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Last month a bunch of chil­dren took the stage at Auck­land’s Sky City Theatre to be judged on their ap­pear­ance and “adora­bil­ity”. Eleanor Black tracked the lead-up to the event and found bright lights, glit­ter and good times. But is there a dark side?

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Mod­els are born not made, but the kids at this cen­tral Auck­land pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dio don’t know that yet. In a cramped space hous­ing racks of wed­ding dresses, a small cot and a se­lec­tion of soft toys, they bounce around like pop­corn, bathed in bright white light­ing that makes ev­ery­thing look soft and ex­pen­sive.

Sarah Van Brink, an un­usu­ally com­posed 6-year-old, steps in front of the cam­era and cups her face in her hands. She holds up one fin­ger as if beck­on­ing a waiter, then forms a heart shape, then bunny ears, then she spins around in a cir­cle to make her but­ter­fly-print dress bell around her legs.

“Look, how cute,” says model trainer Jenny Yang, her­self a model and one of the co-founders of the New Zealand Su­per Kids and Teens Model Com­pe­ti­tion, a pageant-style af­fair and a first for this coun­try. Ex­pe­ri­ence tells her that this child will make the fi­nal.

It’s Sarah’s birth­day, so there will be cake when she gets home. She is a lit­tle tired and rest­less in the stuffy room, but fo­cused. She sits on a tiny chair next to her fa­ther Michael, who man­ages the Royal Oak Pak ’n Save, to make an in­tro­duc­tory video. She tells the cam­era that her favourite colour is pink and her favourite an­i­mals are flamin­gos and uni­corns. “I like uni­corns be­cause their hair is shiny and some­times their hair colour is pretty-pretty,” she ex­plains.

Why did she want to en­ter this com­pe­ti­tion? “I want to win the Vic­to­ria wings,” she says, re­fer­ring to the an­gel wings worn by lin­gerie mod­els in the Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret fash­ion show. “I like to wear pretty stuff.”

“She re­ally wants to be here,” says Michael Van Brink, an un­fail­ingly po­lite man who ad­mits he is “out of his depth” in this span­gly Dis­ney pop en­vi­ron­ment. “She wants to try some­thing new, meet new peo­ple, and have new ex­pe­ri­ences. It’s my job and my wife’s job to sup­port that and drive her learn­ing. It’s no different for us from the bal­let and taek­wondo classes she does.’’

But clearly this is different, and he is on guard. In the NZ Su­per Kids and Teens Model Com­pe­ti­tion, with its grand fi­nal at the Sky City Theatre be­fore an au­di­ence of 700, there will be an un­de­ni­able fo­cus on Sarah’s look – how pho­to­genic and “adorable” she is, as it says on the com­pe­ti­tion’s web­site – and how her adora­bil­ity com­pares to the 69 other 3- to 7-year-olds in her cat­e­gory. Over the course of two months, as they pol­ish their cat­walk skills, do pho­to­shoots and au­di­tion for a panel of judges, they will be rated, sorted and, ul­ti­mately, most of them will be re­jected.

Sarah, whose mother Sha is from Bei­jing, knows the score. “The Chi­nese peo­ple think I’m pretty,” she says. “I’m re­ally hop­ing the judges will be Chi­nese, so I win.”

Court­ney Smyth, 8, has hair like a mer­maid and wants to be fa­mous be­cause “fa­mous peo­ple are happy”. At home she likes to put on her tiara and lit­tle heels and pre­tend to be a beauty queen. Her mum Suzanne says they will pur­sue mod­el­ling “as long as Court­ney is en­joy­ing it and I’m not push­ing her down that road”.

Court­ney is wear­ing light makeup, a denim skirt and a shirt fea­tur­ing an owl made out of se­quins that changes colour when you stroke it. She seems ner­vous but excited when in­ter­viewed. When it is photo time she is a nat­u­ral: hands on hips, one hand be­hind her head, a lit­tle hop to make her hair fly. Yang senses an­other fi­nal­ist.

