We usually think of child beauty pageants as an American phenomenon. After all, they make up a booming industry in America. It was estimated in 2013 that there were around 5,000 child pageants across the U.S.A., with 250,000 kids entering each year. Kids pageants have even been depicted on screen, in films like 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, the HBO documentary Living Dolls, and famous U.S. series Toddlers & Tiaras.
According to popular opinion, this all started back in the 1960s, when New Jersey's Palisades Amusement Park held a “Little Miss America” competition – a pageant that attracted a staggering 6,000 entrants each week. It formulated the notion of what a child beauty pageant looks like today: girls aged just five to ten years old came along to be judged on their poise, looks and personality, with one girl ultimately crowned the winner.
Hilary Levey Friedman is a sociologist who specialises in these types of pageants. She argues that the idea actually originates from Britain. At the end of the 19th century, she writes, May Queen festivals were held around the UK, where "one girl would be selected queen, the 'likeablest and loveablest' of all the maidens." It only seems natural then, that kids pageants would make their way back over to the UK eventually; by 2010, they were common enough here for the BBC to make a documentary, Baby Beauty Queens, which looked at how ethically responsible they are. What it uncovered was tantrums, competitive parents, and kids wearing fake tan. Despite this, child beauty pageants are still held in cities around Britain today.
Curious about how these UK pageants look, and how they match up to the U.S. versions popularised in the media, London-based documentary photographer Bex Day has decided to start shooting UK kids pageants for an ongoing project. "I wanted to question the boundaries," explains Bex, "and to understand why parents put their children in a position where they are allowed to wear make up at such a young age."Bex decided to go along to one of "Pam’s Pageants" – regional talent and beauty contests held for babies right through to adolescents across the UK. “Baby beautiful", "Tiny Miss", "Mini Miss", and "Miss Teen Queen” are just a handful of the categories you can expect to see at these events.
The pageant Bex chose was held in Leicester. She describes it as more intimate than she expected – probably because a lot of people were off on their summer holidays. “It wasn’t as hectic as I’d anticipated and the scale was actually really small," she says. For Bex, this meant more time shooting mothers and daughters, some of whom had travelled as far as Bedfordshire and had bought new dresses for the occasion. “It was interesting to see how passionate each child was and how they'd prepared so much,” said Bex. “I wish I had that much confidence as a child!”
Pam has been helping organise pageants since the 1980s, including Miss Asia, Miss England and Miss East Anglia. In 2008, she noticed a market for mini pageants in Britain, and launched her own – Mini Miss Worldwide and Mini Man Worldwide, for girls and boys respectively. Such are their popularity, Pam now franchises her concept to qualified individuals looking to hold regional heats.
Part of the reason for doing this, explains Pam, was that people kept pinching her idea; “I’ve been doing it such a long time that some people who have entered seem to think they can open their own.” Pam found that people were stealing her titles too; “It’s like using Miss England’ – there’s only one Miss England! They’ve done their research because they’ve taken part in my pageants – they know full well it's my name."
One of the things that Bex was most surprised to see at Pam's pageant was the young age of entrants – some as young, she says, as a year old. "I found this unsettling – I just feel this is way too young for a baby to be in a pageant and he was clearly unaware of what was going on."
Because of their ages, Pam makes sure pageant contestants are looked after with a firm set of rules; “They mustn’t wear high shoes, especially under a certain age, usually about nine or ten... you just can’t do it. And sometimes the parents want these great big American tiaras, but you can’t have it on the child’s head if it’s going to cause injuries. I won't let anyone under 17 show a lot of flesh, either... it’s bad taste.”
The fact that Pam has to enforce these rules worryingly demonstrates that children who compete in pageants need them to be there for their own protection. "If parents let them get away with it, then directors of pageants will let them get away with it," says Pam, before adding that "there needs to be care and consideration for those taking part in order to keep things clean.”
One of the other things Pam expresses concern about is parents pushing their kids too hard; she says that, sometimes, the competitive nature of the pageants can wear on everyone involved. They’re usually all day events, and Pam has seen families get up early to arrive on time, and finish so late that they’ve had to sleep at train stations because they’ve missed their trains. Pam discourages this type of thing, along with, of course, any animosity at the event itself. "I get disappointed if people aren’t being honest and straightforward or if I see bickering going on,” admits Pam.
Over the years, she's experienced her fair share of sore losers, too – mothers who have been upset if their daughters haven’t won. “I never feel stressed when I’m doing the pageants,” says Pam, "but I have had mothers saying 'it’s alright darling, you’ll win my pageant' and then they've gone off and put on their own."
Overall, Bex found that the kids who were old enough to be there on their own terms genuinely seemed to enjoy taking centre stage – especially the “when I grow up” round, where entrants present what they want to be when they’re older, and the talent round, which involved everything from musical instruments, to dancing, to magic tricks. "It was a confidence boost for the children and enhancing for their personalities, for them to learn to be more outgoing."
There's no doubt children's beauty pageants encourage stiff competition, false body image ideals and superficial judgement. However, Bex and Pam recognise the positive elements too; "It's an opportunity to make their parents proud", says Pam, when asked why the kids take part. "I think some of them made friends," says Bex. "They seemed to be bonding throughout the day, and when the winners were announced, the kids genuinely seemed to be happy for one another."