Hidden in the lush, hilly outskirts of rural Muriwai is a grand, faux Tudor home. It perches proudly at the highest point of a small valley, overlooking countryside dotted with jumping courses and expensive ponies. On a cloudy Saturday, the lush lawn beside the home hosts a large marquee. White and luxuriant, it looks fit for a society wedding, its ceiling draped with shimmery white fabric and sprinkled with chandeliers.
Inside the marquee about 50 people are perched on fabric-draped chairs set around a wide stage shaped space. Five judges (four women and a man) sit behind a table facing the marquee's entrance. An impossibly tall woman in high heels and a ruffled, floral print dress addresses the crowd. "Welcome to the Miss Junior New Zealand prejudging," she says. The attendant crowd titters with delight.
In walk the girls. First Sophia, 12 years old, with white-blonde hair, a pretty white dress and a mile-wide smile. She's followed by Justine from New Lynn, 13, wearing black and red; then Brooke, 13, the self-confessed tomboy who loves pigs.
The girls keep coming, 22 in all, dressed up and made up and flashing their best stage smiles. Tall girls, short girls, thin girls, not-so-thin girls, brown girls, white girls. And then Alicia Kapa, who has cerebral palsy and is in awheelchair. It's a pageant but not as you know it.
Set up by the reigning Miss World New Zealand Collette Lochore, Miss Junior NZ has already garnered its fair share of criticism. The announcement of a pageant for girls from the age of 10 was met, by many, with dismay.
Former Miss New Zealand Elizabeth Aitken told the Herald on Sunday children that young would not be able to deal with the experience. Body image and eating disorder specialist Victoria Marsden said 10 was "very, very young" for girls to be involved and "by that age body image tends to already be an issue with young girls. This is a very risky idea".
A tearful Lochore hit back at the criticisms in the paper on YouTube the next day.
Lochore claims the competition is inclusive and nurturing, a celebration of "inner beauty" and a means to raise self-esteem and develop leadership qualities in young woman. The Miss Junior NZ website claims "the term 'beauty' means to have a beautiful heart, mind and soul and this is shown through certain characteristics that we encourage and develop throughout the competition".
So is it possible for a beauty pageant to achieve such lofty goals? The final, taking place this Saturday at Avondale College Theatre in West Auckland, will renew questions about the pageant. Can it be inclusive and nurturing, or will it conform to the stereotypes of stage mums, tantrums and tears?
Lochore is 19, not much older than some of the contestants. She is passionate about developing confidence in teenage girls, she explains. The former acting and theatre teacher says she has worked extensively with young people who struggle with confidence, and set up the competition so she could give encouragement to young women and help them find their way in the world.
"There aren't many pageants I believe in," she says. "I prefer to think of this as a training programme for young woman rather than a pageant. There is no swimwear, no skimpy clothes. It's about bringing out the best in the girls.
"It's not about spray tans, big hair and ridiculous heels."
Lochore says that her involvement in the competition has nothing to do with looks. "I chose girls based on attitude and who I think will benefit most from the competition."
The pageant's Facebook page shows the girls being taught to "walk" by a former catwalk model Amanda Bransgrove, and being taught to do their makeup by professionals at Samala Robinson Academy. But Lochore says the main focus of the eight weeks of training is on building self-esteem.
"We teach the girls how to present themselves, how to talk to camera, how to build their inner beauty. I have the same problems with pageants as other people do.
"That's why the backlash was so hard," she says. "I always struggled with confidence and my intentions were to help young girls achieve this in themselves. I don't think of this as a pageant, but as a training programme."
The 22 girls are judged on attitude, talent, sport, community involvement. "Beauty with a mission" and "X-factor" count for 50 per cent of the scores. It is held over two divisions: division A for girls 14 to 17; division B for girls 10 to 13.
The inclusion of younger girls in the pageant has ruffled feathers, but Lochore says it has been carefully managed.
"All the girls are 12 and over, except for one girl who is 10. She is incredibly confident, and has made great friends with one of the girls in division A who is 16. I would never choose a young girl who I didn't feel could handle the process."
