As Britain embraces American-style pageants, one mum tells Sarah Freeman why she believes is good for young girls’ self-esteem.
Hair extensions are a no no...false tans are also frowned upon...and there are absolutely no flippers. Robyn Morrison is running through a list of banned items on the junior pageant circuit, which has seen her 11-year-old daughter Halle-Blu crowned Junior Miss Galaxy UK. Flippers it turns out are the false teeth used by some of the most determined parents to give their daughters a smile worthy of a toothpaste ad.
“They’re just plain weird,” says Robyn. “You see them a lot in the big American pageants, but Halle’s teeth are definitely all natural.”
We’re sat in the living room of the family home in Halifax. Halle has just popped upstairs to grab her most recent crown and sash and Robyn is keen to debunk what she says are the myths surrounding beauty pageants. She knows that just the mention of those two little words conjures up a world of pushy parents and precocious pre-teens. It’s one which has been fuelled by reality series Toddlers and Tiaras which has cast an unforgiving spotlight on America’s pageant moms.
“I’ll be honest when Halle first started asking me about competing in competitions I said no,” says Robyn. “I thought she was too young and I wanted to her to concentrate on other things, but gradually I realised it was a bit hypocritical.”
As well as being a former undercover police officer in her native Australia and an actress who had a stint in Neighbours, Robyn is also a veteran of the beauty queen circuit. A couple of years ago she was crowned Mrs Galaxy UK and with Halle having secured the junior title, this summer mum and daughter will head off to Florida for the international finals where the sequin levels will rise a good few notches.
Pageants are becoming big business in Britain. Entry to the most prestigious can cost up to £2,000 and that’s just the start. Outfits are often bought at great expense and the most successful girls have trainers to teach them perfect posture and interview technique.
Halle won’t have to pay to take part in the Florida finals - her success in the UK competition secured her a free place - and the fairytale dress, which helped her to the crown, cost just £60. However, she is being trained, via Skype, by professional US pageant coach Cyrus Frakes-Kings. He is the star of another American reality series, King of the Crown, and is blessed with that peculiarly transatlantic way of speaking
As the blurb on the Gowns and Crowns website of which he is CEO puts it, Cy is good at “understanding you can’t buy confidence, but you can build it. Cy teaches individual classes giving each client the freedom and privacy to discover their own individuality through pageantry.”
“He is totally full on,” admits Robyn, who is married to former rugby league player Glenn Morrison, who is now head coach at Dewsbury Rams. “He is exactly what you would imagine an American beauty pageant trainer would be, but he’s been great for Halle.
“She is a brilliant gymnast, so she is used to performing in that sense, but there is also an interview element to the pageants and in that very British way Halle tends to be a bit too modest about her achievements. Cy is there really to give her a bit of advice, to tell her it’s ok to talk about the medals she has won.
“There are some kids who are basically being prepped for pageants as they come out of the womb, but that kind of beauty queen breeding is much more common in America. I’m not going to say there are no pushy parents over here. Of course there are. There are mums who live vicariously through their children, but I don’t think that’s unique to pageants. You see them at dance schools, at junior football clubs.
“But pageants do have a bit of an unfair reputation. People think the atmosphere is really bitchy, but it’s not. In fact it’s completely the opposite. Halle has already made so many friends and there is a confidence which comes with this kind of performing. It sounds a cliche, I know, but it is like a family.
“People say that it makes little girls grow up too quickly, but I just don’t see that. In the junior competition there’s no swimwear section, the only make-up they wear is a little bit of mascara. It really is just about having fun in gorgeous dresses. What little girl wouldn’t want to do that?”
Ask Halle what she enjoys about competing to be a beauty queen and she gives a pageant-winning response.
“I like meeting the other girls and raising money for charity,” she says, explaining that all the contestants in Galaxy UK are encouraged to support a particular good cause. This year it was the Christie Charity, which supports cancer sufferers and their families, and while the final figures aren’t in the organisers reckon they’ve raised £36,000. “I saw my mum competing and it just looked like a lot of fun. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t. When I won my first pageant I didn’t know whether to take my crown into school or not, but my friends wanted to see it and now a lot of them want to take part too.”
It’s that kind of word of mouth which has seen American-style pageants take off in Britain. Ten years ago child beauty contests didn’t exist in this country. Now there are in excess of 20 and ones like the Mini Miss Sparkle UK have six categories starting with the under twos. Holly Pirrie, herself a former beauty queen, started the UK franchise of the Galaxy contest in 2008 and last year it had more than 2,000 entries for its junior competition.
“Five years ago it would have been half that, probably less,” she says. “I think the rise has largely been down to social media which has allowed people to see what these pageants are really all about. I guess it’s come full circle. My mum grew up watching Miss World on the television and she passed her love of these contests onto me.
“In the 1970s with the rise of the feminist movement traditional beauty contests were seen as being sexist and went into decline, but they are definitely coming back. To be honest it’s no different from any other hobby. In fact girls who take part in weekend dance competitions probably wear more make-up and wear skimpier clothes than our girls.”
Holly now runs a number of competitions, including one for married women and says none of them come with height or size restrictions.
“It’s about the whole person,” she says. “We aren’t looking for Barbie dolls.”
Certainly there is more to Halle than a few pretty dresses. She won a scholarship to Hipperholme Grammar School on the strength of her gymnastic skills and while she hasn’t decided what she’d like to do when she grows up, it’s unlikely to involve a tiara.
“These pageants teach the girls a lot of about themselves,” says Robyn. “The competition days are long and they can be tiring, but if you work hard you get the rewards. At the end of the Galaxy UK Halle was complaining that her feet hurt. But as I told her, ‘Girl you’ve just got to suck it up’.”
Robyn isn’t being pushy. That is, she says, just the Aussie way.