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.

Lil Poopy: The Male Honey Boo Boo? (Originally posted on The Huffington Post Entertainment)

Last week a diverse collection of Boston-area star made headlines. Ben was the Oscar winner. Tom was the superstar team player. And Lil Poopy was the music prodigy. Who is Lil Poopy? Read on... Lil Poopy, aka Luie Rivera Jr., is a 9-year-old resident of Brockton, Mass. The fourth grader, who earned his stage name due to some impressive diapers when he was a baby, is now an artist with Cocaine City Records. He raps about doing drugs and having sex with women. His videos show simulated sex acts for money, and he's paid thousands to appear in nightclubs and perform. Not surprisingly, the boy's father, Luie Rivera Sr., is being investigated for child abuse by the Department of Children and Families at the request of the Brockton Police Department.

"Lil Poopy" took to his Twitter page to rage against the investigation writing, "LOOK AT SANDY HOOK Y THEY OUT HERE HURTING CHILDREN IM JUST SINGING HOOKS IANT OUT HERE HURTING CHILDREN."

Lil Poopy in action

Some may wonder why Lil Poopy's father is investigated when no child protection agency (that we know of) has investigated the mothers who appear on Lifetime's Dance Moms. Every week the show features girls around Lil Poopy's age crying because of nasty comments made by a teacher who puts them in revealing costumes and choreographs often age-inappropriate dance routines for them (one memorable one involved them portraying "topless" Vegas showgirls). Similarly, child beauty pageant moms -- especially those featured on TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras -- are frequently accused of abusing their kids. One mom, who dressed her four-year-old daughter in a Dolly Parton outfit complete with fake breasts almost lost custody of her daughter to her formerly incarcerated ex-husband as a direct result of her daughter's pageant participation, as I discussed last year at Slate, though the two parents now share custody.

The difference between these stage moms and Lil Poopy's father is that while many of the moms clearly have questionable parenting habits (which very likely could do emotional harm that will haunt their daughters later in life) they are not doing anything illegal with their kids. Meanwhile, Lil Poopy is promoting activities that are not only illegal for kids, and but also for adults. One of his lyrics, "Coke ain't a bad word," speaks for itself.


A lawyer for the Riveras has suggested that this investigation is racist. The Riveras are originally from Puerto Rico and there are obvious racial undertones when Luie Jr. is criticized for rapping, an art form traditionally associated with African Americans.

But if we're going to think in terms of social categories the sociologist in me finds it more interesting that the first time a child's out-of-school activity has led to such a public criminal investigation is when it happens to a boy. Do we care more when a male is the subject of exploitation? For example, viewers have been particularly outraged that Lil Poopy's shirt is lifted up by an older woman who grinds up against him while dancing. But this type of thing happens all the time with young female performers.

It's possible to imagine a defense of Luie Sr. that says that child actors play roles that feature illegal activity all the time, and their parents aren't accused of abuse because of it. But the key difference here is that child actors are portraying a character and not themselves. Lil Poopy may be an alter ego of Luie Jr.'s, in the same way that Beyoncé invokes Sasha Fierce, but his Twitter feed and YouTube account exist in his name. (That it's actually against the rules for a 9-year-old to have his own Twitter account goes without saying, though it's not formally illegal.) This has also been an issue for children involved in reality television, who "play" themselves and not a character. As I have written about at USA Today, kids in reality TV are largely unprotected when it comes to work conditions and finances but, again, they usually are not promoting illegal activity.

So are the Riveras doing something that will mean Lil Poopy is removed from their home? Hopefully not, but we won't know for sure until the investigation concludes. Should this situation worry us? Absolutely. Lil Poopy is just the latest example of kids growing up too fast, trying to be famous, and creating online personas through social media to create a public personality that now needs to be over the top to get attention.

If the goal was to get attention for Lil Poopy, it obviously worked, though it may come at a severe cost to his family and future. Words you may never have thought before: Perhaps Honey Boo Boo's mother, June Shannon, can give some parenting lessons...

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.


