'One of the reasons is to build their self-esteem' - Organiser defends Irish beauty pageant for children
The organiser of six beauty pageants due to take place in Dublin on one day in October has defended the inclusion of two children's categories.
Ireland Pageants was founded by Irish-American Jennie Lynch in 2012 as 'Miss Teen Ireland' and has since expanded to include five other divisions.
Children from as young as 10 to 14 years will compete for the title of Junior Miss Ireland, while those aged from 14 to 19 years vie for the Miss Teen Ireland crown.
"This year we are expecting between 60 and 75 participants overall," Belfast-based Jennie Lynch told the Sunday Independent.
"I started doing my pageants myself when I was about 15, my grandfather got me involved in the first one. I was a very heavy child, and when I started becoming more active and losing weight, he encouraged me to do a local pageant; I came first runner-up and it just kind of took off from there."
Jennie believes that Ireland has a negative perception of child pageants as a result of the media and US-based TV shows like Toddlers and Tiaras.
"One of the reasons why I continue to do pageants here is to build their self-esteem," Jennie said. "It is such a great feeling on that stage because no matter how well you do, people are cheering and it makes you feel really good.
"We look at your modelling, your walking and your posing, and we don't actually score on things like your fitness or body shape at all. It is all about stage presence and self-confidence and how that shines through," Jennie added.
But despite Jennie wanting "12-year-olds to look like 12-year-olds," there are no restrictions on the wearing of make-up, fake tan and other accessories.
"I would encourage those with concerns to actually watch one of our pageants and see that no matter what each girl looks like, everyone in the room is cheering for them," Jennie said. "It is about having fun, a night of glitz and glamour."
There is no swimwear round for child participants in Ireland Pageants. However, there is an optional swimwear round for those who are over 18 years of age.
"In the earlier years we had some problems with venues getting frightened because of the protesting that there was about other pageants, but we have only received positive feedback," Jennie said. "We have never had a negative reaction and we don't deserve it."
Jennie dismissed claims that pageants could contribute to poor body image for participants later in life, claiming that other hobbies- like dance or gymnastics are judged just as much on looks as pageantry.
"We don't like to say 'winners and losers,' everyone who competes does something special. It's about the full package and pageants are also a great way for young women to break into modelling.
"The average age of a successful runway model starting out is 16, and Kate Moss began at 14."
The cost for both the adult and child competitors is €160, and many hopefuls travelled to Limerick last week for an intensive, two-day pageant training course, costing a further €90.
A number of adult divisions for women of all ages, marital status and shapes are also planned for the Ireland Pageants event, which is being held at Roganstown Hotel and Country Club in Swords, Co Dublin in October.
In 2013, the organiser of the controversial US-based Universal Royalty children's beauty pageant, Annette Hill, caused uproar when she brought the Toddlers and Tiara's style contest to Ireland. The then Minister for Children, and now Tanaiste, Frances Fitzgerald called on Ireland to become "a cold place for child pageants," adding that such competitions were a "theft of childhood."