Pageant Price Tag: What Does It Cost to be a Beauty Queen?

Beauty Pageants
Beauty Pageants

Vanessa Moore (not her real name) was the second runner-up in her beauty pageant, and should have received some scholarship money for it. And as the leading fundraiser, she was supposed to receive a portion of the money she pulled in from sponsors. But instead of the roughly $5,000 she was entitled to, she walked away empty-handed.

"I never received a dime," said Moore. "Every time I followed up with the director as to why I hadn't received the money yet, there was always an excuse: Her grandmother was sick and she didn't have time to get to it; they were still doing the accounting; then her grandmother died and she was in mourning. Finally, she just stopped responding to me. I've considered taking the issue to court but figured that would be too much of a hassle."

Moore's experience isn't unusual. In 2010, the Better Business Bureau received nearly 10,000 inquiries from consumers about beauty pageant promotions, up from 5,941 in 2009 and 6,159 in 2008.

"Beauty pageants can carry big price tags," said Stephen A. Cox, president and CEO of the Council of Better Business Bureau in a prepared statement. "Before finding yourself scammed out of thousands of dollars, it's important to check out the pageant operator with BBB first."

Is It Worth It?

The ads sound great, with promises of cash, scholarships, prizes, as well as modeling opportunities and more. But issues arise when promoters don't deliver what they promise. While there are legitimate pageants, there are also those whose only purpose is to fatten the pockets of promoters, says the BBB.

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Win or lose, participating in a pageant has its rewards. All this begs the question, what does it cost to be a beauty queen? Apparently, it ain't cheap. In fact, says Gerdeen Dyer, founder of Pageant News Bureau, people are spending billions to participate in the thousands of pageants in the U.S. each year. "Women spend thousands and some spend tens of thousands. They think they can sell those gowns later," he says. While some pageants don't have entry fees, there's no escaping all the investment that's required to compete.

One former pageant participant shares her story. "It is a financial endeavor -- the travel, the coaches, the wardrobe, the make up, hair, and in some cases fees are staggering," says Hillary Beulah, who competed in 10 pageants over three years in the Miss USA and Miss America pageant systems. "If you want to be a contender, the money you spend crafting the perfect image is quite substantial. My parents spent about $20,000. Is it worth it? I made some good friends, and definitely have some epic stories, but my parents are still sad they never saw me hold a major title."

Despite all the money Beulah spent, she says she walked away from the pageant system feeling proud of herself. "I learned more about myself from getting on stage and speaking about my beliefs in an evening gown. I went into it with zero expectations and left feeling like I could check one thing off my bucket list," says Beulah, now a fashion consultant.

Quite frankly, says Deanna Oerman, owner of Nyx Models, "I worry about these pageants tremendously. Too many girls get the wrong idea about them. I think a healthy way to look at such pageants is as a mom/daughter hobby or an escape, especially since some of them can be so expensive. Second, they do a girl no good in advancing a modeling or acting career. Third, let's be honest, most of them are just revenue opportunities for the producers. All it takes to be 'accepted' is the willingness to write a check."

"The legitimacy (and true career-advancement potential) of a pageant is inversely proportional to the money they ask. There are many pageants that charge an entry fee in the thousands and yet have never produced a major star. It's the typical scam: Promise a young girl you can make her famous, suck a bunch of money out of their parents, and leave them with nothing but a few pretty pictures," says Oerman.

Profiting from Participation

Beauty pageants, though, have probably put a lot of women through college, and Dyer points out that many women who ventured into fields like politics and broadcast journalism first did some time on the pageant circuit. "It is a great confidence builder. They learn how to handle themselves under pressure, in interviews and in public speaking."

Casey Kaczmarek was a big winner, taking home three titles: Miss Teen Long Beach, Miss Earth USA and Ms. America International. She has been involved with pageants for 15 years, directing, judging and coaching. "As a result of my pageant titles, I have served as a spokeswoman for numerous organizations, most notably the local chapter of the American Red Cross when I was 16. I emceed numerous local events for charities, worked with the Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Mayor. As Miss Teen Long Beach, I made over 200 appearances during the year I served in that role. It was a great opportunity for me to grow as a young woman and give back to the city I was born and raised in," she says.

