July 21, 2009 -- They say everything is bigger in Texas, and for the state's pint-size beauty pageant queens, that includes the hair, the crowns and the attitudes.
The little girls are show stoppers on "Toddlers & Tiaras," which has its second-season premiere Wednesday on TLC. This time the show follows the Universal Royalty pageant, a Texas competition in which nearly 100 young participants compete for the title of "Ultimate Grand Supreme" and $1,000 cash.
One of the contenders is 4-year-old Eden Wood, who's wearing a Las Vegas showgirl outfit in the first episode. Eden's been sashaying across the stage since she was 1, winning hundreds of trophies and crowns.
She especially likes getting all dolled up, she said. "My mamma puts my makeup on, and I really wanna get good with my makeup, and I like to do my makeup."
Her biggest fan is her mother, Mickie Wood, a former beauty queen who hopes that Eden will go from tiny Taylor, Ark., all the way to Miss America some day.
"It's sort of like small town, big dreams. Any time you come from a town with 556 population, you know it's big time for us," said Wood.
Her daughter is a natural talent, according to Wood. "She just shines when she comes on stage, it's the entertainer in her."
But Wood admits that behind that little entertainer is a big diva. "She's very independent and very opinionated and, you know, within a few moments of going to a photo shoot or meeting someone I can tell you if she's gonna, she doesn't like a photographer, she will tell you. Does she rule the house? Pretty much," Wood said.
Wood has turned Eden's pageants into a second career, and fame doesn't come cheap. A dress can cost up to $3,000. The Wood family said it has spent $70,000 on beauty essentials, such as spray tans, fake hair and photos.
Families like hers have made the pageant circuit a booming business. It's estimated that 250,000 children compete in more than 5,000 pageants in the United States each year. Even a 2-week-old baby boy is competing in this season's "Toddlers & Tiaras."
But family therapist Terry Real warns pageants can cost families a lot more than money.
"Performance based esteem -- I have worth because of what I can do or I have worth because of my beauty -- and what you want to teach your kid is you have worth because of who you are, period," Real said. "I think these kinds of contests are very confusing."
Parents' Involvement Under Fire
A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association linked a premature emphasis on appearance with "three of the most common mental health problems of girls and women: eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression."
Real said many mothers make the mistake of getting overly involved, and that can backfire.
Some viewers of "Toddlers & Tiaras" have weighed in to TLC with their own opinions.
"The parents are exploiting their own children for the sake of increasing the parent's self-esteem. Shame on them," one person said.
Another's view: "These parents need to stop living their lives through their children."
Wood disagrees, saying, "When she doesn't want to do something, anybody that knows Eden will tell you Eden doesn't do it."
Wood likens her role to the father or mother at the baseball park in the stands yelling, "Get 'em! Get 'em! Get 'em!," when a child is up at bat. "You get so into it you don't even realize that you're up doing it. It's just ... being a proud parent," she added.
Yet when Eden forgot the words to her pageant song during an interview with "Good Morning America," Wood was there chiming in.
While it's true that performing is a big part of their lives, Wood is quick to say that Eden is still just a kid being a kid.
"We are, you know, at the farm with our cows, riding a tractor, running barefoot. ... She's the gift from God you know. She's just a doll and I love her, no matter what she does."