Inside the Ups and Downs of Raising a Child Beauty Queen: ‘I Created a Monster’

Inside the Ups and Downs of Raising a Child Beauty Queen: 'I Created a Monster'

February 10, 2016

Dresses that cost $900 — and up. Fake teeth. Practicing walking in heels at the grocery store. Letting her beauty-queen mom dress her up like a “little Barbie doll.” Those are just some of the steps one 7-year-old has taken to dominate the child beauty pageant circuit, on which she’s been competing since she was only two months old.

“When I was pregnant, I was already starting to pick out her competition wardrobe,” Lana Henry, a probation officer, says in a thoughtful interview about the realities and rewards of bringing a child into the controversial children’s beauty pageant circuit as part of Yahoo Parenting’s “What It’s Like” original video series. Seven-year-old Bianca Dent, the mom swears, “was destined to compete.” 

Bianca is just following in her mom’s footsteps. Henry, 39, has competed in more than 100 pageants since she was 15, winning city, regional, state, national, and even international titles. And as soon as the Los Angeles-based mother welcomed her only child, she began sharing her passion with her daughter, coaching the girl to compete in 80 pageants herself — in just seven short years. 

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(Photo: Yahoo Parenting)

And the dedication has paid off. Thanks to Bianca’s wins so far, she already has money in the bank. “I believe the most amount she’s ever won thus far in a competition is $1,200,” brags the proud mom, adding, “It goes straight into her bank account and sits there until she’s 18.”

The 7-year-old works hard for the money, with after-school practice and weekends spent perfecting her performances as a singer in competitions. “Bianca doesn’t spend as much time practicing as people think she practices,” though, says Henry. “She takes lessons every week, but that’s only about 30 minutes. So our life is not pageant, pageant, pageant….I make sure all the normal things are still done in her life to make sure she has a normal childhood. She has a bedtime that I’m very strict about: 8:00. Homework needs to be done every day, on time. She has to clean her room. She has to do chores. So she still does all those normal things. Yes, she’s a pageant kid, but she’s going to tote her pageant dresses and carry her suitcases as if, you know, she were a regular kid, not like she’s some special queen who can’t get dirty.”

(Photo: Yahoo Parenting)

Before a big pageant, Bianca’s practice routine ramps up. “Normally we try to practice every night after school, after homework’s done, and then on the weekends, that’s when it gets all crazy when we have big pageants coming up. I spend my time packing, rolling hairpieces, getting everything together and trying to keep myself not going crazy from all the stress.”

Still, Henry confesses, “I think that Bianca might be too vain, but then too, I have to remember, this is who she is as a 7-year-old, and I really don’t know what she’s going to be like when she grows up. I’ll see her now, she’ll be in the mirror and she’ll be playing with makeup and doing her hair and all that stuff and I’ll just be thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I created a monster.’ But then I have to stop and think, What did I do when I was that age? I did the same thing. When I wasn’t competing in pageants, I still did the same thing. I still wore Mommy’s makeup and got all pretty and put the jewelry on. It’s just what kids do. It’s being a little girl.”

(Photo: Yahoo Parenting)

The biggest thing they do to get ready for a competition? Try on clothes, says Henry, “because as we all know, 7-year-olds can grow three inches overnight and you will never know. So we always get into this battle about the clothes. She doesn’t mind wearing them for competition, but the trying on part she hates because Mommy makes her try on about eight different outfits before we finally figure out what we’re going to wear.” The most expensive item they’ve bought is a “glitz pageant” dress. “Those dresses can be anywhere from $500 to $2,500,” Henry explains. “And being a being a frugal single mom, I don’t exactly have that type of budget to buy dresses like that all the time. So I usually buy secondhand dresses. And I think the most expensive one I’ve bought was maybe $900.”

The whole the endeavor is expensive. “So sometimes I do have to make sacrifices,” Henry says. “Maybe it means I don’t get my hair done, I don’t get my nails done, or I don’t get a new dress that I want. And I’m perfectly fine with that. Because I’d rather invest everything I have in my child than spend it frivolously on myself.” (For her own pageant competitions, there’s more involved. “I think one of the most grueling things that I do to prep myself is the day-before spray tan, getting waxed and shaved and plucked and all that stuff,” Henry says. “And also I have a little trick where I use Preparation H and Saran Wrap, which basically makes all your cellulite disappear).

(Photo: Lisa Dragani for Yahoo Parenting)

The most grueling thing that Bianca has to do “is sit still while her hair and makeup is done and be my little Barbie doll,” jokes mom. “All the different hairpieces that they wear, Mom has to roll them. I get the clothes ready. And I make sure her flipper is all clean and ready to go.” A flipper, she explains is “like a retainer, except instead of the metal, it’s teeth. They’re basically fake teeth that you put in when they’re missing teeth, so that when they smile they can look like they have a mouthful of teeth.”

Those stereotypes of girls with Vaseline on their teeth practicing smiling and waving, Henry admits, “kind of is true. You do do that at home in the mirror. We practice in mirror smiling and walking in heels, going random places like the grocery store.” And the pageant community, likewise, is like Toddlers and Tiaras “in some ways” she adds. “In the fact that those people that you saw on Toddlers and Tiaras are real people, but they do not define what pageants are all about and what I see on an everyday basis in pageantry. There are some people that are a little crazy, but there are a lot of normal people, too. There are a lot of wonderful moms, there are a lot of intelligent moms. There are a lot of really intelligent kids.”