When it is 5-year-old Florence King’s turn to chat she goes mute. She sticks out her tongue and bites the end. She gig­gles, and plays with her skirt. Her big sis­ter Is­abella, 11, wanted to do the com­pe­ti­tion and her mum Nicki thought it would be fun for her younger daugh­ter too. “I said to Florence, you could make some friends. She said, ‘Mum, I have friends’.”

While pop­u­lar overseas, it would be fair to say that for the av­er­age New Zealan­der, chil­dren’s pageants and mod­el­ling are not seen as ac­cept­able ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties. News that the win­ners would head to a ma­jor fash­ion show in China and be ex­pected to wear swim­suits on the cat­walk cre­ated a mini con­tro­versy when the com­pe­ti­tion was an­nounced in Novem­ber.

Court­ney Smyth, 8, has hair like a mer­maid and wants to be fa­mous be­cause “fa­mous peo­ple are happy”.

Fam­ily First na­tional di­rec­tor Bob McCoskrie pre­dictably, and not un­rea­son­ably, asked if this was ap­pro­pri­ate. When par­ents baulked, Jenny Yang and Amanda Deng, her co-or­gan­iser, clar­i­fied: swim­suits would be op­tional.

“The op­por­tu­nity is there, it’s healthy, good,” says Yang, a former model and mother, like Deng. “If you want it, do it. It’s not what we want them to do, it’s what they want to do.”

For all of the or­gan­is­ers’ gen­uine hopes to make this com­pe­ti­tion a true Kiwi event, to share a Chi­nese cul­tural gift with their adopted coun­try and add an­other ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­ity to the bal­letswim­ming-rugby ros­ter, there are many lost-in­trans­la­tion mo­ments such as th­ese as the com­pe­ti­tion pro­gresses. De­tails are slip­pery, the judges change and dis­ap­pear, the ta­lent sec­tion is re­moved, then a group dance num­ber is scrapped af­ter small chil­dren have spent hours learn­ing it.

Still, you can see the chil­dren are hav­ing fun, play­ing dress-ups and vogue­ing. Court­ney Smyth tells her mum: “I just want one of my friends to win.”

“They think they al­ready are mod­els!” says Deng.


Chloe Li, 3, is parad­ing around the Viva Dance stu­dio in New­ton with a pair of fluffy white an­gel wings strapped to her body, trail­ing white feather boas which are turn­ing grey at the ends. She watched the Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret lin­gerie run­way show and asked her mum for a pair of wings and a bikini. Her mum made her wings.

The scene is happy chaos, the cute­ness over­whelm­ing. There is so much glit­ter, so much tulle, so many lit­tle peo­ple lamb-hop­ping their way across the room. There are a bunch of an­gels, and bal­leri­nas, a cou­ple of cheer­lead­ers and dozens of lit­tle girls in poufy party frocks and match­ing Mary Janes with lit­tle heels. Also: a po­lice­man, Spi­der-Man, and a lit­tle boy in a pink Ralph Lau­ren polo shirt, navy shorts and beige moc­casins who looks like he has strayed from his par­ents’ coun­try club. A tod­dler wan­ders around with a Chanel lip­stick in her mouth.

One song on re­peat blares from speak­ers. “I’m ready for to­mor­row, to­mor­row starts to­day…” It’s from a tweens’ pro­gramme called Andi Mack, about a 13-yearold who dis­cov­ers her sis­ter is ac­tu­ally her mother, and it is a real ear­worm.

“Turn around and pose, al­right?” Jenny Yang tells clus­ters of chil­dren lined up await­ing their turn to walk from one side of the stu­dio to the other. Fans wage a weak fight against the sticky heat.

Florence King ar­rives in a brand new pale pink dress dot­ted in sil­ver flow­ers. She has a big flower in her hair and hot pink sneakers on her feet. She passes time pulling faces in the mir­ror. She smooshes her cheeks, pulls her eye­lids down, pokes out her tongue.

The warning about work­ing with chil­dren cer­tainly seems to be play­ing out here, but model trainer Nikki David­son is pleased with their progress.

“By and large they went out there, they gave their smiles and they didn’t all hit their marks but I was re­ally im­pressed,” she says later. “I think as New Zealan­ders we should be more con­fi­dent some­times. You need those scary ex­pe­ri­ences, go­ing to those scary places to see you can do that.”

