Mary's Pageant

Photographs by Lisa Wiltse

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In a dimly lit hotel banquet room Liverpool, New York, Mary Brunner puts the final touches on her routine, all carefully overseen by her mother Dana. Mary is 8 years old and is preparing to go on stage for over the 100th time in her short but hectic three year career entering American beauty pageants.

The final rehearsal proves to have been worth it as Mary performs at the pageant almost flawlessly, although she comes off stage concerned that she didn't smile enough. Dana assures her that the routine was fantastic with a hug and many words of encouragement. Another trophy for Mary is forthcoming, to be added to her ever-growing collection.

The American pageant world has become an estimated five billion dollar industry, and each year over 100,000 U.S. children under the age of 12 participate in pageants. In order to enter a contest, many financial dues are needed from contestants, such as entrance fees, hair and makeup styling, wardrobe costs and other pageant tools. Sometimes, private coaches are employed. Dresses are typically $2000 and upwards, often with over $3000 worth of sequins. Contestants are spray-tanned, made up, and groomed to a glossy perfection.

American Beauty Pageants have been getting a bad reputation for a number of years, and recent programs like 'Toddlers and Tiaras' and 'Honey Boo Boo' have only helped to escalate the negativity surrounding the contests. At Mary’s home in Rochester, NY, Dana gives an alternate perspective: "Yes there is a lot of bad publicity about pageants and the pushy mums who live their lives through their children do exist. Mary seemed a "natural" for pageants with talent, athletic ability and personality and most important of all she wanted to do it! I asked myself, what's the difference between this and, let’s say, investing in your child who competes in swimming, or gymnastics?"

Dana says the pageants and training have helped to give Mary discipline, patience and poise. She adds that Mary “takes weekly ballet, dance and gymnastics classes, she can hold a conversation with adults very well and this will help her with interviews later on in her life. She can go into a room and talk to anybody…Treated the correct way Pageants can be very beneficial for children and can give them confidence and improve their self esteem."

Indeed, over the course of my six months documenting pageants and Mary's weekly routine, Dana's words appeared to ring true. I observed a young girl gaining confidence and working hard at the many facets of her life that go into preparing herself for competing in beauty pageants.

Those benefits have not come without sacrifices. Dana explains that “I just want to give Mary a choice of things she could do in life. This is a hobby for Mary, a very expensive hobby. My husband and I agree to invest in pageants as long as Mary puts in 100%.The day Mary says she doesn't want to do it anymore we will stop. But right now she enjoys it."
The Brunners have had to sell the family jewelry in order to allow Mary to compete, and Dana cuts other family costs to ease the financial pressure. She continually re-sells used pageant dresses that Mary has grown out of. There are potential financial returns on this investment; some pageants offer staggering prizes, including a car in some cases. But the competition is tough. Contestants must walk a ramp to showcase their looks, poise and confidence in different types of costumes: formal wear, sport wear and casual wear. Appearance is the main focus; faces are 'dolled up' with foundation, and fake eyelashes are stiffed with mascara. Lips are colored with bright lipstick.

Since the age of five Mary has competed in over 100 pageants, and has won a title in all but 3. Prize categories include Elite, Mega, Ultimate, Grand, Division Supreme and Mini. A child talent scout recently signed Mary after seeing her win the 'Ultimate' in the Hollywood Stars contest.

Back home, where Mary is preparing for her next big competition in Kentucky, she proudly shows off her crown, ribbon and trophy collection, all beautifully presented in her bedroom. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Drama Queen.’

While practicing for the interview section of the pageant, Mary speaks into a microphone with aplomb, repeating the question in the answer as if to show her training has served her well and that she is thoroughly prepared for public speaking. She can articulate herself beyond her years, but her childhood innocence and sense of fun still comes through at certain moments. When describing her father’s trepidation at entering a freezing cold pool on a family trip, she accompanies it with an impersonation, tip-toeing across the room with an agonized expression, all while retaining perfect positioning of the microphone.

I ask her: "So what do you want to do when you grow up?" Mary pauses for a moment and rolls her eyes skywards before collecting herself and preparing her answer mentally. She holds the microphone close and in clear punctuation announces, "When I grow up I want to be a chef."