If you missed last week’s season finale of Toddlers & Tiaras, the TLC network docu-series about child beauty pageants, you missed a doozy of an episode. It was the final appearance on the show by Eden Wood, the 6-year-old wunderkind from Arkansas who’s like a Baby Jane Hudson for the 21st century. In one of the most unsettling scenes ever recorded for reality television, Eden shaves the chest of “Popsy,” her adopted grandfather, so he can play Tarzan in her Jungle Jane pageant routine. Have you ever seen a 6-year-old girl drag a razor across the pasty chest of her grandpappy? It’s mesmerizing and horrifying all at the same time. You can’t blink and you can’t look away, and you’re convinced that Chris Hansen is going to pop up from behind your TV at any moment and announce that you’re under arrest. Earlier this summer, Eden (or more specifically, her mom/manager Mickie Wood) announced that she was retiring. Not from show business, mind you, just the beauty pageant circuit. She’s still got a memoir to promote (the self-published From Cradle to Crown), a singing career (with self-released singles like “Cutie Patootie” and “Antz In Our Pantz”) and the available-exclusively-on-her-website “Vegas Showgirl” action figure (which has adult boobs and an anorexic waist). There are also rumors that a new reality show is in the works, called Eden Wood Goes Hollywood, which promises to be just like Toddlers & Tiaras but a thousand times sadder.
I originally wanted to interview Eden, and even pushed her publicist for it. But I eventually thought better of it — there’s a special place in hell for journalists who mock the ambitions of a little girl to her face — and agreed instead to speak with Eden’s mom, Mickie. I wanted Mickie to sound like menthol cigarettes and an afternoon cocktail, using words like “parenting” and “PayPal” in the same sentence. She’s not that person, but I’m still not sure what I think about her.
Eric Spitznagel: Eden’s retiring from pageants at the ripe old age of six. Did she just want to go out while she was still on top?
Mickie Wood: She’s got so many things that have come her way, and she was just going, going, going, going. Pageants helped to get her where she’s at, but in reality it’s not that beneficial anymore. Right now she’s like, “I want to go back! I want to do pageants again!” And I told her, “I’m not saying you can never do a pageant again. I’m just saying there’s not enough time for you to do everything that’s coming your way right now and still have a normal little kid life.”
She has a pretty insane workload.
She is super busy. She’s got the record, which is finished, and she’s been cast in two animated movies and a legitimate motion picture with Richard Chaves and John de Lancie, which starts filming in November.
When I was six, I was living with my parents rent free. I was a dead-beat compared to her.
[Laughs.] That’s funny. But yeah, that’s the thought that pushed us over the edge. We want her to be like any other six year old. After the movies, I want her to be able to come home and have as normal a life as I can allow her to have.
You’ve faced some harsh criticism. People have called you things like “stage mom” and “crazy pageant lady.”
“Control freak” and “baby pageant slave driver.”
“Future civil lawsuit defendant.”
Oh gosh. [Laughs.]
Does it get to you? Do you want to scream at them, “Hate the game, not the player?”
I used to get angry. But what good does it do? Because I don’t care. I’m going to do it whether you approve or you don’t. I know what’s best. I didn’t have Eden till I was 40. She’s the only kid that her dad and I have, from our only marriage. We went on a cruise together and came back with a little souvenir. [Laughs.] There must be something about that water in Montego Bay.
It somehow makes perfect sense that Eden was conceived on a cruise ship.
It does, doesn’t it? I’m a teacher, and while I was pregnant, we actually did a production of Grease, and I can remember being like Shamu the whale, up on stage dancing with the kids, and the girls were rubbing on my belly and telling Eden how she was going to be a pageant girl and famous. I can remember that just as plain as day. It’s just in Eden’s blood.
The big criticism of child pageants is that it sexualizes children and robs them of their innocence.
I hear that every day. And I just get so sick I want to say (makes a fart sound) “Phffft!” You don’t know, you don’t live with us, you don’t know us at all, you don’t know the whole story.
That’s true, all we know is the fake eyelashes and the creepy baby tans. When was the last time you gave Eden a zerbert? Or ate cereal all morning and watched cartoons with her?