Sarah Van Brink is the calm at the cen­tre of this storm, her sim­ple grey pleated dress and flat san­dals a con­trast to all the bling. She is lis­ten­ing in­tently, her eyes are trained on the smart­phone cap­tur­ing the ac­tion. She nails it.


Tod­dlers and Tiaras. Michael Van Brink can’t re­mem­ber the name of the pro­gramme, but he knows it’s aw­ful. “”That ap­palls me and that ap­palls most peo­ple,” he says. “This [com­pe­ti­tion] hasn’t been any­thing like that.”

Sarah has got two out­fits ready for the grand fi­nal, a navy blue and white “hol­i­day-style” dress she will wear with gold san­dals, and an aqua-blue gown ac­cented with holo­graphic glit­ter that is drop­ping all over the car­pet and fur­ni­ture. She chose this dress af­ter try­ing on 30 at Pon­sonby’s Fairy Shop.

For Sarah, the mod­el­ling jour­ney has been “mag­i­cal, like a fairy world with hid­den pas­sages and it’s re­ally spe­cial”. Last time she mod­elled, age 3, she won a $5000 ma­roon mas­sage chair which sits in the lounge. That was less mag­i­cal than the trip to Fiji the fam­ily would have pre­ferred, her dad jokes. Her mum Sha smoothes a pro­tec­tive blan­ket over the chair, to keep it pris­tine.

Sarah shares a bed­room with her lit­tle brother Jonathan, who is 4 and likes dragons. It is im­pec­ca­bly tidy. Her bed is topped with a pink bed­spread and her pink cup­board dis­plays a col­lec­tion of Dis­ney Princess dolls still in their boxes and Lego cas­tles she has built with her mum. Hang­ing up are about 10 spe­cial oc­ca­sion dresses for wear­ing to wed­dings, church, and now, to model in.

“I will not put makeup on her, I find it’s not real,” says Sha. “Other par­ents [from the com­pe­ti­tion] ask, can we put makeup on [our kids]? The an­swer is that it’s up to you. What they told us is try to be real. That’s made me feel quite happy.”

Michael adds: “We’ve got a num­ber of red lines. As a par­ent you have to be able to step in and say no, this is no longer ap­pro­pri­ate for her. Makeup is one. Things around Sarah’s per­son­al­ity – if we feel it’s im­pact­ing on her per­son­al­ity in a neg­a­tive way. If she’s not en­joy­ing it. I don’t think Sarah is go­ing in there re­ally stressed about it. Her con­fi­dence has im­proved so much, she’s tried some dresses on, she’s had a good time.”


Two hours be­fore show kick­off, clouds of hair­spray thicken the air back­stage and a girl with light-up shoes and tomato-coloured lip­stick prac­tises her walk. Jenny Yang and Amanda Deng are bustling around with clip­boards and har­ried ex­pres­sions. There are dozens

of cer­tifi­cates and tro­phies to sort, a judges’ ta­ble to ar­range, a stray hens’ party from the casino want­ing to take pho­tos. Their phones keep ring­ing.

Three of the ad­ver­tised judges are not here. Real House­wife An­gela Stone had a fam­ily com­mit­ment, Miss World New Zealand 2017 An­nie Evans had an overseas event, and so did Rus­sian model Diana Paul. The judges who did make it are trick­ling in: Rob­bie Peng of Chi­nese news site Skykiwi, jew­ellery de­signer Jior Xu, body­builder Win­ner Zhai, so­cialite Karin Horen, de­signer Liz Mitchell and stylist Donna Bala­soglou.

On­stage, what look like two puck­ered white tarps slung over frames have been dec­o­rated with the com­pe­ti­tion’s logo, a stick fig­ure with a su­per­hero cape. Red tape marks dot the stage to help the younger con­tes­tants find their way.

The glossy event brochure in­cludes a full-page ad for Sichuan Air­lines, the ma­jor spon­sor, which proudly de­clares that the air­line has “op­er­ated safely for over 30 years now…” Chil­dren dressed like flight at­ten­dants and pi­lots mill around wait­ing for their pro­mo­tional mu­si­cal num­ber.

