Little Bessie-Sue Elder already knows what it feels like to compete. The four-year-old beauty pageant queen has even enjoyed her first taste of success.
She took part in her first competition earlier this year and most recently came third in her age category during the UK’s first US-style pageant – complete with swimwear section and rules that allow parents to apply fake tan.
Bessie’s mum, Leigh-Ann Dix, says her daughter loves the glamour and glitz of the pageant experience and stresses that she’d never put her child in harm’s way.
But children’s charities have slammed the Miss Glitz Sparkle contest, criticising it for exploiting youngsters and sexualising toddlers.
Leigh-Ann has had to defend herself before against those who say what she’s allowing her daughter to do is wrong. And yet she’s adamant that pageants are harmless fun and a great way to improve her child’s self-confidence.
‘We get called bad parents,’ says the 32-year-old from Leigh Park.
‘People have got this conception of what pageants are about. Until you go there you don’t get the full experience. It’s all a controlled experience. You can’t just go along and spectate.’
She adds: ‘You get people thinking that you’re exploiting your children. I don’t see it like that. It’s just a mum and daughter thing.
‘Everyone has got their own opinion. If we all thought the same it would be a very boring world.’
Bessie’s introduction to beauty pageants came through the dancing world after friends told Leigh-Ann about the competitions.
The pair signed up for a boot camp-style preparation course, designed to teach parents how to apply make-up and instruct children on good posture, poses and etiquette.
That was earlier this year and Bessie then took part in Mini Miss Essex, a UK-style pageant in which she picked up a third place.
An invitation to this month’s Miss Glitz Sparkle followed and after coming third in her age category again, she’s just been invited to take part in next month’s Mini Miss World.
Leigh-Ann says pageants are advertised on Facebook and it’s a controlled scene that requires parents to network with each other in order to find out about new events.
While TV shows like Toddlers and Tiaras often focus on the extreme lengths some pushy parents will go to in order to help their child succeed, Leigh-Ann denies that’s what pageant life is like.
‘Everyone is friends with each other,’ she explains. ‘There’s a misconception that the atmosphere is bitchy, that you don’t tend to get on with the other parents. You get networking and it’s not like that.’
She adds: ‘One side of pageants that people don’t know about is the charity side. Everyone is encouraged to raise money for a charity. People just focus on the negative but I wouldn’t put my daughter in danger.
‘I think people get the negative image of pageants. When the national press come to take pictures of pageants they always focus on the really small children, the babies. Bessie looks older than she is and I don’t think people find that so shocking.
‘You do go on holiday and have these talent contests and no-one looks at them and thinks they are horrific. You’ve got mainstream TV with all the talent shows and you’ve got young children on there.
‘Pageants are here to stay. I think the press interest will die down. They are here now and they are going to develop down south.
‘I enjoy the whole experience. Some of our pageant friends have been invited to go to America and that would be our pageant dream. That’s the home country of pageants.’
But the US-style pageants have come in for fierce criticism from those who object to the beauty regimes involved.
Claude Knights, director of children’s charity Kidscape, has called beauty pageants ‘a disturbing trend’.
‘It’s impossible for these kids to be giving their consent to wearing swimwear and pseudo-evening dresses as well as fake eyelashes and spray tans,’ she added.
‘The over-sexualisation of these young girls really is a worrying.
‘It can give these young girls the impression that it is only external beauty that is important in life and no balance is given to the internal and their other skills.’
Leigh-Ann stopped short of using fake eyelashes on Bessie but sees nothing wrong with applying fake tan and make-up.
‘I curled her hair, put her hair piece in and used some spray tan,’ she explains about the preparations she made for Miss Glitz Sparkle.
‘Up north, salons will spray tan the small children but down here they won’t, so I did Bessie. She’s really tanned anyway so it wasn’t really a spray tan, just a bit of a bronze.
‘It is a competition and you’ve got to think about what the other parents are doing as well. It depends on how much you want to compete and what looks best for that child.
‘I don’t do false eyelashes because I just thought “She’s four and she doesn’t really need them”, but I do her nails.’
She adds: ‘It’s a controlled way of her having make-up. I don’t do it every day.’
Miss Glitz Sparkle was held in Lincoln and as well as the travel costs, Bessie’s three outfits set her mum back around £300.
For Mini Miss World, Bessie will wear a gown designed and made for her in America. But for her first pageant she wore a £30 dress from TK Maxx.
‘Bessie enjoys the whole experience, staying in the hotel and the one-on-one time together. It’s how we bond. I work full-time, I don’t get much time with my children and when we do it’s dancing and pageants.’
Leigh-Ann adds: ‘Mini Miss Essex was UK-style, so it was ballgowns and no swimwear. They are a little bit stricter about what you can and can’t do. The one we’ve just been to we were allowed to do a bit of fake tan.
‘I don’t mind either style. I just think Bessie likes getting up there and doing it. I always check with Bessie that she wants to do it. She enjoys it and what everyone else doesn’t see is the social side. The kids get to practice and play together. It’s a very social time.
‘The whole idea is that we want to win, because it is a competition, but you do meet so many people from all around England and now we’re friends with them.’
While Leigh-Ann says she was always a tomboy growing up, Bessie is a girly girl who loves dancing and getting dressed up.
‘Bessie is really tall. I think it’s important to carry yourself right and not be overly concerned with being a tall girl. You see little girls who can slouch and I want her to be able to stand proud. I think with pageants you learn how to do that. Especially as we’d been to the boot camp.
‘They taught her etiquette and it definitely grows their confidence. She’s a confident little girl anyway but this has definitely brought her on leaps and bounds. At the moment it’s mum and Bessie time.’
The day-long pageants involve children walking down a catwalk to music and striking poses for the panel of judges.
More than 50 little girls took part in Miss Glitz Sparkle and the under-six age category which Bessie was entered into had the most entrants.
‘She came third for her overall age category and considering this was her first American one she did really well,’ says Leigh-Ann.
‘She loves getting a crown and because she has placed in both pageants she does think she gets a crown every time.
‘We enjoyed it. It was a brilliant day.’
But While there’s been no prize money for the pageants they’ve taken part in so far, Mini Miss World comes with a top cash prize of £5,000.
As this will still only be Bessie’s third pageant, Leigh-Ann says they’re not focused on the prize and just want to enjoy the day.
Leigh-Ann plans to continue until Bessie no longer wants to do it: ‘If she wanted to stop we’d stop,’ she adds.
‘I feel proud when she does win but everyone thinks they’ve got the most beautiful children. I do take pride in her but I don’t look at other children and think “Mine is better than yours”.
‘When we did Mini Miss Essex people said we needed to be reported to social services and I just thought “That’s not fair”. It’s horrific to read [the criticism] but I’m not going to stop.’