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GUY RAZ, Host:

May is beauty pageant season across the country. In the last few weeks, hundreds of teenage girls put on ball gowns, high heels, and lots of lipstick to compete for their chance to become Miss Spring Queen, Miss Bay County or Miss Tri-Valley.

Now, the rumor is there's a lot of backstabbing that happens behind the scenes. So Planet Money producer Caitlin Kenney went to a pageant in Fernandina Beach, Florida, to find out the truth.

RAZ: Audience, are you ready?

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

CAITLIN KENNEY: I know it might sound ridiculous, but a small-town pageant is like the first audition for adulthood. It's not your peers judging you; it's complete strangers.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

RAZ: OK. Let's meet the contestants for Miss Shrimp Festival 2011 - right now.

BETHANY: Hi. My name is Bethany...

KENNEY: The girls march onstage in brightly colored prom gowns, and it's hard to tell them apart. It's a blur of big smiles, National Honor Society, and so- and-so enjoys going to the beach.

BETHANY: How many girls are in this thing? There are 27 girls in the pageant this year. But like everything else in high school, if you know their reputations, you know who to pay attention to. Even the contestants themselves seem to agree on the two front-runners.

RAZ: Emily Garvin. She's pretty much like the Pittsburgh Steelers of the pageant - like, you know she's going to do good.

RAZ: Sarah Parker. She has that one thing about her - when you walk into a room and she's just like, bam.

KENNEY: Emily and Sarah. Sarah and Emily. Sarah Parker, the other contestants tell me, is the most popular girl in school. This year, she was homecoming queen, and she takes me into her bedroom to show me the crown, proudly displayed on a bookshelf.

M: This is my homecoming court crown. So, won that. It's really cute. Yay!

KENNEY: Sarah's main competition, Emily Garvin, is the sophisticate. She spent her sophomore year abroad in Croatia, and she has a different type of award on display in her bedroom: ribbons from a French competition.

M: I competed in a French play and got an excellente - and a reading test, and I got a bon.

KENNEY: The pageant falls just weeks before the girls are set to graduate from high school, and it sort of feels like the ultimate showdown between Miss Popularity - Sarah - and Mademoiselle Excellente - Emily. The first event is a one- on-one interview with the judges. Sarah, the homecoming queen, told me she was freaking out. Emily did the pageant last year, and she said she wasn't nervous at all. But maybe she should have been.

RAZ: Do you think that Miley Cyrus is a good or bad influence on young girls, and why?

M: I do not watch television, and the only magazine I read is Forbes magazine, so I am not as familiar with Miley Cyrus as I should be, apparently. Sorry.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KENNEY: So what did the judges think? Here's one of them, Jeff Bohn.

M: Emily was probably the biggest disappointment, once you started asking her questions and she started answering them.

KENNEY: Sarah, on the other hand, impressed the judges.

RAZ: If you could change anything that's going on in the country right now, what would you change?

M: Definitely energy crisis. I feel like everyone needs to really put their heads together, find some new ways to save the environment, you know, use less oil, like, less electricity because...

KENNEY: Again, here's judge Jeff Bohn.

M: She, to me, is head and shoulders above most of them. Yeah.

RAZ: Are you ready to see our contestants again?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

KENNEY: Back on stage, the girls chat nervously as the judges tally up their scores. Finally, it's time for the winner to be announced.

RAZ: Our new Miss Shrimp Festival 2011 is ...

KENNEY: The girls on stage whisper to themselves the names they expect to hear. Everyone is saying Emily, Sarah. But...

RAZ: Kalynn Higginbotham.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

KENNEY: And a whole row of girls in brightly colored dresses turn to look at the skinny one dressed in black.

MS: I actually didn't know that they said my name, because I was calling out somebody else's that I thought was going to win. And then they're like, you won. And I'm like, oh, my gosh.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, CROWD CHATTER)

KENNEY: Almost everyone was surprised that the crown didn't go to Emily or Sarah. They didn't take first runner-up or second runner-up, either. And you could tell they were disappointed. Sarah left immediately after the pageant. She had to go to her job at the ice cream shop down the street. Emily won Miss Congeniality, but she doesn't sound so congenial talking about Kalynn, the girl who beat her.

M: She does not come off as a person who's got everything together, their life planned out - which is not the best thing when you are 17 and 18 years old. And she's got a little quirkiness to her and a little bit of a juvenile side, and I think that she's got a lot of learning to do.

KENNEY: It's an odd thing to say because there's not much that screams juvenile about Kalynn. She's taking college classes while in high school, and she seems really dedicated.

M: I plan to triple up on sciences, double up on math, and pursue a career in pharmaceuticals.

KENNEY: And this is what makes a small-town beauty pageant so different than any other type of prize in high school: Unlike being named cheerleading captain or homecoming queen, the crown doesn't always go to the most popular. Up on stage, in front of the judges, Kalynn can be whoever she wants.

M: It's easier to impress three strangers because they don't know anything about you beforehand. And at high school, things are petty and people, you know, people say stuff about other people that aren't true. So it's easier to talk to somebody who's never met you before than it is to talk to somebody who may not have met you but has, you know, heard of you.

KENNEY: Whatever people in Fernandina Beach, Florida, thought of Kalynn before, it doesn't matter now. She's Miss Shrimp Festival 2011.

Caitlin Kenney, NPR News.

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