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Long Island's Littlest Beauty Queens

Little Miss Long Island is not the Long Island edition of Toddlers & Tiaras. It's a local event with a group of contestants who, for the most part, take themselves seriously but not too seriously.

by Amy Lombard
Dec 28 2014, 12:00am

We know you're busy. You probably didn't have time to read every article we published on VICE.com this year. So we've compiled a list of some of our favorites, and will be re-featuring them on the homepage through the end of 2014. This one originally published on February 18th.

It's 10 AM on a Sunday morning, and I find myself on a train surrounded by 20-something-year-old men slugging 24-ounce cans of Heineken. I feel the weight of the hangover being experienced by two women in yesterday's makeup and leopard leggings a few seats over. To New Yorkers, this scenery is all too familiar: I am on the Long Island Rail Road­­, and it is not just a leisurely trip to the Island. I am here to attend the Little Miss Long Island pageant in Westbury. This is the kind of thing TLC and Bravo's dreams are made of.

"What is VICE?" asked founder and pageant director Debra Marra in her thick Long Island accent over the phone a few weeks earlier. I explained, but it still didn't ring a bell. Regardless, she was adamant and eager to explain that this is not the Long Island edition of Toddlers & Tiaras.

"Toddlers & Tiaras is obviously for TV," she said. "This is more of a local pageant. One girl­­—the winner­­—will get a contract with a modeling agency from one of the judges. We don't force the girls to spray-tan and wear fake hair. That's what I think would be the biggest difference. It's really up to the moms. I don't do bathing-suit competitions, as Toddlers & Tiaras does—I don't think that's appropriate to, you know, have the little girls walking around in bathing suits. I just don't like that feel to it. This is more or less their personality and natural beauty."

I enter the venue, Verdi's of Westbury, with an open mind, walking past the art deco sculptures, mirrored walls that line the hallways, and into the room where the pageant is held. The DJ, a friendly, tan, middle-aged man, is blasting Top 40 radio hits; ­­"Blurred Lines" comes on as a slew of young contestants giggle and gather on the dance floor. I skim the vendor tables—­­pageant wear, lip gloss, Tupperware, among others—­­before heading downstairs to meet with the contestants before the judging begins. "Come & Get It" by Selena Gomez is playing as I make my exit.

"Maliyah has been doing this since she was six months," explains pageant mom Susan Snyder. "There isn't no training. Just stick a binky in her mouth and put her on stage!" At two years old it would seem that Maliyah is already a veteran pageant queen, but this is not the case for everyone. Let it be known that age is not an indicator of experience level on the Long Island pageant circuit. For the oldest contestant (as in eight years old), Gianna Aliani, this was her very pageant. "I've been begging them to let me do this," she gushes, while her aunt explains she's a busy young girl with other activities and sports.

Around 12:30 the pageant begins, and the lunch, an assortment of pasta and chicken dishes, is served. "Meet Brooke, she is one year old and her favorite subject is nap time!" exclaims the DJ turned host to the tune of "Happy" by Pharrell Williams as Brooke blows kisses to the judges. A few moments later, a teenager across from me picks up one of the red-dressed pageant queen centerpieces­­ and says, "WHAT THE HELL? Whoever painted this did a really shitty job." While seated completely at ease with a group of strangers, it's as if somehow Marra created a pageant atmosphere that feels similar to a family meal with your lovable, boisterous, imaginary Italian family.

It's at this moment I can understand Marra's point about the intentions and portrayal of her beauty pageant. It would be impossible to ignore the countless, unavoidable gender stereotypes that come with the territory of pageantry. Having spent nearly six hours with this group of Long Islanders, it's clear that this is a local event with a group of contestants who, for the most part, take themselves seriously but not too seriously. There is an unspoken tension and competitive energy to the event, but the overall vibe is upbeat and encouraging­­—the mothers unanimously claim they will no longer take part in the pageants once their children stop having fun.

The day carries on as expected, with no shortage of hair spray, sweat, tears, or backflips. After showing off their Valentine's Day wear, evening wear, and special talents, the judges add up the scores to determine who will become Little Miss Long Island. When asked what it takes to be Little Miss Long Island, judge Anna Mauro explains it's all about the "talent, originality, smiles, and the hair." After a half hour of deliberation over cake and coffee, it's time to announce the winner—and the ten other finalists, because today everyone is going back to their homes a winner. One by one, the contestants collect their crowns and trophies, smiling proudly from ear to ear. There could only be one Little Miss Long Island, and today that was Brooke Esposito, the adorable one-year-old whose favorite subject is nap time. The judges place the crown on Brooke's tiny head, which is about half the size of her body, and the $250 cash prize is placed across her lap­­. The audience laughs, and Brooke ends up in tears.

In an instant, the girls return to their normal lives. Instead of singing and dancing for the judges, they are rolling on the floor and playing hide-and-seek. There is disappointment in the eyes of a few girls who took it more seriously than most, but all in all, the contestants are happy and overjoyed with their crowns. I overhear Brooke's mother and one of the judges, an owner of Prestige modeling and acting agency, talking about their plans to discuss Brooke's contract and future. Who knows, this Little Miss Long Island could very well be the next Miley Cyrus—­­just remember, you saw it here first.

Amy Lombard is an NYC-based photographer. Follow her on Twitter.

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