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Winning smiles, but are they too young to be beauty queens?

As children's pageants become more popular in Northern Ireland, Kerry McKittrick and Helen Carson ask the mums of these four girls if it is all just a bit of fun or a step too far?

False eyelashes, mahogany tans and more make-up than Max Factor... that is the image we associate with American-style beauty pageants for little girls. But one proud Belfast mum says her nine-year-old dance-mad daughter has gained a massive boost in self-confidence after winning the Northern Ireland Junior Miss Model of the Year pageant.

Jodie Leigh Gray lifted the crown in the competition, which was held in Coleraine last Sunday, and will now go on to the UK finals in Norwich on Sunday.

Mum Tara Jamison, (26), a student nurse, who has two other children Darren, (7) and Brooke (4), says her usually shy daughter enjoyed the competition so much, she wants to do more.

And Tara is clear about the nature of pageants in terms of her daughter: “At the end of the day there is nothing wrong with a child looking their best. They don’t look provocative.

“I have had people say to me when Jodie Leigh was dancing that the girls were made to be ‘sexual objects’.

“For the pageant, they put on a pretty dress, and jeans and T-shirt, there are no false nails, lashes or make-up. It is fun for the girls and they make friends, and it has given my daughter confidence.

“We sent her to dance class to boost her confidence and bring out her personality.”

Tara adds: “We wanted a chance for her to go out on her own and shine.”

Tara says this event is totally different from the ones featured on TV shows such as Toddlers and Tiaras, where ultra-competitive US pageant mums spend thousands on gowns, false eyelashes, hair extensions and spray tans so their daughters can become pageant queens.

This is the second year of the competition which is run by Los Angeles-based beauty queen and actress Kerri Parker who heads up the Kerri Parker Academy model agency. “We found out about the pageant on Facebook via the Kerri Parker page and sent in pictures of Jodie Leigh — a face shot and full-body shot.”

And the snaps got the pretty nine-year-old from Sandy Row a place in the Northern Ireland heat. The pageant is open to girls aged four to 12, and Jodie took part in the age eight to 12 section.

Tara says: “Kerri is based in LA and is very against dressing girls up to look older and thinks they should promote natural beauty, especially at such a young age. There are four rounds when they walk in front of the judges in casual wear, a T-shirt and jeans, and show off their personality. Then party wear, princess wear and talent. Jodie Leigh is a freestyle and contemporary dancer who trains three days a week and competes regularly, so this is what she did in the talent round.

“She mostly wore clothes that she already had in her wardrobe, but I bought her the blue dress on eBay for £40. It is turquoise with sequins.”

And although Jodie Leigh has many dance trophies under her belt, this was her first outing at a pageant.

“The night before she was really excited, especially about getting the train up to Coleraine. She couldn’t wait to get there and meet the others. She is quite shy until you get to know her, but she made so many new friends.”

Tara says that there was little or no preparation the night before the big event.

“She has a daily moisturising routine for her skin, and competitors were allowed a light tan which I did for her. I crimped her hair on the morning and painted her nails.”

Now family and friends have rallied round to save up the money for plane fares to send Jodie Leigh and her mum to the UK final in Norwich.

“I was trying to book flights, but because of the Queen’s Jubilee the tickets are very expensive. But all the family are saving to get enough money to send her over.”

Tara says Jodie Leigh is still committed to dancing, despite her success in the pageant: “Freestyle dancing will always be part of her. She is a well-known face in the freestyling world and has won many awards.”

Competing in the pageant has given Jodie Leigh a new experience which, rather than casting her as an overly preened teenager, is empowering, according to her mum.

“She is very excited about going to the UK final, she is looking forward to it. She has taken to it. There isn’t as much discipline in it as dancing where she needs to train three times a week in order to compete. The pageant has given her a different insight into life. This is her chance to be herself and let people know what she is about and show her personality.”

Jodie Leigh will fly the flag for Northern Ireland in the UK final of the competition. She’s also a contestant in the Face of Europe competition and if she wins her heat here she will travel to DisneyLand Paris for the final.”

The UK final of the Junior Miss Model of the Year will take place in Norwich on Sunday

‘I wouldn’t be happy with Lucy in swimwear’

Julie Turner-Leahy (37) is a clerical officer and lives in Belfast with her partner and two children; Lucy (13) and Jamie (18) Flanaghan. She says:

Lucy was on Facebook one day and sent her picture in for a modelling competition — she asked permission first. The next thing we knew there was a phoncecall telling us that Lucy had made it to the final of Miss Teen Face of Northern Ireland — I couldn’t believe it and was over the moon.

One Sunday we went up to Banbridge to meet the organiser Taylor-Rae Hamilton. In Banbridge Lucy had her picture taken in a sash and crown and had an informal chat with the organisers — Taylor-Rae and last year's winner. That was all there was do it.

