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 & Tiaras
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.
Hilary Levey Friedman is an affiliate of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She is a sociologist currently writing a book about beauty pageants and American culture.