When the show be­gins it is ev­i­dent that the two MCs aren’t com­mu­ni­cat­ing well. Ruby Gang, a TV host, speaks Man­darin and re­peat­edly cuts off Brid­gette Jack­son, a “change maker” for Oi tam­pons, who wears an or­ange and black Liz Mitchell gown. They stand shoul­der to shoul­der and talk and talk… It feels like the whole evening is hang­ing by a silken thread, which is awk­ward and thrilling.

Each cat­e­gory has been given a lyri­cal ti­tle. Beach­wear for 3- to 7-year-olds is called The Jour­ney of Grow­ing Up; the teens for­mal­wear sec­tion is The Trans­for­ma­tion of Charm. Sim­i­larly, when each child is in­tro­duced on­stage, a slo­gan is read out. Tiffany Li: “Splen­did life, beau­ti­ful me.” Adam Li: “I am con­fi­dent, I try hard and I am happy to be part of this.” Owen Li Zhang: “I am sun­shine boy, Owen!” Sarah Van Brink: “I will try my best to en­joy this mo­ment.”


Some of the kids af­fect bored, peeved ex­pres­sions. In his for­mal wear, Wil­liam Vakalahi looks an­gry and puz­zled; in the leisurewear sec­tion, he rolls a bas­ket­ball around his stom­ach and winks. Ei­ther way, you can’t take your eyes off him, and he wins a spe­cial cat­walk award.

Chloe Li of the an­gel wings has a bas­ket of flow­ers that she swings around and around wildly be­fore blow­ing kisses to the au­di­ence. Ken­zey Cole­brook, daugh­ter of Mrs New Zealand 2017 Daena Cole­brook, has a gi­ant white bow in her hair and a well-prac­tised hip pop. She was named Miss Pauanui 2018 (Midget) in Jan­uary.

Adam Li is so suave it is hard to be­lieve he is just 5. He is mod­el­ling in the boys’ spy-themed sec­tion and his lit­tle suit is sharp as a card edge. A James Bond-era Sean Con­nery in a trilby is pro­jected onto a screen be­hind him and, con­fus­ingly, the Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble theme music is blar­ing. Li strolls down­stage, pulls a rose from his pocket and throws it into the au­di­ence.

It’s a win­ning move: he takes first place in the 3 to 7 cat­e­gory, with Sarah Van Brink and Ken­zey Cole­brook plac­ing sec­ond. De­spite hav­ing fared well in each stage of the com­pe­ti­tion, Court­ney Smyth is stunned and over­joyed to win the age 8 to 11 cat­e­gory. “She was so excited, I was just try­ing to calm her down,” says her mum, Suzanne.

The awards cer­e­mony is baf­fling, with every child crammed on the stage to re­ceive a gong of some kind. Win­ners have scored re­turn flights from Auck­land to Chongqing, to al­low them to at­tend China Asean In­ter­na­tional Fash­ion Week, but not ac­com­mo­da­tion or food. “Ac­com­mo­da­tion is very cheap in China be­cause of the cur­rency dif­fer­ence, so they can pay for that,” Amanda Deng ex­plains later. The top 10 chil­dren in each cat­e­gory, al­most half of all fi­nal­ists, have also been in­vited to at­tend the fash­ion show, if they pay their own air­fare.

Sarah Van Brink takes home an or­ganic skincare pack, a cer­tifi­cate and a tro­phy. She beams with de­light.

When each child is in­tro­duced on­stage, a slo­gan is read out. Tiffany Li: “Splen­did life, beau­ti­ful me.”

Every­one was a win­ner at the awards cer­e­mony.

Adam Li put in a win­ning per­for­mance in the boys’ spy-themed sec­tion.

Ken­zey Cole­brook was named Miss Pauanui 2018 (Midget) in Jan­uary.

Cat­walk train­ing at Viva Dance stu­dio.

Sarah and her dad, Michael Van Brink.

Court­ney Smyth won the cat­e­gory for 8- to 11-yearolds.

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