Updated Toddlers & Tiaras Drama

After a three year hiatus, my (least) favorite show is back: TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras. Season 7 is slightly revamped and for better or for worse, it more accurately portrays some key aspects of the child beauty pageant community. toddlerslogoNow, I've gone on record before that I think Toddlers & Tiaras is pretty damaging to the kids, the families involved, and the pageant world. I still think that's true, but I can appreciate that this iteration is a bit more honest about some of the behind-the-scenes real-life aspects of child pageantry, and not just completely edited for a TV audience. Although I can't help but point out that this is a show ABOUT kids, but not FOR kids as many episodes have a TV14 rating due to raunchy language (a combination of real life and trumped up behavior for cameras). In one of the more disturbing things I've ever heard, a grown woman on this show yells, "Go have another baby with another man to get a cute kid!"

More than the first six seasons, this one shows the drama not only between moms but also between moms and coaches and coaching groups. These group dynamics are actually quite important to understanding the pageant world. The main focus is Cambrie's Court, but other coaching groups (The Sassy Supremes and Top Models) also rotate through the show. It's nice to show some continuity across episodes and see how rivalries intensify or dissipate.

The show also sheds some light on the Internet dynamics at play. In an early episode this season the Sassy Supreme moms discuss what moms have been writing on Facebook, for example. While some anonymous pageant message boards still exist, much of what is said now is "public" and identifiable on social media-- though that sadly doesn't seem to have lessened extreme things parents say about other parents...

Finally, unlike in other seasons, the COI ("conflict of interest," which used to be abbreviated as COI on those old anonymous boards) is front and center. For example, when the Sassy Supremes compete at a pageant run by the coach's mom! It's also alluded to among vendors, like when a H&M artist ("hair and make-up") refuses to do some children's hair and make-up because they are with a different coaching group.

The exorbitant amounts of money spent (sometimes-- scratch that, almost always-- by those who don't have it), the artificial enhancements to young girls (one of the enduring images of this season will be seeing a 7-year-old pop out her "flipper" [fake teeth] and peel off her eyelashes while in an interview), and the screaming are the same. One screaming fight really bothered me because it centered around a young girl with special needs who received extra coaching while on stage. If the other mother hadn't attacked it could have been a positive experience even if she didn't "win." But with cameras rolling, it turned into something almost certainly damaging. Sweet girl, get yourself to a Miss You Can Do It Pageant instead! But TLC likely wouldn't show that as it's not extreme enough...

But thanks to Season 7 you get to guffaw while reading DanThat'sCool!'s recaps!

The Dissimilarities Between Honey Boo Boo and Malala Yousafzai

Almost exactly two years ago I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about the ways in which Alana Thompson (aka "Honey Boo Boo") and Malala Yousafzai are similar. My, how times have changed. Malala is now a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Alana Thompson's show has been axed and her safety is in question as her mother dates a child molester, who shockingly was convicted of molesting one of Alana's older sisters while another older sister was in the room. Celebrity Sightings In Los Angeles - October 15 2012

In some ways, what I wrote in October 2012 still applies. For instance, "Alana's life, like Malala's, is no longer private. While Alana's fans don't hate her the way the Taliban hate Malala, Honey Boo Boo's safety is in question." Although I meant safety in a bigger sense since it always seemed like Alana was safe at home: "Clearly there are serious safety concerns about placing real children -- who are not characters, like child performers -- in the public eye. If we are complicit in these children's fame, and their compromised safety, by watching and reaching about their lives, we must be willing to change the underlying social problems that they represent."

Perhaps even more relevant and significant today is this line I wrote, "Honey Boo Boo reveals deep social inequality in American society that, while not as life-threatening as that in Pakistan, is quite serious." Unfortunately crime is one dimension of inequality today. Of course there were plenty of warning signs that something was amiss. First, June always refused to legally wed Honey Boo Boo's father, Sugar Bear. They had a commitment ceremony with camo dresses, but never sealed the deal. Now we know why-- Shannon was waiting for convicted felon McDaniel. That June, in her early thirties and already a grandmother, had four daughters from four different men might also raise some warning flags. But most significantly it was know that the eldest, Anna, who was pregnant during the first season, had basically been raised by her grandmother. Well, now we know the real reason why.

That said, while I was often disgusted by the family (I wrote in another Huffington Post piece that, "However, the failure of Eden's World to garner a large number of viewers, especially when compared to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, indicates that it may indeed be much better to be your real self -- fat, flatulence, filth and all -- than to pretend to be something you aren't."), my impression was always that the family genuinely loved one another. That has now disintegrated.

