Before the screen door can clang shut, Jessica Kitzmiller strides toward you, brown curls bouncing atop her head, dimples like parentheses around her pouty lips, a hint of blush on each round cheek.
"Nice to meet you," she pipes up cheerfully, extending her hand for a soft shake.
Then it's back to business: a photo session. To a beauty queen, a good picture is as important as a long runway. Jessica nixes the cross-legged pose suggested by a photographer, opting instead for something more informal.
"She has a personality all her own," her mother, Velvet, explains.
Once the camera is loaded, the former Miss Fantasia truly comes to life. She grins as a rhinestone crown grips her scalp. Click. She holds up one of her more than 35 trophies and giggles. Click. Click. She cocks her head coyly to one side, showing that special something that makes her, in the eyes of one pageant judge, "national material." Click. Click. Click.
The camera pursues, the subject complies. For 30 minutes, it goes on. And then the sweetness turns sour.
"I'm tired," she complains to the photographer. "It's time for you to go."
With that, it ends. He packs up his supplies and she leaves the limelight.
Heaving a sigh, she grabs a pink-and-blue blanket, hugs a tattered baby doll and curls up on the sofa.
"One o'clock is nap time," her mother explains.
And within minutes, Jessica Dawn Kitzmiller -- also known as 3-year-old Baby Miss Maryland -- is off in the land of nod.
As she sleeps, her mother and father explain how in their daughter's 3 years and 10 months, she has amassed enough titles, tiaras, plaques and banners to fill the hallway of the family's Pasadena home and spill over into Jessica's playroom, where Dr. Seuss storybooks vie for space with trophies, some of which are taller than she is.
"You always want everything for your child," says Ms. Kitzmiller, 27. "My father ran me in and out of bars. I didn't have a great little girl upbringing. Now everything's for her. We don't have a savings account. She does. . . . I don't know what keeps us going other than the fact that we hope that she'll be recognized by someone someday somehow."
On Sunday, she's likely to be recognized at the Children's Fair at the Timonium Fairgrounds, where she'll be singing during a 15-minute routine. (See box for details.) But on this day, due partly to the flu and the exhaustion of a photo shoot, Jessica won't sing. And she won't dance.
fTC For her, a life in pageants began before she could even walk or talk. A relative suggested to Ms. Kitzmiller that she enter the photogenic baby in the American Cancer Society's Daffodil Pageant, and at 10 months, Jessica became Miss Daffodil Sweetheart.
Since then, titles have come in like a toddler's teeth. First runner-up, Little Miss Chesapeake Bay 1988. Maryland Pretty Baby U.S.A. 1989. And along the way, her parents have learned to separate the
pageants that are rigged or rip-offs from the legitimate ones.
"There's a lot of good and a lot of bad in them," says her mother. She recalls one pageant where they paid a hefty entrance fee only to find out the grand prize was a $2 slap bracelet.
But the biggest achievement so far is Baby Miss Maryland 1990, a title that was bestowed upon Jessica last May by the Young American Miss International pageant organization. Since Maryland has no state director, Jessica competed against 100 2- and 3-year-olds through the mail, sending her photos and resume to the national committee.
On it, you'll find her age, weight (26 pounds), height (35 1/2 inches), special interests (singing and dancing) and short-term objectives ("To obtain the Young American Beautiful Baby title at the 1990 National Competition in Florida and to enjoy her summer.") There's also a mention of her social involvement, the work she does visiting senior citizens in Anne Arundel County nursing homes.
All of those factors converged to bring her the local crown, says Nanci Frazer, owner and national director of the Bryan, Ohio-based organization. On a score sheet, Jessica's neatness, originality and "grammer" were rated as excellent by the three judges, one a former Miss Virginia.
To Jessica, however, the formula for competing is less complicated. "You look at the judges and then you smile at them and then you win," she says.
Winning the title of Baby Miss Maryland brought her a free trip to Walt Disney World and entry into the national pageant in Florida last summer.
There, however, things went awry. During the swimwear portion of the competition, Jessica tugged at the elastic trim of her suit that had crept up her bottom and snapped it away in distinctly un-Young-American-Miss style.
That ill-timed gesture aside, the judges liked her and awarded her second runner-up in the print model division for her professional portfolio. "You get kids who are naughty," says Ms. Frazer. "We've had kids come in who slap and kick you. They'll throw temper tantrums. But once in a while you meet a child who's sweet and open. That's Jessica."