Game of Clowns-- Oh, I mean CRowns

I have now officially caught up on my TV watching; I was sick for a day this week and ended up binge watching Bravo's Mrs. Pageant series Game of Crowns. But, really, a more accurate title would have been Game of CLOWNS. It's like they took the worst elements of so many reality shows (Toddlers & Tiaras, Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, etc.), mixed it up with a bunch of "fame whores" (as one of the contestants calls another on the show), and put it on Bravo.

Unlike Toddlers & Tiaras, Dance Moms, or Kim of Queens, each episode is not devoted to a competition. In fact only a few pageants are shown as the drama is really between the women in other aspects of their lives (clothing, husbands, legal action, etc.). In this respect this is like a knock-off Real Housewives show-- I suppose it would be The Real Housewives of New England given everyone is from CT and RI (and since our family is moving to Rhode Island sometime in 2015 I guess I learned a bit about towns like Cranston and Johnston).

IMG_0888Yes, I just snuck some big news in there. Starting in January 2015 I will be part of the Department of America Studies at Brown University and my husband will be in the Economics Department at Brown!

Like so many reality shows there is much we don't know. For instance, why did we never see the husband of the too-classy/beautiful-for-this-show Shelly Carbone? What's the back story on these women's previous pageant experiences, before they were married? Are their current husbands the fathers of their children? How do Mrs. Pageants work in terms of categories about age, children, talent, etc.?

It should be obvious, but just in case it's not, Mrs. America has absolutely nothing to do with Miss America and Mrs. United States has absolutely nothing to do with Miss USA. In fact, in case you missed it, these women all compete in the same NE pageant systems run by the same family-- a married husband and wife and their daughter who emcees and sings looking to get her 15 minutes. Unclear if this is because there aren't other options or these are the only people who would agree to be on camera.

Needless to say, talent isn't included at these events and I had to laugh when everyone said how important INTERVIEW is and then it was revealed these interviews last THREE MINUTES. At Miss America pageants interview is 10 minutes and it's not even close to enough time. But three minutes? Very funny.

The women all tan, use Botox, fake hair, nails, etc. Some even have blue hair. Yet they all look different given that some are moms and some aren't. Lori-Ann Marchese was the only one without kids, and she comes from the world of "fitness competitions." I really saw a strong resemblance between her and the reigning Miss America, Kira Kazantsev.

The season is filled with typical female reality show fights about jump suits, bets, breast cancer walks vs. vow renewals, and rogue stylists. And then things take a darker turn when death threats are made followed by alleged private investigators, and then a restraining order. Things actually got physical a year after filming ended at the premiere party at Foxwoods (one of the women, half Native American, is married to a part owner of the resort-- and given the history of Foxwoods and the Mashantucket there is some backstory there I am sure [I read Without Reservation many years ago, which I found interesting]).

I can't imagine a second season, but I expect to see more from a few of them, like Shelly Carbone who is Bravo material, and Susanna Paliotta who has now been on TLC (through Toddlers & Tiaras, and who I wrote about at The Huffington Post when she called herself "Susanna Barrett" and linked up with the Eden Wood fame train) and Bravo, so I'm guessing Lifetime is next. I expect more clowning around, with crowns.

Unleashing Momsters: It's a Small World of Pageant Reality (originally published on Huffington Post Celebrity)

CLICK HERE TO READ ON THE HUFFINGTON POST CELEBRITY! When Season 6 of TLC's controversial hit Toddlers & Tiaras premieres on June 5 many of its usual cast of crazy characters will be absent. Some of the tiny tots made famous by the reality show have since "retired," including Paisley Dickey, Isabella Barrett and Eden Wood.

Before Alana Thompson (aka "Honey Boo Boo") came along, Eden Wood was the breakout star of the reality show. Her former manager, Heather Ryan, claims that after becoming the "bump girl" (the girl used in series ads) for Season 2 in 2010, Eden was the "poster child for American Beauty Pageants."

Ryan says a whole lot more in her new tell-all book, Unleashing a Momster: A Peek Behind the Curtain at the Tragic Life of America's Most Successful Child Pageant Star. The book--filled with angry language, typos, and grammatical errors -- is accurately described by its author as a "Labor of Loath."

Unleashing a Momster Amazon cover

The focus of Unleashing a Momster is Ryan's relationship with the Woods, young Eden and the "momster" Mickie. Ryan draws on three years with the Woods, relying on over 2500 emails, two-and-a-half years of Facebook posts, Tweets and YouTube videos to make her case. The headline is that the book reveals Mickie's abuse of Eden (including too much caffeine, working while sick and illiteracy), a condition Ryan dubs "Mikie-Chousen by Proxy."

But none of these claims will terribly shock anyone who has seen an episode of Toddlers & Tiaras or the Logo show that starred Ryan and the Woods, Eden's World; they certainly didn't shock me as someone who has studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, long before they went the way of reality television.

