Contest becomes chance for children to show some teeth

By Gus Bode

Ben Porter’s teeth are all individuals, roaming around his mouth with silent disregard for order. His toothy grin, when fully revealed, is youthfully chaotic, the small tiles of ivory jutting out like so many puzzle pieces waiting to be assembled.

You may wonder how a smirk like this could win a contest based on smirks.

Twelve-year-old Ben just chalks it up to being a good-looking guy.


“It was pretty easy,” said Porter, who was also busy this weekend racking up awards for exhibits in computers and Legos at the Du Quoin State Fair, of his win among his age group in the Smile Contest. “I just got up there and smiled.”

It may have seemed easy for him afterward, but Porter wasn’t too thrilled with the idea at first. Along with the dozen other children lining up for a chance Sunday afternoon to display their pearly whites, it took some prodding – both from judges and an eagerly proud mother – to get him to take the stage.

Once there, along with the others, he looked like a ball of nerves, shifting from foot to foot and keeping his hands tightly clenched in front of him.

Once it was his turn to step up front and flash a grin, though, he was all smiles.

“It’s just a fun event,” said Roger Brand, special events director at this year’s fair, who added that contest smilers are judged on the basis of their grin and their general stage presence. “We just have to pull ’em (contestants) in, but it’s fun once we get them.”

Having fun is what Brand said is the goal of all the special events at this year’s fair, which offers nearly everything from a Cutest Little Farmer Contest to a bench press competition. The fair, which runs through Monday at the fairgrounds in Du Quoin, will continue through the week by offering a helicopter drop, a washer tournament, a ponytail and pigtail contest, and the Mystery Sack Cooking Contest, in which Brand said contestants will be given a bag of random food items and an hour in which to prepare a dish.

However, it’s the Smile Contest, which arguably emerges as one of the fair’s most eclectic events, and with only a 15-minute running time is squeezed into the bustle of the rest of the fair. It can be almost as quick and fleeting as a smile.


Regardless, organizers say the event has been a standard feature at recent fairs because it taps into the universal expression that conveys unbridled joy or subtle amusement. A smile is the language of friendly strangers, a gesture that is both easily understood or in some cases, such as with the Mona Lisa, the subject of centuries worth of speculation.

“A smile is very important,” said Nicole Pyatt, who served as one of the event’s judges. “A smile can make a big difference in a lot of things.”

Pyatt should know. As the reigning Miss Perry County, she has competed in beauty pageants since she was five, and in January, she will try her hand at becoming Miss Illinois. Throughout her experience, she has learned the value of stage presence and talent, but she said few things are as important as a good smile. It is the ultimate expression, and it can be a better window into a personality than almost anything.

If nothing else, a smile just looks good, too.

Ben Porter agrees. After leaving the stage with the prize for best smile among 9- to 12-year-old boys – prizes were also offered to 5- to 8-year-old girls, boys aged 5 to 8, girls between 9 and 12 and teen-agers between 13 and 15 – he hopped his way to the back row of folding chairs, where his family had been watching him with smiles all their own.

He showed off his prize, a bobble-headed dentist figure that doubles as a piggy bank provided by Pinckneyville dentist Wayne Hawkins, and, of course, he had to give a few encores of his big showing.

Changes are coming. Next year, Porter will have braces strapped to his choppers, and he knows his smile will change after that. Despite what that may bring, his mother, Cecilia, remains convinced that one thing will remain true. It is something that will serve him well into the future.

“It was his dimples that won it,” she said with her own grin.