Step into three-year-old Savanna Jackson’s bedroom and you are transported into a young girl’s paradise. The pink room is dominated by a canopy bed surrounded by Barbie dolls and a large toy kitchen that smells of strawberries and shortcake.
It is a room which would seem familiar to any little girl’s parents. But take a peek inside Savanna’s wardrobe and a rather less ordinary picture of her life emerges. Here, hanging alongside the innocent fancy-dress outfits are rails of jewelled gowns, frothy showgirl-style bikinis and hair-pieces.
The clue as to why this toddler boasts an eye-popping Aladdin’s cave of costumes while her peers dress in T-shirts and jeans can be found in the sashes, trophies and medals on a shelf near Savanna’s bed — the spoils of the dozens of baby beauty pageants which she has entered in the past two years.
Despite her tender years, Savanna is already a seasoned participant, having taken part in her first contest when she was only ten months old.
As such, she is accustomed to a certain degree of attention. But Savanna has now found herself in the spotlight for different reasons, after it emerged her mother pays for her to be fake-tanned for the competitions.
Despite her flawless, peachy skin, Savanna has been undergoing this ritual almost every month since she was two — an age when many babies are still wearing nappies.
To most of us it is horrifying to think of a girl as young as Savanna regularly being covered in fake tan to turn her skin brown. Little wonder the story caused an international storm, with British mothers taking to internet forums to express their disgust when pictures of little Savanna, who lives in Michigan, were published here recently.
Child beauty pageants have long been seen as an American phenomenon, but thanks to shows such as Toddlers And Tiaras, their popularity is growing in Britain. Only last month, the UK hosted the first such pageant for very young children, with around 100 little girls competing for the prize of ‘Mini Miss Princess UK’.
The spectacle of them marching down a catwalk in heels, sparkly bikinis and layers of make-up caused outrage enough. But it doubtless won’t be long before British mothers feel compelled to fake tan their little girls, too.
Savanna’s extensive beauty regime would rival that of a catwalk model, especially since she has her own entourage of make-up artists, hair stylists and talent coaches.
All this for a little girl who is two years too young to be at school.
But Savanna’s mother, Lauren, doesn’t see what the fuss is about. ‘She enjoys it, and that’s the important thing,’ she declares.
‘The way I see it, I’m just giving her the best opportunity in life.
‘When I see her on the stage, her confidence blossoming, I’m as proud as punch. I don’t understand the critics. I do accept there’s a line, but I strongly feel I’ve kept Savanna on the right side of it.’
Not everyone would agree. Should a young child be put through any kind of cosmetic enhancement? Especially since it was widely reported this week that scientists have discovered one of the main ingredients in spray tans can be potentially harmful if it’s inhaled, and possibly even cancerous.
Yet Lauren is defiant, insisting she checked with her doctor before taking her daughter for her first tanning session. ‘I was worried it might harm her young skin, but the doctor reassured me it was safe.’
Savanna’s grandmother, Sherry, a 49-year-old bank executive, admits to spending much of her monthly salary on her granddaughter’s pageant career — and defends the family’s decision for her to have regular fake tans.
‘They don’t use an aerosol — it’s applied with a paint roller so she doesn’t breathe it in,’ Sherry says.
‘It takes five minutes to apply, and it washes off in the bath.’
None of which diminishes the discomfort most of us feel at the notion of a young toddler being preened in this way.
What kind of parent, you wonder, wants to transform their daughter into a mini-replica of one of the Barbie dolls that sits on her bed?
It’s all the stranger because Lauren does not conform to the stereotype of a pushy pageant mother.
A nervy woman of 27 who works part-time as an administration assistant, she lives with her mechanic husband Tim, 31 — whose parents hail from Belfast — in a small, three-bedroom house in a working-class Michigan suburb.
A seemingly ordinary couple who have been married six years, they admit they happily go without to give their children — Savanna and her two-year-old brother, Zachary — the best.
There can be no doubt that Lauren is a devoted mother. The shelves of the family home contain albums bulging with family photographs, among them pregnancy scan shots and baby hand-prints.
‘I always wanted a family,’ Lauren says. But, at first, she had no intention of involving Savanna in the beauty pageant world.
