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A Considerable Town

Teen Party Expo: The Multi-Billion-Dollar Coming-of-Age Industry, From Bat Mitzvahs to Quinceañeras

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Thu, Sep 8, 2011 at 10:21 AM

click to enlarge Queens of the quinceañera - STAR FOREMAN
  • Star Foreman
  • Queens of the quinceañera

The Teen Party Expo came to town recently, and the L.A. Convention Center morphed into what the inside of a young girl's brain must look like: Hot. Bright. Crowded. Confusing. Loud. Sort of like hell, only fluorescent pink.

Picture it, the giddy schizophrenia of a candy booth right next to an orthodontics booth. A bakery booth handing out slices of cake next to a booth hawking Ultra Body Cleanse Plus Pack weight-loss pills. The thump-thump-thump-thump-thumping of dance music. Entering the convention hall, it takes, conservatively, five seconds before your retinas are ready to explode from staring at everything glittered and bedazzled and feather boa-ed and sequined to death.

Coming of age has always been a big deal, but it's only recently become big business. It was endless, really, the amount of stuff you never knew you needed to throw your teen a proper coming-of-age soiree, whether that be a Jewish bat mitzvah, a Filipino debut, a Southern cotillion or a Mexican quinceañera. Now in its third year, the Teen Party Expo was the place to book banquet halls and neon-lighted limousines and choreographers and DJs. It was the place to pick up jeweled bra straps and Body Magic corsets and rhinestone fingernail appliqués and invitations so fancy they might as well have been royal proclamations. Even auto insurance companies and AAA were present, should dad decide to give his little girl a brand-new car for her 16th birthday.

Hair was its own special madness. Teenage girls spend an inordinate amount of time considering their hair. Here you could purchase gels, sprays and curling irons to pump up the hair, flat irons to straighten it and Brazilian waxes to remove it.

Some 10,000 girls passed through the Convention Center doors that day: girls in big puffy dresses, and girls in ratty jeans and plastic tiaras. One Miss Teen Asia strolled the grounds in a slinky gown, introducing herself to attendees -- "I'm Kaylee, well, it's nice to meet you!" Then, as quickly as she arrived, she was gone, a perfumed cloud of loveliness drifting in her wake.

Parents mostly stayed out of the way, studying price sheets and looking increasingly nervous. One mom stood for quite some time in front of an event planner's booth that was swathed in fluffy pink tulle. Frowning, she moved two booths down to another fluffily decorated table, also in pink. "Now, this I love," she said. The booths were, for all intents and purposes, identical.

Fretting about details such as table ruffles sounds silly. But the money people are prepared to lay out for their offspring's coming-of-age extravaganza is no joke. The mom staring at the frilly tables said she'd spent $20,000 on her first daughter's quinceañera. She has four daughters and was at the Expo shopping around for her twins. They were going with a Renaissance theme. She never had a quinceañera. It's been her dream to do this for her girls. "I gave them a choice," she said. "They could take a trip to Disney World or somewhere instead. Or they could have a party. They chose the party."

Lots of girls choose the party. About 400,000 Hispanic girls celebrate their 15th birthday each year. Their families spend an average of $15,000 to $20,000 for these celebrations. Quinceañera and Sweet 16 parties are a $680 billion-a-year industry, with prom worth $2.75 billion a year. The Rand Youth Poll, which has done market research on teen buying habits since before this year's batch of teens was born, tells us 13- to 19-year-old females spend $64 billion a year, including $31 billion on beauty and fashion. Snagging a chunk of that power -- aka figuring out what girls want -- is key.

What do they want?

Candy, apparently. "Candy kabobs are popular," said the woman from Couture Candy Shoppe, indicating a stick onto which various gummy candies had been pierced. "I'm sooo booked right now."

"Candy apples are great," said another saleswoman. The apples were slathered in chocolate, then coated in nuts and marshmallows. "You use it as your place setting and your favor and you're done!" she said with a huge smile. She rubbed her cheeks, as if she was tired from smiling all day.

"Glitter tattoos are very popular right now," said the young lady at the glitter tattoo booth. "Your guests get them. Or your court girls get them. The birthday girl can get sweaty from dancing and it won't come off." The young lady said she was old now -- 22 years old -- but she had the tattoos way back when, at her own quinceañera. "And I loved them," she added. "Loved."

Also popular: silicone airbrush makeup. "It stays on all day long," said Blush n Lush's makeup artist. "Even though your daughter's gonna be doing her dances. People sleep in it, and it looks as good the next day."

Imperfections airbrushed over, the girls migrated in packs to the nearby photo booth. A young woman can hardly come of age these days without a rented photo booth at her party. These are the new rituals.

Even the rites of prom -- that venerable institution -- have changed. "People don't focus on dates anymore," said Ashley Vergo, a senior at Central Los Angeles High School for the Visual and Performing Arts. "If you get a date, you get a date. If you don't, you go with friends." She shrugged. She was there to check out the limousine services for her group of 12 friends.

Teenage girls are all about change. Aliza Alvarado, 14, had a devil of a time choosing her quinceañera theme. Her parents gave her a budget of $6,000 and a 2 a.m. curfew. They'd host the party in their backyard. Alvarado considered a rainbow theme (each table with chairs of different colors) but ultimately settled on a Barbie theme.

She'd wear a white mermaid dress, flaring at the ankles. Her hair would be "perfect and tight." Her makeup, "vibrant." Her invitations would feature Barbie doll-head silhouettes. Alvarado described the scenario in a quiet, slightly breathless voice, as her two best friends chattered away, jumpy as puppies. Actually, the three girls were functionally more like one, completing each other's sentences in perfect synchrony.

Alvarado was tiny and shy in sneakers and shorts; it took some imagination to envision her as buxom, wasp-waisted, plastic-perfect Barbie.

Noting her Twilight T-shirt, I wondered, did she consider a Twilight theme?

"But that would be a little dark," she said.

Flanked by her two lieutenants, she wandered off.

In half an hour, though, she was back. "Actually, I think Twilight would be a really good theme," she said bashfully. Her lieutenants nodded vigorously. They could picture it: Alvarado in a white dress in a dark room. Candles flickering. Or maybe stars. "The guys could have teeth!" said one. "Little fangs!" said the other.

"And every table could be Team Edward or Team Jacob," said the first girl.

"And the centerpieces could be apples."

"Or little wolf heads."

"So dramatic," they sighed.

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