Child beauty pageants are a billion-dollar industry in the U.S. While some critics see the pageants as an exploitation of innocents, others—particularly pageant parents—view the competitions as a way for a young talent to enter the entertainment industry. Shows such as Toddler & Tiaras have examined the behind-the-scenes drama of these tightly orchestrated contests, but now a show of Susan Anderson’s photographs at L.A.’s Kopeikin Gallery (through December 24), puts the glamour and excess of child beauty pageants on a pedestal for our contemplation.
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Anderson’s monograph, High Glitz: The Extravagant World of Child Beauty Pageants, accompanies the exhibition. It showcases her documentation of female contestants between the ages of 18 months and 13 years in pageants in Tennessee, Texas, Nevada, and California. Styled like miniature adults, the girls were photographed in a makeshift studio prior to or after going onstage for the competition. Anderson focused on the so-called High Glitz sections of the pageant, which includes Beauty/Formal Wear, Modeling, and Western Wear and Pro-Am (a.k.a Sportswear).
• PLUS: Watch video of Child Beauty Pageant Dos and Don’ts The girls appear in poses of their choice wearing costly couture outfits adorned with rhinestones and ribbons. Spray-tanned, they are made up to resemble Hollywood and Nashville stars. Hair piled high with extensions and ringlets; false front teeth veneers, known as flippers; and white-tipped, French fingernails add to the doll-like look. Four- and 5-year-old girls become queens of the rodeo, while 8- and 9-year olds are transformed into Southern belles. Meanwhile, the most risqué looks lend the children the appearance of teenage and adult beauty-pageant contestants, which many may eventually become.
In one photo, 6-year-old Tristan shows off her cascading hair and off-the-shoulder, glimmering pink gown in profile and then reveals her hairstyle and full cupcake dress from behind in another one. Likewise, 9-year-old Mary Ashton poses in a white dress like a soap-opera star and then strikes a model pose in a frilly lime-green bikini. And 5-year-old Tatum wears a high-styled wig and a two-piece dancer’s ensemble one moment and looks like a bun-topped, burlesque dancer the next.
Anderson, who has a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, is best known for her stylish advertising and editorial photography. However, her three years of work on the High Glitz portfolio, which was also exhibited at Amsterdam’s Torch Gallery earlier this year, is gaining her art world attention. While she may get some flak for exposing a realm of American culture that some people find troubling, her objectivity and aesthetic eye for recording what she saw definitely wins the day.