The hotel ballroom was filled with nearly 100 distracted parents, many of them juggling toddlers on their laps. They had just spent a mind-numbing half-hour watching a parade of identically dressed preadolescent girls read cliche-filled advertising copy.
Then tiny Madison Neill took the stage, and the crowd squealed. She wore a bouncy blonde ponytail and a smile that could melt icebergs. She radiated personality. She is also 8 years old — and was participating in the acting competition at one of National American Miss' state-level pageants, the Miss California Junior Pre-Teen.
This kind of attention is not new for Madison. After she placed in the top 10 at several other pageants her parents made a life-changing decision. Last month, they said goodbye to their home in Virginia and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to launch their daughter's entertainment career.
Think they're crazy? Blame Simon Cowell. Well, sort of.
In our already celebrity-obsessed society, reality television has further fueled the notion that anyone young and ambitious enough can — and should — become a star. "American Idol" and its imitators fill hours of prime-time programming, while tabloid magazines tout the latest ways to infuse your life (and, by implication, yourself) with "celebrity style."
Methods of becoming famous — be they realistic or imagined — surround us these days.
For some families, child beauty pageants represent a potential road to stardom, despite the scorn the pageant industry has endured in the decade since JonBenet Ramsey's death. At that time, the country's attention was focused on the so-called "glitz pageants," in which girls as young as five are dressed in sophisticated (or even sexy) evening gowns and loaded down with heavy cosmetics.
Many of the country's largest pageant companies occupy a different niche: They are scaled-down "natural pageants," which don't allow makeup, teased hair or a swimsuit competition. The winners of these pageants are girl-next-door types — OK, little girl-next-door — rewarded for their outgoing personalities and stage presence.
But while the types of pageants vary widely, there are some common factors: nearly all offer cash prizes and rhinestone tiaras, and many promise that some of their judges will be modeling agents or talent scouts. That proposition can inspire parents to spend thousands of dollars or even move cross-country in hopes that pageants will lead their child to a lucrative performing career.
A "Breaking Into Showbiz" section appears in each issue of Pageantry magazine, which describes itself as "the Bible of the Industry." This month, the magazine offers interviews with "Access Hollywood" co-anchor Nancy O'Dell (who competed in pageants in the 1980s) and actress Lee Meriwether (Miss America 1955).
Although pageants promote the notion that any cute child can win, the reality, as skewered in the black comedy "Little Miss Sunshine," is that kids who do win are likely to be airbrushed pros by the time they've learned to read. This is especially true of glitz pageants. Even for the winners, the payoff isn't likely to involve stardom, despite the visual similarities between glitzed-up pageant kids and celebrities on a red carpet.
"Real modeling scouts do not go looking at glitz pageants for children," says Monica Daniels, director of a glitz-free competition called America's Beautiful Faces, based in Georgia. "The Gap is not going to call that agency and say, `Can I have a 5-year-old who looks like Dolly Parton?'"
But even in the world of natural pageants such as National American Miss, there seems to be little connection to the entertainment industry.
"Pageants are not going to help a kid, for me. I'm not looking for that," says Ellen Gilbert, a theatrical agent who represents child actors for the influential Abrams Artists Agency. "Not one of my kids in all the years I've been doing this has had a pageant background."
That can be frustrating news to contestants hungry for fame. "I know a 23-year-old who does pageants because she's an aspiring singer," says Daniels. "But I've been in pageants for 13 years and I've told her, `Nobody who is going to do something with your talent is going to be at a pageant.'"
Rob Decina, a casting director for the CBS soap opera "Guiding Light," agrees. "We see a lot of stage moms who come in here with young children. But we don't hear much about pageants."
When he does notice pageant experience on a young actor's resume it can serve as a conversation starter. But it doesn't influence casting decisions. "The person with pageant experience may be the better actor. But if they aren't, it won't get them cast," he says.
For pageant winners who make legitimate industry contacts, it's also difficult to launch a career without living near a city where casting happens.
"The sales pitch is, `We have agents from all over the United States,'" Daniels says. "The problem is, if you have Missy Sue from Little Town, Georgia, and she gets scouted by a big agency in Chicago, unless she lives and breathes this and can move to one of those big cities, it's useless. The agent may say, "If you ever move to Chicago, call us."
Heading westMadison Neill's parents decided such a move was worth making after their daughter met acting coach Bob Luke through a pageant. He currently serves as Madison's "unofficial manager," says her mom, Leah Neill.
Now that they're in Los Angeles, the hope is that Madison can sign with an agent and enter the enormous pool of kids vying for a handful of commercial and theatrical roles.
Many parents of Madison's competitors at the Los Angeles-area National American Miss pageant harbor little expectation that agents will be impressed by a beauty-queen title. Perhaps their geographic proximity to the entertainment industry makes them more skeptical than parents living elsewhere, for whom Hollywood is more a concept than a neighborhood.
"If it's a stepping stone in that direction, great," Cristina Austin of Coto de Caza, Calif., says about her daughter Britney's participation in the pageant. "If it clicks, we'll take it," she says, but the family came to the pageant mainly to have fun.
Parents at North American Miss pageants do have the option of buying photo and video packages of their child, which can serve as publicity shots. But for most, the photos are simply mementos of an amusing weekend spent at a hotel near Disneyland.
Will any of these contestants end up famous? Pageant industry people are quick to point out that some Hollywood stars do have pageants in their history. Halle Berry and Eva Longoria are frequently mentioned.
Despite the challenging odds, though, Madison Neill's parents seem determined to add their daughter's name to that brief list. At the tender age of 8, she's already got her red-carpet walk perfected.