‘We knew nothing about it until Savanna was ten months old,’ she says. ‘Then we heard about a small, local mini-pageant, all natural with no make-up. Everyone had always told us Savanna was beautiful, so I decided to enter her.
‘She won the “prettiest eyes” and “most photogenic” categories. It was just a bit of fun. We didn’t think much of it.’
A few months later, friends mentioned the national pageant circuit and Lauren decided to enrol her daughter for her first official show. She was 18 months old.
‘It was another “natural” pageant, but Savanna didn’t win because we did everything wrong. For instance, she wore a big, puffy, floor-length dress. Of course, we know better now.’
Smile for the camera: Savanna on stage
Savanna’s father wasn’t keen on her taking part in the competitions at first — until he saw how much she was enjoying it.
Lauren says: ‘Now he helps her practise. Savanna always wants Daddy to be the judge. She loves it when he gives her the crown. It’s something we can all enjoy as a family.’
Child pageants are big business in the U.S., with tens of thousands of families travelling thousands of miles across the country to one glitzy extravaganza after another.
Most argue it is harmless fun, although many can’t forget JonBenet Ramsey, the six-year-old beauty queen from Colorado who was found murdered in 1996. The case has never been solved, but it cast a searching light into a bizarre and hitherto unfamiliar world where very young girls are primped and preened for prizes.
Lauren, of course, sees it as a heightened form of dressing up for her daughter. Even if it costs hundreds to buy her custom-made outfits. The most expensive, at nearly £800, is a confection of pink and purple ruffles with a sequined, gem-covered bodice. Then there are the hair and make-up products, including mini-wigs to give Savanna ringlets or bigger hair.
‘She doesn’t really need make-up because she is so beautiful,’ says Lauren, without a hint of irony. ‘But on stage, with all the bright lights, you have to wear it, otherwise you look washed out next to the other girls.’
There is no denying that Savanna is a very pretty girl, with huge blue-green eyes, long, dark lashes and a creamy complexion. So why use fake tan?
‘Lots of the girls have a tan — it’s something the judges seem to like,’ says Lauren. ‘Now it’s just part of the routine, and Savanna loves it, but I’d never do anything to harm her welfare.’
Where Lauren has drawn the line, it emerges, is at the use of a ‘flipper’, an acrylic denture costing around £300 to enhance children’s smiles, since missing baby teeth can ruin their chances.
‘That’s one thing we’ll never use,’ Lauren is keen to point out. ‘She doesn’t need it.’
‘Need’ of course, is all relative in the dubious world of the pageant, since no child of three ‘needs’ a fake tan, nor, arguably, the retinue of talent coaches — usually former beauty queens charging about £65 an hour — who advise on the girls’ routines and dress.
Nothing about participating in pageants comes cheap. Apart from Savanna’s basic beauty regime, entrance fees are nearly £800 per contest, and parents are expected to spend hundreds on digitally enhanced portrait photographs for a child’s modelling portfolio.
Then there are hotel and travel costs. The Jacksons spend days driving across America from one pageant to another, with their daughter’s clothes, hair and make-up products crammed into seven plastic containers in their car boot.
Little wonder that Savanna’s pageant career takes up a great deal of Lauren’s income — even with the financial help of her mother, Sherry. Lauren is convinced the investment is worth it, however, believing the confidence Savanna has gained will stand her in good stead in her adult life.
‘She lights up when the spotlight falls on her — she has a great personality and people just fall in love with her. She has made lots of friends on the circuit.’
Anyone who has watched any of these pageants on television will know that tears and tantrums are all part of them.
Lauren says: ‘You get that with any toddler, and Savanna can be a stinker sometimes. It’s hard work, but as long as she’s enjoying it, we’ll keep on going. She still does ordinary things like any girl, and gets bumps and bruises. And if she starts not to like it, we will stop.’
When Savanna has her photograph taken for this article, she instinctively strikes a pose, placing her hands on her hips and a finger on her lips before blowing a kiss to the camera.
There’s something provocatively grown-up about what she’s doing, which would alarm many parents. Not Lauren.
‘You can see how much confidence the pageants have given her,’ she says with pride. One can only hope Savanna’s confidence hasn’t been won at the cost of her innocence.