Remember when TLC was still the learning channel? Today, the long-running basic cable network relies not on educational content to draw in viewers, but on reality TV series, for which shocking audiences and pushing boundaries are often the best way to build word-of-mouth.
Controversy is therefore baked into the premise of TLC series– like Toddlers & Tiaras, the forerunner to Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo that follows the young contestants and controlling parents who frequent child beauty pageants.
Child beauty pageants are, in the first place, morally questionable endeavors that run the risk of objectifying young children and empowering control-freak tendencies in their parents.
Toddlers & Tiaras became a polarizing media sensation for highlighting all the worst parts about the people involved in these pageants, though at times its antics crossed the line between standard reality TV belligerence to instances of possible abuse that TLC would probably prefer not to revisit.
It’s time to review some of the series’ darkest moments, including both moments that made a media splash but were unfairly forgotten and even darker secrets that the show tried to keep from the viewing public.
With that said, here are the 15 Secrets You Never Knew About Toddlers & Tiaras.
15. The Pageant Director Scam
One episode of Toddlers & Tiaras ended anticlimactically but unexpectedly when the pageant promoter made off with all the contestant’s cash before the competition concluded.
A pageant director going by the name of Lisa Fulgham-Taggett scammed more than $15,000 at the pageant being filmed for the TLC series, leaving the parents squabbling and the episode without a clear ending.
A preliminary search online reveals that the organization’s website was shut down, suggesting a sort of fraud that is distressingly common in the child beauty pageant circuit.
Allegedly, many fickle pageant promoters will travel from town-to-town advertising pageants with expensive entry-fees justified by the promise of modelling work for the winners, which, of course, never materializes.
14. Carley and Melissa “are the same person”
For a genuinely chilling example of how excessive pressure from a controlling parent can harm a child’s psyche, look no further than contestant Carley, whose mother Melissa could be seen on the show discouraging her from acting out with whispered insistences that “You’re going to be a very sorry girl; we are on national television; everyone is going to see this” (helpfully subtitled by the series producers).
She also forced Carley to bleach her naturally-brown hair for a pageant. When asked in this sequence if she was excited to see her friends, Carley replied, “I don’t have any friends.”
Though it’s generally obvious that Carley doesn’t like competing, Melissa says she’s “as close to an exact replica of me as there could ever be, and I feel like her and I are the same person… I just feel like that’s me on stage.”
Apparently, to cope with all this pressure, the five-year-old Carley developed a legitimate split-personality alter ego named Darla, who tells her mother: “If I don’t win, I’m gonna be pissed.”
13. Manipulative Editing
Maxine Tinnel went on to detail some of the specific ways that Toddlers & Tiaras tends to use manipulative editing to make its pageants appear as dramatic as possible.
For starters, the competitions are nowhere near as competitive as the they might appear — though children are made to appear on camera at least three times, they’ll also have down-time when kids will sit on the floor together coloring or go out to eat with their parents.
“I don’t know why they show on almost every episode that the kids don’t eat, because they do. I would love to have someone come in and film a pageant without a bunch of editing where a mom says, ‘Oh, my God, this is just horrible’ and she is actually talking about the weather, not the kids,’” she said.
12. The Psychological Ramifications
Though it rarely paints them in a wholly positive light, Toddlers & Tiaras gives legitimacy to child beauty pageants in which young girls like Mia, Paisley, and Madisyn are paraded onstage in suggestive outfits and judged based on their appearances — in particular by using these girls to draw ratings and drum up publicity.
There are surely pageant parents who don’t go so far, but they may still run the risk of teaching unwanted values and behaviors that may affect their children’s self-perception for life.
A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association found that exposing girls to suggestive media content (like, say, Pretty Woman or Madonna videos) can negatively impact their cognitive and emotional development and cause increased risk of low self-esteem, depression, and diminished sexual health.
When confronted by CNN for a comment on their series complicity in this issue, TLC remained silent.
11. Dolly Parton Padding
An episode filmed in 2011 featured Lindsay Jackson and her then-four-year-old daughter Madisyn Verst competing at the Hearts and Crowns Pageant Winter Extravaganza.
