COLUMBIA — Two-year-old Annabelle Nelson approaches the stage at Stoney Creek Inn tentatively. When told to wave, she turns to the audience and brings her hand up to hide her face.
She's shy and hesitant, so her mother takes her aside for a bit of coaching. When Annabelle crosses the stage again, it is with confidence. This time, she raises her arm and waves it vigorously with a huge smile on her face.
"I want her to get a new experience of getting out in front of people," her mother, Elizabeth Hemphill, explained.
Annabelle isjust a toddler, but she was part of a children's pageant competition judging authentic smiles, personality, eye contact, originality and creative outfits. Not with the makeup and frilly cupcake dresses common to some pageants, but with natural beauty.
The competition follows a trend toward all-natural pageants that challenge the dominance of glamorous beauty contests for kids. In this case, Annabelle was competing in the CoMo Cares All Natural Children's Pageant, an event held in February.
A growing national trend
All-natural pageants have been growing in popularity around the country since National American Miss, based in Houston, held the first one in 1983. Originally called Spirit Productions, the name changed in 2002, and National American Miss has become the leading pageant organization, with events in every state, including Missouri.
According to Breanne Maples, the director of National American Miss in Missouri, the events are "a youth development retreat first, a family fun weekend second, and a pageant third."
In the last decade, the organization has received applications from more than 30,000 children around the county to be a part of the program, Maples said. Girls under the age of 12 are not allowed to wear makeup, talent performance is not required and no swimsuit contest is held, she said.
National American Miss is the largest natural pageant program in the United States, but there are others. Miss Brooklynn Productions hosts pageants in Kansas City; Midwest Natural Pageants in Illinois; and The Glass Slipper Natural Beauty Pageant in South Carolina.
All have their own specific qualifications but agree that self-confidence and natural beauty are the standards.
History of beauty pageants
The first Miss America pageant was held in 1921, and it began a tradition for young women to be awarded scholarships based on appearance, talent and personality.
The pageant experience trickled down to little girls in the 1960s and gained widespread notoriety in the wake of TV shows like "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." Critics argue that the girls are sexualized by the adult hair, makeup and clothing used in the pageants.
The scene was very different at the CoMo Cares pageant last month at Stoney Creek Inn. It was a fundraiser for the organization, and more than 30 children, from newborns to 12 years, participated.
Early Saturday morning, the dressing room was full of children in their favorite costumes — chef, cowgirl, gymnast and even Captain America. During the three-hour pageant, all of them crossed the stage twice to show off their smiles and charm.
Miss Missouri, Shelby Ringdahl, moderated the event and introduced the contestants as they paraded past the judges. Ringdahl said she learned about the fundraiser on the CoMo Cares Facebook page and reached out to see if the organization needed help. She worked with the pageant director, Staci Ortbals, to organize the event.
"(The pageant) encourages girls that who they are is good enough," Ringdahl said.
"Pageants get a bad rap with shows like 'Toddlers and Tiaras,'" she added. "I want to defy those stereotypes."
Sabrina Lambrecht, executive director of CoMo Cares, said the organization wanted to host a pageant because of its emphasis on natural looks and personality. She founded the organization in 2012 with a mission to provide resources to parents to help them properly care for and support their children.
“(The pageant) is important to us because of the kids," Lambrecht said. "We get to say, 'Yes, they are important,' and that everyone matters."
Confidence is key to winning
The basis of this pageant was also important to the families involved. Five children, including Annabelle Nelson, were given scholarships so they could participate.
“We wanted her and her daughter to be involved with the pageant,” Lambrecht said about Annabelle and her mother.
“Even in need, she is helping others. That’s why we chose her," she said of Annabelle's mother.
As Annabelle waited for her turn onstage, Hemphill boosted her confidence with encouraging words. "You're independent. You're in your own world. You're amazing."
The little girl wore her favorite yellow boots and a tutu made by a volunteer at CoMo Cares. Although Annabelle was a little reserved onstage, her mother was pleased that she was courageous enough to compete on her own.
At the end of the day, one boy and one girl were named the winners in each age division, and all of the contestants received a crown and a goody bag.
The pageant has been the biggest fundraiser for CoMo Cares thus far, raising $2,050. Lambrecht said she plans to continue holding the event.
“We want to show to the community that (these kids) are great as themselves," she said.