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'America Undercover' eyes child beauty pageants

Sunday, May 13, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Watching "Living Dolls: The Making of a Child Beauty Queen" is surely one of the creepiest ways to spend Mother's Day. And that's probably the point.

This 80-minute documentary, airing tonight at 10 as part of HBO's "America Undercover" series, was filmed over the course of a year and goes behind the scenes of child beauty pageants, which it claims are "a way of life" in the South.

When you think of little blond beauty contestants, you can't help but remember murder victim JonBenet Ramsey. She's mentioned here, but not dwelt upon.

Swan Brooner, a blond 5-year-old, is the primary "Living Doll" in this documentary. She's cute, seems sweet and is fairly well-behaved. She lives with her mother, her mother's ancient boyfriend, a brother and two stepsiblings in Florida.

Her mother, Robin, spent four years in the military, and the training pays off when she puts Swan through her paces on a homemade catwalk in the family's garage.


"Living Dolls"

When: 10 tonight on HBO


"Keep the head up! Keep the shoulders back! Keep the chin up!" Robin shouts from the sidelines as Swan walks the walk with a plastic grin on her face.

Robin thinks Swan has what it takes "to go all the way to the top." And what is that? Talent? Looks?

If it's looks, is teasing the hair of a 5-year-old, teaching her to flirt and essentially sexualizing her at an extremely young age a good idea? Or are these parents living vicariously through their children?

"I've always competed in some way," Robin says. "I have to do something with my life, [have] some goals."

So if Robin wants Swan to wear her "lucky star earrings" when she joins teen-age cheerleaders on the sidelines of a high school football game, Robin will get her way by sending Swan on a guilt trip.

"What if your team loses because of them?" Robin says. Swan relents and wears the cursed earrings.

"Living Dolls" shows that the goals set up for these young contestants are those of the parents. Sure, the children accept those goals as their own after they compete long enough, but it's usually the mothers who start them down this scary path that revolves around looks and a little talent, but mostly looks. And hair. And expensive clothes.

"She's good enough. She's got the attitude," Robin says. "If I have to work three jobs to get her there, I'll do it, as long as my other kids don't kill me because they have to sacrifice so much for her. And they do."

Bubba, 14, especially goes without so his stepsister can achieve, particularly when it comes to parental involvement. He ends up in a juvenile detention center while his mother is on the beauty pageant circuit with Swan. That doesn't surprise Robin, who earlier predicts "next he'll end up in jail."

By the end of the year, Robin has spent about $70,000 on Swan and her pageants, including $1,200 on a used designer dress.

And who knows how much she paid Shane and Michael, a gay couple who do hair and makeup?

Shane brags, "I can take an ugly girl and make her beautiful."

Michael, who is more low-key, frets about his 7-year-old daughter, a perennial winner in child beauty pageants.

"I don't want it to stress her out or anything like that," he says.

No, I'm sure these girls aren't stressed at all. It's not as if they'll feel they've failed their parents if they don't win. Oh wait, yes they will.

If "Living Dolls" has one failing, it's about 20 minutes too long, but it's not the last 20 minutes that are repetitive. The concluding portion of "Living Dolls" shows original and even more twisted excesses, including competitions for girls newborn to 18 months. One mother gives her infant daughter hair extensions because not enough of the natural stuff has grown in as yet.

The funniest moment comes when an announcer introduces a boy named Reed (who knew boys competed, too?): "Reed has chestnut brown-colored hair and brown eyes," the announcer says as Reed toddles onstage in a tiny tux. "His hobbies include playing in the dirt and watching 'Unsolved Mysteries.'"

Surely even the announcer recognizes the absurdity of the introduction. But the mothers involved don't see these pageants the way many viewers will - as a disturbing and sad way to rob children of their youth and innocence.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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