How Child Beauty Pageants Got Weird
In September the French Senate passed a ban on beauty pageants for kids under the age of 16; lawmakers could no longer sanction their young girls being sexualized. So now, if you “help, encourage or tolerate” the participation of a child in a beauty pageant in France, you will be fined $40,000. Yes, the French found something they consider too racy and weird.
France might be the only country to legislate, but it’s not the only country to voice its disgust with what’s become of child beauty pageants. When the American company Universal Royalty, frequently featured on Toddlers & Tiaras, spread its empire to Australia, England and, most recently, Ireland, it was met with protests and op-eds that lamented the scourge of “American-style beauty pageants.”
Even Toddlers & Tiaras may have overstayed its welcome. After six seasons, the show is rumored to be cancelled (TLC says it’s “not currently casting”). Either way, it’s pretty clear to anyone not named Honey Boo Boo that the spectacle took a wrong turn somewhere back there onto the highway to hell. Hard as it might be to believe now, pageants weren’t always so sick and strange. So…exactly how did they get so weird?
Contests for the prettiest, healthiest and cutest baby first became popular in America in the 1920s. (According to The New York Times, the 1929 Coney Island Baby Parade—a search for “the most beautiful baby”—had 500,000 spectators.) But most sources agree that the first official, modern child beauty pageant started in New Jersey in 1961.
Each weekend thousands of families would sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get to Palisades Amusement Park for Little Miss America, a pageant cooked up by the park in a hugely successful bid to attract more customers. It didn’t cost anything to enter the pageant, but parents spent their money on rollercoaster rides and cotton candy. For 10 years, until the park closed in 1971, 6,000 girls competed each and every week. A sign at the park’s entrance read, “Through these portals pass the most beautiful girls in the world!”
Among the legions making the trek across the George Washington Bridge from New York City during those years were sisters Sherry Curreri and Laura Dean.
“The kids dressed like they were going to church,” recalls Curreri, who competed in a blue store-bought dress that fell just below her knees. And Little Miss America contestants did not wear makeup, except for the occasional touch of rouge, which was all the rage at the time. “If you lost, you got to go to the amusement park,” Curreri says. “So, it was fun either way.”
There was no talent competition, and the girls weren’t forced to rehearse three times a day. There were no costume changes or fake teeth or fake eyelashes or fake hair. And there was no reason to spend a fortune on a dress. After the Dean and Curreri lost pageants, their mother would take them to the Palisades Park’s freak show to gasp at a two-headed animal in a jar.
The popularity of Little Miss America and a handful of other child pageants that cropped up in the late ’60s caught the attention of entrepreneurs, who started their own pageants to cash in on the trend. By the early ’70s, there were hundreds of child pageants across the country, each with an expanding roster of categories and age divisions to increase the number of competitors.
Many pageants for adults, like the Cinderella Competition, which started in 1976, created separate contests for children. Pageant directors stretched their profits even further by adding competitions like “partywear,” “photogenic” (known today as “facial beauty”) and “talent” (usually a song-and-dance number) to the main event—charging extra for each one.
In the ’70s, pageants still favored natural beauty over makeup, and the talent numbers were tame by comparison to what was to come. Though pageants were becoming a racket—reaching deeper into parents’ pockets each year—stage moms saw real opportunity for their children in the contests. When the Mickey Mouse Club first aired in 1975, five out of the seven girls cast on the show had competed in the Our Little Miss pageant.
Pageants continued to multiply in the 1980s, expanding most rapidly in the south. And in 1985, the first mother-daughter pageant was born, further blurring the lines between adult and child. It was around this time that frilly gowns, known as “cupcake dresses” emerged and makeup became a part of child pageant culture.
The “odd makeup look” was just catching on when Gerdeen Dyer began reporting for The Atlanta-Journal Constitution in 1983, covering, among more serious topics, the child beauty scene. “It was that odd, kind of 19th-century look,” he says. “People would talk about child pornography, but I’d say, ‘That doesn’t even look like a child.’”
Most of the people competing at the time were lower-middle class, “the Shirley Temples of the family,” says Dyer. “It wasn’t the classiest thing, but it was harmless.”
Alexandra Gjurasic, now a 36-year-old artist, competed in three pageants as a 5-year-old, traveling to Orlando to participate in the National Little Star pageant in 1984. “I was right on the cusp of pageants evolving from the natural looking girl to the spangled monstrosities we now see on TV,” she says.
“We like to go where the money and the cars are,” says 4-year-old Asia Mansur, staring directly into the camera. She’s wearing an American-flag-colored tank top tied just above her naval. Matching ribbons hold back her blond hair. “I like to win money and cars because my grandma really wants a car, and we really want money, money, money, money!”
