No show provokes a gut reaction like Toddlers & Tiaras (Wednesdays, 10/9c, TLC). Those who aren't entranced by the very specific, extremely odd cultural world of child beauty pageants tend to wring their hands and decry the behavior on display as despicable or abusive. Reality TV has a way of bringing out the armchair psychologists, but to tackle the issues the show brings up, we thought we'd talk to an expert on the side of the pageants: Annette Hill runs the circuit Universal Royalty Beauty Pageants that the show frequently profiles. She is outspoken, passionate and more than a little defensive over criticism. Still, she runs her business like an open book, having incorporated TV coverage from the start and keeping her pageants open to the public. (In the interest of providing full disclosure, she also invited me down to their nationals pageant in November. Should the invitation stand come pageant time, I will absolutely take her up on it.)
Below, we hit Hill with just about every critique we could think of: the idea that pageants sexualize children, the toll pageants could take on the competitors' psyches, the unease that seeing a child in full makeup can provoke, the curse of the stage parent. Gamely, she tackles the ire head on.
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It seems like the pageant world was closed off for years — there'd be a documentary or a show here and there, but Toddlers & Tiaras really blew open the doors.
Annette Hill: It wasn't [closed off] with Universal Royalty. We've always had TV be part of our pageants. At the very beginning, we'd showcase our TV pageants on cable networks. It was such a big success that I knew I had to go way mainstream.
Is it a status symbol among competitors to be followed by a camera crew? Is there attitude or jealousy from those kids and parents who aren't being profiled for TV?
Hill: I don't think there's attitude, but I think there's a competition camaraderie type of thing. Just about everybody wants to be on TV. But it's just like everybody wants to win, and there can only be one winner.
Is there a downside to that coverage, such as the widespread criticism against Toddlers & Tiaras particularly, and child pageantry in general?
Hill: Toddlers & Tiaras is a television show, just like Jersey Shore is a television show. People watch those shows for a reason. They're not watching Jersey Shore because those kids are being nice and sweet and loving. We're going to Australia at the end of July, and we've come up against protesters because they think we're bringing over-the-top flippers and big giant hair and tanning and waxing and all of that stuff. We're not bringing all that. We're bringing a quality pageant that caters to every contestant. They can protest. Everybody has a right to do that. But don't be ugly. And why not use your voice for children who are in need of homes or food or families?
A lot of people feel that Jersey Shore makes Italians and people from New Jersey look bad. Do you worry that, by emphasizing extreme cases for the sake of TV, Toddlers & Tiaras makes your business look bad?
Hill: Not at all. Universal Royalty has been around for 17 years. People know that when we do a show, that's just what it is: a show.
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Aside from viewers, therapists have been quoted voicing their concerns with child pageants. One, Terry Real, said that "performance-based esteem" makes pageants "confusing" to kids. There's also the notion that having little girls compete based on beauty causes eating disorders or low self-esteem or depression.
Hill: You get eating disorders and low self-esteem in any aspect of competition. It's not just pageants. That's everyday life if you don't have a parent figure around or a role model to indicate. I have two beautiful daughters, 18 and 20. They competed in pageants when they were 6 months old and they stopped when they were 4 and 5. They hated the itchy pageant dresses. I told myself I would never be a stage mother and if my daughters didn't want to compete in pageants, I would stop. And I did. It broke my heart, but what I told myself was: "I'm going to stay in this because this is what I really like." I had a passion and a knack for it. When a child says, "I don't want to do this," you do not need to be pushing that child.
You must come across parents that don't have that healthy of an attitude.
Hill: Well, of course. That's in any aspect of competition.
When you see that going on, do you ever take a parent aside and intervene?
Hill: Oh yeah. Since Day 1, I've always indicated before we've done a pageant: "Parents, I don't want to see any type of behavior that we wouldn't deem positive. If I do, you're disqualified automatically without any refund."
One of the things people criticize the show for is the salacious nature of these children's outfits. Have you ever seen anything that's taken you aback?
