‘Positive Experience’

Beauty pageant directors, participants work to change public perception


Do not mention the reality TV show “Toddlers & Tiaras” to pageant producer Renee Horvath of Millington.

Trainer Mary-Marsha Riley, Mrs. Tennessee 2011, works out with Amber Reed, Miss Collierville Outstanding Teen 2012 at Teneo Fitness. Riley says the life skills particpants gain are “vital.”  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

She’ll tell you it’s nothing like the world she knows.

Twenty years ago at the suggestion of a fellow church member, Horvath started entering her 3-year-old daughter in pageants. She started with the Little Miss Millington Pageant and eventually progressed to national competitions ranging from natural to “full-glitz” – flashy pageants that encourage extravagant dresses, hair extensions and makeup on girls sometimes as young as a few months old.

Critics of the industry believe pageants can be psychologically damaging, teaching girls to measure self-worth by their looks. But today, Horvath’s daughter is happily married. A mother herself, she is also a singer as well as a dancer. She carries herself with poise. And she is comfortable in a wide range of social and professional settings.

“It was fun for her and a very positive experience,” said Horvath, who now is a successful producer of regional and national child/teen pageants, such as the upcoming annual Froggy Pageant (Feb. 16) in West Memphis. “It’s nothing like what’s portrayed on TV. My daughter developed skills and made so many friends. Today she’s well-versed in many different situations.”

Although historic details vary depending on the source, almost all accounts agree that pageants have evoked mixed emotions in America since their inception. In 1854, circus magnate P.T. Barnum attempted to pull off the first one and was met with public outrage and protests.

The concept began to gain wider acceptance in 1921, when the Businessmen’s League of Atlantic City organized a beauty competition as a PR tactic to keep tourism rolling past Labor Day.

Today, pageants not only are common occurrences, they’ve also evolved into a viable industry. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor show that in 2010, nearly 100,000 people were employed as pageant directors – a number that was projected to grow between 7 and 13 percent between 2008 and 2018. In 2010, pageant directors earned an average annual salary of $68,400.

In the Mid-South, pageants such as Miss Memphis, Miss Shelby County and a number of Princess and Miss Outstanding Teen competitions keep aspiring beauty queens on their toes with physical and mental preparation throughout the year.

And as the industry evolves, “beauty queen” becomes an increasingly archaic term. Like Horvath, pageant advocates agree that contestants gain more from the competitions than just a title and a crown. Pageants strengthen public speaking skills, boost self-confidence and teach girls how to set and achieve goals, say organizers, sponsors and participants.

Many pageants open doors to higher education opportunities. For instance, the historic Miss America Organization is the largest scholarship program in the country for young women.

On Saturday, Feb. 2, the annual Miss Collierville Scholarship Pageant, which is part of the Miss America pageant system, will give 16 area young women a chance to win more than $15,000 in scholarships as they compete for the titles of Miss Collierville 2013 and Miss Outstanding Teen Collierville 2013. With those titles comes a significant amount of social responsibility.

“While there’s a lot of emphasis on the pageant as a one-day event, what the public doesn’t see is the other 364 days where our program is involved in supporting educational efforts, encouraging community service and providing young women with a forum in which to express their talents, intelligence and opinions in culture, politics and the community,” said pageant director Ed Nelson. Each winner develops her own community service program and also serves as an official youth ambassador for the Town of Collierville Parks, Recreation & Cultural Arts, the Children’s Miracle Network, and Volunteer Mid-South.

Like the larger Miss America Organization, the Miss Collierville Scholarship Organization is an all-volunteer organization. However, it takes a village, so to speak, to mentor a successful pageant contestant.

“What has developed are people involved and assisting through the business of pageants,” Nelson said. “Entrepreneurs, vocal coaches, personal trainers are just a few of the types of professionals who use their talents to assist these young women in achieving their dreams.”

Mary-Marsha Riley of Memphis is one of those professionals. A former Mrs. Tennessee International 2011 and third runner-up in the Mrs. International 2011 pageant, Riley – who also holds a law degree – now is the official pageant trainer for the Miss Memphis and Miss Shelby County Pageants, the Miss Tennessee High School and Collegiate America Pageants, and the Mrs. Tennessee America Pageant.

She volunteers her time to all contestants and offers fitness, stage presence and interview skills training at $60 an hour for contestants who want one-on-one assistance.

“The life skills these girls develop through pageants are so vital,” said Riley, who has been competing in pageants since she was 4. “It’s all about improving yourself in all aspects of who you are. These judges aren’t looking for a particular beauty ideal. They’re looking for a young woman who knows who she is and presents herself well.”

Miss Collierville Outstanding Teen 2012 Amber Reed, 16, will pass on her crown to the 2013 winner this weekend and currently is training with Riley for the Tennessee Outstanding Teen pageant in March. She uses her title to champion senior citizen outreach programs and, like Horvath, she also gets frustrated by the public’s perception of pageants.

“People say, ‘What? You do pageants?’ and I know they’re thinking of ‘Toddlers & Tiaras.’ But it’s not just about looking pretty on a stage. You really have to be passionate about community service and being a spokesperson for your town.”