Glamour Babes
At Glittery and Glossy Club Libby Lu, Little Girls Play Dress-Up, for a Price

By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

Saturdays, Club Libby Lu in the Tysons Corner mall is filled with little girls wanting makeovers. The staffers who do makeup and hair call the little girls "princess," each and every one.

"That's the only name we know," says one staffer with pride.

Mostly it's birthday parties at Club Libby Lu. A girl turns 6 and she wants the Tween Idol makeover for herself and her friends, complete with makeup, punky hair and a pink headset like Britney Spears might wear onstage. All the girls get to borrow party costumes. Many choose low-slung pants and sequined spandex tops cropped just under where their breasts would be, if they had any. Sometimes, the girls are so small their pants legs drag under their sneakers.

After the makeovers, the club counselors, as they're known, lead the girls in a dance, teaching them to "shimmy down" and to "shake it, shake it." Sometimes they arrange a fashion catwalk. The girls walk down the aisle of the store till they reach the front, where mothers hold cameras. Here, the girls fling one arm theatrically toward the ceiling. The song on the store stereo says: "Wet your lips/And smile to the camera."

There's a 4-year-old on the catwalk whose tube top slips so low it would be indecent if she were older. A mom dashes out into the aisle, yanks it up. And the little princess, oblivious, keeps grinning toward the crowd of smiling grown-ups.

* * *

The store is pink. There are pink ruffles around the light fixtures. The walls and stools are blue and pink. The staff wears pink. There are pink cowboy hats for sale, pink Ugg-like boots, pink phones decorated with pink feathers. There are rings with huge diamonds, like J.Lo might wear (only fake), with pink packaging that reads "Bling! Bling!"

A club counselor's voice rings out: "You're all finished, princess!"

A little girl slides off a stool, looks in a pink, heart-shaped mirror and beams. She jumps in elation and touches the silver stars adhered to her cheek.

Club Libby Lu sells fantasy in 83 locations across the country (including one in Columbia), and that fantasy is pink and fluffy and smells like "Role Model," a perfume 7-year-old Vicenza Belletti is right now spraying over and over into her hair. Libby Lu sells T-shirts and tank tops that say things like "Local Celebrity" and "My {heart} Belongs to Shopping." Mothers and daughters wander the aisles, looking at the feather boas and the clip-on hair extensions, at the sequined handbags, at the Super Smooch Lip Gloss and the Diva Du Shampoo.

Michelle Cox, accompanied by her 3-year-old daughter, Makayla, rolls her infant son's stroller. She's not here for a party. They're buying Makayla a purse, but Makayla keeps seeing more things she wants.

"You don't need any more lip gloss," her mom tells her.

The 3-year-old tugs a pink-rhinestoned tiara off a shelf.

"We already have a tiara at home, remember?" Michelle says. "From when you did the beauty pageant?"

"It doesn't have the glitter," says the little girl.

For their makeovers, some girls choose tiaras instead of headsets, or they choose hair extensions. So many ways to be a girl! Some choose princess dresses the color of Easter eggs instead of rock star outfits, perhaps because mom is squeamish about showing so much skin. They come here for the makeover parties, which start at $21.50 per girl, and they stay at least an hour, and they buy. They mix and bottle their own skin- and hair-care products. They head over to the corner known as Pooch Parlor, pick out miniature stuffed dogs, dress them in miniature T-shirts that say things like "The Royal Heiress," and carry them in "couture" dog carriers, just like Paris Hilton.

The Pooch Parlor is less than a month old. According to Monica Blaizgis, the "Princess of Royal Relations" at the company's headquarters in Chicago, the minds at Club Libby Lu drew inspiration from "the little dog as kind of the trendy accessory in Hollywood."

The whole store seems pilfered from the pages of Us Weekly magazine -- the clothes cheap, shrunken versions of what real starlets might wear. (We imagine we might see Scarlett Johansson here if only the clothes weren't so small.) Libby Lu's market, girls between 5 and 12, is both fickle and lucrative. Pop culture keeps the store's merchandise fresh.

Six years ago, there was only one Club Libby Lu. This year alone, the company plans to open six more. This particular location in Tysons, according to a store manager named Karen Johnson, is "booked up every Saturday and Sunday, mostly, until June."

The company Web site has a "starlet contest" and a Wheel of Fame & Fortune that answers questions like, "Will i be famous?" It has a wish list that girls can fill out with several categories: "want," "need," "have to have."

Why do little girls have to "have to have" what they have to have? Is it just the ritual of dress-up, enacted in basement playrooms since there was such a thing as lipstick, and no doubt long before? (And if it is, is dress-up the same when all these grown-ups are watching?)

Is this business of pretend headsets and pants so low the waistbands of little girls' underwear shows -- is this business a girl's fantasy or is it a marketer's fantasy? Would little girls be as satisfied to dress up like 19th-century frontier women? Would they be content to play clowns?

Club Libby Lu sells the particular fantasy of a culture that has given itself over to klieg lights and red carpets, to cheap celebrity and expensive childhoods, to girls who dress like women and women who act like girls.

