Call the Pageant Muskers

I learn a lot of random things thanks to The Learning Channel. Recently TLC taught me that muskers is the "gypsy" word for the police.  After watching Season 2 of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and Season 1 of My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, I think some of these people need the fashion police as much as the actual police. I've written before (in one of my most popular posts ever, natch) about the outlandish dresses Traveler girls wear and how similar some of these styles are to those worn in the child beauty pageant world. In addition to the outfits there are other similarities which were spotlighted in the UK version of the show. Those similarities include young girls getting fake nails and spray tans, wearing make-up, and curling their hair into impressive styles.  Both versions of the show feature girls with interesting names like Boo, Nan-Girl, and Pookie, to name a few; anyone who has watched Toddlers & Tiaras knows that many pageant girls sport unusual names or more traditional names with unconventional spellings. (The men featured on the show, especially the American version, have their own fashion sense as well. Think Pauly D's blowout and spray tan from Jersey Shore, minus the real diamonds and gold.)

The US version of the show, which aired its final episodes last week, featured some brides who looked like they had absconded with the loot from a Southern child beauty pageant. Check out the crowns these ladies wore on their special days:


Crowns aren't the only things blinged out at American gypsy weddings-- so is the footwear.  These boots would almost surely help a girl win an Ultimate Grand Supreme on the pageant circuit:

And I'm guessing baby shoes-- and pacifiers!-- like this one will soon start showing up on TLC's other mega-hit Toddlers & Tiaras.

Baby Jackson pictured above was featured on what I thought was the most interesting episode of the American series set in Murphy's Village in South Carolina. Murphy's Village is a prosperous, but insular, community of Irish Travelers (as opposed to European Roma) who are resistant to outsiders.  I found the traditions featured in the wedding of this boy's parents (whose mother was marrying into the Murphy's Village community) fascinating, like the original poems that are linked to the oral tradition of the Irish and the jewelry party that is meant to help find a future mate for a baby.

But most of the series focused on the extended Stanley clan of women who live in West Virginia.  The Stanley women like to fight and in many ways they reminded me of the White family, the subject of one of the most haunting documentaries I've seen, The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia which makes me wonder if the Whites share a similar immigrant background.

So I'm wondering if some child beauty pageant participants have Romany or Traveler roots/blood? Do you know of any who specifically identify as "gypsy" eitherin SC, WV, or in other states?

I also wonder if Sondra Celli, the dressmaker featured in the TLC show, is now getting requests to make child beauty pageant dresses. She stumbled into making gypsy dresses and I'm guessing she could stumble into a pageant dress career and still make top dollar (her occasion dresses for gypsies, though worn once and made in just a few days time, cost thousands of dollars).

Not all Romani or Travelers behave like the Stanleys and others featured in the series. Even in the US the population is quite mixed.  Oksana Marafioti's memoir, American Gypsy, just released last week, paints a much more complex picture of her childhood as an Armenian gypsy in the former USSR and in Los Angeles. Marafioti had some pretty negative things to say about the TLC show over on Slate's Double X.  Marafioti writes about bright colors and dresses and skirts, but nothing like Sondra Celli's creations.  Her story focuses much more on the magic and fortune-telling that many associate with "gypsy" culture.  Mikey Walsh's memoir, Gypsy Bot: My Life in the Secret World of the Romany Gypsies, recently released in the US after it was a hit in the UK, helps tell the boys' side of the story about growing up gypsy in the UK.  For boys the ability to fight is key, hard for Walsh in general and especially after he came out of the closet.

Both memoirs talk more about the colorful traditions around funerals than those around weddings. The UK show featured celebrations at elaborately decorated gravesides so I can only imagine what a funeral looks like. Could that be TLC's next series: My Big Fat Gypsy Funeral?!

