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Look out, stage moms — here come the pageant dads

Lon Enos and David Perez are turning the stereotype of the pushy pageant mom on its tiara-crowned head, primping their daughters for kiddie beauty competitions. “I don’t think I’m exploiting her,” Perez said of his 4-year-old  Friday. “I’m shaping her future.”
/ Source: TODAY contributor

In the competitive and often controversial world of kiddie beauty pageants, Lon Enos and David Perez are turning the stereotype of pushy stage mothers on its tiara-crowned head. They are “pageant dads,” primping and coaching their little girls around the country in what they defend as an incredible bonding experience for papa and daughter.

Enos, dad of 11-year-old Hali’a, and Perez, dad of 4-year-old Ava, are already known to viewers of the TLC channel’s “Toddlers & Tiaras,” who have watched them put their girls through the pageant paces. Now the dads are featured in the new issue of People magazine; senior writer Joey Bartolomeo followed the families through a pageant weekend.

Appearing on TODAY Friday, Enos told Natalie Morales he could be taking his daughter to soccer on a weekend, but said that Hali’a lives for the thrill of junior beauty competition instead of sports.

“It’s like any sport, I guess; just watching her grow and basically learn more and more,” Enos said. “It’s just a fun thing to do with your daughter.”

Who beads the gown?
But Enos and Perez occupy an unusual place in a world in which control-freak moms are more the norm. Perez in particular is a self-proclaimed “Super Dad of Pageants” who coaches Ava on her on-stage moves, designs and sews her costumes, and does her makeup and hair.

Perez and his wife, Tanya, were drawn into the pageant world when they waltzed into one by chance. “[Ava] was 8 months old — she was a baby — and we were walking through the mall and saw a small pageant, and we said, ‘Well, every little girl does this, I guess,’ ” he told Morales. “So it started off from there, and she enjoyed it.”

And once Ava was immersed in the pageant scene, there wasn’t any question in the Perez household about who was going to take charge.

“My wife and I are always joking: If you need to fix a flat tire, you go to her; if you need to win Miss Universe, you go to me,” Perez told NBC. “I can bead a gown, but I can’t fix a flat tire.”

While children’s beauty pageants are often criticized for exploiting children at ever younger ages, psychologist Robi Ludwig told NBC she sees an upside to pageant fatherhood.

“What we are seeing now are these nurturing dads emerging,” she said. “Perhaps this is a positive thing, where daughters can enjoy and have a special relationship with their dads.”

Hali’a Enos certainly thinks so. Dad Lon helps her work on her talent routines, styles her hair, and helps with her attire, but Hali’a told Morales it’s his moral support that means the most to her.

“When I’m on stage, he will always shout for me, and then like I brighten up because I know he’s there to watch me and just support me,” she said.

‘Shaping her future’
Enos and Perez are clearly doing something right. Hali’a’s bedroom is literally choked with trophies, nearly 100 in all. And little Ava has won several local and national competitions, and, her dad notes, nearly always finishes in the Top 5.

“I don’t think I’m exploiting her,” Perez told Morales. “I think that I’m giving her outlets for her to see what she enjoys doing.

“Right now, it could be beauty pageants; later on, she could play softball. A child grows every single day, and so do their ideals. And it’s my job not to push her into pageants or push her into gymnastics. I feel like I’m shaping her future.”

Bartolomeo also addressed the exploitation issue, telling Morales her opinion changed after she spent a weekend on the circuit.

“I was really impressed by just the family nature of the whole thing, and the bonding experience that these guys go through with their daughters,” she told Morales. And as far as the little girls feeling the heat of competition, Bartolomeo says for the girls “they consider it like playing dress up … they really have a good time with it.”

But are pageant dads just a male version of cliche stage moms? TODAY viewer Candy from Macclenny, Fla., e-mailed the show about the meltdowns she’s seen watching “Toddlers & Tiaras.” “Sometimes I’m disappointed by the mother’s response,” she wrote. “Do you think as fathers you handle those situations differently?”

Perez fielded the question on air, telling Morales that when it comes to discipline, he wears the pants in the family.

“I’ve had quite a few meltdowns with her; she’s like any other child, they get tired,” he said as Ava, as in on cue, gave a big yawn. “But you handle it like a parent. It’s different to see a father out there in the pageants of course, but she sees me as kind of the main disciplinarian in the family, so she pretty much knows if she sees me, she needs to cool down a little bit.”

Bartolomeo observed that many pageant officials prefer dads to moms as coaches.

“When you see the dads, they definitely have a different kind of relationship with their daughters,” she said. “Pageant directors said that a lot of these guys are more laid back than the moms, and a lot of the dads are the ones offstage having fun with the girls.”