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The princess maker

Ms. Dee is on a mission to save the world through better child pageantry. It's not about perfection, and it's not about winning - though both are nice.

By MARY SPICUZZA
Published July 24, 2005


SPRING HILL - Disaster arrived at the home of the lovely Ms. Molly Storts just days before the Sweet Pea Pageants 2005 National Finals.

Molly, 13, is almost always a contender for one of the top tiaras at a Sweet Pea pageant: princess, queen or overall winner. And she hoped to make a strong showing at nationals.

But her dreams - and just as importantly, her mother's - seemed to slip away when Molly's custom-made, light blue dress was delivered to her Spring Hill home.

The delicate, rhinestone-laden top and long, flowing skirt had been packed inside a small box. It had blue dye stains all over it.

Molly and her mother, Karrilyn, examined the wreckage. Karrilyn's friend Judy Piccinini, also a veteran pageant mom, rushed to the house to help.

"You can't send her out to nationals in this dress," Piccinini told Karrilyn. "You're sending her out on a suicide mission!"

They debated ways to save the dress. They considered yanking Molly from the competition. They vowed to find a lawyer.

Then the doorbell rang.

As if on cue, DiAna Carrasquillo - known as Ms. Dee among her models - swept into the living room. Called by Karrilyn about the dress disaster, Ms. Dee wanted to assess the damage firsthand.

"Hi, pretty girl," she said to Molly. "Let me see what you've got."

Ms. Dee solved the crisis with one word.

Rhinestones.

"Glitter, shine," she said. "It'll be pretty."

Karrilyn Storts, calmer now, admitted they had briefly considered not competing.

"That's ridiculous; that's not even an option," Ms. Dee said. "When she's on the runway, she shines. Just let Molly be Molly."

After Ms. Dee left, the women set up a rhinestone-gluing station at the kitchen table. Friends came over to help, and soon they were all giggling and telling tales from pageants past.

"Actually, it's kind of fun to add to the dress," Molly's mother said.

Another pageant catastrophe averted by Ms. Dee.

* * *

Ms. Dee is a butt-kicking New York Puerto Rican modeling coach on a mission to save the world through better child beauty pageantry.

She refuses to slather her young models, who range in age from birth to 16, in tons of makeup. She doesn't allow them to wear fake teeth or fake hair, both staple items among the die-hard pageant types whom Ms. Dee calls the "circuit kids."

Most children perform predictable song and dance numbers in the talent competitions, but Ms. Dee's students typically bust out hip-hop dance routines to Destiny's Child.

In a world where Barbies reign supreme, Ms. Dee is fighting to keep it real. As real as she can keep it, that is, considering she's often dealing with 8-year-olds in evening gowns.

"I don't want the kids to think they're all JonBenets," said Ms. Dee, the mother of two sons, one of whom competes in pageants. "I hate that. I hate that! It's not just about the pageants. It's about etiquette."

Ms. Dee - who does her pageant consulting out of her Spring Hill dance studio, DiAna's Dance Express - teaches everything from table manners to manicures, modeling to musical theater.

For her, pageantry is not about perfection. It's about encouraging children, especially young girls, to have confidence in themselves.

"I want them to be grounded," she said. "I want that they're not shy. That they're confident they can read an essay in class, they can do job interviews, college interviews."

Ms. Dee teaches her modeling students to have the courage to go out onstage, give it their best shot, learn from their mistakes and have fun. She charges $28 a month.

Ms. Dee does it all without taking any guff from any of the "whackadoo" pageant mothers.

Pageant competition "can totally take you by storm," she said. "If you're not grounded and you don't have a life, you could be at a pageant two to three times a month. You could revolve your life around pageantry."

Ms. Dee's big challenge, then, was to get her models to the Sweet Pea nationals, dress them up like princesses, and somehow help them - and their moms - stay grounded.

* * *

Ms. Dee's dance studio is a purple-and-yellow-walled haven tucked away in a small strip mall just off U.S. 19. Amid the long stretches of chain restaurants and big box stores of Hernando County's suburbia, DiAna's Dance Express offers an alternate reality: a large number of ponytails per capita, intensely involved moms, and a staff and clientele relentlessly focused on doing well.

Not to mention an endless supply of cookies and fruit snacks.

Inside, Ms. Dee pushes her models to do their best. But she also teaches them to support each other and act like ladies and gentlemen.

Clap for the competition at pageants. Don't cry if you don't win. And for the moms, don't fight with the judges over your children's scores.

