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Video: The world of child beauty pageants

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TODAY contributor
updated 1/27/2009 12:44:08 PM ET 2009-01-27T17:44:08

Two years after “Little Miss Sunshine” made a splash at the Oscars, the spotlight is shining once again on the often cute — and often controversial — world of child beauty pageants. But a panel of parents and their young, competing offspring assembled by TODAY said that putting their children in front of the stage lights builds their confidence rather than distorting their self-image.

The moppets and their parents appeared as cable channel TLC was about to premiere a new reality series, “Toddler and Tiaras,” that casts a probing eye on some of the estimated 5,000 child beauty pageants held in the U.S. each year, and the occasional extremes parents go to in trying to push their children into the winner’s circle. But parent Phyllis Jones, accompanied by 9-year-old daughter Meaghan, told Ann Curry Tuesday she’s used the pageants to help make her daughter more outgoing.

“I was trying to give Meaghan some exposure as far as public speaking,” Jones, of Garland, Texas, told Curry. “When she was young, she was really, really shy. I wanted her to develop her own type of personality.”

A big business
When a New Jersey amusement park first staged a kiddie pageant in 1961 to drum up customers, no one predicted it would become a multimillion-dollar business that sees thousands of kids strut their stuff on stages across the country each year, often wearing adult-looking clothes and costumes. Though participation took a dive following the media frenzy around the murder of child pageant contestant JonBenet Ramsey in 1996, today the number of contestants is again growing.

For 7-year-old Allie Richardson, of Lexington, S.C. — accompanied on TODAY by her mom, Joy — the pageants are a way to bond with her peers: “I like doing the pageants because they’re fun and I like making new friends. Sometimes I get to be in other pageants with my friends. And when my friends win, then I’m really happy for them.

“I like winning, too,” the well-spoken child added. “But winning isn’t everything.”

Video: The world of child beauty pageants (on this page) But for Payton LeMasters of Charleston, W. Va. — who just announced his retirement from the pageant circuit at the ripe old age of 6 — the spoils of victory are paramount.

“I have liked it, because it’s fun and I win. And I feel good when I win, like I get big stuff,” he told Curry.

Payton’s father, Joshua, elaborated: “He’s won bikes before, he enjoys getting trophies, sashes, things like that. He likes to win anything, whether it’s a slip of paper or a 6-foot trophy.”

But mom Nicole LeMasters pointed out that she and her husband have long worked toward keeping Payton “normal and grounded” and stressed to him that “it doesn’t matter if you win or lose.”

Behind the makeup
Still, child psychologists have suggested that having children compete in pageants can wreak havoc on their psyches. Curry asked the parents whether they feared an overemphasis on appearances could distort their kids’ self-images.

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“It depends on the way you carry yourself and the way your child carries themselves,” replied Jones, whose daughter has competed since she was just 8 months old. “When you dress them in a certain manner, you know you have people that would think certain things. But wearing makeup just enhances their beauty in beauty pageants only. We don’t wear makeup during playtime, we don’t wear makeup to school.”

Jones added that her daughter participates in a wide array of activities, from cheerleading to gymnastics to dance. “I just want to give Meaghan a choice of things she could do in life.” Slideshow: Beauty before age

Joy Richardson said that when it comes to dolling up young Allie for a pageant, she goes for a fashionable but modest look. “She has an outfit that has a halter-type style,” she said. “I don’t think it’s anything obscene. I don’t want to put her up on stage and make her look 35.”

Richardson added that Allie first gained enthusiasm for competing in beauty pageants from watching the Miss America pageant on television, but is quick to add, “If she says she’s done, then we’ll be done. We ask her from time to time.”

Nicole LeMasters says she realized it was time to retire Payton from the pageant circuit after he was “starting to win the same titles over again.” The fact that an older brother ribs him about competing may also have played a part. “His older brother would say, ‘You should do boy stuff like racing.’ ”

The series “Toddlers and Tiaras” premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on TLC.

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