The emcee for the evening was a woman in a black suit and spider lapel pin. She called some names, including "Catlin," the child next to us, a 3-year-old who, her mother told me, would win the "Shirley Temple Look-a-Like" award, if the category existed. The two of them scrambled to the stage.
All the kids would be competing for two gold scepters and several awards, including "Cutest Smile," "Prettiest Eyes" and "The Most Happiest Baby." Parents and their adorned children, all between 7 months and 4 years old, waited onstage. As a tape played runway music, the emcee introduced the children: "Baby Tiffany is 1 year old. She's approximately 18 inches tall, 20 pounds, [has] brown eyes, dark-brown hair, and it's curly."
The audience cheered as the proud parents escorted their babies across the platform. Some children soaked up the attention; others looked confused. The judge asked each parent a question, about what their child's strongest subject in school would be, if he or she would have intelligence or wisdom and whether he or she would prefer to love or to be loved.
She asked Catlin's mother, "Based on your child's personality, do you think she would more likely become a news anchor or supermodel?" The mother thought, then answered, "News anchor."
The question seemed innocent but hinted at the pageant's underlying purpose. "[The parents] didn't realize it," judge Julie Doudee told me after the event. "We're a modeling agency." Specifically, Vogue Modeling Agency of Cary.
Some parents, however, knew the score and came prepared. Joelle Burns, whose son Codey won "Best Two-year-old," wore a black, professional outfit, while her son wore a V-neck sweater and khaki pants.
Toward the end of the event, around 9:30 p.m., the children were either asleep, whining or leaping from their parents' laps onto the backs of steel chairs. Reviewing the scene, I noticed an elderly man and woman seated in the back row. The woman was in a wheelchair and had her arms crossed. The man's face was so proud it was almost scoffing.
I approached and asked if they had a child in the pageant. They both stared at me, as if I'd blown their cover.
"We own a pageant system," the man said.
"We do pageants from zero to 25 years old," the woman said. They introduced themselves as Ken and Joan Rouse of Sanford. I asked them to compare this pageant to others. Joan enumerated its flaws: it was being held too late, the awards weren't divided by gender and too many kids were leaving without awards. At her pageants, every kid leaves with a compliment.
I told them I was surprised some attendant parents were professionals. The couple wasn't surprised at all. Joy pointed to a woman seated across from us. She had her baby's dress spread out lavishly. "See the way she's holding that dress up around her?" Ken said. "She's been onstage before."
Some parents, they said, enter their babies into these competitions weekly. "It's like a sport," Ken said.
"Do you think it affects the kids?" I finally asked.
"No," Ken said. "When they're little, they don't pay any attention. They're just children. They're just competing at a different level."