There’s outrage at parents pushing their daughters into US-style beauty pageants, but the sting for participants could be the bill for competing.

Controversy erupted when Universal Royalty, a Texas-based company specialising in beauty contests of life-like dolls with false eyelashes and perfectly coiffed hair, announced it was bringing the event to Australia. Crikey has been investigating the strange and expensive world of these competitions but getting few answers from organisers.

Parents are expected to pay $295 to enter their daughters into the event — covering “Beauty Competition (Formal Wear)” and a workshop for make-up and modelling. Entrance to the “Top Model Photogenic Competition” costs an additional $100, according to a registration form, and parents face a $20 admission fee per person.

And the bill keep climbing: contestants can waltz up the red carpet and have their photo taken for an extra $50, be crowned in the official Universal Royalty rhinestone tiara for $25 or receive a glamorous makeover from the Glitz Glamour Team. Even a personal meet-and-greet session, plus autograph, from six-year old beauty queen Eden Wood — a minor star in the US with a hit single, Cutie Patootie — will set parents back $50.

Annette Hill, owner of Universal Royalty, refused numerous requests to clarify the prices on the registration form and as a result the above prices are an interpretation. An interview with her on Skype was cut short when the issue was raised and even resulted in Crikey being blocked from further contact.

Crikey tried to contact parents who registered for the upcoming Universal Royalty event but all declined to comment publicly. Even an attempt to contact Kristin Kyle on the Universal Royalty Facebook event page wall, the Australian organiser of the child beauty pageant, got deleted within a matter of days.

Carl Dunn, CEO of Pageantry Magazine, says there’s no “industry norm” regarding pageantry costs and that it could vary widely: “Competitors can opt out of non-compulsory events if they so desired. Look, you could start a pageant tomorrow and there would be differing guidelines from other ones. But there are some pageants where it is scholarship-based like the Miss America pageant and that has no entry fee.

“I’m not too familiar with Annette Hill, but I have met her and I am aware of Universal Royalty. I know it started in the mid-1990s, but I haven’t had contact with her in a long time.” Dunn says his magazine is the authoritative word on all matters pageantry and was founded by his family in 1962.

Dunn explained to Crikey there are two types of pageants: “First, there are the national pageants which are supported by the likes of the entertainment industry, NBC and Donald Trump. Then there are the glitz-style pageants, which involves heavy make-up, modelling and dance routines.” The latter, he said, represented a small part of the industry and attracted amateurs.

Critics fear this pageant could replicate the US reality television show Toddlers and Tiaras, which features Universal Royalty contestants as young as one month. Parents are shown going to great lengths to ready their young daughters for competition; tanning, eyebrow plucking and manicures are part of their regular routine.

“Universal Royalty is a glitz-style pageant involving children and it is not a core part of the industry,” Dunn said.

Dunn was keen to put some distance between himself and Hill. He said that although he has been interviewed on Entertainment Tonight and other media outlets, he has never accepted an offer to star in a reality television show. “How you choose to represent yourself is very important,” he said.

The media spotlight has been unrelenting since the announcement by Universal Royalty. Hill said she was forced to close the event to family and friends of contestants. It was an unprecedented move, she said: “This was an open event until all the negative publicity from the media. And because of this we had to close the event. And that’s too bad because we have never closed any of Universal Royalty pageants until now.”

Dunn is critical of Hill’s handling of the media: “You have to be careful what you wish for. No pun intended, but you need to be prepared when the spotlight shines on you.”

The Universal Royalty-organised pageant will make its Australian debut in Melbourne on July 29-30 at an undisclosed location. It was originally to be held at Bram Leigh Receptions in the outer Melbourne suburb of Croydon but owners bowed to pressure from anti-child pageant protest groups and cancelled. Hill refused to reveal any specific details surrounding the event.

It prompted Catherine Manning to launch “Pull the Pin”, a campaign against US-style child beauty pageants, outside parliament houses around the country yesterday. Manning told Crikey child beauty pageants are harmful because they created a narrow beauty ideal based strictly on physical appearances.

“The girls are highly s-xualised and beautified, even if you took that away there is still competition amongst girls,” she said.

Mother of two Julie, a protester at the Melbourne rally, said: “To build self-worth and self-esteem in children is not by dressing them up in tiaras and tiny, little frilly pink petticoats. It’s not OK. They wear false teeth, false eyelashes, false hair and that’s just wrong.”

The protests were also attended by young people, including 16-year-old student Damarius who came along as part of an excursion organised by her teacher. “We did a debate at school on beauty pageants and it really opened our eyes to the side effects of them,” she said. “They should be young while they can. It’s a child’s choice.”

Dunn is keen to point out there are many benefits that arise from pageants, but notes this is rarely reported on because it doesn’t make “good copy”. “Did you know that many of those who win pageants are debt free [due to prize winnings] and go on to graduate from college? It has also given many Hollywood stars their start in the entertainment industry, including Ashton Kutcher and Eva Longoria,” he said.

Manning hopes the campaign will kick-start a discussion in the community about how young girls navigate around an increasingly s-xualised society. “We need to start addressing the culture for our girls and if we can at least get some guidelines, perhaps consider age restrictions, and letting them decide when they are old enough to participate,” she said.

“As for the protesting, everyone has the right to freedom of speech and their own opinion,” Hill said.

But there is a silver lining to all the unwanted attention. Hill told Crikey, “However because of all the negative publicity we have gotten a lot of contestants for the pageant. I can tell you, we have a lot of contestants, because of the media.”

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%