Toddlers & Tiaras Justice

Pageant mom Lindsay Jackson put her daughter on TV in a Dolly Parton costume. Now she might lose custody for it.

Madisyn “Maddy” Verst, left, dresses up for the TLC show "Toddlers and Tiaras".

Madisyn “Maddy” Verst, left, dresses up for the TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras

Courtesy TLC.

Six-year-old Madisyn Verst knows that a lot can happen in a year. On Aug. 31, 2011, she was featured in an episode of TLC’s Toddlers & Tiaras. Madisyn, aka “Maddy,” was filmed in January 2011 competing at the Hearts and Crowns Pageant Winter Extravaganza in Bristol, Va. The then 4-year-old Maddy won a supreme title—“0-4 Overall Sweetest Face”—and $150.

She also earned a whole lot of notoriety. Maddy became the poster girl for child beauty pageants. She was pictured on the cover of the Sept. 26, 2011, issue of People alongside the headline, “Gone Too Far?” after her mother, Lindsay Jackson, dressed her up in a Dolly Parton costume from her own child-beauty-pageant days. (Jackson won over 3,000 crowns in her heyday.)

The costume, featuring “enhancements,” like a fake bust and padded derriere, catapulted Maddy and her mom into the national spotlight. Together they appeared on national talk shows, like NBC’s  Today  and Fox & Friends. This Friday, exactly one year after her television debut, a Kentucky judge will rule on Maddy’s future relationship with both her mother and child beauty pageants.

Maddy is at the center of a heated custody battle between her mother and father, Bill Verst. Things have long been tense between Jackson and Verst, who divorced about four years ago while Verst was in prison on theft charges. During that time Jackson moved Maddy to Tennessee where she lives and works; Verst lives in Kentucky several hours away, so visitation is limited. But after the Toddlers & Tiaras episode aired, Maddy’s pageant career became another battle in her parents’ war.

Verst’s apprehension over his daughter’s participation on the show, and the media coverage of it, led him to return to Kentucky Family Court in an effort to amend the existing arrangements in the family’s ongoing custody case. Family Court Judge Richard A. Woeste was at least somewhat sympathetic to Verst’s concern, and ordered that Maddy compete in no more than four pageants per 12-month period. This was a big change, as 6-year-old Maddy has already won about 1,000 crowns from beauty pageants, according to a copy of the custodial report provided by Heather Ryan, manager of both Lindsay Jackson and Maddy Verst. But following a family altercation on July 4, 2012—in which Verst was arrested on multiple charges, including drunk driving and endangering a child— Judge Woeste called upon court-appointed psychologist Jean Deters to conduct a full custodial evaluation, including an assessment of Maddy’s participation in child beauty pageants.

Deters investigated numerous stated concerns by both parents, including claims of parental alienation and family instability on both sides. It’s the first of Verst’s six concerns delineated in the custodial evaluation—that he believes Maddy’s participation in pageants is emotionally damaging—that has put the Verst family back in the spotlight. On Aug. 12 Deters filed a report that found, based on numerous family interviews and attendance at a child beauty pageant in Louisville, Ky., that Maddy is psychologically affected by her participation in child beauty pageants, particularly when it comes to premature sexualization. Deters writes: “Of great concern to this evaluator is not just the Dolly Parton costume, but also other costumes Madisyn has worn. The most sexualized costume found by this evaluator is pictured here, with Madisyn dressed as a sexy police officer. Her young body is sexualize [sic] by having her midriff revealed, her skin tanned, her eyes painted as a woman and her open lips glistening with lip gloss. Psychological research shows that the sexualization of girls negatively affects girls and young women across a variety of health domains.”

You can see that costume here. Deter goes on to detail specific cognitive and emotional consequences, impacts on physical and mental health, and sexual development that come from premature sexualization. Nonetheless the report does not propose Maddy should quit pageants entirely, because of the friends she has made through them and some of the enjoyment she feels at the events, instead suggesting she continue to be limited to four per year and not be featured in the media. But Deters does recommend that Jackson and Verst have a joint custodial arrangement, with Verst as the primary residential custodian, prompting a move back to Kentucky for Jackson.

