There was not another little girl in America with her name. JonBenét--a combination of her father's first and middle names, John and Bennett--was more of a title created just for her, similar to those of the four daughters of her mother's best friend who also bore classy Francophile names. At home she was called Johnni-B.
JonBenét Ramsey entered the world on August 6, 1990, in Atlanta's Northside Hospital, weighing six pounds, nine ounces. She was able to fall asleep easily with a bottle and the background noise of a television set, but she also had a grumpy side, and her grandmother would recall that after her second birthday, JonBenét could indeed be a Terrible Two. At three and a half, she still regularly drank her milk from the bottle.
The family moved from Georgia to Colorado, into a huge house at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, after her first birthday. Her lavishly decorated bedroom was originally built for her two much older stepsisters, Beth and Melinda, but a double tragedy made it hers. Beth was killed in an automobile accident, and JonBenét's mother was diagnosed with cancer.
The little girl was moved into the bigger bedroom to be closer to her mother, who, ravaged by chemical treatments, temporarily gave up sleeping in the master bedroom in favor of one more convenient to a bathroom. Mother and daughter were right next door. Her room was so warm that even on the coldest winter night, when the outside temperature would dip below zero, JonBenét would kick off her covers and sleep with only a sheet and blanket.
Her education began with early home schooling and then a church preschool program but did not stop at the classroomdoor. The little girl traveled widely, to New York several times and as far away as Italy. She was a member of Daisy Troop 2349 of the Girl Scouts in Boulder.
Summers were spent at a sprawling white house that had been expensively remodeled in Charlevoix, Michigan, where JonBenét loved to swim on the tire at the bottom of the hill, swim in the lake, go rollerblading and biking, and be a tomboy who didn't care about getting dirt under her fingernails.
Her hair, which would go dishwater dirty during the Colorado winter, would blaze back blond in the Michigan sunshine, with some help from a bottle, and she wore it in a ponytail or a braid. Her favorite foods were macaroni and cheese and fresh fruit, and she loved pineapple.
The entrance of JonBenét into the peculiar and competitive world of children's beauty pageants was destined from the very start. Her mom, Patsy Ramsey, and her aunt, Pam Paugh, had both won the Miss West Virginia crown and competed for Miss America. JonBenét seemed to have what it took to carry on that family tradition. Patsy and her mother, Nedra, were inspired to put JonBenét into pageants during a visit to a Little Miss America contest in 1994, and a career was set.
JonBenét was only four years old, not yet in kindergarten, when she hit the circuit, and the judges immediately knew that the sparkling beginner in the white dress still needed a lot of work, but they said she was a natural. In the summer of 1994 JonBenét was accidentally hit on the left cheek by a golf club swung by her brother, Burke, and her mother rushed the child to see a plastic surgeon, who thought Patsy was overreacting. The doctor apparently didn't understand the importance of an imperfection on a budding beauty queen.
Her first major win came in Michigan. After a thorough "pageant scrub" to clean up dirty knees and elbows, a good hair wash, and a French manicure for those dirty nails, JonBenét performed a patriotic song and tap routine and was crowned Little Miss Charlevoix.
The child radiated star power, but there was a brain inside that pretty head. She listened attentively to adults talk in the evening, nestled on someone's lap in a big chair, and her vocabulary and sense of logic were remarkable. When her auntfound her running barefoot on the Charlevoix dock and asked, "Why don't you put your shoes on?" JonBenét answered, "Aunt Pam, I want to feel the rhythm of the earth under my feet." She was a free spirit.
In October 1995, she became Little Miss Colorado Sunburst and qualified for a national pageant the next year. In the 1995 Boulder Christmas parade, she sang and waved from a float called the Good Ship Lollipop, which was built by her grandfather. "Quite a performer," the judges said, the payoff for the hundred-dollar-per-hour lessons.
She blossomed as a beauty, loving everything about the pageants and making sure to tell her mother, who was leaving for London, to bring her back some hats. The natural prissiness of a little girl came forth as she expressed her strong will, not hesitating to tell an adult doing her hair, "I don't like that, I want it this way."
