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?
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.”
AND THE WINNERS ARE…
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.