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Subject: A life of smiles and struts - crowns optional

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Date Posted: 09/23/05 1:30:21pm

The contestants in the Miss Winnipesaukee Pageant pose for a picture before the competition at Gunstock Ski Lodge on July 9. Krystal Barry (second from right), 20, of Belmont stands a full head above the other would-be pageant queens.

VFor Belmont's Krystal Barry, the local pageant scene isn't just about the lure of money and fame - it's also fun.

The smell of blue-ribbon farm animals hung in the air as Krystal Barry waited her turn to dance. The 20-year-old from Belmont sat at a folding table, surrounded by jittery beauty queens in capri pants who were munching on celery sticks and Milano cookies. To her right, a loudspeaker announced the results of a tractor pull. In front of her, a short, taut blonde bounced in time to the World War II ditty "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."

When the pageant director called contestant No. 3, Barry placed a pink baseball hat crookedly on top of her teased hair. She walked to the corner of the concrete stage at the Stratham Fair and, facing backward, wrapped her arms around her back so that just her hands were showing.

It was the end of July, but the beginning of the nine-month pageant season. For Barry, who's been competing for nearly three years, it was just another weekend. Another occasion to pack her rolling suitcase full of designer jeans and delicate evening gowns, cart around her makeup mirror, Vaseline her lips. Another day of changing in
makeshift dressing rooms, practicing dance moves in hallways and smiling so much her mouth quivers. And another shot at thousands of dollars in scholarship money.

Usher's "Yeah," a hip-hop song about picking up a girl at a club, blurted from the speakers. Barry hopped, spun and strutted to the middle of the stage. She struck a pose every time Usher said "yeah." When he sang "come get me," she wagged her fingers. She stomped and threw her elbows out. She looked a little sassy.

So I got up and followed her to the floor
She said baby let's go

When I told her I said

Yay-yeah, yay-yeah

Barry's choice of song was just one thing that set her apart from the other contestants at Miss Stratham Fair. During the talent portion, she wore baggy white cargo pants, not an hourglass-shaped evening gown or a sparkly leotard. At 6 feet tall, she stuck out above the pack. And unlike the other girls, who fussed to corral their hair up or down, Barry only had to worry about tucking her short brown locks behind her ears.

In other ways, she wasn't so different from the 11 other would-be-queens. Like many, she's taken dance lessons for as long as she can remember. She's recently begun training her voice, and she's studying theater, with a dance emphasis, at the University of New Hampshire. She's vying for a chance to be Miss New Hampshire.

But she hasn't been crowned yet.

"Miss America is looking for the girl next door," she said. "But I'm kind of not really."

Designer habit

Barry said she was a "sportsy" tomboy as a kid. She ran track, competing in road races nearly every weekend, and was a chicken-hatching, dog-showing, pony-riding member of the local 4-H club. During the summers, she lives with her mother on a 12-acre farm that now grows corn and tomatoes but was once home to cows. She has a goat.

But Barry also took dance lessons from the age of 3, learning to tap and twirl before kindergarten. Her dream is to perform on Broadway. She loves to shop and strolled the farm on a recent afternoon wearing a black miniskirt.

So when she received a flier in the mail for the Miss Teen All-American pageant her junior year of high school, Barry's grandmother prodded her into signing up. It was a national pageant held in Florida, and, Barry said, she was reluctant to go. The temptation of a week in the sun won her over, however, and she made the trip, gown-less and with no idea that what she was getting into would become a habit.

When she got down South, she bought a knockoff of a Julia Roberts dress. Someone else had the same one: pageant faux pas. But the experience didn't discourage her, nor did it curb her appetite for evening gowns. Three weeks ago, her grandmother, who helped raise her, bought a 32-foot trailer to house Barry's collection. It's already packed.

"We've been racking up the dresses," she said, running her hand over a rack that looked like prom season at Filene's.

Barry's mother, Tina, is the main culprit. She's a single mom who works two jobs to support her daughter - and prowls eBay for floor sample gowns and overflow from former queens' closets in her spare time. She buys bathing suits for $1.99 and has ornate dresses sent from Hong Kong, which she then emblazons with rhinestones. The Barrys have driven as far as Rhode Island to pick up a designer dress, but they also find some of the best deals at TJ Maxx.

"It's different, it's fun," Tina Barry said. "It keeps me broke."

Her dedication to her only child's latest passion is nothing new. When Barry was in 4-H, her mother helped her incubate and hatch geese, which now run the property in a gaggle 32 birds strong. When her daughter injured her calf and gave up running for pole vaulting, Tina Barry bought a maroon pit and an extra-long pole because the school's were too short. She drove her to private lessons in Massachusetts.