ETA: The day after I posted this I read an article about opposition to child beauty pageants in Ireland (this isn't new, as I wrote about last year, though I do find it somewhat surprising given Irish dancing fashions).  Some hotels are now refusing to host the events in Ireland, yet another thing to add to the growing list of similarities between child beauty pageants and Roma/Traveler events (the TLC series show venues in the UK routinely canceling on gypsy events).

"Princess means that you' re a loser!": Recent beauty pageant portrayals on TV (UPDATED to include dance competitions)

Princess means that you're a loser! A lot of feminists might agree with this sentiment-- especially with the recent release of Disney's newest princess targeted at the preschool set, Sofia the First.

But it was a child beauty pageant mom who uttered this line during the continuing fourth season of TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras, which returned on December 7th.

The format is similar (introduce moms and kids at home, mock their hometowns, cover their pageant preparations, expose some sort of hijinks, show them arriving at pageant, getting ready, some pageant drama, and crowning) as are many of the themes ("beauty hurts," girls wanting to be Miss America, comparisons to dog shows, likening pageants to a drug/addiction). As I've said before I think many moms on this show are upping the crazy ante to get more screen time, and it seems that Michelle Leonardo, the reigning Miss New Jersey USA (herself a former child beauty pageant queen) agrees with me.

And, clearly, we have some new crazy to process. In the December 14th episode (set in the Midwest) it's princess meltdown mom, Kelly, who compares pageants to an addiction. Click below to see her expletive-laced explosion during crowning after she thinks her daughter didn't "pull" for a higher title.

In addition to showing this intense hissy fit, the new season has also brought us Riley, Bob, and Bob's rat tail in another episode (focused on a "Glitzmas" pageant in the Northeast).  Bob and Riley's parents both love drag shows and cite drag queens as an inspiration in their children's pageant preparations.  While there are clearly some similarities between drag and child beauty pageants, such an explicit connection is rare.

I also see a lot of similarities between child beauty pageants and Gypsy/Irish Traveller clothes and customs (which I suppose have their own similarities with drag), as I've written about before. While TLC covers both subcultures, I've never seen them make an explicit connection between the two.  If you're interested in more Gypsy/Traveller dresses check out the new TLC Gypsy Christmas Special, which premiered this week; the ones shown on wedding guests and at the First Communion in Ireland are especially noteworthy.

TLC isn't the only network giving us recent portrayals of child beauty pageants. On December 11th CBS' CSI: Miami was about a murder at a child beauty pageant.  The episode, "Crowned," had the following program description: "The CSIs expose the seedy underbelly of children's beauty pageants when a contestant's mom is murdered."  While the episode used the proper lingo for pageant terms, it did have the wrong look overall (for instance, the pageant was held outside and many of the dresses shown were outdated pageant styles).  It also featured common complaints about child beauty pageants-- that kids should just be kids, that they shouldn't look like dolls, that it puts them on display, etc.  While the fictional murder case was the opposite of the JonBenet Ramsey murder, since it was the mother who died, that didn't stop the show writers from introducing a sexual molestation angle.

I actually believe that the constant attempts to link child beauty pageants to pedophilia are a bit unfair. I'm not trying to defend pageants and say that they don't in fact place girls in sometimes sexual situations, because I think they do.  But the reality is that there has never been a reported case of child molestation because of child beauty pageants-- yet media portrayals consistently draw this link (another recent TV example: On September 29th of this year an episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, called "Frank Reynolds' Little Beauties," features a molester who uses child pageants to find young girls to ogle).

Yes, there was evidence that JonBenet was molested, but it has never been proven that she died because of the pageants connection.  And, sure, we don't know for sure that young girls haven't been abused because of child beauty pageants-- it just may never have been reported.  There have been instances where pictures of pageant girls have appeared on websites that they shouldn't have, but this is true of Facebook pictures as well.  Given all the recent sexual abuse scandals in youth activities (and specifically girls in gymnastics), which I've written about here, it strikes me as odd that we don't pay more attention to activities where we know girls have been abused.  Having been to so many different children's competitive events for research purposes, I can say that child beauty pageants are far more careful about who is allowed around these young girls than any other activity.  They really aren't open to the public and males are kept away from girls.  I understand why pageants are an easy target, but I wish the media would sometimes pay more attention to where we know the bad guys really are.

