When we learned that Kathy was going to judge a kiddie pageant, we all had our misgivings about what the experience would be like. I imagined demonic stage mothers and stage fathers either living out their own princess fantasies or worse – leering at the underage beauty queens. As for the contestants, I envisioned desperate little victims caught in a trap of wigs, glitter, and lashes. I knew Kathy would be hilarious no matter what we found but I feared having my own nightmares as we sunk to new depths ... like some perverse Jacques Cousteau team.
We arrived at the hotel in Ontario, California. If your image of California is sun and beaches – you’d be half right. Ontario is sun … and concrete. Their motto is “Southern California’s Next Urban Center,” so you can imagine how quaint it is. When we arrived at the pageant hotel we went up to Kathy’s suite to make sure it was OK. It was lovely – if it were 1987 in Soviet Georgia. You have to understand that Kathy spends much of her life touring the country, so hotel suites are really her home-away-from-home. When you travel as much as she does, having a comfortable bed is essential, so we were all nervous. Kathy took one look at the room, made a few fun jokes about the stale odor and the view of the parking lot, and it was all good. Love her.
Next we went to check on the pageant stage for lighting and to scout out the flow of the whole event to make sure we’d be able to shoot it properly. The first thing that struck us was how small the room was. Contestants line up behind an office-style divider wall on the side of the stage. The audience of 70 (if the room is filled to capacity) is made up of the parents and contestants who watch each other’s categories. In fact, as the pageant went on, it became clear that the only audience for this pageant is the competitors and their families. The stage was decorated with a giant glittered backdrop with seams that showed that its permanent home is somebody’s garage.
The day of the pageant was a bit of a blur. Kathy relished the comic opportunities everywhere, while Maggie smiled through, counting the minutes. Actually, they both enjoyed each other as they always do. For us, it was an eye-opening experience. Here are a few things we learned about the actual competition watching from the sidelines. (1) Everybody wins a trophy. Most are larger than the contestants. (2) There is no way to predict who will win, since beauty is such a relative term when evaluating toddlers in bikinis and make-up. (3) Everything costs more than you can imagine these families being able to afford – from the expensive cheap dresses to the spray tans to the coaches who teach them the bizarrely codified set of flirtatious movements like “cupcake hands.” It makes you wonder what sacrifices the family has made to afford all of this – other than giving up on a college fund
But the biggest surprise was that the families were very loving toward each other and the girls (with the exception of a few who seemed like shrunken adults) were all having fun, routing for each other, laughing, and playing around. They all knew each other and spoke their own pageant language ... like a dress-up cult. However, they could not have been nicer to Kathy and our crew. All in all, it was a once in a lifetime experience. Please god, make it the once.