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-blonde 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, some-times adding a touch of striptease by removing wrap-around 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. "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 Insititute 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."