Sitting in a nail salon in western Massachusetts, Ilana Panich-Linsman overheard a woman talking about her daughter's next big competition — a beauty pageant.
Always curious, the photographer struck up a conversation with the mother: Would she be willing to allow her daughter and her family be photographed?
That's how Panich-Linsman first dropped into the world of preteen beauty queen Emily Dextraze. Over months spent visiting the family's home in Westfield, Massachusetts, the photographer saw Emily, then 11, wrestling with her brothers and obsessing over Instagram, all while preparing her pageant walk and considering her best hairstyle.
Panich-Linsman, 29, didn't know much of the pageant world beyond the bejeweled dresses of reality TV shows. She wanted to learn about Emily's life off the stage, about how she balanced being a kid with the pressures of a competition based on beauty.
"If I'm photographing anything, I'm seeking to understand it … rather than to judge it," she said. "Did I have preconceived notions? Yes. Did I try to shelve that? Absolutely."
What she found in Emily was a sweet girl with a passion for her pastime and a mother, Sharie Farina, who wanted to boost her child's confidence.
Emily, Panich-Linsman said, "is like a kid in some ways and definitely approaches this competition as an adult. She has the same highs and the lows as adults do when they're driven and passionate. Some kids play soccer and love soccer. Some take painting classes. Emily competes in beauty pageants."
Like any child with an after-school activity, Emily doesn't always love rehearsing. But she adores the performance: the dresses, the hair, the makeup, the photos. She loves the toys, candy and crowns they take home. Emily and other girls laughed all night before the pageant Panich-Linsman attended; they acted not like competitors, but like friends at a giant slumber party.
Most of all, Panich-Linsman realized, pageants are one of the few times mother and daughter can focus only on each other, rather than their busy household filled with other children.
"How close they are, I think, is in part because of this," Panich-Linsman said of Farina and Emily. "They have an opportunity to bond over competition. When they're on the road, it's just Emily and her mom. They have a lot of quality time.
"I think Sharie views it as a good way to practice dedication, commitment, like any parent wants their kids to be focused on something after school."
It's not easy on either of them, though. Emily competes only when the family's financial situation leaves room for the elaborate costumes, hair, makeup, coaching and travel that's required. Even top prizes wouldn't help a pageant family break even, Panich-Linsman said.
When Emily does compete, they're long, exhausting days filled with changing looks and testy nerves. Despite her mother's urging, Emily would rather snack on gummy worms than risk getting pizza on her gown. Although Emily left the pageant Panich-Linsman saw with a crown, she spent time weeping in the arms of her grandmother, disappointed at her own performance.
"It really is about this beautiful ideal. It's about the way they move and show off their clothes. You can't deny that it's very superficial," Panich-Linsman said. "If (Emily and her family) are aware of that, I don't know that they perceive it to have a negative impact. It's a production, a performance. Her grandmother kept saying, 'You win some, you lose some. You'll do better next time.' "
Panich-Linsman said she can't help but wonder where Emily's future will take her. Pageant judges suggested Emily could do well in Southern competitions, where her thin frame, blond locks and blue eyes might be especially popular.
The photographer hopes she can be there to capture what that means for Emily.
"I'm not vacationing in this world of beauty pageantry," Panich-Linsman said. "I'm very interested in young women around the world, and this falls within that umbrella."
- Jamie Gumbrecht, CNN