Pageants Behind the Scenes: Toddlers, Tiaras, Tempers and Tantrums

Behind the scenes with toddlers, tiaras, tantrums and tough competition.

July 21, 2009, 2:31 PM

Aug. 11, 2009— -- The Texas State Beauty Pageant in Austin, Texas, is home to pint-size beauty queens with big attitudes and high style.

In Texas, "we like all the glamour, we like the rhinestones, we like the sequins, we like the big beautiful hair," said Annette Hill, the owner of Universal Royalty, which runs the pageant.

"Everything's gone to high fashion," concurred pageant judge Kathy Petty. "The gaudier the better."

At this year's pageant, 50 girls and boys -- even babies as young as 2 weeks old -- were competing for a shot at the tiara and $2,000 in cash.

Winning is "very important," said 9-year-old Brooke McClung, who added that when she doesn't win she feels sad.

"I should have done better, I should have done better. I should have nailed it!"

Four-year-old Eden Wood, who is featured on TLC's reality show "Toddler's & Tiaras," was considered the beauty to beat at this pageant. She's been on the circuit most of her short life.

"I like the makeup, and I like hair spray," she said. "Makeup makes me happy. I like being pretty on stage with my makeup on."

Watch the story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET and Thursday on "Good Morning America" at 7 a.m. and CLICK HERE to see more of Eden Wood's pageant photos.

When ABC News visited Eden last month in her small Arkansas town, it was obvious she'd found her calling. The Wood's home is full of hundreds of trophies and crowns.

When asked which one is her favorite, Eden pointed to one crown and said, "This one, because it's so big."

For Eden's mother, Mickie Wood, a former beauty queen herself, pageants have become a full-time job. She said she's committed to giving her child the best possible chance to shine.

But being the best doesn't come cheap. It's estimated that 250,000 children compete in more than 5,000 pageants in the United States each year, and pageant officials admit some families have gone into debt, even paying entry fees before paying the rent.

Wood said she can afford the $70,000 she's spent on necessities for Eden, such as professional photos, spray tanning, coaching and $3,000 dresses.

"Is that excessive?" Wood said. "It probably is. But there's no telling how much we have invested in my child's future in every aspect, in all the lessons of the different things she's involved in. We work and we have our money in the bank. … Why can't I spend it on my child if that's what I want to do?"

Tough Toddlers Still Have Tantrums

The Woods traveled to Austin to defend Eden's title as reigning queen. If she won she was promised a puppy, but this year she had some fierce competition. Pageant watchers pitted her against 5-year-old Tarilyn Eschberger from Crowley, Texas.

Before the pageant started, Hill said the two were "running neck and neck."

"It's a very hard competition, very stressful, and I think both contestants have their game faces on, but it's going to be tough," she said. "You're looking at a beautiful baby doll, which is Eden, and you're looking at Tarylin, which is a top-notch bubbly professional."

That's a lot of pressure for a 4-year-old like Eden, whom Mickie Wood calls her "little diva," but she has a secret weapon for stressful situations.

Hand puppets that Eden plays with when she needs to be distracted "definitely help," her mom said.

"It takes her mind off whatever, if she's tired of sitting or not real focused."

But even the puppets can't prevent the tantrums that are normal for children her age.

"Just like any other 3- or 4- or 5-year-old little girl or little boy, they're going to have tantrums," Wood said. "They're going to have bad days, and that has nothing to do with pageants. … [They] are just being a human. … If you have a child you know that they have moments."

The first day of the pageant was the talent portion, for which the children practice up to 15 hours a week. If you looked on the sidelines it was clear that the parents had done some practicing of their own, encouraging their children to smile and miming the words and movements of their routines.

"You just get so caught up in it," Wood said. "I seem to get a little too much into it sometimes and don't even realize I'm doing it. It's to help them. You go to the ball games and the moms and dads will be in the stands going 'Get 'em, get 'em, get 'em'… To me it's no different than us coaching our girls."

But judge Kathy Petty says sometimes the parents go too far.

"When your child's on stage and they don't perform the way they want you to, don't spank them, hit them, things like that," she said. "I have seen that in the past, where the parents start yelling at them, actually spanks them … and I don't think that's encouraging."

Pageants Teach 'Performance-Based Esteem'?

Day two of the pageant focused on the contestants' bodies and their beauty as the children modeled swimsuits and formal wear.

It's this portion of the contest that concerns many child psychologists the most. A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association contends that pageants teach young girls "to see themselves as objects to be looked at and evaluated for their appearance."

The study 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."

Family therapist Terry Real said that giving children "performance-based esteem" -- teaching them that their self worth comes from their talents or beauty -- is dangerous.

"What you want to teach your kid is you have worth because of who you are, period," he said.

Pageant owner Annette Hill calls the study "ridiculous" and says it's up to the parents to keep things positive.

"When they do studies like that they need to go to a pageant system and look at the kids and evaluate," she said. "I don't see any unhappy kids here."

Hill believes America's backlash against pageants all began with the precocious images ofJonBenet Ramsey parading across the stage in 1996. The 6-year-old beauty pageant queen was found dead in the basement of her parent's home. Her murder has never been solved.

"We love beauty pageants, and we're not going to stop doing them," she said. "Parents enjoy showcasing their kids, and what is wrong with that? What is wrong with showcasing to the world, here is my beautiful daughter or my beautiful son? As long as you keep it in a positive aspect, I don't think anything is wrong with that."

Mickie Wood also dismissed the study's findings that linked a premature emphasis on beauty to eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem in the future.

"It's playing dress up," she said. "It's an expensive dress up game. We put so much more emphasis on her being Eden and excelling at everything she does."

She said that it's possible for pageants to overemphasize beauty "if you don't balance out with a normal life" but said that it's only a small part of her own family's life.

Who Will Take the Tiara?

Wood doesn't think all the tanning and makeup and products will make Eden vain, just confident.

"If that was all we did and we were constantly in the mirror primping, if she was overzealous about her appearance, but I don't see that and if I ever did see that I would put a stop to it," she said. "I want her to be well rounded and balanced. It's just not all about beauty."

But TLC cameras did catch Mickie Wood backstage at a pageant telling her daughter, "We have to be perfect!" -- a sound bite she says she regrets.

"I just wanted her to be put together well and look her best," she said. "I've never said, 'Eden you have to look perfect' in the context of you have to look like a perfect child.'"

And those showgirl outfits?

"She's covered everywhere," Wood said. "When I think of a showgirl I think of a beautiful glamorous woman. It's a gorgeous glamorous costume. It's old Hollywood … not sexualizing my child."

Woods does admit that showcasing Eden is the ultimate high, because seeing "the joy and the sparkle that comes over her when she steps on stage … brings back that spark to me."

But in the end, she says Eden is still just a normal kid.

"We live in the country, we go to birthday parties, she drives a tractor, she has a four-wheeler … my child is not missing out on friends on playing on school. I'm teaching her values that have nothing to do with pageants."

On the final night of the Austin pageant Eden and Tarilyn were still neck in neck. The judges said Eden was tired and off her game, but Tarilyn had lost points for being too spray tanned.

"One day the judges say we're not tanned enough … then we're too tanned," sighed Tarilyn's mother. "You just never know what's going to work on any given day."

But too tanned or not, Tarilyn came out on top.

"We're disappointed," Mickie Wood said. "We wouldn't be normal if we weren't. She did her best and onto the next."

For the Woods the pageant is just one of 25 they'll be competing in this year, and in a world where bigger is better, they have their eye on the biggest prize of all. They hope that their toddler in a tiara will grow up to be Miss America.