Lots of private companies run child beauty pageants. This year, Ms. Dee and her models voted to compete in Sweet Pea Pageants. Sweet Pea is a small, Florida-based line for children up to 16. Some pageant lines send the losers home empty-handed, but in a Sweet Pea competition every child wins something: a plaque, trophy, tiara or crown.

"Competing in a pageant should be a positive experience for the contestant," Sweet Pea national director Cindy Doane wrote in her welcome-to-nationals announcement.

Still, the kids always know who was judged best, and Ms. Dee began preparing her models' families for the cold realities of a national pageant months in advance. She wanted them to realize that things can get ugly, even at a well-intentioned competition.

Pageant dresses may mysteriously disappear. Models' rooms might be trashed by catty moms determined to make sure their little girls become Sweet Pea princesses. These things happen.

Ms. Dee is also candid about the costs. Head shots and centerfold photographs alone can cost thousands of dollars, as can proper pageant gowns. Add several hundred more for professional hairstylists and makeup artists.

Professional training? A fashion consultant? These things add up.

"You just can't go to nationals with a Sears and Roebuck dress," Ms. Dee said.

As her modeling class made initial plans for nationals, studio parents vowed to be on their best behavior.

There had been an incident.

After the Little Miss-Mr. Octoberfest Sweet Pea Pageant, Ms. Dee's studio had had a mini-meltdown. One of the mothers complained that the pageant had been fixed and confronted the family of the winning 4-year-old. The little girl ended up in tears, horrified, thinking she didn't deserve her crown.

Yelling matches erupted. Angry phone calls ensued. There was talk of a restraining order.

Ms. Dee confronted the instigating mom.

"I told her, "This is how I pay my bills, pay for my kids. You have to stop!' " Ms. Dee said.

The mother left the studio.

With the drama behind them, Ms. Dee and her models focused on the basics. Beauty. Sportswear. Outfit of choice. American wear. Swimwear. Talent.

In the end, five of her models made it all the way to the nationals' runway.

One was her 11-year-old son, Carlos.

Carlos is quite possibly the most fashionable preteen male in Hernando County. His pageant colors are red and black, and he wears them well, whether he's working his rhinestone-strap cowboy hat or break dancing in sportswear.

One might expect Ms. Dee to go easier on her son in teaching him the finer points of etiquette and modeling. That would be a mistake.

"I swear, I'm going to backhand him in two seconds," Ms. Dee said one day as he struggled to flip a jacket over his shoulder while practicing his runway walk. "It's not supposed to look like you're throwing somebody over your shoulder. It's supposed to be smooth!"

* * *

On a Tuesday afternoon, just four days before nationals, Ms. Dee drilled Molly Storts on the basics of her still-rather-shaky tap dance routine.

Glittery gold top hat in hand, tap shoes on, Molly tried to focus. But she was clearly struggling.

"Molly, find your center," Ms. Dee said. "You're falling back."

Frustrated, Molly flopped down onto the dance floor.

"I've fallen and I can't get up," she wailed.

Ms. Dee walked over to the stereo and restarted Molly's talent routine song, That's Dancing.

"Come on, like you know it, like you like it, like you're going to win!" Ms. Dee told her.

"Dee, give her this much of a break," pleaded a mom in the room.

Ms. Dee sucked in her cheeks. She sighed. She has been teaching Molly for six years, since she signed up for Ms. Dee's old cheerleading class at the YMCA, so she knows her potential. But she also knows Molly's still just a kid.

"Mol, what are we doing?" she said. "Take five. Go get a juice or something."

Ms. Dee worries about developing whackadoo pageant mom tendences. She has never forgotten witnessing one circuit mother flipping out at her daughter for asking for a second hot dog.

"The mom started yelling at her and saying, "You're fat enough,' " she said, shaking her head.

Ms. Dee scolds her models for skipping meals.

"Did you eat?" she asked a 14-year-old model, Naobi, after she stumbled during her hip-hop routine.

"A Pop-Tart," Naobi answered.

That was it. It was nearly 4 p.m.

"Naobi, you have to eat. You can't do this on a Pop-Tart!" Ms. Dee told her.

As much as she teaches her models that pageantry isn't about winning, Ms. Dee's preparations for nationals revealed her competitive streak.

"You don't win by luck, you win by work. Does everybody understand?" she told her models. "And bring extra bobbies, extra safety pins. Does anybody have questions?"

* * *

Ms. Dee pushes her students hard because she knows it takes more than a pretty face and big dreams to make it as a professional model or dancer.

Ms. Dee, 42, was modeling by age 17. She started her first dance studio at 19.

"I was Miss Bacardi Rum, Stoli Vodka, Captain Morgan Rum," she said. "A lot of liquor and fashion."

