September 26, 1988 12:00 PM

Kendall Denee Barker, a winsome platinum blond with wide blue eyes and dark lashes that curl just as they should, nearly fainted with excitement. After five grueling days of giving her very best to several panels of judges, Kendall was being wrapped in a blue satin sash and having a genuine rhinestone tiara perched on her head—a mere symbol of the rest of the prizes she’d collected. As the winner of the Little Miss of America Pageant, Tiny Miss Division, little Miss Barker of Krebs, Okla., sashayed off with a mink jacket, a gold necklace, a new wardrobe, a trip to Mexico, $500 worth of Barbie Doll accessories, a $1,000 savings bond and a $750 scholarship to modeling school. It may be slightly less than Gretchen Carlson, also known as Miss Minnesota, collected in Atlantic City on Sept. 10, when she was named Miss America 1989, but it’s not bad for a 3-year-old.

Kendall triumphed over 60 hopefuls who had come to Hollywood from as far as Maine and Hawaii for the national pageant’s five-day series of challenges: interviews, a talent show, a TV commercial recital (entrants memorized a 30-second ad), a swimsuit contest and a party dress-off on the stage of the Sheraton Universal Hotel’s Grand Ballroom. Her competition was stiff. When Amber Kelly, 6, from Arkansas, did her leaps, jumps and backflips, the judges almost got whiplash. “We’re aiming for the Olympics,” said Amber’s mom, Linda. “Amber’s a perfectionist. She can’t stand to be outdone.”

For a while there, it looked like Tina Brosius, 4, had the tiara in the bag. It wouldn’t be the first time. Tina, from Beverly Hills, has been competing since she was 4 months old. Last year she made the talk show rounds for winning 300 beauty-contest trophies—probably more than any other 3-year-old on the planet. “To me, it’s a school,” says Tina’s mom, Beverly Brosius, of pageant work. Like many of the other mothers, Beverly, 40, is a former contestant herself. “The pageant,” she says, “teaches the kids to be outgoing.” Just how outgoing is gauged by the interview segment, during which contestants, all ages 3 to 6, are judged on poise, personality and presence. When Shambi Schrader’s number came up, she promptly burst into tears and had to be carried out. Shayna Dawn Epstein, 3, from Ohio, had a better grip on herself. In answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” she boldly proclaimed, “A snowman.” “What if the snow melted?” asked an alert judge. “Then I’ll go back to being Shayna,” she chirped. Kendall hoped to become a “sweetie pie.”

Susan Gibson, 30ish, a former Miss Oklahoma in the Miss USA pageant, originated the Little Miss of America contest 10 years ago. There are five age-based divisions, ranging from Tiny Miss (3 to 6) to America’s Miss (18 to 24). Each group has its own prizes, some of which, like the Yugo car, Susan donates herself. Like other pageant officials, Susan doesn’t like referring to her tiny contestants as winners and losers, preferring to call finalists the “chosen” girls. Not everybody understands the distinction. “When their kids don’t get in the top 12, mothers go crazy,” says veteran Brosius. “Two things you don’t fiddle with: their money and their little girls.”

In lieu of an entry fee, contestants pay for their photo’s inclusion in the pageant catalog—$350 for a full page, $250 for a quarter. Girls are asked not to use too much makeup, are discouraged from using the w-word (it’s chosen, remember) and dissuaded from using props. Nonetheless, lipstick, blush and mascara are standard backstage, and Keri Lee Williamson, 6, of California wielded a tiny surfboard onstage during the swimsuit contest.

During the optional talent show, each aspirant has three minutes to show off. There were Egyptian dances, Hawaiian dances, and acrobatics. And there was Tina Brosius—with a $155 custom cosmetic plastic cover-up for the space between her two front baby teeth—confidently belting out “Ain’t He Sweet.” Post-performance, Tina was less exuberant. “I didn’t win,” she sobbed. Mom Beverly chalked the tears up to exhaustion. “This is more work than any job in the world,” she says. Tina’s dresses are handmade, costing between $400 and $600 each. Her pageant wardrobe is worth about $10,000. Her singing and dancing classes, musical arrangements and tapes cost $4,000 a year, the travel expenses for these contests—the Brosiuses go to about 40 a year—get up to $5,000. The outlay is possible thanks to a group of sponsors.

Tina, whose father is an electrician, appreciates the expenditure. She is the consummate pro. When co-contestant Adrianne Lane, 4, wanted to play tag backstage during the party-dress event, Tina resolutely refused. “It gets you all hot and messes up your hair,” she counseled. “That’s right,” Adrianne’s mom, Sherry, said thoughtfully.

At the pageant’s climax, the 12 semifinalists joined one another onstage dressed in their ruffled finest. The audience, which mainly comprised relatives of the contestants, rustled apprehensively. When Kendall Denee Barker’s moment in the sun was proclaimed, not everyone enjoyed its glow. “Brunets rarely win,” noted 5-year-old Chrisalyn Ross’s mother, Susan. “Chris is getting very leery of blond children because they always beat her out.”

Tina Brosius, however, recovered quickly. Second runner-up and the Miss Congeniality award were okay by her. “Don’t worry,” she told another non-chosen. “You’ll win next time.” While Kendall got ready for the bus trip home to Krebs, her mother rushed off to a phone booth where she was heard exclaiming, “She won it all!”

—By Joanne Kaufman, with Eleanor Hoover in Los Angeles

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