It's also true that pageants can help some girls.  I have long been a fan of the MTV series Made. Becoming a pageant queen is a pretty common goal on this show and two new episodes (on 12/3 and 12/12) focused on seventeen-year-old girls training to compete in beauty pageants in New England and in Missouri. Both featured great, supportive, flamboyant, male coaches and spirited and well-spoken teenage girls.  While neither "won" the top title, both did well and learned a lot. You can watch one of the episodes in full here.  I love how both girls became role models in their own ways, too (unlike Miss USA 2010 Rima Fakih, recently arrested for drunk driving).

In spite of some flaws I know I'll keep watching Toddlers & Tiaras, Made, and any other pageant shows.  And I will for sure be watching the Miss America pageant, live on ABC on Saturday, January 14th-- even if I don't agree with most of their picks for judges this year!  I'll also be keeping a close eye on what happens with former Miss America Rebecca King's daughter, Diana Dreman, Miss Colorado (especially as I will likely be watching with my newborn son by then... at least I hope I will).

ETA: On the night I posted this a new episode of TNT's Rizzoli & Isles aired. Its title? "Don't Stop Dancing, Girl." The episode was about a murdered dance mom, who stumbles on stage during a routine with a pair of scissors sticking out of her neck.  The first half of the episode (recapped here), focuses on "Dance Moms"-like antics (moms screaming at one another, a security guard in the dance studio waiting area to monitor the moms, a mean teacher who yells, etc.).  Of course, as it turns out, the murder has *nothing* to do with dance competitions and instead involves a drug-trafficking ex-husband and witness protection.

Despite this the episode did produce some funny/interesting quips-- especially linking child beauty pageants and dance competitions, along with other competitive kids' activities.  First example: "It's like Little League. With Sequins." Another described the competition as a "beauty pageant with rhythm."  In defense of dancers , Rizzoli comments that dancers are athletes in costumes who practice 40 hours per week; she compared them to figure skaters.

Probably the most accurate and interesting thing to me in the episode was the focus on the girls' birth certificate, which a dance mom claimed was forged.  This ultra-competitive mom claimed that the dead mom was trying to help her daughter win against younger competitors.  As it turns out, the birth certificate was faked to help hide her from her dangerous dad. But parents manipulating kids' ages to give them an advantage against younger competitors has actually happened (most famous case is Danny Almonte), and it is a frequent allegation in all kids' competitive activities.

I wonder which show will next tackle beauty pageants and dance competitions? I could see Rizzoli & Isles doing on episode on Irish Dancing, given its Boston setting.

Foot Perfect: A Review of Jig

One weekend I went shopping at a mall in downtown Boston—and was transported into another culture.  A hotel, connected to the mall, was hosting an Irish dancing competition (or “feis”). My friend turned to me and asked, “Wait, is this a child beauty pageant, or something else?”  With the bobbing heads full of Shirley Temple-like artificial curls, the tanned legs, the glitzy, flouncy dresses (that can cost around $2500), the make-up, and the anxious mothers and daughters, you’d be excused for thinking you might be at a child beauty pageant (And, indeed, I think the events might be distant cousins for historical and sociological reasons—but more on that another time. In the meantime, it's interesting to think how appearances in Irish dancing compare to the appearance of young, Irish Traveller girls). But you’d be wrong. Jig, a 2010 feature documentary just released to DVD, focuses on nine contestants competing at the 40th Irish Dancing World Championships, held in Glasgow, Scotland.  The film shows the extraordinary hard work, practice, and athletic ability (including a serious cardio workout) that goes into creating a “foot perfect” contestant.  All contestants have already qualified for the Worlds and are in the final preparations for the big event. Jig concludes with the award ceremony in Glasgow.  Interspersed throughout are interviews with the dancers, their parents, and their teachers.