Maddy won, but inspired outrage for dancing around in a sparkly Dolly Parton costume padded with a faux-bust and butt. She was even featured on the cover of People with the headline “Gone Too Far?” and appeared on numerous morning talk shows with her mother defending the decision
Jackson said on Fox & Friends that she wouldn’t have used the costume had she foreseen the media scrutiny, and that Maddy had only worn the costume three times out of “hundreds” of pageants she had competed in “since she was a baby.”
10.”Go Go Juice”
Before she and her family spunoff into their controversy-courting reality show Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo, competing toddler Alana Thompson (aka Honey Boo-Boo) was featured on the show bragging that her “special juice is going to help me win… My Go-Go Juice is kicking in right now.”
“Go-Go Juice” refers to the highly-caffeinated concoction of Mountain Dew and Red Bull that her mother “Mama” June Shannon gives her before the pageants.
Apparently, Shannon only started using “Go-Go Juice” to supplement the two bags of powdered Pixy Stix — also worryingly called “pageant crack” — when they were no longer enough to keep Honey Boo-Boo alert throughout long pageant days, suggesting that she built a tolerance to the excessive amounts of sugar and caffeine.
Shannon explained the practice saying, “Your personality has to shine a long day… A pageant day can last from 7 in the morning to 6,7,8,9, 10 at night, so performing and getting a kid up that early and lasting all day without a rest, you have to energize their body.”
9. The Street Worker Costume
Here’s another poor costume choice that had almost everyone in the media asking what the parent was thinking. This time, the parent was Wendy Dickey, who had her daughter Paisley take the stage dressed in the same blond wig and skimpy garb that Julia Roberts’ character wears in Pretty Woman when she’s working as a street worker.
Even other pageant moms were upset with the costume choice and blamed Dickey for going too far and painting the entire pageant circuit in a poor light.
Dickey’s confused comments in her own defense only made things worse. Rather than admit to accidentally objectivity her daughter, Paisley’s mom said it was a just a bit of “adult humor that the parents get that the children don’t get.”
8. Eyebrow Waxing
Another episode of Toddlers & Tiaras and yet another instance of potential child abuse. This particularly disturbing example featured five-year-old Alexis getting her eyebrows waxed against her will, again sending the message to girls at a young age that beauty must be acquired.
Her mother insists upon the treatment and tries to entice her with candy at the end of it, but it’s clear that Alexis is afraid from the way she squirms and cries in her seat.
“She had a bad experience,” her mom explains, “the wax was way too hot, and it actually ripped off her skin… So she’s been kinda terrified since then.” After Alexis has finished hyperventilating and received her promised lollipop, mom makes one final remark: “Normally, I would just hold her down and ripped it off.”
7. Caffeine & Sugar for Kids
Unfortunately, “pageant crack” isn’t a concept unique to Honey Boo-Boo’s family. It’s actually common for parents in the child beauty pageant circuit to keep their kids supplied with sugary treats like Skittles and Pixy Stix to help them cope with that grueling, nap-free pageant schedules that would otherwise inspire temper tantrums and tears for the lack of time to sleep or play.
Mama June’s insistence that “everyone does it” only raises further concerns, since excessive sugar and caffeine consumption can lead to physical addiction and increased risk of cardiovascular problems, especially in children. Shannon was nonetheless rewarded for her attention-getting form of child rearing with her family’s own reality series on the same network.
This tendency to supply kids with unhealthy substances for the sake of competition among pageant parents might actually be worsened by the addition of television cameras, which can heighten the parents’ obsessive behavior to become a “princess by proxy” — to borrow a term for the troubling phenomenon coined by University of Arizona professor Martina Cartwright for a piece in Psychology Today.
6. The Financial Burden
It costs money to compete in pageants that prize immaculate looks and expensive garb for children who quickly grow out of their clothes. ABC reports that an estimated 250,000 children compete in a total of 5,000 pageants in the US each year. Many pageant families have plunged into debt spending for the recurring competitions rather than on essentials like rent.