Because child beauty pageants are controversial but not illegal, and given that her husband had been convicted of several crimes, Jackson was shocked by the report’s suggested custodial arrangement. She immediately called upon her and Maddy’s manager, Heather Ryan, to make her case to media outlets. On Aug. 16 RadarOnline reported the story, with Jackson defending pageants (and thereby her parenting) as “just like any other extracurricular activity like soccer or gymnastics or football.”

Given Maddy’s notoriety, the story quickly spread, with Nancy Grace, Dr. Drew, and Bill O’Reilly weighing in. In response to the sudden coverage, Judge Woeste issued a gag order for Jackson and prohibited Maddy from participating in any beauty pageants until his final ruling, which will come today, Aug. 31.

Jackson then turned to the child-beauty-pageant community for support, spreading the word via social media. On Aug. 18 she posted a Facebook message beginning with the plea, “Right now, I’m not asking the pageant community to come together, I’m begging them to do so. If this judge rules against me … he is in violation of my first amendment rights to freedom of privacy and freedom of choice.”

While Jackson has received some support from the pageant community—an online petition garnered nearly 1,300 signatures—the response has been surprisingly lukewarm. A website set up to collect donations for “Pageant Star, Maddy Verst’s, Legal Defense Fund” only brought in $179, far short of the stated $25,000 goal. Ryan believes that this is because “Pageant moms are absolutely terrified. A lot of pageant moms are single moms, struggling moms, and this sets a precedent that they can lose their kids because of pageant participation.”

Is this a rational concern? “There’s nothing inherent about child beauty pageants that is harmful,” Jeannie Suk, professor of law at Harvard Law School, tells me. As child beauty pageants are legal in the United States, Suk, who has taught both family law and the law of the performing arts, explains that the Verst case “should not be taken as about child beauty pageants in general. It should be about the ways in which an activity impacts this child.”

Still, the case has inspired a small group of pageant moms to speak out against the TLC show that brings so much negative attention to their community. Some 200 pageant moms have endorsed this image on Facebook:

Even if the Verst case shouldn’t be a referendum on whether or not child beauty pageants are a form of abuse for all children, family lawyer Mark Momjian acknowledges that most people will “impute” to all child-beauty-pageant families. In other words most people will assume this means that child beauty pageants are now legally recognized as a form of abuse and can be the basis for altered custody arrangements and other legal action.

What sets the Verst case apart, according to Momjian, is not just that Maddy participates in child beauty pageants, but that she has done so on a television show with her story broadcast to the world. Momjian knows a thing or two about children on reality TV, having represented Kate Gosselin, former star of another controversial TLC show, Jon & Kate Plus 8, in her divorce and custody case. He believes that regardless of the outcome, the fact that child beauty pageants have become such a public issue in this case does not bode well for future participants on this show, or others featuring girls in competitive activities like dance (see: Dance Moms) and cheerleading (see: Cheer Perfection).

Jackson has asserted that, within the context of pageants, costumes like Maddy’s police-officer getup and the dance moves that accompany them are not considered sexual. Having studied child beauty pageants for over a decade, I agree with her. Within that world, they are just seen as “cute,” not sexual, and are what you must do in order to win the biggest crown. They are just moves. But that shared understanding in the pageant ballroom isn’t present in the wider world, and once these routines are broadcast to a wider audience, they are rightly seen as having sexual elements in them—batting eyelashes, blowing kisses, and thrusting hips. Which is why allowing young children to be on these television shows is problematic.

What is the long-term impact of participation in child pageants that may sexualize girls at such a young age, and certainly do focus on physical appearance? We all suspect negative impacts on self-esteem, an increase in eating disorders, and an obsession with perfection—but the truth is that we simply don’t know. One study that looked at a small group of former child-beauty-pageant contestants in young adulthood found that they have higher rates of body dissatisfaction, but don’t have more serious problems like depression and eating disorders. We need more of this research, though, before using participation in pageants as a basis to judge parenting, or, in the extreme, alter family dynamics.

While child beauty pageants have been vilified since the 1996 death of JonBenét Ramsey for violating numerous social norms about childhood and sexuality, Maddy’s case appears to be the first public legal challenge to child pageants (though of course it is possible that other families have quietly and privately settled their differences in family courts). Even if Jackson is granted primary custody of her daughter and can continue doing pageants with Maddy, she almost certainly has had a long-term impact on child pageants, and on how pageant moms—an often unfairly vilified bunch—will think of the spotlight going forward.