Runway Reboot

Her tan is perfect. She must have spent hours on that hair – after she finished her makeup. The “flippers” cover the unsightly gaps left when she lost those teeth. Her bathing suit is cut high and those heels push up a pair of perfect calves. The room’s lights go down, the spotlight hits the catwalk and she struts like a model, turning and twirling to give the judges the best views. A beauty pageant, after all, is a beauty pageant. Even if she’s only 8 years old.

San Francisco “pageant mother” Kerry Campbell was in trouble with authorities only a week after a Good Morning America piece during which she cheerfully admitted that she regularly injected her 8-year-old daughter, Britney, with Botox. According to mom, Britney was losing her competitive edge in her beauty pageants. After the San Francisco Human Services Agency removed Brittney from her mother, Kerry admitted that her Botox admission was a fabrication.

Glitz pageants leave most parents with an unsettling feeling.

“Even though I really love this industry, I want my child to be normal. I want her to just be a child. Putting a little girl in those pageants is a little bit extreme,” says Heather Rouba, Mrs. Oklahoma 2009.

She feels that parents that push their daughters in that direction may be living through their children, may be overcompensating for some deficiencies of their own, or have other issues that their daughters are paying for.

“When you take a child and put her into (a glitz pageant), her existing character traits are completely different (than those of older women). They’re focused on basic accomplishments in school, playing, laughing and learning how to be friends. Improving children works in a natural pageant setting. They’re set up to reward children with excellence in areas that children should have excellence in,” says another former Mrs. Oklahoma, Stacy Kukal.

“Putting kids into a glitz pageant says, ‘God didn’t make you right to begin with. We’re all going to get together and see what we can do with you,’” Kukal continues. “Generally, those kids end up with confusion about who they were to begin with.”

There are, however, alternatives to the glitz pageant circuit. “Natural” pageants allow young girls to perform factory-ready, emphasizing skills and talents, not hair extensions. Contestants can’t use makeup in natural pageants. Glitz pageants have swimwear competitions. Interviews weigh more heavily in the scoring of natural pageants. Wigs, false teeth and other enhancements are fair game at glitz pageants.

Kukal’s 6-year-old, Georgia Rose Matlack, a natural pageant competitor, is the current International Junior Miss-Jr. Princess, the title given to the winner of the largest natural pageant for her age group.

A young girl’s driver for winning a pageant should come from a desire to improve herself in positive, authentic ways. That, says Kukal, is what the whole pageant system was built for.

“When you’re judged on the way you look, you’re going to want to put a lot of emphasis on that, a lot of value on that. So I feel like it’s better as a child and as a young person to develop your character. Even being the person I am and knowing that I would have loved pageants as a child, I really feel like it was the best thing for me to wait and go get it on my own. I appreciate it more because of that,” says Rouba.

But “glitz” pageants are big business. There are more than 25,000 glitz child pageants annually. It’s a $1 billion industry, and a lot of money changes hands. Coaches and choreographers get a cut. Makeup artists get a cut. Airbrushed tans aren’t free. Dressmakers can pull in $2,000-plus per gown. There are travel expenses. Entry fees pile up.

Toddlers & Tiaras, TLC’s reality TV show about glitz pageants for the third grade set, pulls in a more-than-respectable 1.4 million viewers each week. There’s no shortage of actual pageants, but the blog posts on the show’s website suggest that many viewers tune in because, for a reality TV show, it’s fantastically surreal.

Whitney Grubbs and her 2-year-old sister, SamiJo Grace, have appeared on the show twice. Grubbs says the pageants have helped her sister with her self-esteem and also turbo-charged her social development.

Grubbs dismisses detractors that claim the glitz pageants are less than healthy for competitors.

“I can see the point when people go to the extreme like the lady with the Botox, but for these girls it’s just fun. It’s just dress-up to them. Every little girl likes to play dress-up. They just get to dress up and have fun with their friends. It’s just a good time for them. These girls are so young that it’s not about the competition. She’s only two. She just likes to get up on stage and dance and entertain everyone,” she says.

Nonetheless, Grubbs is adamant about pulling SamiJo out of pageants before she hits 8 years old. That, Grubbs says, is when the pageants get far too competitive, the parents go way too far to win and the kids pay the price.

“It’s tough in the pageant world. The kids are harsh,” Kerry Campbell said during her controversial Good Morning America appearance.

Of course not every parent of young girls in glitz pageants shoots up their little contestants with Botox. But to many, the spray-on tans are questionable enough.