A SIX-year-old girl wearing a green bikini and dancing to Feeling Hot Hot Hot drew sharp intakes of breath from a crowd filled with novice Irish contestants at Ireland's first Universal Royalty children's beauty pageant that took place in a 'secret' location yesterday.
After national uproar and calls to ban and boycott the event, a venue was confirmed in the early hours when contestants were directed by organiser Annette Hill to Corrigan's Kitchen in Castleblayney, Co Monaghan, where the Sunday Independent gained access to the exclusive event.
Competitors aged from 18 months to 14 years dressed in everything from bikinis to ballgowns competed in beauty, talent and Irish theme-wear rounds.
The event began frantically without music or a microphone in the back beer garden of the pub and nightclub, with organiser Ms Hill announcing: "We want to get out quickly. You all know the situation, we're here to have a pageant, but we might have to shorten it [in case protesters arrive]."
The local garda sergeant arrived early to see if the pub had any precautions in place to deal with potential security issues.
Manager Noel Gorman told the Sunday Independent he had "hired two security men just in case of any trouble".
Due to the controversy surrounding the event, its location had to be changed numerous times, and as a result only 20 or so contestants took part.
The first round was "beauty" or "formal wear", which started with Ms Hill saying: "We're going to start with the babies."
The first seven names called did not show up, but on the eighth the contest finally began.
Young girls walked through the beer garden and up on to a raised decking where Ms Hill described their appearance according to their hair and eye colour and their life ambitions.
One toddler's interests were listed as "modelling, acting, or whatever makes the most money".
Toddlers were helped on to the stage by parents and were twirled around, much to the delight of American judge Mickey Wood, mother of international child pageant superstar Eden Wood.
Asked what she judged the toddler contestants on, she said: "Well, little babies are just little babies and they're supposed to look like cotton candy, and we judge them on their personality and just being beautiful little babies."
However, older contestants are judged on "their face, their professionalism, how they present themselves and their modelling", said Ms Wood.
International competitors such as Emilia Ramos and her mother, Kacey, flew in from Australia alongside pageant coach Kylie Drew and her daughter, Lexi.
"She just has a few extensions, fake nails, tan and make-up," said Ms Ramos of her six-year-old daughter who took an hour to get ready for yesterday's beauty contest. Emilia admitted she was not a fan of the tans, saying: "I don't like it all."
She has competed in 26 pageants, and "supremed" in each.
Nineteen-month-old Irish contestant Grace Reilly, whose mother, Toun, and father, Joe, live in Ballyfermot, are "totally against unnatural make-up and fake tans", but do not judge other parents for their choices.
"All children are beautiful, but judging a child is not condemning a child. In a race there's always going to be a winner," said Grace's mother.
Her father, however, felt that the "onus is on the individual child's parents" to protect them.
"Every parent we spoke to felt the Irish media had portrayed the pageant in a bad light that misrepresented the core idea."
Michelle Watts and Haley Way came from Portsmouth with their daughters, Phoebe, 14, and eight-year-old Bryony. Ms Watts believes the Irish press had "sexualised the pageant" rather than taking it for the "performance and fun it was".
Parents said they had never seen such controversy at other events around the world. One described what they had experienced here as "insane, crazy and sad".
Ms Hill said she was used to controversy, but "Ireland was on another level".
Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said "pageants of this sort are simply anti-childhood. They're exploitative of children and damaging to them. Children should never be judged".
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald called last week for the event to be banned, describing it as the "inappropriate early sexualisation of very young children".
Marie Campion of the Institute of Eating Distress Studies in Dublin said such pageants could lead to children feeling "not good enough", and that many ended up feeling that their "worth is their look".