As time went by, there were more of these shadowy figures, and they would come closer the longer we were living there.
I was a newer makeup artist, just starting in the industry around the same time that Toddlers & Tiaras started airing. I admit, I watched it.
The reality show followed the personal lives of the families of contestants participating in children's beauty pageants, which often depicted little girls dressed provocatively in adult-themed costumes, hairstyles and heavy makeup.
I had daughters around the age of the featured contestants, and I was fascinated by the transformation that the makeup artists and hairstylists were able to do, making these young children resemble porcelain dolls. I would never put my own kids in a pageant, but my girls are dancers and have always had to wear makeup and false eyelashes to perform. Somehow, I felt a bit of a kinship toward these mothers who were encouraging their kids in beauty pageants.
A photographer that I had known for a long time and had worked with on a number of occasions was starting to work with a pageant organization in our area. She convinced me to give it a try, even just for one pageant, reasoning with me that I was good with kids and that this could be a real niche for a makeup artist.
This first pageant was in a local hotel, and they were willing to give me a free room, so it was a good excuse to book the job and bring my own kids along for a little hotel pool time and room service.
That pageant was a real eye-opener! First, you have be a very skilled artist in order to get all of the little girls' makeup and hair done on time, and then re-done for their next outfits. Each pageant generally has formal-wear, "outfit of choice," and maybe some kind of theme-wear, each with a different beauty look. It was like doing 10 bridesmaids, sending them off to the wedding, and then have them come back to get it all undone and then redone.
It was a ton of work, and it really tested my skills. I was working on a tight schedule and learning to do styles in such a way that they could be deconstructed and reconstructed quickly. I realized how dicey this could be when I teased and sprayed a kid's hair as stiff as possible only to have her come back five minutes later to have it combed out. Ouch!
I was a styling machine on that first pageant, working like mad to keep up. I didn't even have a chance to really assess the situation or stand back and take a look at what I was doing.
Being a pageant newbie, I had undercharged for my services, and once I had figured that out, I was ticked off. Determined to make back some of the money that I should have made, I booked a second pageant a few weeks later, hired two assistants, and created an Excel spreadsheet to time-keep the day. I was armed and ready for pageant shenanigans, round two.
It was a very early start on the morning of the second pageant, and when pulling my car into the parking lot, I noticed a news van unpacking their gear.
The pageant director excitedly rushed toward us to say that a news station was filming there for the whole day because they were producing a national news story on the "positive side of pageants."
Right away, the skeptic in me suspected this was an ambush.
I asked not to be filmed, and my crew also decided that they didn't want to be seen on camera. We were there to do a job, get paid and get the hell out.
We started on that early morning backcombing, spraying, curling wiglets (add-on hair pieces that are pageant staples) and gluing eyelashes on some very tired little girls.
There was one kid in particular, clearly exhausted, who screamed and cried every time I went near her. Her mother had put her in some other pageant activities in the days before and didn't wash her hair. A few days of hairspray buildup and teased hair was a recipe for a big, matted mess on this kid's head. I felt sorry for her, but I was being paid, so I tugged away at her head, despite her screams, (which, after a while, I think she kept doing for attention).
It all went downhill from there. This was a bigger pageant, with more at stake —bigger prizes to be won and more competitors. The tension backstage was high, and the addition of a camera crew in everyone's way just added to the pressure.
After hours of hairdos and redos, grumpy kids, and bitchy mothers — Can you make her look more like a doll? Her makeup isn't quite right; I'm going to wipe it off so you can start again — I knew this was my last foray into the pageant world.
This pursuit was full of unrealistic expectations and bizarre rituals — I saw mothers giving their kids Pixy Stix and Red Bull at 7am like it was no big deal. Plus, as an artist, it was exhausting, and as good as I am with kids, you have to be pretty patient to do this type of work.
Late in the day, one of my makeup assistants was approached by the film crew to give a statement, and I could tell that she was dying to just say what she felt. She was also a mother, and I knew that she thought that this was the worst thing ever for little girls.
The crew filmed a statement with her and of course, her statement became a big part of the story arc in the newscast that followed a few months later. She didn't say anything really terrible, but they edited her piece to make it sound like we were horrified and disgusted to be there.
The backlash from the pageant organizer and parents wasn't pretty. My Facebook feed blew up the night that it aired, and I had a few nasty parents chastise me for not supporting pageants while taking their money for services. All I could do was let is pass, shrug it off, and chalk it up to a learning experience. There were some valuable lessons in it for me, and I learned that this was not a world that I wanted to in any way, be a part of.
But after all of that practice, I can now do a mean glittery pink smoky eye in five minutes flat. I just won't be doing it on my daughters for any pageants.