Toddlers & Tiaras – "Rumble In The Jungle"

Even for someone who has admittedly watched every Real Housewives franchise since it began, there is a strange endgame feeling to watching the TLC show Toddlers & Tiaras. In a logical world, there shouldn’t be a line in the sand between watching materialistic fame whores in rich pockets of the country drunkenly flip tables and five-year-olds get spray tanned but, whoa boy, is there ever.

There’s always existed a certain curiosity about the show for me since it debuted in 2009, especially since it’s gone on to find footing in the landscape pop culture of late. Particularly, its breakout star Eden Wood has been on a recent media blitz that has her shriek-singing on morning television and schilling everything from books (the title noting her long, crazy journey: From Cradle to Crown) to novelty ties. Her arch-nemesis on the show, MaKenzie even became a bit of an internet meme herself after having an on-camera meltdown over a lost pacifier she called “ni-ni.”

And, that’s just the thing: A “freakout” on TV in this case is just a child crying over a lost pacifier. When it's Teresa Giudice calling Danielle Staub a “prostitution whore” in the middle of a dinner party on the Real Housewives of New Jersey, that shaky, weird line between the two somehow becomes real. It’s a slippery slope, of course, but somehow even clearer in my mind after watching T&T.

By focusing on different young contestants in various pageants each episode and checking back in with favorites like Eden and MaKenzie, the show has made its pint-sized stars actual celebrities. If you don’t believe me, check out Ms. Eden Wood’s terrifying singles, “Cutie Patootie” and “Underpuppy.” There’s also a music video and a promised mall tour, which should especially doable considering she just announced her “retirement” from the pageant game to focus on her budding career.

There's a lot of educating going on for viewers like me who aren't aware of the mind-blowing amount of physical upkeep that goes into keeping these tiny queens in pageant shape. They receive teeth whitening, fake teeth called “flippers” that pop in, French manicures on teensy fingers, and, of course, the aforementioned spray-tanning. That’s to say nothing of the intricately beaded and sequined costumes each girl (or toddler) wears to compete, the hours of hair and makeup, and the one-on-one coaching required for their performances. If you’re in Eden’s tier, you’ve also got to juggle book signings and TV show spots where the you tackle hard-hitting questions from Barbara Walters.

The three girls that take the focus in this season finale are relative newcomer Isabella, 3, rising star Alexis, 5, and ultimate pro Eden, 6, each representing a different level of pageant success. This is a treat for die-hard T & T viewers who haven’t seen Eden’s blonde bouffant and cherub cheeks since the season opener. Their feverish stage moms drag their girls, literally kicking and screaming, through just about every step of the process leading up to the high-stakes competition for Louisville’s Rumble in the Jungle World Championship. Speaking of a rumble, it’s also made no secret that many of the moms and coaches find it fishy that Eden Wood’s talent agent Heather Ryan also happens to be the pageant director. Oh, also, she helps tell the judges how to vote. Dukes up!

Outside of the many uncomfortable scenes of little girls crying on camera over being forced into dresses, nail salons, and on stage, there’s no shortage of uncomfortable direct address weirdness. Take, for example, when little Alexis, who is certainly a cute kid, tells the camera, “I think I’m prettier than the other girls.” Yeah, stomach that. But just when you think these people might be clueless as to the fact they’re going to be seen as horrible people and parents after appearing on the show, Eden’s mom Mickie tells the camera, “Yeah, I spent a lot of money [on pageants] but if I hadn’t, would I be sitting here doing this interview?” Touché, Mickie.

There’s plenty of build-up to the main event, which also focuses on Eden finally getting into the recording studio — really, the one scene of the whole episode that’s worth watching — to lay down those aforementioned tracks and likely make one recording engineer contemplate a lot of decisions in his life. Then, it’s showtime!

Hiccups ensure and these frazzled moms are all over the place, chasing down late-arriving dresses and hairpieces all over the hotel as the clock counts down. Eden’s mom nearly comes apart at the seams and has to deliver her shining star with sub-par hair and makeup. Heart-wrenching stuff. The race to the finish even requires that Alexis to use a shoelace as a tie for the back of her dress after losing the ribbon to her ornate cupcake of a costume, and the little girls reflect all the anxiety going on around them by crying left and right. The consummate professional Eden nearly backs out at the last minute and there’s a lengthy scene where Mickie gives her the option several times to pack up and head home if she doesn’t want to perform. When Eden eventually smiles and decides to go on stage, Mickie tells the camera “It’s all about her and for her. If she’s not happy, I’m not happy. I want her to be happy.”

The performances themselves are just as uncomfortable to watch as you might guess, involving a lot of fingers pointed to the crowd and empty eyed smiles. In their final outfits — and thanks to the handy “before” and “after’ makeover-style split screen the show provides — it really is wild to see how completely transformed these normal children are by the end. And just for clarification, Alexis’s mom describes the process as trying to make “that girl look like a perfect little doll.”

There’s little surprise that controversial contestant Eden sweeps and gets named World Champion. The more unexpected part is that her mom can’t seem to stop herself from doing laps around the tiny hotel ballroom where the competition is taking place and shrieking “my baby girl!” at the top of her lungs like a total rookie stage mom.  This from the woman who has what looks like an entire wing of a house filled with tiaras and trophies from her daughter's wins.

The other contestants run the gamut in the trophy department. Isabella receives a bottom-rung participation prize and Alexis begins her ascension to the top with a Mini Supreme tiara and sash. Even still, there are peeved moms who start to think something doesn’t add up with Eden and her agent running the show or that, gosh, maybe some of the whole thing was even staged?

Retiree Eden leaves on a triumphant note, not that there was ever much doubt for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed little diva.  If there’s any doubt how her path ahead might look after hanging up the sash and flippers, take heed of Eden’s introduction when taking the stage at the Rumble in the Jungle: “Eden plans to become Miss America, the President of the United States and win an Academy Award all before she is 20 because she will be too old after that.” There you have it.

Stray Observations

– The scene of Alexis getting adjustments from her chiropractor before the show was honestly maybe the hardest to watch. What could possibly look more awful?

– Why they felt the need to include the scene of Eden attempting to shave and spray tan her "Tarzan" before the show remains a mystery. Also, real gross.

– "This is Clara! She loves monster trucks!" is by far the best introduction.

– It’s especially chilling when Eden looks straight into the camera at the show’s end and notes, without any enthusiasm, “I did it. World Champion.”

– Let's never ever use the phrase "tushy, tushy, tushy."

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