Well actually, we rearranged all the furniture last night. We pulled all the cushions out into the middle of the living room and made a giant castle. We had three blankets and four or five pillows and two chihuahuas. That is the misconception that’s out there. This may shock you, but she’s only brushed her hair once in the last three days.
That’s not really “Amy Winehouse drank herself to death” scandalous, but sure, it’s surprising.
She goes out and digs in the dirt. She’s got a pet chicken named Crazy. She’s just as normal as she can be. When she was watching Toddlers & Tiaras last night, there was one mom that’s kind of ugly and said all pageants were rigged. Eden looked at her on the TV and said, “Does she not know I know karate? I will chop her!”
That’s how you get the detractors to shut up. Spread rumors that Eden could kill a guy with just her pinkie.
But they’re never going to shut up. All they think is that I get up in the morning and plaster Eden down with makeup and drag her from one event to another, and it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Right now I am driving my red Chevy truck, and it has a big gigantic chunk missing from the fender from a pageant hit and run.
Was this like a Tonya Harding/ Nancy Kerrigan situation?
[Laughs.] Oh no! I was pulling up to a pageant in November and a guy ran a red light and took the butt off my right rear fender. I have this huge gargantuan hole that I’ve been driving around, and my passenger is Eden Wood, the child star. If they really knew us, that is a very good soliloquy or whatever of who and what we really are.
I think you mean allegory, but it was also a pretty fantastic soliloquy.
You know what I mean. It’s so redneck. There’s no other way to say it. We’re so friggin’ redneck. That’s who we are. You can’t judge someone by what you see on a super sensationalized reality show. It’s ridiculous.
I’ve always wondered, just how real is a reality show like Toddlers & Tiaras? Is it a little bit scripted?
No, it is not scripted. What you see is what you see. They follow you a few days at your home, and then a few days at a pageant, so out of that four or five days of filming, all it takes is one meltdown. And that’s what they’re going to use. You have to know that going into it. That’s where so many parents are like, “That’s not how I acted! It’s not an accurate representation!” Well actually, it kinda is.
Doesn’t that make you paranoid? You’re constantly being watched. It’s so Orwellian.
You just have to realize that if you are a flake, you’re going to look like a flake on TV. I don’t think a lot of people have a grasp on their own reality.
You’re working on a new reality show called Eden Wood Goes Hollywood?
Well, she has a contract with the same production company that does Toddlers & Tiaras, and they’re pitching the show, but we don’t really know where it’s at right now. This summer has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Last night she was on Prime Time the same time she was on TLC. She was on two different shows last night at 9pm on two different networks. And then on Entertainment Tonight leading up to that. It was just surreal. We’re from smallville, Podunk city, rural-as-you-can-get Middle America, and the odds of this happening for this kid were astronomical. There are 500 people in our home town.
I know a lot of women who say their body image was screwed up by playing with Barbie dolls. Eden has her very own doll version of herself, and it has boobs and a bulimic figure. How does that not mess with her head?
She has seventy-five dolls, every type of Barbie doll there is, and every one of them is butt nekkid. I have quit trying to keep up with their clothes. And she could care less. The thing that people don’t get is, her being famous is not something that I set out to have happen. But when it started happening, we were like, “If she truly loves this, why not be smart about it?” Her college is paid for. But you don’t never hear that from the media. You don’t never hear that my husband works two jobs, that my husband is a welder and I’ve been a school teacher for 25 years. We’re working middle class people, we go to the dollar store just like anybody else, and drive a pickup with the butt hanging out of it. I can go take a picture if you don’t believe me.
But that doesn’t really answer my question. When Eden looks at this doll that has her name and it’s body isn’t realistic for a 30-year-old woman, much less a 6-year-old girl, how does she not think, “I gotta go vomit all that candy I had for lunch and spend the rest of the day doing palates?”
She could care less. She has never stared in the mirror. About the only thing I can say is she likes lip gloss. That’s about the worst thing I can say is she likes some lip gloss. I think I’ve done a pretty good job keeping her down to earth. And to the people who don’t agree, I just say (does another fart noise) “Phffffffffffft!” Our society is based around beauty. I wish it wasn’t so, but that’s where parenting comes in. Keep your kid grounded. When I’ve done pageants with Eden, I’ve explained to her, “This is your costume. This is your mask. This is your theatrical presentation.” And the minute we’re through, she rips it all off and jumps in some mud. It’s never been, “You have to wear makeup to be beautiful.” She’s got the same shirt on today she had on yesterday. She did take a bath last night, but she wanted to put the same shirt back on. She’s a tomboy!