Mary Lou Brezo has participated in pageants, as have her children. "It's a positive and powerful experience. Pageants are costly, but it's the same with any hobby or sport. There is value in participating in what fulfills you that goes beyond any dollar amount. You learn to stretch beyond your comfort zone," says Brezo. "I can't wait until I'm 59½ to qualify for the Miss Senior America Pageant. You don't know how powerful you can be when you take a simple tiara and turn into an inspiration for the world to savor."

Gallery: The Winners of Miss America Since 2000

Beauty Pageant Winners
Beauty Pageant Winners

Proceed with Caution

From the time Ami Ahuja was 10, she wanted to be in a beauty pageant. Her dream came true in March, when she participated in the Mrs. Wisconsin pageant. She spent more than $2,500, but she says it was worth every penny. She came home a runner up, best photogenic (judges' choice( and best photogenic (people's choice). "I became famous in the Indian community and my circle in Milwaukee. I was featured in many newspapers and wherever I was mentioned, my business, was also mentioned." For Ahuja, the money spent was an investment, and the pageant was a game-changing experience. "I am writing a book, creating a fitness awareness website, and launching a Web TV show in September, all because I was in the pageant."

On the flip side, there are plenty of pageants that aren't worth the money. For one thing, says Dyer, there's not much in the way of regulation of judges. People sleeping with judges, sloppy judging, and contest rigging aren't just the stuff of movies, says Dyer.

There are no official regulating agencies for pageants, says Betty Hemby, the former director of the Miss District of Columbia Scholarship Organization, an official Miss America Preliminary. "The Better Business Bureau is a start, but there are limitations. For example, a promoter that produces a pageant in Michigan and absconds with the money after being exposed and he decides to pack up shop and head to Delaware under a different name. How would the potential contestant or parent in Delaware know this? There would be no BBB reports in Delaware showing any complaints," says Hemby who is putting the finishing touches on her book, Honey if the Check Clears, You're in the Pageant.

How can you discern whether a pageant is legit or not? "Ask for references of people who participated, especially some that didn't win. You might get some sour grapes, but also some truth," says Dyer. You also want to know how long they've been around, the longer the better. A sure bad sign, she says: "If they don't seem open to answering your questions, run."

The Better Business Bureau offers a few pointers:

Before entering into a pageant, parents and others who want to get involved should consider the following questions:

Who are the directors? Usually pageants are operated by for-profit organizations that solicit participants by mail or print advertising, or by broadcast media, to compete for recognition and prizes from the promoter.

Can the location (place of business) of the pageant company be verified? Where and when will the actual pageant be held? What accommodations are provided for contestants? Will there be adequate supervision?

Do all of the details add up? Are there judges and what are their qualifications? Do they have any affiliation with the company? Are refunds possible if a contestant decides to withdraw from the pageant? How are the winners chosen? What criteria are used for selection? What are the obligations of the winning contestant? What do former contestants and winners have to say about the pageant? Ask the company for references. Finally, what benefit will be derived from participating or winning?

Do the winnings sound too good to be true? If so, they probably are. Be sure to read any contract carefully and thoroughly in advance of entering a pageant to understand the rights and responsibilities of the winner or other contestants.

Also, surf the Net. "Google is a pageant girl's best friend," says Jason Shaw, who has been in the pageant world for nearly 20 years as a consultant, director and judge. " All contestants should conduct careful due diligence on a pageant before they decide to enter and gain information on the history of the program, the visibility of the program and its titleholders and any pending litigation against the pageant and/or its directors."

The Internet is rife with pageant message boards and other resources where contestants can get useful feedback on various pageant systems. Every pageant should offer a contract for each contestant which lays out the expectations for the competition. "Read the fine print!" says Shaw. "Contestants should pay particular attention to indemnity clauses and any other proposed waivers of liability. Additionally, the expectations for the newly crowned titleholder should be something that is set forth and agreed upon before the competition."

Stick with legit pageants, and it could be worth all the effort. "Everybody wants to be a princess for a day or for a year," says Lisa Ruffin, who participated in the Miss U.S. Teen and Miss Black Teenage pageants, and nearly 20 years ago founded the Little Miss African American scholarship pageant. "If I hadn't gotten $25,000 in scholarship money from pageants, I wouldn't have been able to go to Juilliard."