I also have always given Shannon credit for protecting the children's money-- including her granddaughter-- especially because other reality show parents have made very different choices. While it's great that the five girls will get funds when they turn 21, the current situation makes me think she knew this could come out and at least she would have done something concrete to help the future of her offpsring. It was almost like they were milking it for all it was worth, not unlike families like the Robertsons or the Karsashians, but they also knew what could happen a la the Gosselins but much worse with the law involved.

There's no question the show is kaput and I'll be curious if TLC ever addresses the entrance of an America's Most Wanted Element to the reality soup of the family. The family will now take on a new kind of infamy. I just hope they can heal their private dynamics and stay safe.

I'm guessing we haven't heard the last word from Honey Boo Boo or Malala. Let's hope the latter can bring some peace to the life of the former...

Catching Up on TV, Part 1: The Summer of the Stage Parents

Yes, it's October, I know. But between reading, writing, and childcare I'm still working my way through my DVR from August (DVR may be this mom's favorite technological innovation, behind the iPad which helps me AND Carston). In previous summers I have done a wrap-up of stage moms and dance shows, but this year there were so many shows (either a good thing, or a scary thing, I can't decide), I'm breaking up the post into two parts. So, look for my thoughts on dance next week.

In the meantime, I'm talking about three shows I've previously written about:

1) Bet on Your Baby- I was actually surprised when ABC brought this show back for a second season. Not only did I find it pretty abhorrent, but I didn't think it got great ratings. Then again no Saturday night show is expected to draw a lot of eyes and this was probably pretty cheap for them to produce (you can tell from the hostess' wardrobe that they tape many in a single day). Actually this season had even more sponsors ("Walmart With Every Little Step Babydome" and "Luvs Baby Bio"), but there was also more diversity in the contestants this season. For instance, there was a grandma and a mom and not just male/female couples. It also seemed like there was fewer psychology games/experiments and more "fun" games. Still, when a parent bet AGAINST their child it was pretty painful, especially when the child pulled through. In one case it ended ok because the family won fun college tuition at the end, but I still worry the little girl will think her dad doesn't believe in her. One of the lines on the show seems especially true: "Where the stakes are huge and the competitors are miniature." I still find the show in bad taste, though less so than before, and hope it isn't back for season 3.

2) (Jon and) Kate Plus 8- This show came back for many more than three seasons and over the summer a one-off special ran updating people on the family's progress. What was most talked about though occurred on the media tour for the special when Kate had a very awkward live appearance with her eldest twins on The Today Show. In this case the show may have helped protect the kids somewhat by having other adults around, and at least they are getting some more income. But the Kate popularity train has basically left the station completely and it's all train wreck from here on out. Some day, one of them will write some tell-all. Nonetheless, I expect some sort of holiday special...

3) Kim of Queens- This show is still on, airing episodes from its second season, so I'm not completely tardy. And I actually like the show even more this season. The main reason why is that Kim Gravel remains the anti-Abby Lee Miller. In fact, she's so anti-Abby she asks one of her paying clients to leave because she can't deal with her mom, Angie. Angie and Marah still have appearances on the show (likely contractual), but even after Kim's sister tries coaching Marah it's clear Angie's style just doesn't gel with The Pageant Place. Good for them for standing their ground, and still being compassionate to Marah, while not worrying about the dollar and drama. I also love that Kim is aware it's not about winning any one specific pageant, but about the process to eventually win a big pageant, like Miss Georgia or Miss America. I especially loved when one mom realized she likes her tomboy daughter better, and Kim agrees that for two girls pageants aren't helping them. She knows they aren't a panacea, however you look, and she comes across as caring-- and funny. Someday I want to watch Miss America or Miss USA with HER!

Not all extreme parents shown on TV are stage parents, but believe me, quite a few are... Stay tuned for dance moms and dads next week for proof.

Teaching for a LIFETIME: My thoughts on Dance Moms, Bring It!, and Kim of Queens

Welcome to the world of Anti-Abby Lee Millers... Ironically brought to you by the network that made her famous, Lifetime. Building off the success (or infamy) of Dance Moms (a show I've written about quite a bit), the network debuted two new series this year: Kim of Queens and Bring It! Given the descent of Dance Moms into madness (it's one of the few "reality" shows where I believe some of the cast members truly hate one another, as evidenced by the arrest of Kelly Hyland), I guess it makes sense that someone had to be waiting in the wings and the network doesn't want to come off like Bravo, only creating drama-filled shows to make people famous. Dance Moms has become so divorced from reality with parents engaging in such egregious behavior that you have to think their contracts are so lucrative/ironclad that it's not worth stopping, or the only way to get off the show is to commit assault. In any case, I can't believe the show has made the players into stars,  as opposed to the negative backlash caused by Toddlers & Tiaras for many families. I mean, they now show the Dance moms (even relatively sane Holly!) painting on abs and arm muscles on their girls-- how is this any different from spray tans? I've asked this before because there are so many similarities between dance competitions and child beauty pageants for young girls, but so many more do dance that by sheer numbers it's not as marginalized as kiddie pageants. On top of the musculature-enhancing make-up, this year/season the girls often wear costumes with enhanced bust (though some are hitting puberty), which is also uncomfortable to watch at times. Also, the fact that sisters Maddie and Mackenzie (oh, excuse me, Mack Z!) are now homeschooled shows how far off the priorities have become and they are truly not kids living a competitive life, but performers 24/7. Despite all this drama, the show has managed to become boring because it's so formulaic. I for one would never want to go to a competition where the show is filming (for fear of rigging, delays, privacy issues, etc.); although I will admit that the show did give me a glimpse of one of my dance crushes, Blake McGrath, even if he did take a presumably large paycheck to work for Crazy Cathy, so I'm grateful for that

