The cost of winning a beauty pageant [classic article]

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If you want to win a beauty pageant, you’d better be prepared to spend a pretty penny.

The pursuit of a title and a tiara has grown into a $5 billion-a-year industry, according to the Pageant News Bureau. An estimated 3,000 pageants draw 250,000 entrants a year, and parents spend thousands of dollars on pageants. Some want their children to gain extra poise; others hope that their children will become the next supermodel or a movie star.

“Competitions 25 years ago really only required a party dress and a satin hair bow,” says Eleanor VonDuyke, a former Denver-based pageant director who was in the business for 20 years. But that has all changed.

That’s where the money goes

Pageant entry fees run from $25 to more than $500. Many pageants also have “optionals.” They are the contests within the contest for titles such as “Most Photogenic” or “Best Costume,” which tack on even more to the parents’ bill.

And before you get to the pageant, there are clothes, hair and makeup costs — and for the serious competitors, professional coaching. One former pageant contestant, Jennifer Makris Hill, now coaches girls. A week of her training costs $5,000; a day goes for $1,000. “That’s why,” says Hill, “I always insist on the parents accompanying the girl on the initial interview. It’s a lot of money.”

The higher the level of competition, the higher the costs. Jamie Swenson was Miss South Dakota USA ’97 and a three-time Miss Hawaiian Tropic. “Some ‘state Miss’ pageant systems can spend up to $100,000 on one girl to get ready for a national pageant,” she says. The money goes to “wardrobe consultants, physical fitness trainers, speech coaches, voice coaches, etiquette lessons, salon services, talent coaches, resume writing, tanning, evening gown, rehearsal attire, bathing suits, opening-number outfit, interview suit, talent costume, accessories, and many, many more things.”

Big spending doesn’t always win the crown, however. Swenson has known girls who have won spending as little as $100. The most expensive dress she ever saw was at a local state pageant for Mrs. America. It cost $8,000, but only made the Top 6 in that pageant’s “best dress” optional.

The more contests you enter, the more it costs, and many parents turn their children into pageant troupers. One researcher at Harvard University interviewed 41 mothers of child beauty-pageant entrants. They entered their children in an average of five pageants in the past year, and spent between $100 and $200 on each. They spent a similar amount on pageant clothing, though some paid as much as $1,000 for a gown. Those with higher incomes were more likely to hire someone to do the child’s hair, or a pageant coach to give their child an extra advantage.

Money pressures cause a strain

Some parents even take out loans to pay for the pageant expenses, says Charles Dunn, publisher of Pageantry Magazine. Often because of this additional financial stress, parents get mad and scold their children when they don’t win. Lisa J. Rapport, a psychology professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, studied 74 former young performers in television and film. She found that mothers who served as managers were likely to have a far less stable and positive relationship with their children than were mothers who kept business separate. “When parents become overly invested in the child’s success, it may be more difficult to pull back and listen,” she says

Where to spend — and not spend — your money
Deborah Ouellette, co-author of “Breaking Into Commercials,” is in the process of writing “What ARE Those Pageant Judges Looking For?” In the research for her new book, she interviews judges to see what they want.

Here are some of her tips on what to spend money on:

  • Money is better spent on expert tailoring than gimmicky embroidery or beading.
  • Ballet lessons do develop grace, good posture and an elegant walk.
  • Tanning sessions usually make kids look silly.
  • Each pageant has its own rules and they can be strict. If the pamphlet says the evening-dress hem should not be more than 1 inch above the floor, they mean it. Don’t lose points unnecessarily by failing to follow your pageant’s rules.
  • Pageant swimsuits are more expensive because they hold you in and push you up, while not “riding up.”
  • A girl who pays attention to her vocabulary and grammar in school can do more for herself than any “speech coach” can.
  • While preferences differ, many judges are frightened by colored contacts.
  • Even though judges don’t like too stiff or sophisticated a look, they do want to see the girl’s hair “done.”
  • Good photographers can cost more than $1,000, but often create pictures that have the professional polish that reproduces well in program books.
  • If you have the resources and want to make your kid feel like a glamorous star, there’s no harm in being the one who sells the most program ads, tickets to the pageant, etc. The pageant will usually give a title to the child, such as “hostess,” along with a crown and some other prizes. As long as nobody takes it too seriously, it’s one of the advantages of having some extra cash to spend.

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