Toddlers, Tiaras -- and Debt: the Costs of Child Beauty Pageants


Is your adorable child ready for the spotlight? Perhaps pageant life is for you. Be forewarned, though, that the overall costs of these beauty contests can be downright ugly. With so much to buy, you just might run through savings and borrow your way to the crown. Before entering, know what it takes to participate.

Glitz equals budget blitz

There are two basic types of beauty pageants for children: glitz and natural. View one episode of The Learning Channel's hit show Toddlers and Tiaras and you'll be immediately familiar with the glitz variety. It's the more extreme form. Picture kindergarteners with wigged-up, ultra-big hairstyles flouncing in glittery costumes and wearing fake teeth (called flippers, which run about $150) to hide jack-o-lantern smiles. (See related story: "5 signs of a rip-off beauty pageant")

Such glamour doesn't come cheap. According to Dorothy Poteat, director of Southern Elite Pageants based in Chapel Hill, NC, the very low end of the spectrum is between $400 to $500, minimum, per glitz pageant. The midrange is $1,500, but she's seen parents drop $3,500 or more in preparations for one big day. The reason the price tag can become so heavy is the gear.

"With glitz, anything goes," says Poteat. "Rhinestones, professional hair and makeup, spray tans, fake nails ... it adds up fast. The entry fee alone varies from $50 to $500, depending on the level of the pageant." The contests also charge for competing in separate categories, such as talent and casual wear, each an additional $20 to $30. Factor in the outfits (as many as six per pageant), promotional photographs, coaching (typically $50 per hour, at least once a week), dance, voice lessons and travel expenses, and it's not hard to see how a single contest can easily blow out an average family's budget.

Winning can be addicting though. "Once a child wins a crown or trophy, they will want to do it again," says Poteat. "They will travel to the pageants every weekend. A glitz pageant six times a year can easily run $10,000."

Natural is naturally less

On the other side of the pageant world are the natural contests. The overall expense for kids to participate in them is considerably lower, mainly because there is far less to buy. Most natural pageants don't permit such artifice as spray tans and wigs. Cosmetics are spare, and clothes often come from off the rack.

Lori Lee, from Richlands, N.C., knows both glitz and natural pageants well. A former contestant herself, she's been co-director for the Miss America preliminary circuit and a judge and director for the Miss North Carolina Sweetheart Pageants. She's also a pageant mom: Her eldest daughter is currently going through the Miss America circuit process.

Lee prefers natural pageants, not only for aesthetic and philosophical reasons, but financial. "It is outrageous!" Lee says of the glitz pageants, which are popular in her city. "I live in a military area, and military parents don't make a lot of money." She cites an example of Lisa, a local woman of modest means. "She spent $2,600 on her daughter's dress. I have no idea where that money is coming from! With glitz, you have to have four jobs to pay for it all!"

A natural pageant is usually under $200 in total. "Entry fees are lower, often about $80, and you can have her wear a Sunday dress and whatever cute shoes you have in your closet," says Lee. "You don't hire someone to do her hair, you do it yourself."

Still, Lee admits it can be easy to go overboard, even with the naturals. "I put my oldest in a pageant when she was a baby and didn't put much money into it," says Lee. "But after the first two, I lost my head. I needed to get her a bigger, better, more expensive dress and nearly put myself into debt. I almost did myself in -- and I make six figures!"

Winning the cost-cutting crown

To keep spending down, Poteat recommends parents swap dresses with other parents, and learn how to do their children's hair, make-up and spray tans.

Lee also suggests buying pre-owned outfits on eBay or craigslist. "Don't get wrapped up in the glitz and glamour and feel you need to have the best," says Lee "You can do it without breaking the bank. There are tons of moms who are selling the dresses, and you can pay a third the cost as new." For coaches and classes, talk to other parents for guidance on whose fees are the most reasonable.

Whatever you do, don't expect to make up the outlay in prizes. Tiaras and trophies are pretty, but their only value is sentimental, as cash awards rarely exceed $1,000. Many pageants do have sponsors, where the top three winners might get a gift card eligible for a free dress, but there are no guarantees your child will get that far.

When the title is and isn't worth it

Laura Rose, who grew up in Lawrenceville, Ga., competed in countless beauty pageants as a child and teen, and believes the financial sacrifice to her family was not worth the experience.

"My mom was a single mother and did not have a lot of money to spend," says Rose. In the beginning, her mom would make the costumes because she couldn't afford to buy them, but eventually she took to borrowing money from relatives to pay for it all. "There were many nights where I had nothing to eat but Pepperidge Farms gingerbread cookies because all of the money went towards the pageants," says Rose. "To this day, she sends those cookies to me because she thinks I like them, but they just generate bad memories."

Of course, every pageant family's experience is different, and many have no regrets. "It's just a different type of hobby," says Poteat. "For some parents, it's what they want to do with their baby and money, and they treasure those pics."

And beauty pageants aren't hurting for business, even in this harsh economy. "I've seen a little of a drop in activity, but it's not significant," says Lee. "People are still doing pageants. They're finding the expendable cash."

So can you afford to put your child in the beauty ring? You can only know by weighing the complete costs against the likely rewards. A clear sign that contests are outside your means: you forgo saving for truly important goals such as retirement and education -- and dinner consists of a plate of cookies.

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