When Kim of Queens started I was initially a bit turned off-- and assumed they were looking to create a new Abby (and to fill the void creating by the cancelled Toddlers & Tiaras). With Kim Gravel portraying herself as country I thought she was trying to horn in on the Honey Boo Boo crowd as well. If that angle drew viewers initially though, it wasn't what made them (or me) stay because despite having contrived story lines and bring a bit silly at times, it became extremely clear that Coach Kim loves all her Pageant Place girls and truly wants the best for them. Her big heart (and voice and personality) and tears made for compelling viewing and her emphasis on growth, loss, and the long-term goal/win as opposed to the short-term win/title/crown was a refreshing message.  I of course know the show was staged-- especially so many of the gags with her own family-- and I disliked the way Kin of Queens brought in new girls all the time because the recruits didn't stick around often and it created extra drama when the natural story was more interesting. But overall it was a nice message, and for that reason the series hasn't been as big of a hit. I know Kim isn't always PC, but her comment about clogging being "tapping with hooves," made me laugh. Her aversion to clogging (even trying to transform it into Irish dance) is one example of her outsize personality and wackiness coming from a place of helpfulness and not pure egotism.


Dianna Williams of Lifetime's other new series, which has done well enough to warrant to additional episodes at the end of its run, including a sit-down reunion special, is similar. She is much tougher and even less diplomatic than Kim Gravel, but her students, the Dancing Dolls, face even bigger challenges (the fact that one of the girls' moms became a grandmother at 28 gives you a sense of the challenges in this community). I love that Dianna says she is preparing her "girls" for life and trying to teach them life lessons, which as you know I believe is possible through competitive activities and competitive dance, if done in a healthy way. Bring It! features a hop hop majorette team, which is a style of dance associated with the African-American community and affiliated with many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The producers often defined dance terms and moves, which even differ from more "traditional" dance. At times I thought talk of "technique" was a bit of a stretch but chalked it up to a different style; but in the finale when a dance team aficionado who was judging complained about the lack of pointed toes I realized the Dancing Dolls were a bit lacking. That said, it was interesting to learn about a new type of dance and all the different categories of competition. The "stand battle" was the biggest component, but there were field dances, captain's dances, burlesque, character, etc. I am sure it is much more complicated than the show let on even so I'd love an insider's perspective! The other refreshing thing about the show was that the body was portrayed in a much less self-conscious way. Compared to the thin Dance Moms girls who paint on muscles, the Bring It! girls embrace their bodies whatever their size and dance with energy and enthusiasm as well (note that this is well known to be more common in the African-American community and black girls/women have fewer incidences of eating disorders and body image problems). I didn't always understand the costume selections, but there is clearly a tradition there. However, my biggest pet peeve was the ripped fishnet stockings and the dance tights showing over the top of the costume pants. That said, the fact many of the girls had to wear "nude" stockings for a different skin tone shows that dance companies should make colors in a wider variety of shades.

While Dance Moms is now so popular it is basically never on hiatus-- constantly doing clips specials and now creating a second team, and a THIRD series starring Abby!-- I'll be tuning in to the shows that feature more positive performance coaches with a more realistic and valuable message. Be sure to check them out, especially if you don't like Dance Moms!

My Thoughts on Miss America 2014: The Return to Atlantic City and Other Pageant Controversies

It's been a little over two weeks since Nina Davuluri was crowned Miss America 2014. After an initial media burst, interest has faded a bit-- though she is still in the public eye more than I might have expected. Also, thanks to the French ban on child beauty pageants, a proposed ban in Quebec, and serious protests at Miss World, beauty pageants have remained very much in the public conversation. The 2014 Miss America Pageant got a lot of attention this year because of the return to Atlantic City and a September pageant date. A few contestants, like Miss Kansas, got the lions share of pre-pageant media attention (thanks to her tattoos, military background, and archery talent-- though no one but me seemed fascinated by her shade of bleached blonde hair that basically blended with her skin tone...). Miss New York, Nina Davuluri, got some negative press attention after a NY Post article quoted her as saying that Miss America 2013 (also from New York) was "[expletive] fat." Here are more details on that, and my thoughts on the controversy, published on Yahoo! Shine.

