ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- In her white taffeta gown and rhinestone tiara, Briella DiGicinto looked every inch like a beauty queen.
Making her way into Boardwalk Hall for the Miss America pageant, holding hands with her grandmother, she fit right in.
Briella -- aka Little Miss Lollipop -- wasn't a contestant. She's only 3 years old.
But she is one of dozens of junior misses who find their way to Miss America each year, intent on basking in the glow of the world's most famous beauty pageant.
With sashes, tiaras, gowns and dreams in tow, they flock to the annual pageant, some with tickets and hotel rooms won as pageant prizes.
They mingle with contestants, buy Miss America trinkets, revel in the excitement and angle for a moment when the stage is unoccupied and they can climb up onto the runway to have their picture taken by Mom.
''It's almost like boys with their fathers at a baseball game. With the girls, it's the pageants. You see the mothers and daughters together,'' said Spencer Hamilton, manager of William Schoppy Inc., which sells Miss America-related merchandise in the lobby during the pageant.
For three nights of preliminary competition, through the annual Miss America pageant parade on the Boardwalk and then the Saturday night pageant finals, they are a constant presence.
''It's the excitement that attracts them,'' said Carl Dunn, CEO of Pageantry magazine. ''Some people dress up for football games or concerts. For these girls, Miss America is someone they look up to, a role model. Being there, it's a social event, too. They get to see it, and they get to experience a big hall.''
Briella, of Ventnor, beat out 15 other girls to win her Little Miss Lollipop title in a neighborhood contest. So she dressed up in her white dress, with tiny embroidered black roses and a big black bow at the waist.
''Do you want to be Miss America, Briella?'' grandmother Susan Moore asked. The girl nodded, then shyly pulled herself close to her grandmother's leg, as if to hide.
Inside Boardwalk Hall, Kimberley Carr, 16, of Wasilla, sat in her seat alongside mother Brenda Carr, 42, awaiting the start of the preliminary competition.
She wore a crown, a long dress and a sash that read ''Miss Alaska Junior National Teenager,'' which she wore last month competing in a pageant in Nashville, Tenn.
''I came here because I want to one day be on that stage,'' said Carr. ''To come and watch it, it's a great opportunity.''
Carr, who entered her first pageant at age 6, credited pageants with fattening her college fund -- she's won $12,000 worth of scholarships competing -- and bolstering her self-confidence.
''It's taught me so much about self-confidence, and how to speak to large groups. It helps keep me motivated,'' she said.
Outside, Angie Jillson of Tuckerton, N.J., -- flanked by four young beauty queens -- counted heads and began walking toward the Boardwalk Hall entrance.
Among them was her daughter, 14-year-old Brittany Jillson, who wore an ''America's Brilliant Miss 2004'' sash and three other similarly attired teens.
''I've been competing for six years now,'' Brittany said. ''It's become very important to me. I hope to be Miss New Jersey some day, and maybe Miss America.''
She has competed in about 50 pageants already, overcoming shyness in the process, her mother said.
''When she was 9, she couldn't speak in front of her own class. Now, she could talk to all these people if she had to,'' said Angie Jillson, gesturing to the crowd entering the building.
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