Model toddler takes win in stride

With a bright smile and two victories, towheaded tyke is headed to pageant in Atlanta


When you're Tyler Bradford Stevens, life is full of fruit-juice wishes and Goldfish-cracker dreams.

Yes, young Tyler has been living it up since winning the title of "Tiny King" in the state finals of the Sunburst Beauty Pageant and Baby Contest last weekend.

Truth be told, Tyler has been doing pretty much the same things - many involving toy trucks and plastic drums - that he would be doing had he not won first place in his age group.

The 16-month-old from Abingdon has no clue that his state-level victory means he will travel to Atlanta in August to walk the stage at the annual national competition put on by Sunburst Beauty Pageants Inc.

Tyler is more in tune with the fact that his beloved juice and cheddar-flavored crackers, combined with macaroni and cheese, make up his favorite meal.

"We don't have any problems getting him to eat," said Tyler's mother, BillieLee Stevens.

At about 27 inches, Tyler is tall for his age. At less than 24 pounds, he is in the lower percentile for weight, she said.

"It's all the exercise," said Tyler's father, Mark. "He's always doing something to have fun."

The Stevenses said fun is precisely why they are entering their only child in Sunburst events - even though the cost nearly stopped them.

Sunburst, one of a number of companies that runs child pageants, has been putting on events across the country for about 26 years, typically at malls. Contestants - or their parents - pay an entrance fee to participate. Winners and runners-up at the local events get their $200 entry fee covered for the state event. But they still must pay to put the contestant's pictures into books published in conjunction with the state pageant.

State winners have their $450 entry fee covered for the finals in Atlanta but again are on their own to cover the cost of getting pictures into a book published for the top pageant, and for travel expenses.

Sunburst awards prizes for age groups ranging from younger than age 1 to up to 27.

When the Stevenses first learned of a local pageant at the Harford Mall in January, they expected they might have to pay about $15 to enter Tyler.

The actual cost was about $95 - a near deal-breaker for a couple who said they are operating on a month-to-month budget.

"We weren't going to do it," said Mark Stevens. "I had actually ripped up the application, but my sister-in-law talked me into it. She said, `It will be an experience. And you know he's going to win.'"

Tyler's bright grin and piercing blue eyes make for a killer-cute combination.

Top it off with a head of spiky, blond hair and you've got a kid to whom strangers in stores are constantly trying to give cookies and balloons.

Tyler's hair was darker when he was born. And his nose was crooked for his first couple months.

"We were worried it wasn't going to pop back in place," his mother said.

It did. But then again, a crooked nose seems to work for one of Hollywood's hottest actors, Owen Wilson, who portrayed a male model in the movie Zoolander.

Tyler's parents are fans of that flick, in which Ben Stiller also plays a model with a repertoire of expressions or "looks" that all appear identical.

Tyler has a variety of "looks" in his arsenal. In less than an hour in his living room last week, he cruised through a shy grin, a beaming hello, a perplexed stare and a rather flashy "O" mouth, typically brought on by firetruck sirens.

"If he didn't win, we wouldn't be doing it because it gets expensive," said Mark Stevens, who is working in construction. Tyler's mother works at a thrift shop.

By winning at the Harford Mall, the Stevenses were covered for entrance fees for the state competition, which was held last weekend in Glen Allen, Va.

Winning the event means the Stevenses have $450 worth of entrance fees waived for the Atlanta competition dubbed "international" by Sunburst because it involves contestants from Canada as well as 43 states.

The event is not as exclusive as it might sound. Contestants at all levels can enter even if they didn't win a previous competition - they just have to fork over the entire cost.

"Last year, one of our state of Maryland queens went on to internationals and won the highest level there," said Pat Welch, Sunburst's director for Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.

That girl had not won at the mall where she first competed, Welch said. But in the end, between state and international pageants, she took home a prize package worth about $11,000, Welch said.

So far, Tyler has come home with some trophies - one of them more than twice his height - a collection of purple crowns, some sashes, a toy and a $250 savings bond.

But even families of winners such as Tyler have to pay to get contestants' pictures in thick books that accompany the competitions. The more pages you buy, the more exposure you get, the Stevenses said. In total, the Stevenses and their friends and family who kicked in for sponsorships spent $550 on the black-and-white state book, Mark Stevens said.

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