(Photo: Yahoo Parenting)

To avoid any stereotypical drama, Henry says, “I do steer clear of the [pageant moms] that are a little out there. I have my core friends in pageantry and we kind of all stick together and none of us are crazy. If my daughter competes with your daughter and your daughter wins over my daughter it doesn’t matter because at the end of the day, we’re still friends. We’re still going to go out to eat afterwards. The girls are still going to play, no hair, no makeup, no dress, in the dirt. Or as one of our friends does, playing with her pet rabbit, goat and chicken.”

People’s opinions about pageants, Henry maintains, are mostly formed from faulty info. “I think a majority of the world has not been educated on truly what pageants are really about,” Henry says. “Pageants are not just about who’s the most beautiful, who’s the skinniest or anything like that…It’s all about finding the specific pageant that’s right for you…There are plus-size pageants. There are ethnic pageants, so whatever it is that you are, if you find that right mold for you to fit in, it’s there for you.…There are some pageant systems out there where everyone walks away with some type of title [and] every single girl gets a crown…So it doesn’t [even] have to damage a person’s self-esteem if you choose correctly.”

(Photo: Lisa Dragani for Yahoo Parenting)

Another misconception is “that we’re all dumb,” she says. “There are so many intelligent women in pageants, so many women turn out to be doctors and lawyers and scientists…and not only are they smart, they just happen to be beautiful too.”

Yes, Henry admits, “I have heard a lot of negative things about pageants, whether it’s towards me competing or towards my daughter competing. But I tell most people, you can’t really knock pageants until you’ve tried it.” The mother also insists that she isn’t worried about any negative impact competing may have on her daughter “because first and foremost, I’m her mother and what I teach here at home is what’s going to stick with her through life.”

Henry’s first competition, at her grandmother’s urging, was at age 6. “I actually didn’t really like it,” admits the mom. “I was terrified throughout the whole experience, so I quit. And then I started again when I was 15, and I’ve been hooked ever since…I used to get the paper bags from the grocery store and cut them up and make banners that said Miss America, and I walked around the house smiling and waving.” 

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Hoping to spark the same enthusiasm in her daughter, the mom signed Bianca up for her first competition when she was just 2 months old. “I got started pretty late, so I had a lot of catching up to do to get to the point that a lot of the other girls were already at,” Henry explains. “So if I get [Bianca] started young, hopefully by the time she gets to that age, those teen years, she’ll be able to walk into those really competitive pageants where there may be 400 girls and I don’t have to worry about her coming out in the last 200. She’ll come out on the top, because she already has that experience and she already knows what to do on stage. That was important to me.” 

(Photo: Yahoo Parenting)

The mother (who sings opera in six languages during the competitions that she still enters today) says she’s devoted to pageants for kids because they can provide children with infinite opportunities that other extracurriculars simply can’t match. “There are so many different type of pageants out there: Beauty pageants, scholarship pageants. There’s a pageant for anything you can imagine. Even dog pageants,” Henry notes. “So I think anyone who likes to show off anything or be on a stage, it’s a great avenue for you to perform. But I think my biggest passion lies in the fact that pageants have really made me who I am today. They have given me an opportunity to become a great speaker… to meet people I would never have met, to travel.” 

For the confidence alone, she believes pageant competitions are worth giving a shot. They’ve “taught me to never be fearful of anything,” she insists, “that any situation thrown at me, I can handle it. I can get up on a stage and say whatever I need to say and not have a care in the world about it. I can walk in front of millions of people in a bikini and not be scared to death. I can give speeches, I can do job interviews… and I never have to be afraid of who I am or what I look like or what other people think of me.” 

(Photo: Lisa Dragani for Yahoo Parenting)

It’s a transformation she watches in the kids who compete as well. “I’ve seen so many girls come into pageants very shy, quiet, insecure, just not really sure of themselves or who they are, and blossom into these beautiful confident young women who are ready to take on the world,” Henry shares. “I don’t think you can get that experience from too many other places.”

“I want Bianca to have some of the same experiences that I had,” the mom continues. “I want her to be able to walk on stage confidently. I want her to be able to pick up a microphone and not be scared of what people are going to say about her or what people are going to think about her. I want her to be able to command a stage. I want her to also have that ace in her pocket that when she does get ready to go to college, if she needs to get scholarships.” 

(Photo: Lisa Dragani for Yahoo Parenting)

If Bianca opts out of pageants in the future, Henry insists, “I would be fine with that as long as we did something else….whether it’s dance, cheer, or sports. Whatever she chose to do, I would push her in it 100 percent and give it as much effort as I do the pageants.” Bianca quitting “would not stop me from doing pageants,” she insists. 

“I’m not trying to relive my pageant life through Bianca — and I know a lot of people believe that pageant moms live for their kids,” she explains. “But the reality is, I’m not one of those moms because I compete. If I want to do a pageant and fulfill some pageant dream, then I’m going to get on stage and do it myself. My friends actually joke with me and say that I’m gonna be Miss Senior Citizen U.S.A. someday. And I’m totally fine with that.”

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