Five Signs of a Rip-Off Beauty Pageant

For some parents, there is only one thing better than their child being crowned Miss Something-or-other, and that's winning cash, prizes, a school scholarship or a modeling contract.

Unfortunately, some beauty pageants use these lures as bait -- and then don't deliver. (See main story: "Toddlers, tiaras -- and debt") "Which contests are best avoided? The Better Business Bureau and Lori Lee, former director for the Miss North Carolina Sweetheart Pageants, offer some tips:

1.  Find out how long the pageant company has been operating, and who the directors are. "You get a lot of fly-by-night pageants that will only be open for a few months," says Lee. "They make a lot of money and run." Therefore, only participate in pageants with excellent reputations. Lee suggests typing in "child beauty pageant message board" into your search engine to discover what the online community is saying about a specific pageant and its staff. is a good starter website.

2.  Be aware of a pageant's total participation costs. Every contest costs money to enter, but some disreputable ones will not be upfront with all the financials. "Make sure there are no surprise or hidden fees that you have to come up with," says Lee. "Read the applications forms from top to bottom, and don't sign anything until you understand and agree to it." Don't do this and you could be stuck paying large, unexpected sponsorship fees to cover the promoter's outlay.

3.  Verify the location of the pageant. According to Lee, some scams involve people saying they are having a pageant, but do little more than take your credit card information or money and then skip town. Especially with small pageants, call the space where the contest is to be held and ask if the date has been set up and the event space has been paid for.

4.  Check up on the details. Before signing the agreement and paying any fees, visit the pageant's website. The pageant should have one that clearly lists all of its details. Read everything, including the judges' backgrounds, the criteria for winning, refund policies and what might be expected of the child after she wins. Contact the directors and ask them to provide you with references of families who have participated in them, and then call to get their opinion on the contest. If they can't or won't, Lee says that's a warning sign to stay away.

5.  Question ridiculous winnings and know that some prizes are not worth anything. If a tiny or new pageant is offering thousands of dollars worth of prizes or prestigious modeling contracts to the winners, call the directors and ask that they provide you with verification. "For example, find out what the scholarships are for, ask if it's in cash and how it all works if your child wins," says Lee. "Also, a bad pageant will charge an arm and a leg and all you get is a little tin trophy or crown."

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