Too much too young

By the age of six, she was an old hand at strutting her stuff in sequins and make-up. Then she was dead. The murder of JonBenet Ramsey has shocked America into reaction against the `pageant' industry - beauty contests for children.
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In her short life, JonBenet Ramsey employed the services of at least two dressmakers, a professional choreographer, a hairstylist, a photographer and a modelling coach. The former Little Miss Colorado's wardrobe for 1997 was to have included half a dozen outfits for the different categories of "pageants" - the term that organisers prefer to "beauty contests" - in which she would compete: party dress, sports wear, Western wear, swimwear. In one contest last year she wowed the judges as a Ziegfeld Follies girl. This year she planned to go as Scarlett O'Hara.

JonBenet - pronounced "Shaunbernay" - was found dead on Boxing Day in the basement of her family home in Boulder, Colorado, a quiet university city in the foothills of the Rockies. There was a cord around her neck, and duct tape covered her mouth; she had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

The six-year-old's murder has become America's morbid sensation for the New Year, though there is no respectable reason why her gruesome death should be covered round the clock on US newscasts. There are no racial or political overtones to give a veneer of serious interest. What there is is an inescapably compelling crime story, the talk of Colorado and the country, a gift for television producers who have been able to play and replay home videos of a precocious and pretty child who belted out song and dance routines with gusto.

Only her parents and her 10-year-old brother were in the family's 14- room house when JonBenet's body was found. Her father, John Ramsey, is the founder of a billion-dollar technology company, an upstanding citizen of Boulder. His wife, Patsy, like her sister a former Miss West Virginia, said she found a ransom note at the house that read "We have your daughter" and demanded the sum of $118,000. Two weeks after the child's death,there are rumours flying, hints of a bungled police investigation, suggestions that the killer was close to, or even a member of, the family, but few facts and no arrests.

But the killing has reinforced a widely held view that there is something grotesque about girls as young as four being taught to sing and strut their stuff on stage, to offer prettily turned answers to the judges. The suspicion lingers that dressing JonBenet as someone three times her age made her a target, whether of jealousy or perverted sexuality, or someone trying to settle a score with her doting family. In a CBS special on child pageants, anchorman Dan Rather observed with distaste that the little girls actually wear make-up. "This beauty pageant thing, it's just a cattle call," said the host on one of Denver's talk radio stations this week, as the media seized on the issue. "And the cattle are five and six year olds."

There are between 100,000 and 200,000 children in the US involved in the industry, according to Charles Dunn, publisher of Pageantry Magazine. Of some 3,000 pageant "systems", from Miss America down, many cater to teenagers and children, and there are contests in Europe and the UK. "This is one of those areas that an entire family can participate in," he says, with the committed ones building their vacations round state or national contests. "It's really a good, wholesome experience. It teaches them good grooming, poise, self-confidence, stage presence." Dunn, like others, defends pageant contests as a kind of sport for little girls, no more obsessive than soccer or Little League baseball. So far, he observes, there is no proven connection between JonBenet's beauty career and her death.

JonBenet had her own float at a city parade in Denver. With her mother's looks and her father's money (he named his motorboat Miss America), there was every indication that the family intended her to go far. But some of the sharpest criticism of child pageantry came with the publication of "cover girl" shots of JonBenet by Randy Simons, a Denver photographer. He says he has done thousands of studio shots of pageant girls from all over the country, but has now gone into virtual hiding, fearful that his career is over. Simons describes JonBenet as "special, unusually talented, unusually cooperative, unusually mature", the kind of kid, he says, that you know is probably going to be a star. Some parents, apparently, pulled children out of events when they learned she was competing.

"Certain children just have a pageant look," says Pamela Griffin, a dressmaker in Boulder. Patsy Ramsey had asked Mrs Griffin, according to her account, to make JonBenet's outfits for 1997; her daughter, Christine, was teaching her modelling.

Mrs Griffin, for what she said was her first press interview, arrived at a Boulder hotel in a prim jacket suit, with brown hair set perfectly in place. She had brought, as asked, some photographs of her work, commissioned for the little beauty queens of Colorado and beyond. She would not, she said, discuss what JonBenet's mother paid her. In the last two weeks Mrs Griffin has had the searing experience of watching film of "Jon B", as she called her, wearing at least two of her outfits, including a pink "cowboy sweetheart" dress, played and replayed on television.

The first time she makes a dress for a child, she said, she asks parents for a whole box of photographs and preferably video footage. "I like a letter from the child that tells me what the child is about; does she like ruffles rather than ribbons, velvet rather than satin, a little bit about the child's personality." She opened a book of photographs of her "little munchkins", all in tulle. "In 1994 the style was tulle," she said. "Sometimes the style is ruffles, sometimes it's satin. Then it went to chiffon. Then it went back to - well, we're still with chiffon." She showed me a picture of the most expensive piece she had ever sold - a $750 miniature ball gown, made of satin with French lace, beaded with pearl, rhinestone and aurora borealis crystals.

You have to put make-up on a blue-eyed blonde, she said, "or they just look like washed-up nothing". But parents who go overboard on that front are marked down by the judges, who typically grade contestants in areas like first impressions, the dress, the smile, and modelling ability. JonBenet would come to the Griffin house for her lessons on deportment, disappearing into the basement - sometimes under protest - to practise Dior turns and moves such as taking her jacket off smoothly and looking judges in the eye.

The hope of every ambitious parent in the pageant world is probably to catch the eye of an agent, for modelling or acting roles. But there are also considerable prizes. One Little Miss America title comes with a $10,000 cash prize, a cruise to the Bahamas for mother and child, and a petite- sized fur coat, Mrs Griffin said. JonBenet was laid in her casket with the crown she won at a Christmas pageant shortly before her death. It was at that pageant that Mrs Griffin overheard Mr Ramsey telling his daughter that it was fine to be beautiful, but more important to develop her talent as "a special little girl from the inside out".

John Ramsey took a tolerant approach to the pageants, Mrs Griffin said, but had drawn the line at a contest in Las Vegas, because he didn't want his daughter parading in Sin City. In the Boulder rumour mill, he is one of several possible suspects in her death.

As she drove out of the hotel car park, Pamela Griffin stopped her four- wheel drive, lowered the window, and offered a page torn from a programme. It showed a crisp colour print of JonBenet in a black-and-white polka- dot outfit she had made, with blonde curls under a wide-brimmed hat, platform shoes, glossy lipstick, and what looked like sheer white tights. The pose was not sexual but was thoroughly sophisticated, and made JonBenet look at least double her age. The picture was printed as a tribute to the dead girl, in the programme for a New Year's pageant she was to have entered. It was titled, without any apparent irony, "Honorary Centerfold". And underneath: "1990-1996, In Loving Memory" of "a child who loved and knew the true spirit of competition".