The grand prize is $1000. The entry fee is $700. The girls are encouraged to fundraise or get a sponsor for the money, which the website says goes towards the weekly tutorials, training photographers, makeup and hair, lighting, staging and prizes. They do more fundraising for causes such as Ronald McDonald House.
Joanna Kapa, mother of Alicia, says the $700 fee is "absolutely" worth it. "The workshops they have done are amazing," she says.
Lochore says Miss Junior NZ is inclusive and not based on size or appearance, but Victoria Marsden is unconvinced.
"Although this pageant includes judging participants in areas other than appearance, to market an event as a 'beauty pageant' in itself draws attention to the judging of contestants on their looks, size, shape and appearance in general."
Thirteen-year-old Brittany Menon lives in Clendon Park, South Auckland. Half European and half Fijian-Indian, she is the kind of girl who people instantly like. "She's always smiling," says her mum Heather.
Originally from Christchurch, Brittany's family left the city on one of the first planes after the February 2011 earthquake. Heather saw the publicity about Miss Junior NZ and thought it would be a nice thing for her daughter to do.
The competition claims to focus on inclusiveness. Lochore says that the girls are chosen for their attitude - and Alicia Kapa's attitude is second to none.
"The first I knew about it was when I got the forms in the mail," laughs her mum Joanna. Her 14-year-old daughter Alicia is always up to something. The Dannemora girl constantly pushes boundaries in a typical teenage way, but is anything but typical. Alicia has cerebral palsy, is confined to a wheelchair, and communicates through a specially programmed iPad.
Alicia filled in an online form and was accepted as a finalist. Joanna thinks that it was opportune for Lochore to have a disabled teenager in the competition, as part of its emphasis on "inner beauty". Nevertheless, it probably helped that Alicia is externally beautiful as well.
Joanna was a bit nervous about what would lie in store for Alicia when she first took her to one of the training sessions. "I told her to prepare herself for other girls' reactions," she says. But there's been no bitchiness, and Alicia has loved the experience. "Collette
made it clear there was to be no bullying or backstabbing," says Joanna. While parts of the competition aren't possible for Alicia, the introduction, interview and talent sections were achieved with the help of her iPad.
Psychologist Sara Chatwin says the inclusion of non-stereotypical girls in such a competition could be a good thing. "I wouldn't say I support this (or any) pageant, but it sounds like it could be a step in the right direction. It's important to redefine the concept of beauty in our society."
Ella Clarkson, a classic North Shore beauty with sun-kissed locks and glowing skin, can only agree. A lover of dance and cheerleading, the 170cm Albany resident fits the bill of a teen beauty queen. But Ella's mum Kyla says that before the competition she was far
"She was always slouched over, trying to hide how tall she was. Now she walks tall and has her head in the stars. Her inner beauty is now as strong as her outer beauty."
Kyla was hesitant when Ella came home from school, excited about the possibility of joining the pageant. "My first reaction was 'no way'. But I agreed to go to a talk in Ellerslie about the competition. Collette made it clear there would be no swimwear, no backstabbing, and that it wouldn't be a typical pageant."
The girls and their parents think highly of Lochore. "She really cares about the girls", says Kyla.
But although Lochore's mantra of "inner beauty" has garnered her the affection of the contestants, the couching of the competition in these terms doesn't move some.
"Research shows us that any event that judges young people in relation to appearance, size or shape has negative effects on the self-esteem and sense of self-worth of those who participate in it. This can be the case at the time and into teen and adult years," says Victoria Marsden.
This kind of criticism angers Lochore. "Unless the critics have met the girls, seen the website and talked to me, I don't think they can have an informed opinion. The competition isn't about who is the prettiest. It's about developing leadership and self esteem."
Back in Muriwai, the girls are unaware of any controversy. Ella performs a cup dance, Brittany sways and sashays to Indian beats and Alicia watches as Collette reads her short story Magical Dream, her entry in the talent section. She may be the least stereotypical contestant, but she gets the biggest cheer of all.