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Glitz and Drama Down Under

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The tension has been building for months -- the online protests started in April, and then there were the rallies in May. Not to mention the Facebook threats and numerous complaints to public officials. Despite all the brouhaha, an "American-style" child beauty pageant sponsored by Texas-based Universal Royalty took place over the weekend in Melbourne, Australia.

About 80 girls competed and 200 people attended the pageant. The event was not open to the general public, but it was covered by Australia's A Current Affair. All in all it seems the event was a success.

The pageant was not drama-free though. But it wasn't the protesters, demonstrating about 3 km away, who caused a fuss. Rather it was Eden Wood, the "child beauty pageant star" from the U.S. who had traveled to Australia to meet her fans and help promote the event.

Eden Wood was a no-show over the weekend.

Well, she wasn't quite a no-show. She didn't show up for the child beauty pageant show, opting instead for a show where she was the star. Eden's mother, Mickie, initially said she pulled Eden out of her scheduled appearance (in which people had paid money to meet her and get autographs) because of safety concerns. But it quickly emerged that a rival television (Today Tonight) had offered the Woods money, essentially keeping her away from the pageant held in Northcote Town Hall in Darebin. It was rumored the payday was about $70,000 for the Woods, a figure Mickie denied. In any event, Eden was kept away from the pageant, in an art gallery with blacked out windows located just across the street from the Town Hall. One prominent Australian pageant supporter lashed out at Mickie Wood saying, "You did not make the mummy decision, you made a money decision. Your child was never under any threat."

It's easy to criticize child beauty pageants for placing too much attention on looks and perhaps prematurely sexualizing young girls. This has been the biggest complaint heard in Australia (I'd like to note that I found Collett Smart's, a psychotherapist in Australia who has vocally opposed the pageant there, remarks very even-handed and spot-on: "No, I didn't see shocking parents. I saw parents who do love their kids. But I also saw children judged solely on their outward appearance"). But as a sociologist who has studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, I find the "business" aspects of child beauty pageants just as worrisome. The situation with Eden Wood is emblematic of how many adults in the child beauty pageant world behave -- the focus is on money more than on child safety.

The good thing that has happened in Australia is that because of all the (negative) attention, regulators and organizers have been careful to make sure that the event was run correctly. Australian authorities were right that they couldn't stop the pageant from happening -- as on its own there is nothing illegal about it -- but they could make sure it was as safe as possible. Universal Royalty was expected to prove it was a legitimate business and issue receipts (some complained that they did not receive receipts for pageant fees when requested, but this issue remains unresolved). All pageant employees were also required to obtain "working with children checks." While it appears that in the future these types of events won't be welcome at town halls, they will likely still be held, particularly at hotels like their American cousins (if they aren't welcome at hotels then the link between "Irish Traveler" events and child beauty pageants becomes stronger in my eyes).

Hopefully Universal Royalty will bring back some of the business best practices enforced in Australia and those will spread on the US pageant circuit (stay tuned for the next season of Toddlers & Tiaras?), just as the events themselves continue to spread across Australia. The next scheduled child beauty pageant in Australia is the "The Outback Full Glitz Pageant" to be held August 20th. I'm guessing Eden and Mickie Wood aren't invited.