Ryan discusses the link between child beauty pageants and reality TV, writing, "Reality Television and crazy ass pageants were destined to go hand in hand -- and I was there from the very beginning, when the two began to intermingle." According to Ryan the first intermingling was in 2005 for a show on Bravo called Party/Party, though the television audience's first taste of American beauty pageants in a standard recurring reality series format was Bravo's 2004 Showbiz Moms & Dads.

Ryan's tendency to insert herself into a grander entertainment narrative occurs throughout the self-published book, which while poorly written does make for strangely compelling reading. She claims to be the first to create a Facebook fan page for a child pageant star (imitators followed within weeks, of course), the first to make a pageant girl mainstream famous (though lots and lots of Hollywood starlets, including Britney Spears, got their start on the Southern child beauty pageant circuit), and the first to manage 34 beauty pageant clients (including Maddy Verst, of Dolly Parton fake boobs and custody battle fame). It's true that Ryan has just the right amount of moxie to take advantage of all the fame new media allows -- Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, talk show circuit, online tabloids, and the seemingly endless cycle of reality shows. She's so ahead of the game with all this that she rightly refers to the moms who are so desperate to get their daughters on the TLC series as "Toddlers Chasers."

But Ryan was particularly impressed by one Toddlers Chaser family, the Barretts, who figure prominently both in the book and in more recent child beauty pageant news. Susanna Barrett, mom to Isabella, contacted Ryan and tried to link up to the "Eden Train," pushing for joint appearances and the creation of a toy line. Ryan wrote of Barrett, "Any stage mom who has so much dedication to the cause to lie on such a grand scale about her daughter's experience in pageants, just to get a little name recognition, is a mom that I will entertain!" While Barrett and Ryan eventually split (and Barrett when on to become infamous for calling Paisley Dickey, a toddler competitor, a prostitute), about a year later in spring 2013 Barrett went on Good Morning America to reveal that her daughter is now a millionaire. Isabella is now is a star in Germany because of her own reality show, but she nonetheless no longer does the pageants that made her famous because they are too toxic.

If it worries you that a six-year-old can become a millionaire based on her participation in child pageants, you're not alone. In the end Ryan not only stopped managing Wood, but stopped being a pageant manger all together because, "Eden was a child and it felt like we were betraying her by brazenly treating her as a commodity." Ryan does write that she deposited some of Eden's earnings into a Coogan account, a hopeful sign for a future, but it likely won't be enough to make up for Eden's lack of a formal education during childhood.

In the end the rise to fame of young girls like Eden Wood and Isabella Barrett, along with adults like Heather Ryan, illustrate the new nature of celebrity, not just in America but also in Germany and Australia. "Be yourself" in a contrived way on social media and reality shows and fame and fortune may come. The new self-styled celeb mantra could be: If you build the Facebook page (and pay for ads), the fans will come.

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. Reality princess wanna-bes in Toddlers & Tiaras Season 6, take note, especially now that Heather Ryan is no longer around to guide you.

Tiger Teachers: The New Stage Moms Aren't the Moms (from Huffington Post Culture)

This originally appeared in The Huffington Post's Culture Section. Write a bad mommy confessional and be rewarded with multiple weeks on bestseller lists, riches, and fame/infamy. (See: Chua, Amy [Tiger Mom]; Druckerman, Pamela [American mom, French parenting]; Weiss, Dara-Lynn [Diet Devil in Vogue]).

And then there are the television shows. In the grand tradition of stage mothers we have the women of Toddlers & Tiaras, along with Dance Moms and Dance Moms: Miami. Is it any surprise that Skating Moms is in the works? And that the mothers on these shows are getting wackier and wackier to secure appearances on TMZ and Anderson Cooper in order to claim their 15 minutes of fame? Or, better yet, the holy grail -- their own television shows (like two Toddlers & Tiaras break-out stars: Eden Wood with her Logo network show Eden's World and Alana Thompson, aka "Honey Boo Boo Child," who has just inked a deal for a family reality show on TLC)!

Despite their extreme antics at this point it's a total cliché to criticize these moms. The people who really should make us scratch our heads are the other adults involved: the teachers and coaches.

Now, Abby Lee Miller, the larger-than-life teacher of Dance Moms, helps give female coaches a bad name. While she has surely amplified some of her behavior for the cameras you still can't help but wince as she verbally berates young girls, puts them in completely age-inappropriate attire, and shows them how to "paint on" a six-pack so they look more slender on stage.

Miller's actions have impacted other teachers and coaches. Prominent, successful, competitive dance teachers are appalled by her behavior. In addition to being embarrassed by a member of their own profession, they have seen changes in their enrollments and in their students' behavior, along with that of the children's moms. Let's just say that drama and raised voices seem to be becoming normalized.

While Abby Lee Miller isn't the first teacher or coach to over-invest in her students (watch the US gymnastics championships this weekend to catch a glimpse of coaching legends like the Károlyis -- and then read Dominique Moceanu's new memoir, out next week, to discover what a negative impact coaches like that can have on a child's life), Miller certainly is popularizing the role. In many ways she's the new version of a "stage mom."


