The white heels of the pageant contestant click across the tiles of the Overland Park Comfort Suites lobby.
She wobbles as she tries to navigate the slick floor — the unintentional staging area between the dressing room and the conference room where the Little Miss Imagination Pageant is being held on a recent Sunday morning.
The 3-year-old girl in a cupcake dress — so named because it has a bottom half in the shape of the dessert — looks up and her mouth drops open, forgetting all about her dad, who is urging her down the carpeted hallway.
Her eyes lock on Jennifer Barrios, the reigning Ms. Ambassador for the American Beauties Plus Pageant. The would-be beauty queen is speechless in front of the real thing.
Barrios, in a red cocktail dress with thin straps and silver heels with crystal hearts in a repeating pattern, easily navigates the buffed floor. A sash proclaims her title, but it is the crown that sits fixed inside her straight black hair that has transfixed the little girl.
“We’re looking for the total package,” says Barrios, 29, who will be one of three judges for the pageant. “I want a kid that’s well put together and clearly wants to be here.”
A black curtain serves as the stage backdrop in the conference room.
The actual stage is just the carpet with dimensions marked out by X’s made of tape, since several of the contestants are still learning how to walk, let alone walk on stage. A crowd of 50 parents and friends, several adorned in homemade T-shirts with photos and a child’s name written on the front, awaits the start.
“We didn’t tell his dad he’s competing,” says a woman holding a 7-month-old in a pinstriped vest and pants and a black and blue clip-on tie.
The baby boy is the first to appear before the judges’ table.
“Your time to shine,” says his mom, cradling her arms under his legs, so he can sit and face the judges like a tiny corporate mogul. He responds by spitting up.
“Stage fright,” says the mom quickly. Barrios and her two fellow judges laugh.
A dozen girls between the age of 18 months and 16 years old will stand before the judges over the next two hours. Their eyes will be “ocean blue,” or “chocolate brown.” Their hobbies will include “baby dolls” and “eating anything off daddy’s plate.” And they all are hungrily eyeing a folding table with more tiaras than a Disney store.
A toddler in a pink dress takes the stage. She stares blankly at the judges, the corners of her mouth twisting slightly.
“Hi. Can you smile?” says Barrios in a cooing voice. The little girl wrinkles her nose and flashes her teeth, her cheeks touching the bottom of her eyes. “There you go.”
Barrios knows how to coax a smile because for the past two years, she and her boys, Connor, 2, and Jacob, 4, have been competing on the local and national pageant circuit. And despite, or perhaps because, they don’t fit the conventional mold — the ideal presented on “Toddlers and Tiaras” or Miss USA — the Barrios family has been doing the unexpected: They’ve been winning. A lot. But as Miss Kansas Theresa Vail, the bow-hunting, combat medic with uncovered tattoos proved in this year’s Miss America pageant, the face of beauty contests may very well be changing. In this case, it’s a single mom and both her boys.
“I’m not the traditional model of beauty,” says Barrios. “I’m 5’3’’ and 180 pounds, but I’m comfortable in my own skin and that’s what matters.”
“Never in a million years did I think that we would be doing pageants,” says Barrios, during a phone conversation from her office at Olathe North High School, where she teaches sign language.
A little over two years ago, Barrios was visiting her mother and sister Lily, when her sister mentioned that she was entering her daughter in a pageant. Lily encouraged Barrios to enter then 2-year-old Jacob as well. Barrios thought it might help provide her son, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, with the chance to interact with a few boys his own age and perhaps find a way to focus.
In his first competition, Jacob finished second overall. But it was what happened after he was crowned that set them on their current path. Her son went up to the boy who had won, hugged him and told him congratulations. Then he walked to the edge of the stage and gave a speech that floored Barrios.
“He asked if I was proud of him and I gave him a big hug and said that I was,” remembers Barrios. “Then, he said, ‘I’m proud of me.’ That’s when I realized there is a lot more to this than just being pretty.’’
The beauty pageant scene in Kansas City has 100 to 150 kids currently competing according to pageant coach Krystal Brock of Spring Hill, the owner of Total Package Pageantry. Only about 10 percent of those contestants are boys. It wasn’t long before Brock noticed Barrios and Jacob.
“When there are so few of you, you gravitate toward each other. Parents of girls don’t necessarily understand what boys should be doing in their routines,” says Brock.
Her own son, 8-year-old Matthew, competes, oftentimes against Jacob and Connor. She also has a daughter Aurora, who is 2 and on the circuit. Brock, who was a pageant contestant for nearly two decades, is pregnant with another boy.
“We’ll wait until he’s 1, so he can let us know if he likes it or not,” says Brock of whether or not the latest addition to her family will take the stage.
