Rise of the Australian beauty pageants

Pageants are growing in popularity, thanks largely to the influx of reality shows that follow the US circuit. While the end goal might be a glittering crown, participants and organisers told KATE WALSH there was more to these controversial competitions than looking pretty.

Ashlea Radburn is amassing quite a collection of crowns and trophies.

The 11-year-old Gunnedah schoolgirl has only been competing in pageants for about 12 months, but her confidence on stage has paid off.

By the end of this year, she and her mother, Carlee, hope she will have done well enough to dedicate a bookshelf solely to pageant prizes.

But while Ashlea has always loved dressing up and revels in learning new routines for the talent component, her enthusiasm for pageants is driven by something else.

At each competition, the part she most looks forward to is catching up with friends.

‘‘My favourite part is meeting friends from all over and how much fun we have, it’s really cool.’’

‘‘Meeting the other girls is definitely the best part.’’

Carlee says Ashlea has always been an outgoing kid, and pageants are the perfect outlet for her ambitious nature.

‘‘She enjoys public speaking, she enjoys being a role model and that makes me happy,’’ she says.

‘‘I’m happy to support her in what she wants to do if it’s going to help her in the long run.’’

‘‘I enjoy seeing her being happy. She’s on that borderline of being a kid and being a teenager, so it’s great seeing her evolve into a young woman.’’

‘‘There is the poise and grace, but it’s great life skills in terms of making friends and public speaking and speaking to girls coming from different towns and not being shy.’’

Although they have been around for years, from beautiful baby competitions at shopping centres to the  Miss World and Miss Universe extravaganzas, pageants are in the public eye more than ever.

‘We don’t want the girls sexualised at all. I steer my kids away from corsets and mini skirts.’

Their popularity boost can be largely attributed to US reality television shows, most notably Toddlers & Tiaras and its various spin-offs.

While the number of child beauty pageants in Australia is sparse compared to the countless competitions in the US, the pageants circle is growing.

In the Illawarra, April Eames runs Elite Photography and Pageantry, organising several pageants a year and coaching competitors.

Elite’s most recent pageant, a ‘‘glitz and glamour’’ theme at Dapto Ribbonwood Centre, attracted a slew of interested kids.

April began the business after watching her younger sister come out of her shell while competing in a pageant, spurred on by her love of what she saw on TV.

‘‘My little sister was quite shy and she had such a confidence boost,’’ April says.

‘‘She can now talk at school in front of other friends and it’s preparing her for other situations, like future job interviews, where she has to be well spoken and well presented.

‘‘I found other kids also got a positive influence from it, there are a lot of kids that need a confidence boost, so Elite has just shot up from there.’’

April now works with almost 40 students, in person and via Skype, to prepare them for their upcoming pageants.

While Toddlers & Tiaras is often the catalyst for parents and kids Googling whether pageants exist in Australia, April says few of her participants are seeking the sort of fame bestowed upon US pageant stars such as nine-year-olds Alana Thompson – aka Honey Boo Boo – and Eden Wood.

Granted, some of the girls – and boys – who pursue pageantry go on to enter bigger competitions such as Miss Universe, or are keen to expand their portfolios and skills before embarking on a modelling career.

But April says most children enter for the fun of dressing up in a ‘‘cupcake’’ dress or ball gown, a desire to improve their confidence and the ability to speak in front of a crowd.

‘‘Public speaking is a big thing in life,’’ says April. ‘‘We’ve had a couple of little ones that didn’t used to say very much, but now they’re talking away in full sentences.’’

‘‘Pageantry is not for everyone, but I’ve had a lot of kids who are quite shy and once they’re up on stage, you see a whole other child. They come out of their shell, they’re happy and bright and smiling a lot more and they’ll talk to you a lot more.’’

Pageants have drawn criticism from those who believe they are at best an unwanted Americanism that favours style over substance and at worst a form of child abuse that sexualises young girls. Last year, the French Parliament moved to ban pageants for children under 16, while in March they were banned in St Petersburg in Russia.

In Australia, the debate reached a heated point in 2011 when US pageant and TV star Eden Wood flew to Melbourne to be part of the country’s first Universal Royalty Beauty Pageant.

There were protests, petitions and anti-pageant pages  on social media, the furore quickly gaining media attention.

No stranger to the ongoing argument over the worth of pageants, April believes everyone is entitled to their opinion, but does not believe the competitions are detrimental to young girls.

Importantly, she is adamant competitors in her pageants are not judged on facial beauty alone.

While grooming is obviously a key part of the competition, just as crucial are the girls’ talents and their responses to the interview questions.

They are required to speak about their role models, which charity they support and what their ambition is in life – not always easy  for school-age competitors.

Older girls are given an unseen question, and only a few moments to develop a coherent response.

‘‘We touch on harder topics, like developing countries, where the girls have to do research and find out how other people live and what they can do to address the issues,’’ April says.

‘‘No-one in Australia judges solely on facial beauty, it’s about confidence and personality.’’

Key targets of critics’ barbs are often the outfits donned by some of the girls, and the doll-like glamour shots competitors have taken, where their faces are usually airbrushed into porcelain smoothness.

April is adamant she promotes age-appropriate outfits and that sexualisation of participants, especially the younger ones, is not allowed. Her ethos is perhaps best shown in Elite’s pageant portfolio package – while the girls get two ‘‘glitz’’ photos, they get 100 ‘‘natural’’ images.

‘‘We don’t want the girls sexualised at all. I steer my kids away from corsets and mini skirts. We don’t want the older girls strutting around in very short skirts or dresses or booty shorts.’’

Similarly, April shows her students their photographs before and after they have been digitally manipulated, and explains to them that in the modelling world, most images we see are similarly edited.

She says while the competitors might sport a spray of fake tan and a few false eyelashes, the Australian pageants are world away from the intense US ones.

‘‘We’re more based on the kids having fun and making friends and good sportsmanship and boosting confidence.’’

The snarkiness between competitors and intense ‘‘stage mothers’’ portrayed on TV bear little resemblance to the supportive environment at pageants April says she has organised and attended.

Ashlea agrees.

‘‘We’re very supportive of each other because we know it’s about having fun and helping each others,’’ she says.

‘‘When you’re watching the show all the mums completely hate each other,’’ adds Carlee.

‘‘But in Australia, it’s nothing like that. When you’re getting ready and a mum’s freaking out looking for the hairspray, the other mums will turn around with a can and go: ‘Here’s one’.’’

‘‘It’s competitive, but it’s not bitchy competitive. All the girls want to win, when they are up on stage the girls are professional, but always friendly, they all support each other, they compliment each other.’’

Like any other competitive after-school activity, whether it be dancing, gymnastics or swimming, goal-setting is another key component of the pageants. While a competitor might want the sparkly crown and sceptre, wanting it isn’t enough to earn a title.

‘‘A lot of the girls want the big crown at the end, but they have to practise to get that crown,’’ says April.

It might lead to disappointment, but April says even that will only hone their life skills and serve them will in the future.

‘‘These are going to be very determined children when they grow up. They will set goals and realise they need to work hard for it.’’

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