‘No matter what… you’re a star’

An Abbotsford youngster is already a star after recently entering the world of child pageants.

Elle Manhattan and her mom Maureen Keyes pose with a table full of trophies won at child pageants.

Elle Manhattan has a table full of trophies that would make any athlete, dancer or musician envious.

Varying in height, they feature glittering shades of silver, purple and gold.

A dozen sparkling crowns fill the space between the awards – many encrusted with coloured jewels.

And then there are the sashes.

Pink, green and blue, they are embroidered with words like Princess, Congeniality and Prettiest Smile.

At only 15 months old, Elle is beauty pageant royalty. And with numerous prestigious titles, she’s quickly making a name for herself as tough competition, says mom Maureen Keyes.

Keyes, who runs a local performing arts studio in Abbotsford, was admittedly nervous to enter the world of pageants.

However, since doing so, she’s discovered the niche doesn’t carry the negative stigma that many associate it with.

She believes much of the criticism stems from the popular reality TV show, Toddlers and Tiaras.

“It’s a focus on the extreme behaviour,” she says of the program, which airs on TLC and follows the world of child beauty pageants in the U.S.

“There’s a lot of negative reactions to pageants … If a five-year-old does a dance competition and wears makeup and a costume, it’s OK. But when a girl goes for a pageant with hair, makeup and costume, it’s not OK?”

Having taken part in dance and live theatre since childhood, Keyes believes it’s the way parents deal with competitive situations that shapes their children’s behaviour.

“You can walk away from every sport feeling down,” she says. “But if you say, ‘No matter what, honey, you’re a star,’ then your kid will feel like a star.”

Before stepping into pageantry, Keyes watched numerous videos on YouTube and researched what was appropriate for a two-month-old to wear.

The events were something the mother-daughter team could do together, which attracted her.

After entering Elle into her first contest, and receiving first place, Keyes was “hooked.”

While Keyes admits Elle didn’t really know what was going on at the time, she does now. The bubbly blonde has since competed in more than 15 pageants and been awarded over 12 major titles.

Some of those include the Toddler Miss Queen title in the West Coast All Canadian Girl Pageant, the Supreme Queen in a local pageant called Dreamboat Dolls, and most recently, the Grand Supreme title at the Little Miss Gumdrop pageant in Surrey.

When they started, Keyes opted to enter only natural pageants, which don’t require the girls to wear wigs, makeup, a tan, false teeth or  over-the-top costumes covered in rhinestones.

Glitz pageants suggest those enhancers for extra points. In addition, they call for over-the-top costumes, which range in price from $400 to $2,400.

Recently, Keyes entered Elle into a semi-glitz pageant, where the extras are optional.

Without the makeup, tan or fake hair, Elle still placed first, wearing a fuchsia pink dress with a tulle skirt, encrusted with rhinestones.

Next month, Elle will enter her first glitz pageant, but won’t be donning the extras.

Keyes believes Elle will be successful by simply showing her positive attitude on stage.

“She’s always smiling, happy, waving to the crowd and dancing around the stage,” says Keyes.

Elle’s scores are often extremely high, garnering 19 or 19-and-a-half out of 20.

Judges say things like “very cute baby,” and “adorable to watch,” or “outfits are well put together,” adds Keyes.

Until entrants are three, there’s no talent portion. Instead, the girls walk, or are carried, from one point of the stage to another, and are judged on performance, personality and costume.

In the long run, Keyes believes the pageant world will benefit Elle.

The older girls that compete look happy, are well-spoken, kind and confident, says Keyes.

While she weighs in on the positives, she also acknowledges the popular criticisms – such as forcing kids to grow up too quickly.

“I worry every day – there’s so many aspects that make kids grow up too fast,” she says. “MTV, high school, middle school. Will it be the pageant that makes my daughter want to look like Miley Cyrus or some other pop star? Am I worried that (pageantry is) going to be the thing that does it? No.”

However, if the day comes when Elle no longer enjoys the competitions, she will pull her out and provide her with opportunities to explore other activities – from martial arts to soccer.

For the time being, she can see her daughter enjoys performing, by the way she “lights up” once they enter the theatre.

That’s what the pageants promote, says Keyes, “what’s inside.”

“Their performance is from there … from their hearts. Their passion will shine through, no matter how beautiful they are on the outside.”

Cautions to consider

Abbotsford psychologist Susan Goldsmith of Dr. Goldsmith and Associates, who has worked with children of all ages, including those who have competed in pageants, cautions that such events can push kids to strive for perfection as they learn to value external validation rather than internal.

“It doesn’t take long for them to realize that if they wear that dress or hair or makeup a certain way … they’re being approved of or disapproved of. ”

Goldsmith also believes it rushes childhood.

“Instead of being carefree and not worrying about appearance, they’re all of a sudden becoming hyper-aware of things like makeup and hairstyles and dress.”

Down the road, as events become more competitive, with bigger prizes, it can also lead to issues like eating disorders, anxiety and depression, said Goldsmith, because the girls feel they’re “not measuring up …”

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