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Child pageants: Kids strut their stuff

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 21, 2013

June 22 cannot come soon enough for housewife Nuraini Umar. That is when her five-year-old daughter will take the catwalk in the final of a beauty pageant for the first time.

Ms Nuraini, 31, says: "Growing up, I wanted to be a pageant queen because I liked wearing make-up and dressing up. If you make it big as a model, the world is your adventure."

But her technical officer father and housewife mother refused to let her.

So despite their "scolding", she has signed up her second of three children, daughter Tufaylah Norhisyam, for the Prince And Princess Asian World pageant, and photo shoots began two months ago.

Ms Nuraini says: "She has liked being photographed since she was one. She would turn left and right and put her hands on her hips. She's a natural."

She adds of her daughter: "She could live out my dreams."

Tufaylah's father, firefighter Norhisyam Sa'at, 34, is not thrilled about her participation in the pageant.

He has given the nod only because there is no swimwear involved and the girl does show some flair at striking poses.

He says: "My wife thinks the pageant will build self-confidence. I don't fully disagree but I'll try to minimise the emphasis on looks so she won't start to be vain."

His concern about the possibility of his daughter developing premature vanity is not unfounded.

Ms Ng Siau Hwei, a senior psychologist at the department of paediatrics at National University Hospital, says: "Getting involved with dressing and make-up may be a novel experience for kids and showing their talents in front of a crowd can boost their confidence."

But she notes that "kids are getting older younger". Taking part in beauty pageants, going to spas and having manicures way before puberty are part of the trend, she says.

The trend has been around since the mid-2000s when marketers sold sexy clothes for children, which resemble adult outfits worn by stars such as Britney Spears.

In child pageants such as Little Miss Singapore Cinderella and Little Manhunt as well as Prince And Princess Asian World, female contestants are typically divided into two groups - tots (four to six years) and girls (seven to 12 years).

Boys make up just one category (four- to 12-year-olds) as there are fewer of them.

ERM Singapore Marketing and Makin & Sorfina Productions, which organise these events, also hold adult versions such as Mrs Singapore & Classic Mrs Singapore, Miss Singapore Chinatown and Mrs Asian World.

Parents tell SundayLife! that with guidance, a shy child can bloom in the talent segment of these pageants. Being able to catwalk and do a song, dance or a martial arts number in front of hundreds of people could boost his confidence.

But this is not always the case, says MsMaia Lee, a mother of two.

Her daughter, Julka, four, has entered about three dozen modelling contests run by grassroots bodies and malls from age one. At such events, she saw children who seemed like they were being pushed to take part.

"You can tell the kids didn't want to be there because they were crying backstage. Or they would go on stage and give a forced smile or they froze," says Ms Lee, 29, a former Singapore Idol contestant who now runs PoppyKins Boutique, which sells kids' clothes and pageant costumes.

She adds that Julka was in her first pageant - Prince And Princess Asian World contest last year - and took the crown. Her elder child, Tyrese, 11, took part in a couple of contests from age six, won one but stopped at nine because he did not like it anymore, she says.

Private school lecturer Brenda Desker says that pageants "border on vanity".

The 42-year-old adds: "They are kids - you can't expect an intellectual question- and-answer segment like in adult pageants. So it's very much how they walk and show off their clothes."

She entered her only child, Ty-Stefan Gabriel Desker, five, in the Little Prince of the Universe event last June after the photographer who did a makeover shoot for her saw the boy and submitted his picture, with her consent.

Ty took the title and his obligations as title- holder included befriending old folk at charity events.

Realising that pageants are a good channel for charity, Mrs Desker is looking past the "stereotypes of superficial elements" and letting Ty take part in the Little Manhunt contest this year.

For this event, she and her husband Danko-Stefan Desker, 47, a director of operations in a media firm, have raised $2,100 through efforts such as cake sales.

Though parents seem fine with beauty pageants for young children, they are unlikely to let their kids take to the contest stage as teens and strut in skimpy swimwear.

Sales administrator Tricia Lim, who is in her 40s, says: "Pageants are okay for little kids - they are still naive. Just go for fun."

She adds that she enjoyed watching her daughter Sheryl Lim, 10, doing a jive dance during last Sunday's talent segment of the Little Miss Singapore Cinderella pageant.

Her other daughter Sherlyn, eight, won the Little Miss Singapore Universe title last year.

Mrs Lim, who is married to a contractor businessman, is open to the idea if Sheryl becomes a professional dancer when she is older.

But referring to the unsavoury aspects of the beauty industry, she adds: "We won't consider modelling to be a long-term career for her."

Indeed, the teenage years may be the worst time for children to take part in beauty contests.

Dr Clare Ong, a psychologist in private practice, says: "As a teenager, looks become an important part of self-esteem. Pageants that emphasise beauty over character may create insecurities, especially if the child - at 13 or 14 - sees her peers attached and wonders why she's not attracting boys."

Yew Tee Primary School pupil Tan Yuqing is 11 and has won two of seven pageants she has joined since she was eight - Little Miss Singapore South-east Asia in 2010 and Princess of the Universe Singapore last year.

Yuqing, the youngest of three girls, says: "I love singing more than the beauty part of pageants but I take part in them anyway for the exposure."

Her parents - engineer Tan Teck Lee, 50, and bank manager Ng Lai Yin, 47 - are open to her taking part in pageants as long as they have talent segments.

Mr Tan says: "I don't encourage my daughters to join pageants without a talent round because they are more of vanity contests. The talent segment raises the status of a pageant from being a mere flesh parade by putting brains in beauty."

Meanwhile, Tufaylah is busy practising her catwalk along supermarket aisles when she goes grocery-shopping with her mother.

Should she win, will another contest be on the cards?

Mr Norhisyam says: "As long as the mother is there to supervise. Dad will be the moral support in the background.

"I'm a fireman. I don't want to be seen so much at beauty contests."

eveyap@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 21, 2013

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