The stars of the film are its youngest contestants, three ten-year-olds.  Brogan from Northern Ireland is an especially well spoken, clever, and engaging young lady.  Her main rival, Julia O’Rourke from Long Island, is a serious competitor. Julia’s family (including her Filipino mother and Irish father who had never participated in Irish dancing before) invests in private lessons (aka “privates”) and physical therapy sessions to help give her an edge.  John, from Birmingham, England, is immensely talented and sweet, if a bit forgetful—a real-life version of Billy Elliott.

I had a harder time engaging with the three nineteen-year-old female contestants, and keeping them straight. Two teenage boys have interesting back stories (one boy grew up in California, but his parents moved to England to help him train as a dancer, with his father giving up a medical practice; the other is from the Netherlands, adopted by a Dutch family from Sri Lanka), but less interesting onscreen personas.  And the team of older Russian women were also hard to keep straight, especially because their story arc is fairly short in the film.

Not surprisingly Jig has been compared to two of my favorite documentaries of all time—Spellbound (about the National Spelling Bee featuring middle schoolers from the US and Canada) and Mad Hot Ballroom (featuring elementary school kids from across New York City participatingin a city-wide ballroom competition). While I really enjoyed Jig, it doesn’t reach the level of these other two films for me for two reasons.  The first is that many of the children draw you into their lives in Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. When I saw the latter in the theater my fellow audience members and I cheered aloud together by the end of the film.  Partly due to the presence of so many characters in Jig, I felt this was harder to do. Then again, I loved that the featured dancers really showed how international competitive Irish dancing is, so it is a difficult trade-off.

The second way in which I found it more difficult to relate to Jig is that it is simply harder to understand competitive Irish dance. We know from Riverdance that the upper body is usually stationary.  But I didn’t understand why the face was often blank while dancing. And I certainly didn’t understand the intricacy of the footwork, and differences between hard and soft shoe style.  Even as someone who follows dance (and cheer, and gymnastics, and figure skating…), I couldn’t quite discern why some dancers were so far superior to others, even when they danced side-by-side (as they do in rhythmic gymnastics, for example).  I was certainly impressed by their skills, but with a bit more explanation of the technique I could have been blown away.

That said, the film highlighted many similarities between Irish dancing and other forms of competitive dance.  For example, as in Dance Moms, we saw teachers who yell, kids who give up aspects of their social lives (like missing birthday parties), and young dancers struggling with injuries.  You also see and hear about the ways in which family members invest in this activity, both financially and by making costumes.

More serious issues that affect many other competitive activities also came up—like judge tampering.  Another similarity across different competitive activities includes the language of getting drawn in by the competitive experience itself (Julia O’Rourke’s parents astutely commented that when they started they couldn’t understand why a family would drive to Connecticut to compete, but now they fly to foreign countries).

What I truly enjoyed about Jig is that it highlighted some important and powerful differences too.  Again, this is a very international activity, which was nice to see.  You also actually have to qualify for the Worlds (unlike many “Nationals” in the US, which for most activities are pay-to-play) and the Worlds appear to be quite a big deal.  Over several days you get about six minutes on stage dancing among 6000 other competitors and in front of 20-30,000 spectators who cycle through.  Finally, I loved the use of live music during the competitions, which is not common at all at dance competitions (even ballet competitions), or gymnastics, figure skating, or synchronized swimming events.

The end of Jig is a real highlight.  You can feel the tension in the room as scores are announced and revealed on a screen.  It was amusing to see the kids, parents, and teachers hold their heads in anxiety waiting to see the final scores—I kept shouting at the screen that all they had to do was add! I’m sure nerves played a role, but I know I would just bring a calculator or use an Excel spreadsheet to add up the scores quickly.  I guess that’s the social scientist in me… I also took particular delight that the top prize included a mirror-ball trophy. Maybe that is where they get the inspiration from on Dancing with the Stars?!