The final of the competition takes place in August at the Canal Court Hotel in Newry. I'm still happy for Lucy to take part — everyone we've met so far has been very welcoming and friendly and Lucy has enjoyed herself.

Lucy's at the age where she has started to wear make-up and fake tan but I recently threw her fake tan out.

I think it can be tacky looking and she's too young for it.

For the pageant we might go in for a very natural spray tan.

My friend's daughter is a make-up artist and my cousin is a hair dresser so she can have those both done professionally but again, both very simple and natural looking. There’s no swimwear round. I would not be happy with Lucy doing that.

She has a white cocktail dress with heels for the first round, a party dress for the second round and long, elegant evening wear for the third round. I think a pageant is a bit of fun and a chance to dress up to girls. I'm keen to make sure that Lucy won't be in swimwear or be wearing too much make-up.

Even the suggested list of things to bring from the organisers is quite basic — things like hair brush, neutral-coloured underwear and that kind of thing.”

‘It’s all a bit of fun, not like in US’

Ella McGregor (25) is a full-time mum. She lives in Belfast with her husband Leo and their daughter Leah (4). She says:

We entered Leah into an online picture competition and from that the organiser contacted us and asked if we would like Leah to take part in the Northern Ireland Model competition.

We were uncertain about it and of course we asked Leah if she wanted to take part. We were determined that we didn't want to put make up on her or anything like that. In the end we said yes because Leah loved the idea.

There wasn't much to it. There were four rounds; one in jeans and white T-shirt, one in a princess dress, one for talent and one in evening wear.

The cost wasn't too much. We already had jeans and a T-shirt for Leah as well as a Disney princess dress. For her talent she sang a song that she had learnt in nursery about a butterfly and wore a butterfly dress.

The only thing we actually bought for the competition was her formal dress — I got that very cheaply online for £25. I could have spent a fortune if I wanted to though.

It wasn't a bad day. There wasn't much waiting around because as soon as one round was over the girls were getting changed for the next one. There was a big gap afterwards while the judges deliberated but we just went to get some food while that was happening. It was all pretty quick and to be honest I expected it would be much worse.

I was quite impressed with the whole affair. It wasn't over the top and no one was pressuring me to put fake tan or make up on Leah — although some of the older girls did go in for it.

Leah came second and enjoyed herself so I think if there was another pageant coming up and she wanted to I would enter her for it. We actually had a lovely day out but I don't think I would stretch to taking her to England for one of the shows. It's just a bit of fun — not something to go into in a big way like they do in America.”

‘It’s all about children and parents enjoying it’

Kathie Laverty (34) is organiser of the official Northern Ireland Model of the Year pageant. She lives in Coleraine with her husband Gareth and daughters Nicole (14), Demi-Leigh (10) and Tamikka (2). She says:

The Northern Ireland Model Of The Year pageant has three categories — Little Miss for ages four to 12, Teen, for ages 13–17 and Ladies for ages 18–35. I hold the franchise of the UK Model Of The Year pageant and I just follow the guidelines for the UK pageant.

I don't think there's an age that is too young though — we call for minimal make-up and not expensive clothes so I don't think it does any harm.

I see girls going in for gymnastics and Irish dancing competitions and they are far glitzier. I put a page on Facebook so that contestants and their parents could communicate. I also made very clear the guidelines on make-up, tan and clothes but some people just ignore it. It's all about the children and parents enjoying themselves.

When Nicole was about to turn 13 she asked if she could enter a beauty contest online. We thought this would be a good experience for that. It would look good on her CV and she would be seen by model agencies.

Next thing we got a phone call telling us she had got into the final of the Miss Teen Princess. The competition in London had three rounds including a casual round — white T-shirt and jeans — and an evening dress round. At the venue there was spray tan available for the girls if they wanted it — Nicole had it done because everyone else was getting it. We did her hair and make-up ourselves and she put on false nails. Since then she's taken part in about 10 altogether. She's been crowned Miss Cyberface Generation, Miss Teen Earth Northern Ireland and Miss Teen Ireland. The rest she usually ends up as a finalist. Winning Miss Teen Ireland meant she went to America to represent Ireland in the Miss Teen World competition.

I think it's done Nicole the world of good. She used to be very, very shy but the way she holds herself onstage and talks to people has completely changed. She has also made a lot of friends from all over the world who she wouldn’t have met otherwise and I think that is good.”

Teen queens to screen stars

  • Actress Halle Berry, was Miss Teen All-America in 1985 and Miss Ohio in 1986 as well as the first runner-up in the Miss USA contest of that year
  • Actress Michelle |Pfeiffer won the Miss Orange County beauty pageant in 1978 and she also came sixth in Miss California the same year

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