A woman appearing in the new reality series Showbiz Moms says her promised sympathetic portrayal ended up as a "pushy pageant mother."
CLEARWATER - They sit in a case that greets any visitor to the Tyes' cozy house, neatly lined on shelves in the family home-entertainment center, beneath lights that can make them sparkle at the touch of a button.
They are 5-year-old Emily Tye's endless array of beauty pageant crowns, 48 in all, that stand as evidence of the tot's success in an often-maligned activity: kiddie beauty contests.
Hoping to show how much effort it took to earn them, Emily's mom Debbie agreed last year to appear in a documentary under development by the Bravo cable channel and the World of Wonder production company.
Producers told her the program would be called Bravo Kids; showing how hard families work to get their children into show business, Debbie Tye said.
Now, after four months of filming, a stream of embarrassing promotional ads and a flurry of angry telephone calls to World of Wonder and Bravo, Debbie Tye, 35, is feeling like she's been snookered.
"They've really ripped us apart," Debbie Tye said of Showbiz Moms, the six-part reality TV series that resulted from the production. "We were specifically told this would be a positive look at pageantry. And I can almost guarantee that every family went into this thinking that their kids would get work and be shown to be hardworking. (Instead), they completely portrayed me as a pushy pageant mother."
Indeed, the first two episodes of Bravo's Showbiz Moms outline five parents who seem willing to do almost anything to get their children into show business, regardless of their talent or desire to participate.
There's Duncan Nutter, a driven dad who moved his wife and seven kids from a spacious home in Vermont to a two-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y., hoping to develop acting careers for each family member. No one but Nutter seems enthusiastic about the move, however, which requires living in cramped spaces and constant drilling by dad for auditions.
Meanwhile, Tiffany Barron is a newly married mom trying to help daughter Jordan, 14, find stardom as an actor. But Jordan is shown insulting her mother's efforts and slacking off on studying lines for an audition, leading to a lackluster performance.
Debbie Klingensmith of Kissimmee said her son is the one who is pushing to be famous, but later footage shows her orchestrating his stage presentation, running a meeting with an agent and arranging his appearance in singing contests. Kimberly Mosely-Stephens, a talent agent in Los Angeles, seems the only parent with perspective, shepherding her daughter Jordan, 8, while she performs on the Disney Channel sitcom That's So Raven.
It's a typically insouciant presentation for both World of Wonder (the studio behind edgy documentaries such as Party Monster and The Eyes of Tammy Faye) and NBC-owned Bravo, distinguished by zeitgeist-tapping hits such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
Representatives for both Bravo and World of Wonder declined to comment on Showbiz Moms to the St. Petersburg Times. However, executive producer Fenton Bailey told Daily Variety in March that the desire for fame led parents to participate.
"We live in a completely fame-saturated society," Bailey told Variety (which suggested calling the show America's Creepiest Home Videos). The producer said the impetus to earn fame for your children might seem a "logical consequence" of living in such an environment. "Learning how to be famous today is more useful than learning Latin," he said.
Barron wouldn't deny that she was hoping for a bit of extra notoriety for Jordan when they agreed to appear on Bravo's documentary. But she also echoed Debbie Tye's contention that producers said the project would be named Bravo Kids and would feature mostly positive portrayals.
Calling from her home in California, Barron was afraid to reveal much, saying that Bravo claimed a letter of participation signed by the families prohibited them from unauthorized communication with the media.
But her anger over the humiliation she has assumed is coming - Bravo hasn't given her an advance copy of the series, though it has sent DVDs containing the first two episodes to TV critics - prompted her to speak out.
"You're a teenager already . . . (asking yourself) "Who am I? What am I going to be?' You're body's changing . . . and now you have to deal with this?" said Barron, who was particularly upset with a news release from Bravo that called her daughter unappreciative, and said their story offered a "portrait of a life in chaos."
"You can't be a great skier in a day . . . it takes time and perseverance. And I think Jordan is still a baby in this industry," said Barron, who is shown in one clip introducing her daughter to former madam Heidi Fleiss. "Now I feel Jordan will never get a job in Hollywood again. I just don't want her to be blackballed."
In Debbie Tye's case, the series often presents her saying one thing and doing another.
"I don't want to be on that stage. . . . I never have," Debbie Tye said just before the camera shows her energetically acting out Emily's talent routines in the audience to cue her daughter while she's onstage. (Husband David appears only briefly.)
"I don't think Emily understands the difference between winning and losing," Debbie said moments before she and Emily are shown breaking into tears (at different times) upon learning the child had placed fourth in a competition.
"Pageants are like dog shows . . . we just don't have Best in Show," Debbie Tye tells the camera in an aside that could have been taken from the parody film of the same name.
Unfolding without narration, the show presents much of its context through occasional graphics, which tell viewers that Debbie Tye and her mother, Susan Caldwell, spend about $2,000 per pageant, or $20,000 a year on competitions.
Watching a tape of the first two episodes, Debbie Tye snuggled next to Emily on a couch in their living room, laughing off many of the uncomfortable moments and looking to her daughter for assurance.
A gregarious, charismatic child, Emily glowered only when her grandmother suggested they might stop taking her to pageants. Later, Debbie Tye and Caldwell admitted the attention and accolades children receive in such contests can grow addictive.
The worst moment for Debbie Tye came toward the end of the second episode, which featured footage of an exchange with her mother at a pageant when she thought their microphones were turned off.
"I'm just so sick of that family . . . because they win things that they don't deserve," Debbie Tye said as another child was shown accepting an award (moments later, Debbie Tye is shown pinning a tiara to Emily's head while calling the judges "a bunch of a----"). "She did not deserve this. . . . Her tan is terrible, her makeup is terrible, her modeling is terrible."
Acknowledging that the exchange wasn't their best moment, Caldwell blamed fatigue and the disappointment of losing after several parents remarked that Emily seemed a shoo-in for the title.
"We've seen other mothers throw an absolute fit if they don't win," said Caldwell, a widow of who lives next door to her daughter and granddaughter. "And if you've got a film crew that gets you up at 5 a.m. to film you all day . . . you're tired by the end of it."
Debbie Tye and Barron offer the same list of complaints often cited by those who are shown unflatteringly in documentaries or reality shows: editing that pushes separate events together or takes comments out of context; filming done when subjects are unaware; a finished product that is far more embarrassing than the subjects expected.
But Klingensmith, who hadn't yet seen the show, remained hopeful that the portrayals would improve past the first two episodes.
"Shane wasn't the best singer when they got a hold of him. . . . (Producers) knew that," said Klingensmith, explaining footage of her son singing off-key renditions of Hot, Hot, Hot by saying his voice was changing. "They said, "Let's show Shane and see if he can make any improvements.' There's six episodes . . . if I'm portrayed as pushy for six episodes, talk to me then."
And isn't it possible that despite whatever tactics producers may have used to gather their footage, the film captures painful truths?
Debbie Tye would only admit that there are times when she takes the pageants too seriously.
"Anything a child would do, you always wonder if it would be healthy for them," she said, shrugging off whether pageants demand too much of small children. "I feel at this point in her life, it has done her a world of good."
According to Tye, the only concession the family has won from producers is the elimination of footage showing Emily, clad only in her panties and a shower cap, crying as a friend dries her spray-on tan with a hair dryer. (Debbie Tye was afraid the footage would appeal to pedophiles.)
"I asked a couple of friends of mine, "Am I like this?' "Am I truly like this?' I don't think so," said Debbie Tye. "They're clipping and pasting together what they want people to see . . . not what really happened."
AT A GLANCE: Showbiz Moms airs at 9 p.m. Tuesday on Bravo.