Because of the return to AC, Miss America even got attention from the paper of record's editorial page. I was one of six participants in a New York Times Room for Debate forum on whether Miss America is bad for women. You can read my piece (and the others) by clicking here. Was also a total bucket list moment when mine was one of three excerpted in Sunday's Review section!


Most of the comments-- both positive and negative-- were extremely thoughtful. While I can't respond to all of them, I did want to point out two facts as they directly relate to what I wrote and to several commenters. The first is that in addition to scholarship money Miss America actually earns a salary, which is six figures. Each state queen also earns appearance fees. If a winner never goes back to school (or has no student loans) she never sees that scholarship money, but she did in fact earn a nice chunk of pocket change for her year. Second, many women who never win a state title still earn a significant amount of scholarship money. For instance, when I judged Miss NJ, one woman who didn't even make Top 10 at the pageant still earned several thousand dollars in scholarships (note, NOT cash prize) thanks to her service and academic performance. At each local even swimsuit and talent winners earn scholarships that start at $100, or even $50, but the rewards add up each year.

Due to the NYT article I also had the pleasure of appearing on Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC the day of the Pageant, along with a former Miss America and some critics. Here I am sitting next to Soledad O'Brien (let's just say that in general it was a bucket list Sunday!):

54.You can watch the clip by clicking here, or watching below, and if you do you will see I tried to give historical and social context to where Miss America is today.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

In the second segment I didn't get a chance to give my point of view about young girls competing, which is why Prof. Harris-Perry asked me to write this follow-up piece on why I never competed as the daughter of a former Miss America.

(Lest you think I am uncritical of Miss America as well, think again. For instance, check out this piece I wrote that ran at The Forward about why it's hypocritical of Miss America to say it celebrates diversity when it was held during the High Holy Days for Jews, eliminating a segment of the population from competing.)

After leaving the MSNBC studios I hustled back to Atlantic City to see the live event. Here I am in front of the stage in Boardwalk Hall before the televised portion began:


Being in the audience is a bit like being in the audience at the Super Bowl (not that I've ever done that!); you would likely have a better view at home, but the atmosphere is great fun. In the live audience you don't get to see many of the "video packages" seen at home-- though we did get to see the taped opening number and hear the contestants' state intros (I admit I totally laughed out loud when Miss Vermont announced she was lactose intolerant).

It's also fun during commercial breaks, with people like Dena Rizzo keeping the audience entertained and happy. This also explains why I didn't make time to Tweet or anything-- it's all part of the show.

While I obviously missed the 20/20 special (though I watched it the next day), I knew all about Miss Florida's injury. I have to say that during her talent the entire audience was behind her and it was a special uplifting moment when she twirled so well (and interesting how people reacted by booing after the emcee cut off her [bad] on-stage answer). Plus, who can't get behind a BEDAZZLED knee brace?!

Even during the live pageant I just hated seeing the eliminated contestants forced to sit on stage and watch, I DETESTED the way talent was handled as usual (not letting contestants know beforehand so they can be properly prepared to do their best on national TV), and I disliked the constant talk about food and binging after the pageant.

Overall it was a strong Top 5 and could have gone several different ways, but when Miss New York was crowned I immediately thought: 1) Third time ever for back-to-back state winners, and 2) First ever Indian-American winner, how cool. It wasn't until the next day that I heard about the horribly racist online reaction, something that didn't even enter my mind when I headed off to visitation. But it did give rise to good articles (like this one) and an interesting way to welcome Vanessa Williams (also Miss Syracuse, New York, and America) back into the Miss America fold.

Miss America also got good ratings, its best in years, which likely helps explain the more sustained media attention. Also, the fact that beauty pageants have remained part of the media conversation every week since. The week after, France made headlines after passing a bill that included a ban for all pageants offered to girls under age 16 (this has been talked about for the past year, as I wrote about previously). For my thoughts on why this would never happen in the US, read my comments in USA Today and see a bit of my thoughts on why regulation is important at Al-Jazeera English. This legislation in French has led to discussion, but no action in Quebec (for my thoughts in French, click here) and Ireland.

One place where pageants are held, but not without controversy is Bali (and other Muslim countries)-- the site of the Miss World competition this year. After death threats, etc., the exact location was moved and a winner was chosen, and this controversy kept pageants in the news LAST week. On why pageants are inherently political, see my thoughts in this TODAY Style piece on how pageants have in fact always been political, and will remain so particularly in other parts of the world.

Who knows what pageant controversy next week will bring! Any guesses?!