On many nights, JonBenét would fall asleep watching videotapes of Patsy and Pam in the Miss America pageant. She wanted to stroll that Atlantic City Boardwalk someday, and it was drummed into her that the coveted sash, trophy, and tiara would come only through total dedication. Once, when she balked, her grandmother groused, "JonBenét, you will do it. This is your job. There are no excuses." A family friend recalled JonBenét being chilly in a restaurant after a pageant and her mother not allowing the child to put on a sweater because "You're still on show."
JonBenét did not need a professional trainer with a couple of former Miss West Virginias in the family. They would be her mentors instead of some professional who might turn her into a rigid automaton, with nothing but boring ten- and two o' clock stances, flashing the collar and cuffs, never touching the dress, and perhaps, her grandmother warned, even using the sleazy shoulder shake that homosexuals taught. The strategy was for Johnni-B to go beyond the ordinary and bring her natural friendliness and a touch of class to the shows. In pageants from Rome, Georgia, to Elk Rapids, Michigan, the plan worked.
Daddy had money, a great advantage because the pageant world is not for the miserly. Talent lessons were expensive,and her spectacular handmade costumes cost even more. JonBenét would not go out there in Kmart dresses, and she regularly brought home "Best Wardrobe" titles.
But there were some dark secrets. She had a continuing problem with wetting her bed, regressing in her toilet training in the months before her death. Occasionally she would even defecate in the bed and at one point was wetting or soiling her underpants during the day. She would not wipe adequately after a bowel movement. This would never do for a beauty queen.
Her intelligence kept pace with her almost flawless beauty, and she kept a list on her night table of books that had been read to her. Her father insisted that knowledge and talent were much more important than looking good. She was truly beautiful but still was only a child beginning to read and write, even though her mother created a more impressive résumé on pageant entry forms by claiming that JonBenét played the violin, spoke French, and wanted to be an Olympic ice-skating champion.
Confidence came with experience, and when the family returned from a trip to Mexico, JonBenét made them all do the sinuous macareña dance. "That's not the way you do it," she scolded, then led it herself. "There. That's the way it's done."
Like lots of kids, although she suffered from colds and coughs, her sinus infections were eventually diagnosed as allergic rhinitis, not unlike a problem that had once plagued her father. In 1995 she tripped in a grocery store, landed on her nose, and the doctor treated her with ice and Popsicles. Six months later she fell again, bonking herself over the left eye. In the twenty-four months before her death, she visited the doctor eighteen times.
Her last year was a rainbow ride. In July she won the title of America's Royale Tiny Miss, and the five-year-old took home $500 in prize money. The next month, the Sunburst National Pageant at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Atlanta was a disappointment because she was only second runner-up in the beauty competition, and by now people expected JonBenét to win everything, all the time. They were usually right. Titles were bagged with frequency, and the professional touches ofmakeup, perfect hair, and a portfolio of glamour photographs gave the child a sultry look that was part angel, part Lolita. Best-in-show trophies were just over the horizon.
In two trips to New York, she saw five Broadway shows and ate a $125 lobster dinner in a fancy restaurant. People waiting in line to see the Statue of Liberty asked permission to take her picture. After turning six that August, JonBenét entered private school, and her stage training made oral reports a snap, although her writing skills were minimal. She went to see the school nurse twice in December, both times on a Monday after a weekend.
Before the Christmas break, her mother arranged to have JonBenét perform as a holiday treat for her classmates, and in pageant finery she sang and danced all day while class after class came through to watch. She went home exhausted. Her lesson in school that day was that perfection and celebrity carried a price. On December 17 she picked up still another crown, Colorado's Little Miss Christmas.
Six days later, during a party at her parents' home, a family friend came across a JonBenét who was seldom seen. The child was immaculate in a holiday frock, and her platinum blond hair was done perfectly, but she sat alone on a staircase in the butler's kitchen, crying softly. The friend sat beside her.
"What's wrong, honey?"
Little Miss Christmas sobbed, "I don't feel pretty."
Copyright © 2000 by Steve Thomas and Don Davis.