All in all, Jig is a delightful and objective portrayal of an impressive, but little understood competitive activity.  I hope this brings some deserved attention to Irish dancing, especially in the United States, and that we continue to receive updates on its stars (Note: Jig’s IMDb page has results from the 2011 World Championships for those spotlighted in the film).  But you won't be seeing them on Toddlers & Tiaras anytime soon.

My Big Fat "Gypsy" Dresses

After reading this you might be forgiven for thinking that I watch a lot of TV (somewhat true) and that I only watch TLC (definitely not true).  Still, I can't help but write about TLC's latest foray into a different/almost-deviant subculture, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. This show offers an "inside look" at life among the UK's Irish Travellers, and a few Roma; note I put "gypsy" in quotations in the title of this post both because the show isn't really about gypsies and because the term is actually quite offensive.  The show was a runaway hit in Great Britain, and it's been doing so well here that a US-based version of the show is now in the works.

Yes, there are Irish Travellers in the US, where they mainly live in Southern states.  What brought attention to the group in this century was a scary video of a mother beating her 4-year-old daughter in a store parking lot in Indiana, back in 2002.  With an improbable family name of "Toogood," the story brought attention to this reclusive community.

What struck me about the story was the revelation that Traveller girls get married very young (think 14-18) and their mothers dress them in a combination of pageant/ballroom dancing/stripper dresses (I was heavy into child beauty pageant research at the time, so this really resonated).  And the mothers then teach them how to dance in a sexy fashion to attract husbands. Yet, according to Travellers/Roma themselves, and many reports, premarital sex is basically unheard of, as is out of wedlock childbearing, as they are devout Catholics.

The UK/TLC series has truly exposed the bright, gaudy, over-the-top, and often suggestive wardrobes of Traveller females.  Here's a little taste.

The gussying up starts young, but especially around the time of a girl's First Communion:


When girls attend others' First Communions, or weddings, they go dressed to the nines:

 It doesn't stop as they get older. This is a shot of a bachelorette party (can you spot the bride and her mom?):
 (Hint: This is the bride-to-be):
Her wedding dress was my favorite shown:
Her bridesmaids' dresses (I SO should have used these in my wedding!):
My second-favorite dress featured on the show had lights inside of it, along with moving butterflies. Someone had to follow the bride with a fire extinguisher in case she caught on fire though... (Interestingly, she married into the Traveller community, so her dress was even more over-the-top, presumably to prove her bona fides):
Some other amazing wedding wardrobing:

(Photo credit: Mark Duffy)

So why do Traveller women wear these elaborate dresses? I turned to a book by British anthropologist Judith Okely that had been sitting on my bookshelf since I learned about the dresses worn in this community-- The Traveller-GypsiesShockingly, while the book is very informative, and devotes an entire chapter just to women's issues, sartorial choices are never discussed. Given that the fieldwork for the book took place in the early 1970s, I'm left wondering if such elaborate dresses are a more recent phenomenon. The show's narrator always says that these practices are stepped in tradition. I know bright colors are part of "Gypsy" tradition (think of painted, covered wagons), but I'm not sure Britney Spears-inspired bubblegum pink concoctions are "traditional."

Clearly there is an element of the animal kingdom's sexual mating rituals-- get as done up, and as colorful, as possible to attract a mate. But I would think there is more to it than this. I've been starting to read other books about Travellers, trying to see if there is a link between Southern child beauty pageant cupcake dresses and Irish Traveller outfits; I have always found the link between Irish/Scottish immigrants to the American South and traditional notions of femininity and masculinity fascinating (best book I have read about this is Culture of Honor), so I suspect there is a deeper connection. In any case, while I am sure you are all now ready to order your own bachelorette/bridesmaid/wedding/Communion dress a la "Gypsy" style, better be ready to write a BIG check. Those dresses can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000!