Hill: Not with Universal Royalty. Have you seen gymnastics, the outfits cheerleaders are wearing, especially the cheerleading nationals? They're just as risqué as a pageant.
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In general, what do you say to the criticism that these pageants sexualize children?
Hill: I think that's ludicrous. If you're looking at a child in a sexual way, I think something is wrong with you. Don't bother coming to Universal Royalty. Why would you be looking at a kid in a sexual way? That's disturbing. I don't see how a child competing onstage is sexual.
There was a child last season who dressed up as Madonna ...
Hill: Yeah, she was imitating a celebrity! How's that being sexual?
The scene during the Blonde Ambition Tour when Madonna wore the cone bra was really salacious.
Hill: That made me raise my eyebrows a little bit. I didn't have any knowledge of that, but it was great. It was different and unique. It made for good TV.
Do you think that pageants are unfairly attacked?
Hill: I think they are and I think the reason why is, for some reason, child beauty pageants are always going to be associated with JonBenét [Ramsey]. Automatically, people think, "JonBenét died because she was in pageants." She didn't. It was very unfortunate what happened to that beautiful young lady, but pageants just happened to be a hobby she was involved in.
For those who dislike Toddlers & Tiaras and/or pageants, how would you sum up the entertainment value of watching children compete in this arena?
Hill: Look at this as competition. Look at it as a kid having fun onstage. And of course, on Toddlers & Tiaras, it doesn't always look like they're having fun, but I promise you, 99.9 percent of the time, parents are there to help their kids have a good, healthy competition, to be there for family time, and have a family fun vacation. Children are always going to be children. They will always have tantrums. They will always say, "I don't want to do this!" But that's with everything in life. I just wish people would stop saying we're sexualizing kids. If we were, we wouldn't still be in business after 17 years.
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Just the idea of a child wearing makeup really rubs people the wrong way.
Hill: Well, why wouldn't they? I need makeup, I need hair, I need fake eyelashes to make me halfway attractive on TV and to be underneath those stage lights. The kids need hair and makeup to compete and to project well with the lights that are beaming on them. They're onstage for less than 60 seconds. It's not 24 hours a day. And where are these people getting their expert information? I've researched this. Where are they getting their information? My kids are just fine. They grew up doing pageants and one's an aspiring model, and the other is going to college. Personally, I would never wax my child. I wasn't raised that way.
Say there was a study that proved pageants were conclusively hazardous. Would you rethink your entire life?
Hill: They would have to tell me what is hazardous. A child spending time with their family? A parent saying, "This is competition. You're always going to compete in life. If you win some, that's great, if you don't, that's great. We know what to fine tune."? Child beauty pageants teach kids to be more confident, more social and more vocal. I'll tell you what: if anybody came to a child beauty pageant and tried to take a kid away, that kid would say, "Look, you better leave me alone. Mom, Dad, and everybody, this person is trying to take me!" And that door would be closed.
Are your pageants generally open to the public?
Hill: Yes. Universal Royalty Beauty Pageants are open, but if we see or know that there's going to be stuff we don't want to be associated with, we would keep it as a closed event for family and friends. We have security, and I greet everyone who walks through the door: "Hi, how you doing? Who are you coming to see today?" "Well, we just want to watch a pageant." "Why are you coming to watch a children's beauty pageant?" "Well, it's just an interest." "What kind of interest?"
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What about the idea that pageants are a huge investment that don't usually pay back in prizes?
Hill: If that's something a parent wants to do with a child, so be it. If a parent wants to spend millions of dollars on piano lessons and know that the kid isn't going to go anywhere with it, but he or she enjoys it, and it keeps them out of trouble, off the street and happy, then who in the world can tell a parent not to do it? That's what kills me: if a parent wants to put their kid in a pageant, and the kid is fine with it, what business is it of anybody what we do with our money?
I think reality TV is so conducive to conversation that feedback is inevitable.
Hill: It's true. Toddlers & Tiaras has given child beauty pageants the opportunity to be seen. The response from people who want to compete has tripled over beyond belief. But if you don't understand culture or a hobby, don't talk about something you don't know about.