• By now, the surreal videotapes have become hauntingly familiar. Look at the face: the huge, inviting mascaraed eyes, the fluttering false lashes, the layers of professionally applied makeup, the highlighted, upswept hair. Look at the clothes: the hand-stitched gowns, the Princess Di chapeaus, the high heels. Then do a double take over the teensy stick-figure bodies and the immature voices belting out God Bless America and Tomorrow. Like some human optical illusion, JonBenet Ramsey and her besequinned fellow beauty-pageant contestants are not in fact fully developed adults. They are pint-size little women often done up like trick ponies.

    Nearly three weeks into the investigation of the murder of six-year-old JonBenet, the Little Miss Colorado whose battered body was found in the basement of her parent's Boulder home the day after Christmas, the mystery of her death has only become more confusing. Boulder police have not named a suspect, while JonBenet's parents, John and Patricia, are now communicating with investigators only through their lawyers and a media consultant. And as a side effect of the intense scrutiny the case is receiving, JonBenet's world--the glittering, multimillion-dollar world of children's beauty pageants--has been thrust onto a stage of its own.

    JonBenet was a veteran of dozens of contests, a confident and adorable pixie who kept scrapbooks documenting her pageant appearances. Those who saw her perform say she was a force to be reckoned with. "She was such a natural," says LaDonna Griego, director of the Colorado program for the All Star Kids organization, based in Dallas. "But she was untouched by it. When JonBenet won, she was just as giddy as the first time, and she was just as happy, it seemed, to be an alternate. At the Christmas pageant, she sat there and just said to herself, 'Please call my name.' When they called it, her face lit up."

    For JonBenet and her mother, Patricia Ramsey, a former Miss West Virginia, the contests may have been good fun. For pageant organizers, they often mean big bucks. Throughout the country, especially in California and the South, a complex network of pageant systems, as they are called, make up the circuit, with pageants sponsored by the likes of Hawaiian Tropic and Beauty Unlimited held in shopping malls and hotel ballrooms. According to Ted Cohen, editor of the International Directory of Pageants, there are about 3,000 pageants a year in the U.S., 500 of which cater to the preteen-and-under set. Children could compete every weekend, if they and their parents had the energy and resources. "There's a new pageant popping up all the time," says V. J. LaCour, publisher of Pageant Life, a Sacramento quarterly with a circulation of 60,000. "The reason for their existence is money. If the pageant makes a profit, it will continue. If not, it's gone tomorrow." Cohen says organizers of the larger statewide contests clear at least $100,000 per pageant.

    The profits come from basic entrance fees, which can run as high as a few hundred dollars, with extra registration fees charged for each optional event, such as modeling or talent. Organizers also sell pageant jewelry and publish journals that earn money through advertising. And before the parents are done, they have usually shelled out hundreds more for costumes (in the better pageants they must be handmade, not off the rack), makeup, voice or dance lessons, pageant consultants and travel.

    The potential rewards for all these outlays of money and time are tempting. While some contests merely offer trophies or teddy bears as prizes, others award cars, cash or scholarship money. A pageant based in Florida, Sunburst U.S.A. International, gives away more than $1 million in prizes every year. At age six, Lisa Iverson is already "Miss American Beauty Queen of Hearts," "Children of the World Supreme Winner," "U.S.A. National Scholarship Little Miss," Hawaiian Tropic "Superstar Photogenic," Hawaiian Tropic "Hollywood Babe" and "Miss American Starlet Fashion Model." She has won enough money to pay for college.

    And then there's potential celebrity. Industry insiders believe JonBenet was being groomed for greater things--talk-show appearances, modeling gigs, commercials, even television sitcom and movie roles. The California contests are particularly popular because talent scouts and casting agents often use them to search for new faces. Six-year-old Randi Anderson, a "Miss Citrus Heights," "Golden Carousel National Queen," "Universal Miss Supreme Beauty," and "Miss American Beauty" who has been on the circuit for only a year and a half, already has a thriving modeling career, and has had her face on the cover of Sacramento magazine.

    The contests raise troubling questions, though, about whether they are ultimately for the benefit of the child--or the parent. Cohen, who has judged hundreds of events, has seen the pushiest of stage parents ruin the event for a child, hollering or even hitting her for not performing well. "A lot of these parents are so serious about it that they take away all the pleasure from the kids," Cohen said. "If the child loses, they feel like they let the parent down." LaCour too has seen it all. "I've seen mothers take young girls right off the stage before the judging results even come in and yell at them in the bathroom about blowing it. I've even seen a mother yelling at her kid, and then the child wins the pageant. All of a sudden the child becomes a little angel."

    But many parents insist it is the child (usually a girl, although there are "Little Beau" events for boys) who is lured by the limelight. When Randi Anderson entered her first pageant, at age four, "she was so shy that when the other girls came out she put her head down," says her mother Pattie. "She didn't win the competition, and she was very upset with herself. My husband said to her, 'You don't have to do this anymore.' She looked up and said, 'But I want to do it.'" Before Lisa Iverson could even walk, she would crawl onto the hearth and hoist herself up on the fireplace in their Tehechapi, California, home and perform--and she would get angry when her audience's attention wandered. In her early pageants, judges couldn't get her off the stage. Lisa is now a member of the Screen Actor's Guild.

    There is certainly no evidence that JonBenet was performing against her will--and judges say it is alarmingly obvious when a child does not want to be onstage. Indeed, those who saw JonBenet compete say the child was a natural--spirited and spontaneous. One of the events JonBenet was preparing for before her murder was sponsored by Amerikids, a nonprofit youth development group based in Denver. JonBenet and nine other girls ages five to 18 planned to dance next month at the local Ronald McDonald charity ball. "JonBenet and her mother were here every week to practice," says Suzie Dolan, the event's organizer. "They dedicated a lot of time to the performing group, but it's not what you see on TV--the pageant stuff. People need to know that what you see on TV is not what JonBenet was like. It wasn't just beauty stuff. She was just a regular kid. She wanted to be an Olympic skater. She loved the interaction with the other girls."

    Parents and pageant organizers also claim that competing dramatically enhances a young child's self-confidence. "I started with my daughter, who was beautiful but shy," says Griego. "She became much more outgoing. But the real difference was in my son, who was very shy and never walked with his head up. Now he's a totally different person. Very confident."

    And in many ways the little girls who look strangely like little adults act grown up as well. "The children who participate in these contests are extremely intelligent as well as extremely attractive," says LaCour. "They can hold a conversation with anybody. They're quick thinkers; they have to be--they have to know how to alter a long-practiced routine if someone ahead of them has just done what they were planning to do. They have what's known in the industry as the 'whole package.'" JonBenet Ramsey may have had that but, notes LaCour, "There are hundreds more just like her."