Babies covered in bling, toddlers in tiaras, pre-teens in ball gowns and fake eye lashes... it's all part of the spectacle you see at a child beauty pageant. (And don't get us started on pageant moms.)
YouTube - Painted babies 2! Brooke and Asia at 17 years
Baby beauty pageants came to wide public attention in 1996, after the murder of six-year-old pageant competitor JonBenet Ramsey and have developed a stigma. Critics accused the contests of sexualizing toddlers. But are they really bad for girls?
A recent documentary, "Painted Babies at 17" checks up on two teens who participated in child pageants (both girls were featured in an earlier documentary "Painted Babies"). Another young woman who says she's turned out perfectly well is Tiffany (left), a twenty-five year old former "painted baby" who happily agreed to speak with us about the competitions.
"Sounded Like Fun"
Tiffany was seven when she entered her first pageant and thought her mother's idea of getting up on stage and smiling sounded like fun.
"We got there early and we see all these girls, decked out," she told us, "these porcelain doll looking chicks with crystal and diamonds all over them...I didn't even have a dress."
Click here to read about Tiffany's child pageant days and see a clip of the doc.
The one she found ("I like to call it the lamp shade dress," she says) was a short pink chiffon number with a hoop skirt, purchased at K-Mart. With a $20 lamp shade of a dress on and absolutely no experience, Tiffany took the stage at her first competition and walked away First Runner Up.
Beauty Boot Camp
After winning the title of Little Miss Italian and a handful of preliminary competitions, Tiffany was headed to nationals. That's when pageant boot camp began.
She and her mother spent six months preparing for per pageant, hiring a seamstress and a modeling coach who trained her twice a week. "She taught me the signature ProAm move that involved a jacket -- I put the jacket on my shoulders without my arms in the sleeves then I'd bump it, catch up, slide it over my arms. There were all kinds of things you could do with a jacket. It was serious."
And everyone involved took it very seriously.
Learning the "Correct" Personality
Tiffany's coach also taught her the correct way to strut and the official "pageant stance" (shoulders back, chest out, and the left leg crossed over the right topped with an ear-to ear-grin), but she also grilled her for the "interview process," where the girls' personalities are assessed.
The preteen spent weeks being quizzed until she became a small talk expert. "My mom would ask me random questions ... what's your favorite color, how many siblings do you have, who would you like to meet.... so I could carry on a conversation and practice giving more than one-word answers."
All the hard work paid off -- Tiffany often took the "personality" prize in subsequent pageants. It also both helped her and hurt her in school. "I had a lot of friends because I talked to everyone, but I got in trouble because I talked too much."
Fake Breasts and a Barbie Car
When asked if the competitions sexualize children, Tiffany demurred.
"It was more about being cutesy than sexy. My mom put a big flower in my hair and I'd just priss around. You'd just get up there and strut, shake your butt." But she acknowledged that the girls often used "jellies," false breasts they'd use during swimsuit competition, along with spray tanning, fake eye lashes, and fake hair.
She also admitted that for some girls, losing or messing up were grounds for punishment, but that that her mother was never anything but supportive, shaking off losses with "Next time! Now let's go get ice cream!"
All in all, Tiffany thinks that the effects of competition depend on the competitor and her family. "Pageants for me helped with interviewing for jobs, being secure and social, and just learning how to be a girl." She also liked the prizes -- crowns, trophies, and her favorite, a pink Barbie electric car she won at age 9.
When asked if she'd put a daughter of her own in pageants, she replied, "I think I would... but I'd wait until 7 or 8 and ask them if they want to do it."
Painted Babies: Stories from a Former Child Pageant Queen - Lemondrop