That wasn’t quite the case for Mickie Wood — mother of popular contestant Eden, who appeared on Toddlers & Tiaras and briefly on her own series called Eden’s World — who said in 2009 that her family was fine with spending $70,000 on her daughter’s pageant prep.
Expenses included professional photos, spray-tanning, coaching, and a $3,000 dress. “Is that excessive?” Wood said. “It probably is. But there’s no telling how much we have invested in my child’s future in every aspect.”
5. The Custody Battle
Maddy’s time in the spotlight on Toddlers & Tiaras ended up leading to another skirmish in the ongoing custody battle between mom Lindsay and her ex-husband Bill Verst, who had been previously imprisoned on theft charges.
Verst opposed Maddy’s involvement with the series and with pageants as a whole, and brought the matter to Kentucky Family Court, where Judge Richard A. Woeste ordered Maddy compete in no more than four per every 12-month period — a big step down.
After another arrest for Verst, a court-appointed psychologist investigated concerns on both sides. Among his concerns was that the pageants may be emotionally-damaging to their daughter — particularly with regards to premature objectification.
He stopped short of saying that she should quit pageants entirely, but recommended a shared custodial arrangement. This was a blow for Lindsay, who took to the cable talk-circuit looking for support before the court issued a gag order, sending her to social media instead.
4. Staging Pageants
Most reality shows have a rather tenuous connection to actual reality, and Toddlers & Tiaras is no exception. Pageant organizer Maxine Tinnel alleged that the series purposely casts the most eccentric possible mother-daughter duos and then heavily manipulates the footage they capture, usually to paint them in a poor light.
Tinnel says that she was responsible for staging at least six pageants that existed just for the show at her own expense, while the featured parents and children — even veritable stars like Eden Wood — were also unpaid for their time appearing on the series.
3. Neglectful Parents
We’ve covered how excessive pressure can harm pageant kids, but what about the parents’ neglect of their other children who aren’t pageant-ready? Sadly, this is a common theme on Toddlers & Tiaras.
Many parents often show favoritism towards one child at the expense of another, which is apparently encouraged by the pageantry’s narrow definition of beauty and success.
One mom praised her younger son but said of her older daughter, “I hope [she] can learn to accept failure.” The mother of the identical Sterling twins said one of the girls was undoubtedly prettier because she more closely resembled her, ignoring the feelings of the girl’s twin and three other siblings.
2. The Madonna Outfit
Lindsay Jackson defended her daughter’s Dolly Parton outfit with the rationalization that, had they been dressing children for a Madonna lookalike contest, no one would have batted an eye at a toddler sporting a cone bra. Actually, however, another patented Toddlers & Tiaras controversy followed exactly yjis kind of poor costume choice.
In the episode, audiences meet two-year-old Mia, who loves everything ’80s — at least according to her mother. She’s seen at home dancing to a Madonna song by tearing off a white angel costume to reveal a gold formfitting bodysuit complete with the singer’s famous pointy-coned bra.
The episode was filmed after an online video of Mia doing the same routine — with her mother even coming onstage to guide her shimmying hips — went viral, meaning that the TLC series likely featured Mia to specifically court and cash in on this kind of controversy.
1. Fake “Smoking”
Almost every episode of Toddlers & Tiaras features children emulating the behavior and style of dress of grown-ups to a worrying degree.
Few instances sparked more controversy, however, than when four-year-old contestant Destiny Christian came out dressed as a dolled-up Sandra Dee from the finale of the musical Grease, complete with a fake cigarette. Her mother Lisa even advised her before going onstage, “Don’t forget to smoke!”
When the pageant judges and many media outlets reacted with outrage, Destiny’s mother defended the decision, saying she that would never give her daughter a real cigarette to smoke and that, in the movie, “Sandy was a good girl and she didn’t smoke either, but she used it for image.”
This seems to send the message that smoking is alright when used in service of “image” — which may appear the most important consideration of all for young contestants who are made to wear false eyelashes and teeth in service of the competitions.
Can you think of any other dark secrets about Toddlers & Tiaras? Let us know in the comments.
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