Baby It's You

updated 06/04/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/04/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

In slightly more than a year, sometimes precious, sometimes pouty but always pampered Regina Federico of Camarillo, Calif. has captured 86 local, state or national beauty titles. Regina, who's almost 4, had been frequently mistaken for the Gerber baby. So her chatty mother, Dolly, a syndicated food columnist in her 30s, decided to enter her frisky, light-brown-haired, blue-eyed only child in a local pageant. "Everybody told me Regina had such a good personality, and I just wanted to see what she'd do," says Dolly. What she did was repeatedly charm the judges. Her greatest triumph to date was last year's Miss Overall Photogenic, in which she was pitted against women up to age 25, at the Royale Miss Sunflower California State Pageant in Ontario. (Hey, a beauty queen has to start somewhere.) Dolly and husband Domenic, who makes Gunite for swimming pools, have spent $5,000 on Regina's entry fees, clothes (she has 24 pageant outfits) and travel expenses. In return, their daughter has, at last count, brought home 86 trophies, 39 tiaras, 29 banners, two plaques, a doll, a dress and a medal. PEOPLE recently followed Regina through her 31st pageant, the 1984 Specialty Easter Pageant in Ontario. Before the day was over, there would be tension, tears, hugging and high jinks. And that was only during the car trip.

9:00 a.m.: An overly hyper Regina is in her pre-pre-pre-pageant outfit, also known as yellow jammies with feet. She alternately tools around the living room of the Federicos' seven-room home on a red tricycle, rolls over and over on the floor and sings Old MacDonald in a loud, off-key voice. There is no tension here. In fact, despite 86 titles, she is behaving normally, suspiciously so. Dolly and her mother, Teresa, who lives with the Federicos, are pleased that Regina is in fine form. "Regina's been sick all week," says Teresa. "First Dolly had it, then Regina got it." Now all Dolly has is worries. Regina is competing for the first time in the 3-to 5-year-old age group, and Dolly is worried about the judges. Regina has gotten lots of press coverage, and jealousy may erupt. But now is not the time to worry. Regina has to change into her pre-pre-pageant outfit: Strawberry Shortcake pajamas with feet. Besides, it's time for breakfast.

10:00 a.m.: Today's breakfast of beauty champions is oatmeal and toast. "Isn't this delicious?" Grandma Teresa asks Regina. "Say 'delicious.' " Regina says nothing; instead she rubs her tummy in a circular motion. "Ohhheeeeh aaaay eehh aww," she observes. Is this some ancient beauty pageant ritual? No, translates Mom, "She says oatmeal makes her strong for the pageant."

10:30 a.m.: Dolly changes Regina into her pre-pageant outfit—red Oshkosh overalls and a white sailor shirt. Regina will put her pageant dress on only when she arrives at the site. "What do you do onstage, Regina?" Dolly asks her daughter. Regina kisses her hand and waves frantically. Not that the kid needs reminding. Regina likely owns a black belt in blowing kisses, spending much of her day repeating the gesture to imaginary judges, passersby in cars and just about anybody else who glances her way. "I haven't trained her at all," insists Dolly. "I just let her do her own thing."

11 a.m.: Departure time. Regina's pink organza pageant dress is wrapped in plastic and carefully hung inside the family's 1979 blue Cadillac. Regina's nerves show for the first time. Standing on the front lawn, she throws rocks onto the street, coming dangerously close to a visitor's car. "Regina, don't throw rocks, they might hurt somebody," urges the visitor. Regina glares then coolly throws another rock. Dolly averts a nasty confrontation and levies the ultimate punishment: Regina must go inside and wash her hands.

1 p.m.: The family arrives at the Red Lion Inn in Ontario without incident, Regina having spent most of the drive waving to people in other cars. Regina settles into a windowless dressing room with eight other mostly silent girls who are being fussed over by their mothers. Wearing only her slip, Regina sits on a table as Dolly sprays her long, curled hair. "Yuck," says Regina. "Don't you want your hair to sparkle?" asks Dolly sweetly. Regina is silent. At last she puts on her pageant outfit, a dress that Teresa spent the night before hemming. Some of the other girls are wearing so much lip gloss (not to mention mascara and rouge) that it's a wonder they can move their little mouths. Regina usually wears no makeup, but today Dolly dots her round cheeks with pink blush-on because, says Teresa, "she's pale—she's been sick all week." Meanwhile a TV crew arrives and zooms in on Regina before turning to the other girls. "Go over there and get on television," commands one mother, with a less-than-subtle shove to her shy daughter.

3 p.m.: Tension mounts as the pageant begins. Regina is up against 13 others in her age group. The Mickey Mouse Club theme song is played, and the girls, some of them crying, march onto the ramp. The stage is a sea of frozen smiles, shaky knees and generally stiff-looking kids. Group pictures are taken, and the girls retreat offstage to await their turn to go one-on-one with the pageant emcee.

3:20 p.m.: Regina is second from the last contestant to be interviewed. When her number is called, she gallops toward the emcee, Pat Terlip. Immediately there are problems.

"How are you, Regina?" Terlip asks her. "Four," blurts Regina. That doesn't answer the question, nor is it her age.

"Do you have any brothers, Regina?"

"Yeah," gushes the only child.

"Any sisters?"

"Yeah," she yells again.

The emcee switches strategies. "Do you have any pets, Regina?"

"Yeah," says the German-shepherd owner. "Kitty."

"What's your favorite food, Regina?"

"Fahnfess," she says, as close as she can get to frankfurters. But everybody else knows her favorite food is really "pagetti." Finally she sprints down the ramp blowing kisses and waving energetically to the six judges. After the last contestant is interviewed, the girls assemble en masse for a final look-see. Regina darts to the front of the stage and blows more kisses. Chuck Barris would have gonged her.

3:30 p.m.: Fifteen minutes of nail chewing, fretting and fidgeting elapse. The kids are nervous too. The special-category winners are announced, and Regina wins Best Smile. She gleefully charges down the aisle to snatch her four-and-a-half-foot-high trophy. "Say 'Thank you, everyone,' " prods Dolly. "Thank you, everyone," says Regina, clutching her award. Minutes later the two princesses and the queen are announced. There are squeals of joy, but Regina's are not among them. Dolly insists, "It doesn't bother me if Regina doesn't win." The winner is a vivacious brown-haired girl who spoke at length about her bicycle during her interview.

4:00 p.m.: The pageant is over, but the excitement is not. An overweight, middle-aged man in the room complains of chest pains. Dolly, who is certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, rushes to his rescue, and helps him to a bench. She remains with him until paramedics arrive.

5:30 p.m.: Domenic is doing most of the listening on the long ride home. Dolly is near tears. There is talk of the "vicious, jealous" things said by the other mothers because of the publicity Regina has attracted. "Of all the pageants that Regina has been in," says Dolly, her voice quivering, "this was the worst." An expressionless Regina, meanwhile, is sitting in her car seat, resting an arm that surely must be sore from the day's waving and kiss blowing. Dolly turns to nuzzle noses with her daughter and manages to put on a cheery face. "Did you like the pageant? Did you have a good time?" Regina remains silent but shakes her head no. Even when you're almost 4, dreams die hard.

From Our Partners