PARIS — “Camille, watch out! Your hair!” Myriam calls to her 7-year-old daughter as she leans against the wall, temporarily crushing her blond ringlets, curled with an iron and hair-sprayed early in the morning.
Though it’s Saturday, mother and daughter have woken early to leave their home in northern France by 8:30 a.m. They are accompanied by Camille’s 10-year-old sister Marie, their 11-year-old friend Laura and her mother Caroline. In the trunk of the car are three shiny red-and-black flamenco dresses. Destination: a junior beauty pageant in Paris.
At a dead-end street in the French capital, the young girls and another 100 contestants are patiently waiting for the doors to open and for both the Mini-Miss Model France 2013 (for 5- to 11-year-olds) and the Miss Junior Teen France 2013 (12- to 17-year-olds) to begin.
These two pageants could be among the last such contests to take place in France. The previous week, the Senate voted in favor of a bill that would ban them for those under 16 years of age. Lawmakers believe such events encourage the hypersexualization of young girls and teaches them to favor looks over brains. The bill now heads to the National Assembly
The mothers, Myriam and Caroline, were stunned by the Senate vote. “Those who voted that have clearly never been to a contest,” Caroline says. “This isn’t America.”
Such contests are particularly common in northern France, and their daughters participate in one every month or so. “They’re a lot more expensive here, though,” Myriam says, referring to Paris. “Where we come from, it costs 5 or 6 euros ($8) but we paid 39 euros ($50) for this one.” It’s a significant amount of money, especially considering the added cost of driving. But the dresses are homemade, and the girls are happy.
In the beginning, it was the girls who wanted to enter the pageants, just like their friends, but there's something in it for the mothers too. “I work night shifts in a pharmaceutical factory,” Myriam explains. “When there’s a contest, I can meet up there with some friends, have a laugh and chat. The girls get presents, and we all end up at McDonald’s. Good times!” Caroline, a housewife, agrees. “That way, I get to go out and see people.”
Primping and preening
In the underground theater room, mothers become dressers and daughters little princesses. Some fathers and brothers are also there, but they play secondary roles, relegated to the back behind the abundance of multicolored dresses, toile, feathers, rhinestones, fabric flowers and glitter. Camille, Marie and Laura are loving it. “We can play princesses, make new friends.”
Laura, who has a passion for motocross and wants to become an attorney, defends the pageants. “We’re not only judged on how we look, but also on our gait,” she argues. The organizers confirm this, adding, “We pay particular attention to how natural they are.” The two mothers, Myriam and Caroline, are quick to add that their daughters’ participation is not unconditional. “If they don’t get good grades at school, no contest.” When asked whether they are perhaps a bit too young to be judged in this way, Caroline replies, “It’s tough when they lose, but that’s how life is.”
The show for the younger group is about to begin. Mic in hand, Michel Le Parmentier, one of the organizers, takes advantage of the media presence. “If the cameras want to film how we verify the absence of makeup and heels, in accordance with our ethics policy, they are welcome to go backstage, behind the curtain.”
Last year’s Miss Junior Teen — Barbara, 13 — follows him onstage and utters this message to the French Parliament members who are considering the bill to ban such pageants beginning in November. “Please let us live our dream,” she says.
A few minutes before that, visibly moved, she told us: “Mrs. Jouanno the bill’s sponsor makes it sound as if we’re going to become prostitutes. It’s insulting!”
Though the heat becomes increasingly stifling, the young girls continue to strut and spin around. Some are clearly having fun, striking poses and laughing. Others take it more seriously, keeping frozen smiles on their faces. The seven-member jury — made up of former pageant winners, their mothers and representatives of a model syndicate, among others — honors Lou, a cute 6-year-old.
Tweens with dreams
The atmosphere changes abruptly for the next contest, for the older group of 12- to 17-year-olds. These young girls are wearing heels, makeup, and darker dresses that are shorter and tighter. “At that age, they’re almost adults,” Le Parmentier says.
Nina, a 12-year-old in a pink dress, looks almost like a baby compared to the other girls in her category. “I wanted to try it a year ago because everybody was always calling me fat. I wanted to feel prettier,” she explains. “These contests are kind of cute, as long as they don’t go too far,” says her mother Estelle. She’d rather the rules were stricter: “I don't get it: kids of that age in heels? It’s so bad for their feet and backs.”
Unlike Nina, Stecy is already thinking long-term. Though she is only 13, she could easily pass for five to 10 years older, as she perches on her high heels wearing a short black dress. She wants to become “a model or an actress.” Her mother Karine, a personal care assistant, thinks there’s no point in waiting. “At that age, they already know what they want to do with their lives. You’ve got to start early if you want to achieve a career,” she insists. “I would have loved to do the same, but I never started up. I will do for her what I haven’t done for myself. I’d be so proud to see her turn into a star.”
Like everybody else in the room, Karine is “very much opposed” to a pageant ban. “They just legalized gay marriage,” another parent says. “Why would they ban these contests? I have to say, I don’t understand.” Le Parmentier says the association that organized this and similar events nationally is willing to fight until the end against the bill, but also against what he sees as the “excesses” of some contests organized by others locally.
Camille, Marie and Laura leave Paris without a winner’s sash. “I‘m a bit disappointed,” Laura says. She's not going home empty-handed, though. In her hands, she holds a cheap rhinestone crown that all contestants were given. It’s already broken.
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