She smiles and blinks her big, brown eyes.
The 1996 documentary Painted Babies follows Asia and her family as they drive their blue Ford sedan across the Southern pageant circuit. The film premiered on The Learning Channel five days after 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey was murdered in her Boulder, Colorado, home. Shots of Asia shaking her hips as she strips off a pink jacket, revealing an ’80s-bright one-piece, ran mere channels away from clips of JonBenet prancing onstage in lipstick and heels, stripping off a white cape to reveal a black, showgirl swimsuit. And these images played on repeat on the morning and evening news, and appeared in every newspaper. Many people couldn’t help but notice that Ramsey bore a resemblance to Brooke Breedwell, Asia’s 5-year-old nemesis, if only for the fact that they were both tiny blond girls in bright lipstick and Western getups, dancing to songs about love, longing and cowboys.
The JonBenet tragedy was an initiation into child beauty pageants for many Americans, and they were mostly horrified—by the caked-on makeup and the cutesy-sexy dance moves, and by the fact that the performer was a girl who was sexually abused and murdered. But it wasn’t JonBenet’s death that dissolved the relative innocence of these pageants. The pageants had already taken care of that all by themselves.
By the ’90s, makeup artists and modeling coaches everywhere were encouraging increasingly flashy and expensive dresses, more mascara, and more curl to the lash. And niche industries emerged to fill those needs: pageant dresses, pageant hair extensions, spray-tan services to get your kid good and golden backstage, kid-specific press-on lashes, kid-specific press-on nails.
Peggy York, who became a pageant director in the ’80s, pegs the rise of what are now called “glitz” pageants to the years directly preceding JonBenet’s death. “Glitz” is the all-encompassing term for children’s pageants where caked-on makeup, cutesy-sexy dance moves, fake hair and “flippers” (fake teeth that cover baby-tooth gaps) are strongly encouraged.
“If this is their first pageant, I’ll tell a parent they’ve probably got something hanging in the closet that their child can win in,” York told The Star-Tribune in 2006, describing her attempts to push against the glitz takeover.
At the same time glitz was on the rise, more local pageants began to pop up around the country, and the industry evolved from hundreds of larger pageants to thousands of smaller ones.
“The biggest shift was that a lot of the nonprofits that were, at local levels, associated with Miss America, kind of died away, and the for-profit pageants took their place,” says Dyer. “You can never write a definitive history of beauty pageants because franchises come and go. Sometimes people don’t get their money. Sometimes they change their names.”
In the wake of JonBenet’s death, enrollment in pageants briefly plummeted. To make up the difference, organizers began to raise their entry fees. Pageants that were $50 pre-Ramsey became $200 or $500 post-Ramsey. The cost—and the association with JonBenet—was a deterrent to some, but for many others it had a galvanizing effect, making pageants appear more exclusive, glamorous and serious. No longer was a pageant something you could enter your child in on a whim in her natural state. If you were going to pay the fees, you had to be in it to win it. This amplified the competitive nature, and ultimately the weirdness, of the pageant world.
In January 1997 Pageant World estimated that the children’s pageant industry was worth $1 billion, with 3,000 pageants in the United States each year. Sixteen years later, the industry is valued at $5 billion, with more than 5,000 pageants and legit corporate sponsors. The biggest difference? In the glitz era, there were no television cameras recording. (In fact, in most cases, only relatives were allowed in, for fear of pedophiles.) The explosive growth in the last decade directly corresponds to pageants hitting the small screen.
Since TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras first aired in 2008, it has almost seemed quaint that JonBenet once creeped everyone out. On the show, we’ve seen a mother douse her 15-month-old baby with spray-tan, a 9-year-old strut around in a $5,000 gown, and a mother dress her 3-year-old as the Hollywood Boulevard prostitute played by Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. We watched a pageant mom pad her 6-year-old daughter’s chest and ass to make them voluptuous enough for a Dolly Parton routine, and a 2-year-old strip down to a gold lamé cone bra, à la Madonna.
On average, 1.3 million people watch Toddlers & Tiaras each week. The series showcases the most grotesque elements of child beauty pageant culture while simultaneously having the effect of inspiring a whole new generation of parents and children to compete. For these parents and kids, weird is the norm. And money is no object.
Eager for a leg up in the competition, these families also support the bizarre cottage industry that has cropped up around the pageants, which is responsible for products like pageant flippers.
“Don’t neglect the importance of using pageant flippers if your beauty pageant star is starting to show missing teeth,” advises the website Child Beauty Pageant Stars. “Flippers for your child’s teeth can drastically affect the outcome of overall scores in pageant competitions.”
