-old. "She never meets a stranger! She enjoys singing and going on field trips. And she wants to be Miss America! Just think: it all starts on stages just like this one in towns just like Lufkin!"

Or, as Jeb Nolan, general manager of a Denver-based children's talent agency, unsentimentally puts it, "As long as there are JonBenet Ramseys, there's going to be a need for a child to play JonBenet in the TV movie." JonBenet finally got on magazine covers this week, but in a way no one could have foreseen or wished. Whatever dreams she had died with her; the rest of us can only stare at her beautiful face, and wonder what she might have become.