Brock has around 50 students as far away as Florida and Oregon (they conduct lessons via Skype) and has been working with Barrios’ children for the past two years. Connor is nearly ready for actual routines in sequenced order while Jacob — who was crowned Grand Supreme (the second-highest title awarded) at Mid-West Angels state pageant in June — has become a boy whom other moms notice.
“In our house, we don’t just do the pageants for the crown or recognition,” says Barrios. “It’s helped my son, who has ADHD, help learn turn-taking, show appreciation for others and how not to be shy.”
Even if Barrios isn’t counting, she knows that people aren’t always adjusted to the idea of Jacob performing a dance routine to the song “Greased Lightning.”
“My boys tend to do well because they blow kisses and play peek-a-boo. They’re little heartbreakers,” says Barrios. “And little girl mommies are really mad when little boy mommies beat them because little girls are supposed to be the pretty ones.”
In a competition that awards tiaras and crowns (many pageants now ask beforehand if you want a boys or girls crown awarded), it shouldn’t be surprising that boys are not competing on equal footing. Boys are restricted from having extra enhancements like makeup or eyelash extenders. In “glitz,” competitions, where the entrants are made up to resemble a living doll (like the tan tot in a sparkly dress that stereotypically comes to mind) those measures are commonplace among the girl contestants. No major pageant costume designer has a specific line for boys.
“I do a lot of my own sewing for my boys,” says Barrios.
Brock believes that pageants should be considered just another sport that boys can play.
“Pageantry is no different from football,” says Brock. “You go get them photos. That’s the equipment. You get the outfits. That’s the uniform. And you take them to a coach, so they know the plays when they get on the stage.”
But it’s not only parents that she and Barrios are tying to win over. The skeptic is sometimes sitting with a pen in hand watching their boys perform.
“You come across judges who don’t like boys competing,” says Brock. “But it’s no different that all the fathers sitting on the sidelines and asking why is there a girl kicker?”
Barrios thought she would just be cheering from the sidelines or good-naturedly competing in mom contests — a sometimes-category at child pageants where mothers get on stage and do goofy versions of their children’s routines. But then her students asked a question she couldn’t answer.
“I was talking about my boys doing pageants and my students asked, ‘Why don’t you do pageants, Ms. B?’
” says Barrios. “They told me I was beautiful.”
Barrios thought back to what middle and high school were like for her in Omaha, Neb.
“I was bigger and outspoken. I loved to be on stage and in drama. I got picked on all the time, but I never showed it because my self-esteem was nothing,” says Barrios.
In April 2012, she competed in the Miss American Beauties Plus Pageant — a national event held annually in Atlanta. Even with a broken foot in a walking boot, she took home the top score in the talent portion of the competition.
“We’re committed to showing the world that we’re women and we’re full figured,” says American Beauties Plus Lifetime Queen Camay McClure. “Jen is a real rhinestone sister, she’s just so supportive of the other queens.”
The American Beauties Plus pageant scores for beauty, talent and an interview. Unlike other pageants, the interview portion counts for 50 percent of a contestant’s score.
“It’s about inner beauty. This is about who I am and what’s important to me. It’s about why I’m the total package from the inside out rather than from the outside in,” says Barrios. “The aim is to show that beauty comes from other places than the scale or mirror.”
With her foot healed and the confidence from the previous year’s contest, Barrios was crowned Ms. Ambassador in April. The title means that Barrios can’t compete in pageants for a year, although her boys have continued to take the stage for runway shows and pageants. Barrios gets her sash out of the closet a few times a month, appearing at American Heart Association events and a National Arthritis Walk in May.
“I’ve seen such a blossoming in all three of them,” says Brock. “Jennifer was this sweet person before she hit the stage, but I’ve seen more of a sense of her completely accepting who she is.”
And on this recent Sunday, she’s the one determining the next beauty queen who will be crowned in Overland Park.
Many will have been up for at least four hours before the pageant’s 10 a.m. start.
Girls twist their index fingers into their cheeks to accentuate their smiles. Mothers stand behind the judges, acting out their daughters’ routines like synchronized swimmers on a slight delay. And when the judges ask for 30 minutes alone in the conference room to judge the contestants’ photos, the families shuffle quietly out of the room, eager to find out if the ride home to Lawrence or Marshall, Mo., will come with ribbons or tiaras.
The pageant’s overall winner has the most elaborate dress and a set of curls that a Boeing engine couldn’t move. This girl is a pro. But for Barrios, this contest is about one of the runner-ups: another girl, a 7-year-old in a simple Easter yellow dress who is close to crying as a tiara is placed on her head.
“Don’t you cry,” says Barrios, wiping at the edge of her eyes. “You’ll make me smear my makeup.”
The newest beauty queen beams at her rhinestone sister and learns her first lesson. Beauty queens can cry. They just can’t let their mascara run.