Meanwhile, "Who Let the Dogs Out" plays on the store's stereo system, and a little girl holds her freshly painted nails out and sings feebly, "Who-who-who-who."

Meanwhile: Alyssa Steffy, 5, comes over to her mom for help with her costume. She looks like a dark-haired, miniature version of Shakira: the tight outfit, the exposed belly, the makeup, the jaunty hair and the headset.

What pop star does Alyssa like?

Alyssa lowers her eyelids shyly. They are covered in pink eye shadow.

"What is a pop star?" she asks.

* * *

Funny thing about 4-year-olds in starlet clothes.

They don't yet know to suck in their bellies. They're not self-conscious about their bodies, not aware of what looks "sexy," even when dressed in clothes suitable to a Miami nightclub. In a crop top, a little girl's body is an inversion of what the grown woman goes for: flat across the chest where puberty hasn't made its presence known; her belly poufed out like a sail. Watch the way little girls walk, stomachs forward like ballast. Their hips have yet to broaden, to lend magical sway to a pencil skirt or a pair of jeans.

What little girls know about what it means to be starlets could fit on the paw of a miniature stuffed dog.

Sometimes people walking through the mall gather by the windows at Club Libby Lu to watch the spectacle of little girls: all that pink and glitter. All that flesh, too.

A woman passing by says to three blondes in tight outfits, the youngest of whom is 4: "If you're wearing those kind of clothes, you gotta shake your booty."

The girls look at her blankly.

* * *

The mothers are ambivalent. Some say their daughters would be trying on makeup at home if they weren't trying it on here. Some say this is okay, but only on special occasions. Some say this place troubles them, but so does the notion of banning something because that might cause their girls to want it more. ("I wish they were excited about a Lego party," says mom Rebecca deGuzman. "Do they have to show their bellies?")

Some of them, like Leigh Wilson, say, "Oh, Natalie! You look beautiful!"

Natalie Wilson is 4. She's here for the birthday of her older sister, who's turning 6. Earlier, she had her makeup done: blue eye shadow and lip gloss. For a while, she keeps rubbing her lips together, feeling the strange stickiness. She holds her hands out from her sides to keep her blue nail polish from getting on her clothes. She wears a tight black sequined top.

Her grandmothers are here, too, admiring the scene.

"I would've loved it as a mom," one of the grandmothers says. "Somebody else does all the work."

A club counselor, Neva Amestica, 17, announces it's time for the girls to do the cha-cha slide and arranges the girls in the aisle. But when the music starts, Natalie toddles from her assigned spot, her belly sticking out. She whimpers at her mom, who picks her up.

(Behind the shelves, a glass perfume bottle falls, liquid bursting across the floor, the pink-feathered atomizer bulb flopping like a dead sparrow. A little girl stands very still beside it.)

A counselor sprinkles glitter she calls "fairy dust" on a little girl's head. She tells the girl to close her eyes and make a wish, and not to tell anyone what she wished for. What do little girls dream of? Something pink?

Sadly, the founder of Club Libby Lu, Mary Drolet, is not available to comment on the fantasies in her store. Drolet is a former executive at Montgomery Ward and for Claire's, which sells jewelry for girls. Her publicist says Drolet named this store after an imaginary childhood friend.

Drolet is going to do an interview and then she is abruptly not going to do an interview because, her publicist says, there was a scheduling mix-up and plus, she's leaving the country. This is after the publicist calls in a state of alarm one day. In some newspapers, Blaizgis says, Club Libby Lu has been the victim of a "feminist backlash." She says articles have suggested Club Libby Lu is "forcing girls to grow up too quickly." What she hopes to get across is the store's "sense of fun."

"We are about fun and play and pretend," Blaizgis explains another day. "And we offer that experience -- particularly around the birthday experience -- [we] really help provide and create that special day and that special memory. You only turn 7 or 8 years old once."

This is true. And there is something magical about the store, sweet-smelling and dusted with glitter, like candy for the soul. A spa for 6-year-olds! Of course! It was just a matter of time.

At a table in a corner, a redheaded 8-year-old named Lexy Battista is getting a makeover.

"She made honor roll," says her mom, Megan.

Lexy comes here a lot. She had her eighth birthday here -- 25 girls getting "The Super Star" makeover with hair extensions, at a cost of more than $500. They arrived in a stretch limo: $600.

"It had a disco ball, huh, Lex?" says her mother. "This year you want a Hummer."

Lexy chooses blue nail polish for her fingers. One of the club counselors paints her nails and dusts glitter over Lexy's hands.

"You want me to buy you an outfit, Lexy?" her mom says.

"Yeah," says Lexy, choosing blue eye shadow.

Lexy's mom describes her as "gifted" and a "brainiac."

Lexy says when she grows up, she wants to be a model.

"My oldest models," says her mom.

Lexy goes off to pick out a T-shirt that says "Glam Rock" and pants with a glitter belt.

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