Her modeling career never led her into pageantry, but Ms. Dee began entering her younger sister, Vanessa Bozman, into competitions. Vanessa went on to become a runner-up for Miss New York State. Ms. Dee calls her "my claim to fame."

For a while, Ms. Dee had a dance studio in Long Island. She also owned a modeling agency that provided entertainers from party starters to deejays. She herself was once paid to take Downtown Julie Brown out for a night of revelry. She got paid to dance at clubs.

"We would be dancing on a platform. They made it high so the guys couldn't get us," she said.

The guys were always trying to get them.

"I was going to audition for the Rockettes, but there was this one guy who was talking about good-looking young girls, and if they do the right thing," she said, grimacing. "Had that not happened, I probably would have gotten to dance."

She met her husband, Carlos, when he came to interview for a job as a gymnastics instructor at her Long Island studio. They married and had their first son, Carlos Jr.

They later moved to Spring Hill for family reasons. Ms. Dee had vowed not to open another dance studio. But after her son, Antonio, was born and diagnosed with Down's syndrome, the family faced high medical bills.

And she missed running a studio.

"At first, we opened a studio out of my garage at my house. We did graffiti on the walls," she said. "We just got so big, my house got trashed."

She now has a studio large enough for her students and for the gymnastics and martial arts students Carlos Sr. teaches. He's known as "Mr. C."

Often the entire family is there. Antonio, 6, likes to hang out in the back room and watch his favorite show, Barney & Friends.

Now she even has her own DiAna's Dance Express van. Last month, students prepared it for the trip to Cocoa Beach for nationals by decorating the windows with bubbly writing that read, "Good luck models!"

* * *

The DoubleTree Hotel hosting the Sweet Pea pageant was crawling with the competition days before last month's nationals.

Little girls, all wearing perfectly put-together outfits complete with stylish handbags, milled around the halls. Their mothers walked behind them, wheeling massive carts stocked with beauty supplies, hair products and pageant clothes. For Ms. Dee's models, multiple crises erupted early on the big day.

Naobi hated her hair.

Molly hated her hair, too.

"What do you want me to do?" Molly's mom asked, trying not to panic as her daughter's Barbie hairstyle failed to flip at the ends.

"I don't know," Molly said, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Just fix it!"

They tried to call Ms. Dee, to no avail. She'd already gone to the pageant hall and couldn't leave - not even for a hair emergency.

Still, Molly looked like a princess by the time she put on her gown and lined up for the beauty competition.

"Have fun and don't go too fast," Ms. Dee told her models. "Your hair looks beautiful."

She quickly reminded them, "Boobies, put 'em on a shelf!"

Translation: Stand up tall, chest out.

Once onstage, Molly transformed. She no longer seemed like a self-conscious teen. She was a poised, polished model.

She smiled. She struck poses. She strutted in perfect loops around the runway, a maneuver known as the "Miss America circle."

And for talent, she tapped her heart out, despite struggling with a slippery floor.

"Where's my Molly?" Ms. Dee called out after the competition. When she tracked her down, she said, "I am so proud of you. Your showmanship was so good. You kept going, and your whole demeanor was impeccable."

After hours of exhausting pageantry, Ms. Dee and her models had to wait until the next day's crowning ceremony to learn the results of the competition.

By morning, most were showing signs of anxiety. Parents, children and countless friends and relatives packed into the pageant hall, which was lined with rows of glistening trophies.

"I'm stressed out," Ms. Dee said, devouring a muffin. "I'm sweating."

Naobi and Carlos won awards for Best Dressed. Molly won Best Smile.

"Mother," she said, presenting her plaque to her mom.

The day had its disappointments. Neither Molly nor any of Ms. Dee's models won the biggest trophies or tiaras. But they held their own. In the end, Molly, Carlos and Ashley won overall in their age divisions. Naobi was crowned queen. And Kylee came in fifth runner-up.

They took it well, unlike some of the veteran pageant moms around them.

"I hope she doesn't win anything," one mother told her family members while glaring at her daughter. "Because that's the effort she put in."

Each time a winner was announced, Ms. Dee celebrated for her models. She cheered, clapped and jumped out of her chair.

"Woo! Woo! Woo!" she chanted, pumping her well-toned arm in the air.

Between awards, she paused to carefully apply lip gloss to her girls.

"Ms. Dee, it's already over," Molly said. "Why do we have to fix the lips?"

"Because, Molly," Ms. Dee told her, dabbing pink gloss on Molly's pursed lips.

It can never hurt to look like a princess.

- Mary Spicuzza can be reached at mspicuzza@sptimes.com or 352 848-1432.

Times researchers contributed to this report.