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.

Custody Cases, Child Beauty Pageants, and Reality TV: New Slate Double X piece on Toddlers & Tiaras Justice with update from 11-12

Last Friday a feature story I wrote about the Maddy Verst custody trial appeared on Slate's Double X. You may recall that I also wrote about the now six-year-old Maddy last fall after she appeared on the cover ofPeople.  

Like many others, including hundreds of pageant moms, I think the TLC series Toddlers & Tiaras is pretty harmful to the child beauty pageant community and to many of the kids.  I've written about kids and reality TV before as well (like here and here), so know just being on camera in front of a national audience can be problematic for some children-- let alone shown in a prostitute outfit, in a costume with "enhancements," or smoking a cigarette.

Now there's legal evidence that the show is being used in family court, as my Slate piece details. Here's a short excerpt, but click HERE to read more:

Even if the Verst case shouldn’t be a referendum on whether or not child beauty pageants are a form of abuse for all children, family lawyer Mark Momjian acknowledges that most people will “impute” to all child-beauty-pageant families. In other words most people will assume this means that child beauty pageants are now legally recognized as a form of abuse and can be the basis for altered custody arrangements and other legal action.

What sets the Verst case apart, according to Momjian, is not just that Maddy participates in child beauty pageants, but that she has done so on a television show with her story broadcast to the world. Momjian knows a thing or two about children on reality TV, having represented Kate Gosselin, former star of another controversial TLC show, Jon & Kate Plus 8, in her divorce and custody case. He believes that regardless of the outcome, the fact that child beauty pageants have become such a public issue in this case does not bode well for future participants on this show, or others featuring girls in competitive activities like dance (see: Dance Moms) and cheerleading (see: Cheer Perfection).

Jackson has asserted that, within the context of pageants, costumes like Maddy’s police-officer getup and the dance moves that accompany them are not considered sexual. Having studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, I agree with her. Within that world, they are just seen as “cute,” not sexual, and are what you must do in order to win the biggest crown. They are just moves. But that shared understanding in the pageant ballroom isn't present in the wider world, and once these routines are broadcast to a wider audience, they are rightly seen as having sexual elements in them—batting eyelashes, blowing kisses, and thrusting hips. Which is why allowing young children to be on these television shows is problematic.

In my opinion the Verst case should worry many moms, not just pageant moms.  Especially divorced moms like Melissa Ziegler whose two daughters, Maddie and Mackenzie, star on Lifetime’s Dance Moms.  In Season 1 her ex-husband appears saying that he will no longer allow his daughters to compete with their dance studio—though nothing has yet come of that threat in Season 2.  It's the combination of being involved with a controversial activity (especially those that can sexualize young girls like pageants, dance, and cheerleading) and being on television that is the real issue.  Either on their own can cause problems though—just ask Amber Portwood of MTV’s Teen Mom who lost custody of her daughter and is now in jail after footage of her hitting her child’s father in front of her daughter aired.

According to a source close to Lindsay Jackson who was present at the Campbell County Courthouse this past Friday, the judge closed the court proceedings to outsiders (including media).  Given his previous gag order and the increasingly high profile nature of the case, this wasn't surprising.  Maddy and her parents are still awaiting a decision from the judge though, and it is unclear when that decision will now be announced.

I personally am not surprised that more time is being given to make a decision.  When I spoke with Mark Momijan for the piece he told me that in 25 years of practicing family law he had never heard of a parent releasing a custodial evaluation, especially one that was less complimentary than it could be toward the mom.  He thought that would worry the judge.  Seems Judge Woeste has a lot to process, and his decision will impact not only Maddy but lots of little girls like her, so it's good that he is taking time to consider all aspects of the custody case.

UPDATE: It was reported on November 30, 2012 that Jackson and Verst will share custody, with Jackson as the primary custodian.  Maddy will be allowed to compete in pageants, so long as both parents agree in writing-- but this is expected to continue to cause legal issues.