The "Grand" Finale: Ending Season 4 of Toddlers & Tiaras (from The Huffington Post Culture)

You've seen the four-year-old dressed up as Dolly Parton (complete with "enhancements"), right? And, of course, you've seen the images of the three-year-old dressed up as Julia Roberts' prostitute character from Pretty Woman, haven't you? Judging by the ratings for TLC's fourth season of Toddlers & Tiaras, it seems you have. Each week over two million people tune in to watch the series. The show, which premiered almost three years ago in January 2009, has always been talked about. But over the past month it has shot into the stratosphere of pop culture. Not since the death of JonBenét Ramsey have child beauty pageants received so much media coverage. This week, for example, the cover of People features five-year-old Madisyn (aka Maddy) Verst -- little "Dolly Parton" dolled up in her cupcake beauty pageant dress -- and asks, "Gone Too Far?"

I've been studying child beauty pageants for over a decade and I do believe that shows like Toddlers & Tiaras have gone too far. Such young pageant contestants should not be featured on television.

As Wednesday night's season finale of Toddlers & Tiaras made clear, pageant moms are acutely aware of the television cameras. One mother harshly whispered into her five-year-old daughter's ear during an at-home practice session: "We are on camera. Don't you dare tell me 'no' one more time. Do you hear me? We are on national TV. Everybody's going to see this. Do you hear me?" After her daughter, Carley, said, "Yeah," her mom immediately pasted a smile on her face and declared in a kinder tone, "Ok. We're doing the Cruella de Vil run through. I want this..." But Carley cut her off declaring, "You are driving me crazy!" Mommie Dearest-like scenes are decidedly uncomfortable to watch, though that doesn't mean we should go to the extreme of banning child beauty pageants outright. Activists recently tried this approach in Australia after the introduction of "American-style" child beauty pageants in July. But they were unsuccessful and the pageant show went on.


Outlawing child beauty pageants in the United States is also not a serious option. As legal scholars, like Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, and historians, like Holly Brewer, have detailed, American families have long been free to pursue any activities in their own home that they deem suitable for their own children. The state is not likely to interfere with day-to-day parenting decisions, unless the child is placed in an environment that is clearly unsafe and abusive. The bar is set pretty high -- physical abuse, neglect, and abandonment. While some may feel that spray-tanning a child, for example, is a form of abuse, it is not like hitting or binding a child. In general the government takes a hands-off approach to children's activities. Even children's boxing, deemed physically unsafe for thousands of young children by the American Association of Pediatrics earlier this month because of the risk of chronic and acute brain injuries, is legal in the United States.

Instead of pushing for a general ban on child beauty pageants, opponents push for an airwaves ban. The Parents Television Council, for example, released a statement demanding that TLC cancel its hit show: "Such brazen and wanton material should qualify as child exploitation or abuse."

The critics are right. Shows featuring young pageant girls -- especially those who have not yet even started school -- are becoming more and more inappropriate. With competition for limited airtime on reality televisions shows, participants resort to outrageous antics to get on the air (see: Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi of Jersey Shore). Whatever you may think of the ridiculous, self-serving behavior of willing adults, it is wrong for parents to use their children to advance themselves.

Images of these children are more permanent than ever thanks to the Internet. Memories live on in concrete form that future classmates will be able to access. We don't have hard data on specific long-term effects of children's appearances on reality television, but it's hard to imagine that there won't be serious consequences when it comes to friendships, romantic relationships, and assessments of self-worth.

Because of outrageous antics staged to augment fifteen minutes of fame, real accomplishments are overshadowed. In the past week a sixteen-year-old girl became the youngest women to win an LPGA tournament, a fifteen-year-old girl was named to the gymnastics team that will represent the United States at the World Championships in Tokyo next month, and another fifteen-year-old girl won a math tournament at MIT. I'd rather see any of these girls, who have worked hard to develop a talent, on the cover of People, or featured in a reality television show.

I'm sure pageant queen Carley spoke for millions of concerned adults during the season finale of Toddlers & Tiaras. Let's hope she and her child pageant friends won't be driven crazy on camera for much longer.

(Also posted at orgtheory with the following commentary: In addition to guest posting at orgtheory this month, I also blog at The Huffington Post. Check out my latest over at HuffPo Culture on the TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras. This piece, in which I argue that this particular show should no longer be on the air, brings together some of my work on child beauty pageants, kids and reality television, and children’s rights. I also (hopefully) show that it’s a good thing for (academic) sociologists to watch television. I am not ashamed to watch TV, including reality shows!)