It’s everybody’s stage

California Glamour Kids specializes in giving all kids a chance to shine

BRIGHT LIGHTS FAMILY Above: Cal Glamour Kids owner Dee Dee Ortiz in the studio/dressing room with some of her adopted children, (from left) Monique, Brittany, Chelsea and Alyssa.

BRIGHT LIGHTS FAMILY Above: Cal Glamour Kids owner Dee Dee Ortiz in the studio/dressing room with some of her adopted children, (from left) Monique, Brittany, Chelsea and Alyssa.

Photo By Tom Angel

A few of the little girls look like miniature women. Dressed in an array of brightly colored costumes or puffy dresses, they could be on their way to a wedding or a big party. Some just look like well-scrubbed kids, trying not to fidget in their Sunday bests. Some have silk flowers pinned in their perfectly coiffed hair. They all flash whitened grins through their pink pouty lips.

The announcer’s voice over the PA is accompanied by upbeat show tune music, as this parade of extravagantly dressed children, ranging in age from babies carried by beaming mothers to teenaged girls with wide smiles and studied poise, and even a few young boys, crosses a makeshift stage at the Chico Elks Lodge.

In single file, they march slowly past a panel of judges seated to one side and flash smiles at the smattering of family members and friends who flank the catwalk in folding chairs, clapping and cheering them on as judges compare the children’s smiles, their hair, the way they walk, their clothing.

One young girl in this scene seems particularly nervous and a little out-of-place. She has longish sandy-blond hair and, behind thick glasses, her soft blue eyes don’t seem to meet anyone’s gaze. Though she walks with the same careful measured steps that the other kids take, there is none of the rehearsed confidence and grown-up playacting typically found at child beauty pageants.

You would never know there was anything different by the reaction of the cheering crowd, though, as this developmentally disabled child—and the handful of children like her mixed in with the contestants without disabilities—is treated to the same attention as everyone else.

This inclusiveness is a notable anomaly. After all, the first thing that pops into most people’s heads when they hear “child beauty pageant” is the name Jon-Benet Ramsey. It’s uncommon for such pageants to be so open.

The shy girl’s name is Brittany Ortiz. Her mother is Dee Dee Ortiz, the owner of California Glamour Kids, which organized the pageant. Brittany is 15 years old, although her short stature and slight frame, coupled with her hesitant manner, make her seem much younger.

Today, hanging around her mother’s office, she wears an oversized black Raiders sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers and tends to fade into the background next to her exuberant, sparkly 9-year-old sister, Alyssa.

Chelsea, Brittany and Monique help each other get prepped for their photo shoot.

Photo By Tom Angel

Dee Dee Ortiz adopted both girls. Brittany’s birth mother, she explains, drank heavily while she was pregnant, and her daughter has been diagnosed with fetal-alcohol syndrome. As a result, she is developmentally slower than other kids her age, and sometimes has difficulty with learning, memory, attention and problem solving.

Ortiz adopted Brittany and Alyssa when they were very young. She’s adopted five other children, some of whom also suffer from disabilities (Alyssa is one of three who do not), including a couple more fetal-alcohol cases and a girl with spina bifida. Five out of her seven adopted kids have participated in pageants, as have a few of her grandkids from her two older, biological children.

Brittany and Alyssa have been participating in pageants for the last several years, and both say that they enjoy the experience.

After a friend of the family and her teenaged daughter, who were regulars on the beauty pageant circuit, invited Ortiz and her adopted kids to get involved, the kids ended up having such a good time that they began participating regularly. As Ortiz began to realize the competitive nature of these events, she decided to put together her own local event where the focus was on participating more than on competing.

The events are very loose. The typical beauty pageant trappings—makeup, puffy dresses, tiaras—are all there, but so are kids in T-shirts and jeans or a Sacramento Kings Jersey.

After much word of mouth, she gathered enough interested parents and kids, and the scene began to grow. One event blossomed into regular pageants and the creation of California Glamour Kids.

The Glamour Kids shop houses a photography studio in addition to promoting the local child beauty pageants. Initially housed in her home, the business eventually needed its own space, so she rented an office on Mangrove Avenue, across the street from S&S Produce.

“With such a big family, I needed a separate space for the business,” Ortiz said.

She also rents a large storage facility where she keeps a whole wardrobe of children’s clothing, which she has collected over the years for the kids to wear in “competitions” (Ortiz prefers to use the word “participation” rather than competition, since the focus for her family, and for her business, is on having a good time, not on winning awards.)

Chico’s “CA Glamour Kids Ambassadors” at the 2004 Nationals in Santa Nella, Calif.

Courtesy Of CA Glamour Kids

Ortiz does admit that there are plenty of parents out there hoping to find professional work and public recognition for their children; she generally encourages them to participate in the bigger pageant circuits in Southern California—although, at a regional competition a couple years ago, a talent agent expressed interest in Alyssa. Ortiz made it clear that she is not looking for that kind of lifestyle for her family.

“Some of these parents are trying to live through their kids,” she commented.

Ortiz charges a fee for participating in her pageants, usually from $50-$160, depending upon the level of involvement, but she often gives scholarships to children whose families are unable to pay the entry fees. She points out that photography, costumes, and the cost of running the pageants themselves are usually financed out of her own pocket.

Ortiz made it clear that her pageants are open to all kids, whether they have special needs or not. They are all treated equally and all given the same amount of love and praise, whether they win or not.

It seems a little strange that Ortiz would choose to embrace something as potentially stressful as child beauty pageants as a pastime for a family with so many physical challenges, but her kids truly seem to be happy and to enjoy being part of the social atmosphere and the fun.

A friend of Ortiz’s, a social worker, commented on the fact that her special-needs kids seemed more socialized and well-adjusted than most kids their ages with similar disabilities. Ortiz says that participating in pageants has helped her kids feel more self-confident and more at ease in social situations. The pageants are a way for parents and kids to have fun and share experiences with other families.

Alyssa is especially bright and friendly, and she says that she loves to sing as well as model. Her favorite songs are slow country tunes, especially those by Allison Krauss.

Asked if she ever gets nervous, getting up in front of people, she grins and says, “Nope. But,” she adds, with a mischievous giggle, “one time, I did forget the words.” Her mom explains that this happened at a state level competition, and that Alyssa had done a good job of just dancing to the karaoke CD until she got to a place where she remembered what she was supposed to sing.

When I asked Brittany what she likes most about being in pageants, she said, after a pause, “meeting new people, and making friends.” I asked her if she sang, like her sister, and she shook her head, and a wide-eyed nod was her only response to a question about whether she ever gets nervous. She shared that she is a ninth-grader at Pleasant Valley High and that she hopes her mom will consider putting on a pageant with a hip-hop or rap music theme.

Ortiz really does have the best interests of her kids at heart. The very active, loving and stable family atmosphere is a wonderful way to help strengthen the lives of children suffering from such developmental disabilities. Ortiz and her husband, an in-home hospice provider, have made caring for their children their full-time job, treating their special-needs kids with a lot of love and attention and allowing them to live as much like other kids as possible.

Despite the negative image of the industry, and maybe even some questionable exposure to some of the beauty industry’s unhealthful ideals, there’s no question that by providing these kids a chance to shine on stage, Ortiz has given confidence to children who otherwise probably wouldn’t have experienced it.