Now, she videotapes all of her daughter's pageants from the audience. Afterward, Barry said, they often stop at a restaurant to eat and watch the footage on the camera's tiny pop-out screen. Her mom is constantly giving her pointers: Make more eye contact with the judges. Fix the hair around your ears. Don't swing your arms so much.

"I'm her little Barbie doll that she likes to dress up,"Barry said.

Lucrative gamble

To make it to Miss America, a girl has to place first in the state pageant. To be in the running for the state crown, she has to "capture"- pageant lingo for win - a local contest. New Hampshire has 15, from Miss Lakes Region to Miss Berlin-Gorham Area. Some are restricted to residents of those areas, some are open to anyone in the state. Each is held once a year between June and February. The Miss New Hampshire pageant is in April. Last year, $71,000 was awarded at that competition alone.

"It's not a beauty pageant," said Jan Ferrrigno, who volunteers with Miss Rockingham County. "It's a scholarship pageant."

But Tina Gebhard, the director of Miss Winnipesaukee, said she understands why the contests have that reputation.

"These girls are gorgeous," she said.

To enter, contestants must be between the ages of 17 and 24 and live, work or attend school in New Hampshire. Other than that, there's a 21-page application and that's it. There's no entry fee or heavy duty shopping required: Most local directors have a stock of dresses and swimsuits to loan out, though most girls bring their own.

Each girl must pick a talent, usually singing or dancing, and a "platform," an issue she feels passionately about. They range from skin cancer awareness to music education. Barry's is SOS: Support Our Soldiers. The winning girl spends the next year volunteering for her cause.

The local pageants have seen a few adjustments this year. There are six categories in which the girls are judged: talent, interview, evening wear, casual wear, lifestyle and fitness (meaning swimsuit) and on-stage question. Previously, the 12-minute judges' interview, completed before the pageant, carried the most weight. Now, talent is worth the most. Swimsuit, which Miss New Hampshire director Bob Oxford said shows whether the girls are healthy, is still 10 percent of the overall score.

The way the Miss America pageants are judged differs markedly from how Miss USA tallies the scores. That competition is run by business tycoon Donald Trump and has half as many categories: Interview, swimsuit and evening wear. It costs money to enter, and the girls only get one local shot at the national competition. Barry describes it as the "glitzy side" of pageantry. Last year, she was first runner up in New Hampshire.

"It's mainly on how you look," she said.

But one day, Barry said, she'd like to win one of the local pageants - mostly for the prize money. This year, Miss Winnipesaukee, which rakes in cash by running bingo and poker games, gave $10,000 to the winner. The runners-up also got hefty checks, and each contestant received $500 for entering.

While not all the pageants are as lucrative, Barry said even $50 can help buy a textbook at school. She said she needs the money because, unlike the stereotypical spoiled beauty queen, she works at the same grocery store as her mother to help earn tuition money.

"My father left me," she said. "So I'm trying to pay for it myself."

Confident veteran

Intermittent mooing from the adjacent cows broke the flow of the Miss Stratham Fair evening gown competition. The girls sauntered onto the stage one by one to Journey's 1980s ballad "Faithfully," clad in form-fitting dresses punctuated by sparkles. Most of them wore pink.

In the middle of the parade, the fair loudspeaker chimed in to plug one of its sponsors: "Are you tired of your old sports equipment?"

It's easy to tell the new contestants from the pros who've been "in the system" for years. The veterans speak clearly and know the rules: Don't wear a skimpy string bikini, don't say "uh" and "um" when you answer questions, and shaking it in front of the judges won't always work. The first-timers seem more nervous; they don't walk as confidently, their clothes aren't as refined and they spit out whatever comes to mind.

When one girl was asked who she considered the most influential person today, her eyes lit up. "Shania Twain!" she said. "She's awesome!"

On stage, it's easy to tell Barry knows what she's doing. She looks poised, eager but not overeager, a bit sexy.

But she's changed her approach over the years and even sought out professional help. She's had several pageant coaches, and her mom solicits tips from past queens over the Internet. For Miss Stratham Fair, Barry switched her talent from tap dancing to hip hop. She's whittled down her platform from the broad topic of community service to focus on the military.

And she's not planning on leaving the pageant circuit anytime soon. Barry said she'll probably be at it until she's too old to compete, or until it stops being fun.

Being in pageants has boosted her confidence, she said. For example, in singing class this fall, Barry had to belt out "On the Good Ship Lollipop"three times, once like Shirley Temple, once like herself and once like a breathy Marilyn Monroe. Three years ago, Barry would never have had the guts.

"They (pageants) really helped me come out of my shy shell," she said. "Crown or no crown, I'll keep going."

(Melanie Asmar can be reached at 224-5301, ext. 321, or by e-mail at masmar@cmonitor.com.)

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