The most recent episode of Dance Moms, "The Battle Begins," has Abby shouting multiple times that her students need to do well because they are associated with her and "her name." With kids' afterschool activities becoming increasingly professionalized, more and more people (both good and bad) can make a living off of children's performances. This means they can easily become too invested both financially and emotionally.

So in many cases teachers and coaches are the new "stage moms," using kids who aren't their own to secure their own fame and fortune. Forget the Tiger Mom, now we have Tiger Teachers eager to catch the glare of the spotlight. Too bad we can't all get a Coach Taylor for ourselves and for our kids. In the meantime, beware of Tiger Teachers seeking high fees and reality television shows.

Toddlers & Testing (and some Tiaras, too)

Testing and Tiaras are back. Earlier this month TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras returned with new episodes in Season 5. And last week Toddlers & Tiaras "superstar" Eden Wood premiered her own show on Logo; Eden's World follows Eden into her post-pageant retirement life (which still involves pageants-- as she and her mom serve as child beauty pageant mentors to pageant hopefuls-- but also includes Eden and her warring managers pursuing modeling and music opportunities in NYC).

Lest you think Eden and her pageant pals are the only pre-pubescent kids being pushed by their parents on television you should have tuned into Nightline on April 13th.  The episode featured families with preschoolers studying for the standardized tests to get them into a gifted classroom in NYC's public school system. Not only were these kids studying, but their parents were paying big bucks to help them prepare. Think thousands and thousands of dollars, hours of time, and untold stress. One mom suspects her daughter is purposely sabotaging herself and ultimately doesn't allow her daughter to take the test.

Why are stressed out families so willing to spend so much time and money to get their children into these classrooms (the question of why they are also willing to announce their children's standardized test scores on national television is a discussion for another time)? In the ever increasing educational arms race the pressure to perform starts younger than ever, especially if the goal is an Ivy-like education. This spring we've heard that Ivy League colleges had their lowest acceptance rates ever (a truly frightening 5.9% at Harvard and 6.8% at Yale).  These single-digit numbers create intense cultural anxiety even among those who don't yet have kids.

But it's not just the numbers "at the top" that are scary. The stats are just as bad when it comes to kindergarten-- at least in NYC. According to The New York Times this year nearly 5000 children qualified for only 400 slots in talented and gifted kindergarten classrooms. That's an 8% acceptance rate. But note that is only for qualified kids, not for the hundreds, likely thousands, more who took the test. People like to criticize these parents for pushing their kids too young, but with numbers like these at four, and then at age 18, can you blame them?  Moreover, it's not just kindergarten.  Middle school testing matters a lot too, and perhaps more so, if you think high school is the real entryway to higher education.

Many stories focus on the test prep companies that have sprung up to make a buck off of these anxiety-ridden parents (though note that many test prep entrepreneurs have their own kids facing the same issues-- one of the three families in the Nightline piece was a woman who started the "top" kindergarten test company, and even her own tot son had issues with the test, which he eventually overcame). And, it is true that test prep, especially at such young ages, likely exacerbates existing inequality, as I've written about before. But, at the same time, these companies are thriving because of a real demand. This demand is fueled partly by them, but it is also a result of demographic shifts in cities, like New York City, and cultural anxiety about class position.

When you really think about it, how different are the moms on Toddlers & Tiaras and the test-prep preschool parents?  They may be going about it in different ways, but most of these parents seem to want the best for their children-- helping them pursue particular hopes and dreams and goals (whether it be to get into Harvard and run for president someday, or get a Disney contract and become the new Britney Spears/Miley Cyrus) and willing to spend lots of money to help them pursue those dreams at a young age.  Amounts of money that others find ludicrous and distasteful.  While testing and tiara parents might find each other foreign in many ways they are cut from the same cloth of our ultra-competitive society, which now targets children in myriad ways.  And given the media's reach, their stories and issues impact, and inspire, families across the country and not just in NYC or the South.

Last week four-year-old Heidi Hankins made headlines around the world for joining Mensa with an IQ of 159 (though, shockingly she's not the youngest-- Oscar Quigley claimed that prize in 2009 when he joined at age two-and-a-half with an IQ of 160).  Based on her picture I'm not quite sure if she's right for Toddlers & Tiaras or shows like Nightline. Perhaps, in a true sign of the times, she's qualified for both?

Glitz and Drama Down Under (on The Huffington Post Style)

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.


ETA: I was contacted by Heather Ryan, Eden Wood's manager, about my story. I wanted to present her perspective-- some of which, but not all of which, has been presented in other media accounts.  A correspondent for the rival TV show to A Current Affair, Today Tonight, which covered the "Wood family entourage," has offered his own version of how the events of last weekend went down. You can read his account by clicking HERE; his account has been endorsed by Heather Ryan.