Some 13 years ago, a six-year-old girl called JonBenet Ramsey was murdered in Boulder, Colorado. It was the only murder in the city that year, and a particularly brutal one; she had been dragged from her bed and apparently attacked with an electric cattle prod before being strangled. Which made it all the more astounding that the police quickly came to the conclusion that it was the parents who had killed her. There were, they said, no signs of forced entry to the house, or any indication of how the murderer might have got out.
Even more astonishingly, most people in Boulder agreed with the police. The case became famous internationally. The Ramseys fled Boulder, and Peggy, the mother, later died of cancer.
Luckily Mike Tracey, a British lecturer in journalism at the local university, appalled by the media frenzy, took up the case. He employed private detectives who quickly found — amid much other evidence the police had missed — the way the intruder had got in and out, including a suitcase which he had stood on to crawl out of the basement window.
The details, like those in any unsolved case, are innumerable and complicated. But the intriguing fact is that JonBenet had been a child beauty queen, taking part in those grisly competitions in which young girls are encouraged to turn themselves into little sex goddesses. In Boulder, which I visit most years for a conference, a town that’s home to a university and some of the most bien-pensant people in America, a world of organic health food, Taoism and worthy charities, the kind of people who enter their children into beauty contests stand out, in Chandler’s phrase, like tarantulas on angel food cake. It was, nobody quite said but clearly meant, quite possible that the people who sexualised their child must be responsible for her sexually motivated murder. Now, too late, both police and community seem to have grudgingly accepted the parents’ innocence.
Of course everything from America, good or bad, finally arrives on these shores, which is why the BBC made Baby Beauty Queens. Three years ago there were only two child beauty pageants in Britain; this year there are 17. The programme concentrated on two seven-year-olds, Amber and Eden, who were entering a contest in Milton Keynes, which does not resemble Boulder in any way.
Two moments summed up the ethos of the thing. Amber, harassed by her mother Sally, performed a terpsichorean routine in a tight-fitting outfit that was, in effect, pole-dancing without the pole. Eden’s mum, Fathom (people who go in for this sort of thing also seem to go in for names like that), wanted her to wear a shiny dress. But it was for an older girl, and had space for breasts. Fathom made a great thing of explaining how she was going to unpick the bodice so it would lie flat. There was a simpler way round the problem. Why not choose a dress made for a little girl? But that would negate the notion behind the pageant, which is to say: ‘Look, in six years’ time these girls are going to be gorgeous and pubescent!’ Some local authorities ban parents videoing nativity plays, yet the guys with the chapped lips and the fumbling hands, periodically denounced by the press as Kiddie Sex Monsters, can presumably just turn up on occasions like this, unless the organisers have some kind of technology, a Paedo-Guard, for example.
There was also a side event, perhaps a sop to the more normal among us, a Yummy Mummy contest which, sadly, attracted only four entries and was won by neither Sally nor Fathom.
What was on show here, and the flat commentary emphasised it, was a sort of folie-à-deux, or trois when the fathers got marginally involved, in which the children are desperate to become famous and their parents are desperate to become famous through them. Their light, or at least their sequined clothing, reflects off each other. It’s a closed circle of narcissism. Sally dropped four dress sizes and declared, ‘I love it! I love me!’ She reflects that she always wanted to be famous. ‘I watched those TV programmes, and I asked, “What have they got that I haven’t got?”’ Which programmes, Newsnight? More likely, Big Brother.
In the end, Amber didn’t win for her sexy dancing, but took the award for Best Mannered, which is like entering the Newdigate poetry prize and getting the gong for Neatest Handwriting.
In the end, I felt sorry for these people, whose lives are lived only through their children’s specious success at pretending not to be children — or, just as bad, their equally specious failure. It is a world that seems to attract the prurient and the unbalanced, as the Ramsey family knows to its horrible cost.