Day 50/ Apr 17th – Versailles, KY to Frankfort, KY: The Crowned Princess Charm Pageant

At the back of the lobby of the Capitol Plaza Hotel, a photographer had set up an impromptu studio – white umbrella, daïs, pastel background – next to the cascading water feature.  A line of waiting mothers and young daughters snaked across the carpet, watching a pudgy little girl of perhaps nine years old striking a series of decidedly post-pubescent poses while the photographer snapped away.

It was the Crowned Princess Charm Pageant weekend in Frankfort, and the Capitol Plaza – a somewhat faded Sixties business hotel – was thick with shrieking, scurrying children: self-conscious pageant contestants and a gaggle of tubby children swaddled in towels from the hotel pool, presumably here for the agony of watching their svelter siblings compete for glittering prizes. The room next to ours had a small sequinned dress pinned to its door, on which the name ‘Hannah’ was spelled out in glittery letters, presumably to motivate its eponymous occupant to greater competitive heights.

Child beauty pageant hotel room

The kind of self-esteem only child pageant fees can buy

Downstairs, a mother was rehearsing in a quiet corner with her four-year-old daughter, practising her catwalk stroll and turn over and over again.

“Amber!” she said, impatiently, screwing her face into a rictus smile and pointing at her own non-existent dimples.  “Amber!  Smiling!  Smiling, honey.”

At the ballroom entrance the pageant agenda was printed on the wall.  The first round was ‘1950s’, followed by ‘Speech’, ‘1980s’ and ‘Physical’.  We asked if it was possible to go in and watch.

“Sure it is,” replied the man at the desk.  “For ten dollars each.”  While we try to be intrepid in procuring diverting reportage about modern America, we drew the line at shelling out twenty dollars to watch eight-year-olds caterwaul their way through Heartbreak Hotel.

East Frankfort church sign

Perhaps... but have you tried the Swedish government's?

We went into town for dinner instead.  Frankfort is a tiny place, in keeping with the American tradition of state capitals being located in small, easily overlooked towns.  Even so, only four capitals are smaller than Frankfort, and the Kentucky River winds through a downtown district barely six blocks square.  Even a couple of hundred yards from its centre are overgrown vacant lots and patches of woodland, as though nature were waiting to reclaim the town if the state government were ever to relocate elsewhere.  Tonight, it felt like it had – it was a Saturday, and the deserted streets bore witness to the fact that most of the state government employees commute in from Lexington and Louisville.  At the weekends, Frankfort is a ghost town.

We had assumed that the town was named after Frankfurt and that orthographic inattentiveness had allowed an ‘o’ to creep into its name, but it appears instead to have been named after Stephen Frank, an early settler who was mown down by Indians at a nearby crossing-point over the Kentucky in the 1780s – hence, Frank’s Ford.  The town was settled a few years later and by 1792 it became the state capital, thanks to a rumoured bribe to the relevant politicians of $3,000 in gold.  When Lewis and Clark stumbled out of the wilderness after their astonishing three-year expedition in 1806, it was the local Frankfort newspaper The Palladium that was the first to break the news.

Downtown Frankfort, Kentucky

The immensely pleasant downtown area of Frankfort

The main drag, Broadway, is one of the finest old downtown districts we’ve yet seen, lined with high turn-of-the-century facades housing bars, restaurants, antique shops, diners and bookshops, and facing the old state capitol building across a grassy, sunlit square.  A railway line runs down the main street and, just after sunset, a mile-long freight train trundled and whistled through town at barely more than walking pace, bringing diners out of the restaurants and drinkers out of the bars along Catfish Alley and St. Clair Street to watch it go by.

The whole of Frankfort would still be this pleasant had not the local town planning department apparently suffered a collective aneurysm in the Sixties and invited modernist architects to pour millions of gallons of concrete all over this lovely Kentucky river town.  The result was the Capitol Plaza, a half-mile square slab of concrete resembling an especially grim suburb of Bucharest or Irkutsk, and the Capitol Plaza Office Tower, a scaled-down simulacrum of the United Nations building, which complemented the town it overlooked in much the same way as nipple-rings would your grandfather.  From our window on the eighth floor we had a view over all of it.  A few fountains played in the centre of the plaza, a futile gesture to try to conceal the colossal vandalism that had been wreaked on the town.  There are moves afoot, we heard, to tear down the Tower; presumably it’s taken these forty-odd years since it was built for the horrified local townsfolk to pull their jaws off the floor.

Capitol Plaza Tower in Frankfort

The Capitol Plaza Tower: Whoops

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One Response to “Day 50/ Apr 17th – Versailles, KY to Frankfort, KY: The Crowned Princess Charm Pageant”

  1. Anna Davies Says:

    The little pageant princess I filmed in Kentucky for Wife Swap back in 2005 was called Hannah! If that dress looked like it would fit a ten-year old, it could very easily be the same girl…

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