EVERY little girl dreams of being a princess, but my ambitions were a bit simpler. I harboured a secret ambition to be crowned Rose of Tralee.
The fact that I was a complete tomboy, hated dresses and had no clue about make-up didn't matter. I saw Gay Byrne on television every September having the craic with dozens of beautiful, confident young women clad in stunning ball gowns. I wanted to be up on that stage with them. And I wanted to wear that glittering tiara.
My Rose of Tralee aspirations were very innocent indeed. Fast-forward 30-plus years and a contest of a much scarier kind is about to make its presence felt in Ireland. Our very own version of 'Toddlers & Tiaras' is on its way.
The Texas-based Universal Royal Beauty Pageant has confirmed it is to stage one of those appalling, glitzy, American child beauty contests in Ireland in September. What really makes my stomach churn is the fact they confirm it is to be open to "babies, toddlers and teens", and will include a heat with youngsters decked out in swimwear.
The pageant people probably know that there will be trouble and have not revealed the hotel where they will stage the €20,000 event, presumably for fear of a backlash.
They say this talent show will be no different to controversial pageants held in the US, which often include children as young as three or four wearing hair extensions and push-up, padded bras.
Universal Royal is the pageant that has featured most on fly-on-the-wall documentary 'Toddlers & Tiaras', which is aired on the US TV station TLC. 'Toddlers & Tiaras' had one notorious episode, which featured a two-year-old dancing to a Madonna song in a white angel robe, which she ripped off to reveal a form-fitting gold bodysuit.
TLC has been accused of being "the most socially irresponsible channel in America" and is to launch more than 65 new series here this summer. Among the programmes is 'Here Comes Honey Boo Boo', a reality show following an overweight six-year-old child pageant star.
Young contestants who take part in Universal Royal pageants wear high heels, fishnet stockings and fake tans. It has been reported that some ambitious US mothers get botox treatments for their darlings.
Watching clips online from the Glitz Sparkle 2012 competition – one of the first American-style beauty pageants ever held in the UK – almost made me ill.
Little girls as young as four pouted, posed and preened on a stage, looking anything but a picture of childhood innocence. They were smeared with lipstick and make-up, and wore tight-fitting swimsuits.
It was sickening to see little kids parading like adults and modelling frilly bikinis.
These young kids are being exploited and sexualised, dressed as movie icons and paraded in front of an audience of adults – with decent cash prizes at stake in many cases.
Children are under enough pressure as it is these days without being placed like circus animals in front of judges and an audience.
We will have children's watchdogs and child psychologists (and newspaper columnists like me) up in arms, voicing their opposition to Ireland's first American-style child beauty pageant and warning that the long-term effects on youngsters who take part could be devastating.
But if mothers and fathers weren't prepared to put their children forward for these dreadful contests, they wouldn't happen in the first place. Behind every fake-tanned child is a deranged parent.
Universal Royal boss Annette Hill said she decided to stage the event in Ireland because of huge interest from Irish parents. "I've received loads of emails from people in Ireland, who are interested in entering their children in the event."
Face painting, dressing up and posing for doting parents' cameras is supposed to be innocent and fun. All part of happy childhood memories.
But parents who allow their little children to be pitted against each other in a bid to be crowned beauty queens, with some as young as three being paraded on stage in bikinis, need to have their heads examined.
Let's leave this behaviour for image-obsessed and over-competitive American mums and dads. We should focus on retaining some bit of innocence for our children. Let them dream of the Rose of Tralee instead.