Have you ever heard of Clever Hans?
That doesn’t ring any bells.
It was a horse in Germany during the early 1900s who could supposedly understand basic arithmetic. But they found out Hans was really just getting visual cues from his owner.
Yes, yes, yes. I get you.
I’m not trying to imply that your daughter is a horse. I’m just saying, maybe it only seems like Eden wants to be famous because she’s picking up on your body language.
I hear what you‘re saying. All kids look to their parents. They want to please you. All children do that. They pay attention to your silent cues. And we do the same thing with her. She’s my barometer. And that, my dear new friend, is why we stopped doing pageants. I started seeing how her personality was changing. There were outbursts and she was just acting differently. I don’t care about the industry. The only thing I care about as a mother are the cues that she gives off, and that’s why we made the choice to stop. We were doing just fine until all this fame hit.
But it’s not like fame snuck up on you in a dark alley. You’s definitely been courting it, with the book and the doll and the music and the movies and the new TV show. Why do any of that if you didn’t want Eden to be famous?
I don’t think we were trying to make it happen. But when it did, we rolled with it. Why not? It’s the American way. If you know that somebody loves Eden, why not make a book? Why not make a doll? Why not sell a song? But that’s as far as it goes. I want her to have values and be a decent person and not end up like that poor Lindsay Lohan.
Well sure. You have to make sure her next reality show doesn’t end up being 16 and Pregnant.
Exactly! That’s exactly where I’m at. Fame and money can be a hard road. I don’t want it to happen to her.
You and Eden spent most of June on a tour of Midwestern shopping malls with a few other pageants girls.
Was it not a good experience?
Oh hell no. It’s nothing I will ever do again. If there’s a “Glamour Girls II” tour, they’ll have a different little girl headlining. Cause those women were friggin’ crazy.
Wait, are we talking about the pageant girls or their mothers?
The mothers! There was one mother who went out and got hair extensions down to her bootie because the camera crew was going to be following us. She spent three hours every morning getting ready. Then there was a hot-tempered Mexican mom that couldn’t stand the one who got the extensions because all she did was stand in the mirror and primp, so she was cussing her in Spanish all day. It was a good experience for Eden in terms of stage time, but a bad experience for Eden as a little girl. There was so much bad language, I don’t think it was good for any of the kids.
Some people give stage moms a bad name.
They really do! Oh, and there was a damn bird! One of the mothers had a damn bird that we had to haul around in the van. We had three girls, three mamas, a camera guy and an agent, all squeezed together in a 1999 Ford Windstar van with a damn pigeon. On a personal level, I like all of them, don’t get me wrong.
You do? I guess I misunderstood you. I was under the impression that you thought they were batshit crazy.
Not at all! But all crammed in that van, those different personalities and those kids, and all the whining, and we had a flat tire the second day in the middle of BFE, it doesn’t bring out the best in people. I was like, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Was that tour your first exposure to Eden’s fans?
Not really. She’s done so many shows over the last six or seven months. You know what’s interesting? She gets recognized the most in Los Angeles, of all places, where everybody’s famous. People come up to her and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, can I take a picture with Eden? You’re just the cutest thing!” But then we’ll go somewhere small and nobody says a word. Nobody recognizes her at all. That was very strange to me.
Who are these people coming up and asking for pictures? What’s the age range?
That’s the other strange thing. On the tour, I would’ve thought it was little kids who’d be coming out to see her, but it was ‘tweens and teenagers. And on her Facebook page, I would say that 90% of her fans are grown women and teenage girls.
I suppose that’s better than 40-year-old guys.
Oh heck yes!
That’s got to be a weird position for you as a mother. On the one hand, you want to encourage a fan following. They’re the ones who buy Eden’s merchandize. But at the same time, there’ve got to be moments of, “That middle-aged dude is a little too into my daughter.”
We don’t have a lot of that, thank goodness. It’s usually girls, and usually between nine and 20. It’s teenyboppers. I don’t know why they’re drawn to Eden, or what the dynamic is there, but that’s what the numbers say.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)