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Child pageants attract 'glitz' photography (Video)

By Jessica Priest
Oct. 16, 2012 at 5:16 a.m.
Updated Oct. 17, 2012 at 5:17 a.m.

Showing off her favorite tiara, Lola Leos, 2, of Point Comfort, laughs with her mom, Brittney Chavez, in Port Lavaca.

Point Comfort toddler Lola Leos has an assortment of sparkly crowns to choose from.

And, just like any other 2-year-old playing dress up, she's fickle.

Days before competing in another pageant, Lola poked and prodded her bounty with little fingers. Finally, she selected a more modest number and unceremoniously dumped it on her head.

It slipped relatively unnoticed between the thin, brown locks of her hair, a stark contrast to a photo her parents left on the coffee table.

There, what some would call a more polished Lola stared upwards.

Her mother, Brittney Chavez, had a Victoria photographer, Brandee Vickery, to snap the head shot. Then, Chavez sent it to be retouched by a woman living in Canada.

When Lola's photo came back days later, her hair was colored a few shades darker, her eyebrows were more sculpted and her skin emitted a doll-like sheen.

It took a while for Chavez's eyes to adjust. Lola didn't recognize herself.

"I just about had a heart attack when I first saw it," Chavez said. "They make your child look like a porcelain doll. ... I wanted her to still want her to have baby hair and thin eyebrows. I told her to tone it down."

The $200 "glitz" photo is one many girls boast to get an edge in a competition where decking oneself out in make up, fake nails, hair pieces, poofy dresses and heels to showcase talent and hone confidence is the norm. The Canadian glitz photographer declined to comment for this story.

The images are submitted and judged by fashion and entertainment industry experts for a photogenic category often before participants ever step foot on stage.

Dorothy Poteat, owner of Southern Elite Pageants, estimates the practice started some 15 years ago, the effects growing ever easier to produce with technology. But even she isn't quite sure of its origins.

Chavez described it as a sort of rivalry domino effect.

"One parent did it extreme, so another parent did it extreme to be on the same level, and here we are today," she said.

Poteat trains judges to look for "high quality edits" that are sharp, colored head shots.

"We're looking for a focal point to be the girl, so toppers, colors and settings should accentuate, not distract from her," she said.

Poteat said the photos sometimes are used to break ties. The skilled can decipher who the photos belong to no matter how altered, although they should only be used in context, she said.

"It shouldn't be a yearbook picture," she said, "but sometimes moms or even older girls who aren't sure about pageants will submit a photo. They'll win or even get a runner-up title, and it encourages them to keep trying."

Annette Hill, owner of Universal Royalty Pageants, which has been featured on TLC's "Toddlers & Tiaras," requires glitz photos, going so far as to have staff on hand shoot and enhance them, if need be, for $45. She's received countless emails lambasting her for airbrushing and has argued "till she's blue in the face" that it's no different than getting a head shot for an acting gig and does not sexually exploit children.

"If anybody is looking at a kid in a sexual way, then something is wrong with them, and they're sick in the brain," Hill said.

She said judges are allowed to be fairly subjective, but should look for "beauty inside and out."

Hill said pageants, which have been running for about 50 years, and the photos that come with them are stepping stones in one's career, much like how they were for celebrities Selena Gomez, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears.

"It's up to the parent to keep it in a positive aspect," Hill said.

Local wedding, portrait and commercial photographer Danny Vivian said he's had some glitz photography inquiries, but it's simply not his expertise. He said that too much retouching takes away from the original subject.

"I use Photoshop, but I do very little retouching other than to correct a few blemishes," the six-year businessman said. "With that, the skin begins to look plastic."

Vickery, who has the ability to correct photos into automated software called "portrait professional," doesn't like to add much after the fact either.

"I think little kids are beautiful in their own right ... just like God made them," she said.

Lola won grand mini supreme, or second place, overall, but didn't receive a photogenic score during her most recent, Oct. 6 pageant in Beaumont, Chavez said.

That's because it was a preliminary event where "everything goes." At the national level, it counts for one-third, Lipstick and Lollipop Productions owner Jennifer Martin said.

Lipstick judges required the 23 kids to submit one "natural" photo in addition to the glitz beforehand so they could tell the girls apart. A "natural" photo is allowed to be cleaned up, not altered, she said.

"But there's not really any advertisement today that is just a regular picture, that hasn't been retouched," Martin said.

Chavez said her family approaches pageantry with a care-free attitude. She anticipates purchasing a new photo every year.

"You signed up for it, so when you're judged and someone doesn't like your child as much as you think your child should score, I mean, what can you do?" she asked.

Lola also doesn't really know what winning is yet.

"If they get a toy, that's all it takes," Chavez said with one eye constantly on the active Lola, who mischievously fiddling with a table centerpiece.

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