Michael Jackson (no, not that Michael Jackson) launched Child Beauty Pageant Stars in 2011, when he realized there was a market for more affordable flippers, which cost around $300, and other glitz items that had become essential. “I have three young daughters who are into the pageant thing because of the national TV shows, in particular, Honey Boo Boo,” Jackson says. “I saw a potential in sales.” He says the business has been profitable.
Nancy Albert, the CEO of Amako, a cosmetic fake-teeth company based in Georgia, never intended to cash in on the flipper craze, but the demand for them was so high that she caved. Albert’s products are for grownups, but she recently hired a new designer, she says, to develop a children’s model for the pageant market.
“We launched our cosmetic tooth line in 2004, and immediately started getting requests for pageant teeth,” Albert says. “The judges take points off for the natural thing.”
Robbie Meshell, who has been competing in pageants since 1987 and is now a pageant judge, attributes the recent surge of flippers and other weird-pageant items to a single source.
“Toddler & Tiaras made the glitz thing boom,” she says. “People will do anything to get on television.”
“If you can present a good pageant on television, people are gonna be like, ‘Oh, my God, look at those crowns and toys, look at those kids having fun!,’” says Annette Hill, director of Universal Royalty, the first pageant organization to fully open its doors to reality TV.
According to Hill, Royalty’s enrollment has increased by roughly 75 percent since she first appeared on Toddlers & Tiaras five years ago. She now holds pageants about every three weeks.
Hill stresses that Universal Royalty pageants are not simply glitz pageants, but “glitz and glamour, in the style of Anne Taylor: beautiful, classy, elegant.”
Asked how the 2-year-old-stripping-down-to-a-Madonna-cone-bra incident, captured by Toddler’s & Tiaras, fits into her classy Anne-Taylor vision, Hill was dismissive.
“There’s all this talk about sexualizing children,” she says. “Are you looking at a child in a sexual way? Because if you are, you are sick and disturbed and something is wrong with you.”
Hill says that while she would prefer her contestants look normal, it’s the “parent’s choice” to wax their child’s eyebrows or not to wax their eyebrows, to dress them in bathing suits, or to dress them in more modest attire. But it’s a little more complicated than that: Universal Royalty has its own seamstresses who make custom dresses (Hill declined to reveal their pricing), its own hairdressers, its own makeup artists and its own pageant coaches. By hiring her own staff for roles traditionally played by independent seamstresses, hairdressers, makeup artists and spray-tanners, Hill keeps her profits in-house.
She declined to discuss exactly how profitable her business has become, or the investment that went into expanding her pageants overseas. Or, for that matter, why there were so many protests against Universal Royalty’s first pageant in Ireland in September that the hotel originally hosting it backed out. The pageant was relocated last minute to a beer garden in the backyard of Corrigan’s pub.
Last weekend, parents from all over the United States, Canada, Ireland, England and Australia shuttled their painted princesses to a Holiday Inn in Austin, Texas, to compete in the Universal Royalty National Pageant. Only one child, 8-year-old Morganne from Edmonton, took home the $10,000 grand prize on Saturday. But roughly 300 parents paid for plane tickets, booked hotel rooms and dropped the mandatory $595 for Universal Royalty’s “Supreme Package,” which gives them access to the formal wear and photogenic competitions, as well as a “Good Luck Goody Bag.”
They paid the $20 admissions for every adult and child in attendance, including the contestants, and $125 for a mandatory DVD of the pageant. Many paid $95 for each of the optional competitions, which are widely considered essential if you want to win the pageant: “Novice Supreme” (for contestants who have not previously won prizes more than $500), “Grand Supreme,” “Ultimate Beauty Supreme” (“judged on facial beauty”), “Outfit of Choice” and, of course, the talent competition. They paid $50 to enter the portfolio competition, $50 to place a “good luck” ad in the program, and another $50 for the “Cover Model Poster Contest.” They paid $150 to have Universal Royalty’s two in-house hair and makeup artists paint their faces and puff their curls. They paid $20 for souvenir program books, additional photos, T-shirts and rings stamped with the Universal Royalty crown. The “Dad Competition” (“for any dad”) was free.
All told, enrollment in the Universal Royalty pageant runs around $2,000, not including the gown.
But the chance to pose on stage for a photograph with the winning stack of cash, as Morganne did, is apparently just too alluring for logic. Of course, most child pageant queens do not become models or actresses or even go on to become adult pageant queens. Most families put in more money than they ever get out of beauty pageants. And if you really want to know why pageants got so weird, all you have to do is follow the money, money, money, money.
“Striving to get rich and not quite making it, that’s the story of the pageant world,” Dyer says. “Everyone wants to get rich.”