The Curious Fame Of 7-Year-Old Reality Star Eden Wood
Having retired from beauty pageants at the age of 6, Wood is now the star of her own show with a legion of adult fans. But is her fame exploitative or progressive?
Everything about Eden Wood is exaggerated. Thick coats of foundation and nearly neon streaks of pink blush exaggerate her creamy complexion. Highlighter orange shadow exaggerates her eyes. Tutus in every color, sparkly fascinators, cowgirl boots, and tailored, strapless lamé dresses exaggerate her wardrobe. Slang words like “yo” exaggerate her speech. Sassy forearm waves ending in a snap exaggerate her gestures. Can upon can of hairspray exaggerates her hair.
If she sounds like the perfect reality star, she is — except for that nagging thing that defines her more than anything she wears, says, or does: she’s only 7 years old. You’d probably feel much more comfortable hearing the things she says come out of Real Housewife of Atlanta Nene Leakes’s mouth.
After becoming arguably the most famous child pageant star since JonBenét Ramsey through appearances on Toddlers in Tiaras, Wood now has her own show on the gay-targeted Logo network called Eden's World. “When I saw [the pilot] — of course I’m very familiar with who Eden Wood is — I saw it and I thought about it and I said, it’s great drama, it’s great heart, it’s a great story for us,” says Brent Zacky, Logo’s head of programming development and an executive producer of the series. Premiering after RuPaul’s Drag Race, the show’s ratings doubled from the first to third episodes. Zacky cites the relationship between Eden and her mother as one of the show’s greatest strengths: “If that was a weird, off-kilter relationship, I don’t think the show would have been appealing.”
The premise of Eden’s World is: Eden and her mom Mickie help aspiring child pageant winners prep for their contests, while simultaneously trying to jumpstart Eden's non-reality television entertainment career. They travel a lot, mostly between New York and the pageants in towns like Hudson, Wisconsin and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. There is a lot of fighting between Eden’s manager Heather Ryan and publicist Andrew Sullivan, both of whom are eager to score the girl the most deals, parts, auditions, fame, and, ultimately, dollars, thus “beating” the other. They trot her from Broadway audition to record label meeting to child pageant somewhere in flyover country trying to make her an even bigger success story. If it sounds very bizarre, that’s because it is. Mickie insists, "She’s such a normal kid, and I don’t want her to lose that. And if we can’t have this dual existence I wouldn’t be doing this. I don’t want a tragedy. I don’t want a child star.”
But the many possible outcomes for Eden — both positive and negative — are what make the show so fascinating. I gather the happiest ending for Team Eden looks something like this:
1. Turn Eden into a Broadway star with a recording contract. Ultimately move her from the stage to a screen (small or big would probably do) that involves scripted performance.
2. Get Eden endorsement deals and product lines. Everyone knows this is where the real money is for stars. Otherwise, why would Justin Bieber bother with the fragranced hair mist and purple leopard weekender bag?
3. Get Eden off reality TV without diminishing — and ideally, increasing — her fame. This will be especially challenging: Stars go from music/film/television to reality television, or from reality television to product lines, book deals, and more reality television. The other way around is a bridge none of them seem to have cracked yet. (Except for Analeigh Tipton from America’s Next Top Model, who has embarked on a bright acting career, though most people probably have no idea she was booted from that show to begin with.)
4. Not screw Eden up along the way. Which might be the toughest thing of all.
“I got pregnant with Eden on a cruise when I was 40,” says Mickie Wood on the phone from her and Eden’s home in Taylor, Arkansas, which she seldom mentions without also citing its population of 566. She was a teacher for 25 years before resigning a year ago. “I always said if we had a little girl or boy I would homeschool before I had a clue that we’d have a little celebrity.”
It’s a good thing that was her plan, because Eden’s life has never allowed for something as mundane and scheduled as school in an actual school. She was born on February 18, 2005, and started competing in pageants when she was just two months old. She didn't become a big deal until appearing on Toddlers and Tiaras right after turning four. “I did not seek out Toddlers in Tiaras,” Mickie says. “Somebody in New York had seen Eden’s involvement in pageants and contacted us.” After a couple seasons of Toddlers & Tiaras appearances, Eden decided to retire from pageants at age 6. She even says in a promo for Eden’s World, “What made me want to retire was that I was ready to move on” — putting her in that rarefied strata of 6-year-olds who have retired from something and know the word for it.
Her work on Toddlers & Tiaras caught the eye of New York-based publicist Andrew Sullivan, 23, now one of the stars of Eden’s World. Captivated by her “quirky, funny, crazy humor,” he contacted Mickie and Eden, and began working with them in September of last year before New York Fashion Week. He helped Eden land a gig modeling for girls’ footwear company Cicciabella, and a slot in their Fashion Week runway show. (Sullivan also reps other reality stars and NFL stars, promotes for nightclubs in New York, and has a line of tee-shirts called Go Glitz or Go Home.)
Shortly thereafter, Go Go Lucky Entertainment production company began talks with the Woods about a show. The pilot taped in January, and Logo quickly snatched up the series, which premiered six weeks ago after Drag Race. This made sense as both programs include plenty of fancy pageant walking, fancy pageant dressing, and general over-the-topness — but in Drag Race, the sparkly people are adults, and in Eden’s World, the sparkly people are children.
Whether children or grown-ups, reality stars tend to share the goal of transcending reality television and becoming actresses or singers. Yet the transition from reality television to mainstream entertainment probably won’t be much easier for a kid like Eden than a grown woman like Nene Leakes. Nonetheless, Lacky remains confident in the series’ appeal, whether or not Eden moves beyond her reality-based fame: “She’s a character who’s being true to herself and following her dream and despite what all the haters say she’s going to go out and do it. I think it’s a universal story of having a dream and wanting to reach it and trying to be yourself.”
Some of those haters have been loyal Logo fans, Sullivan surmises, unhappy with the broader scope of the network’s programming that is (allegedly) less overtly gay. “I question the supporters of Logo in the past, who aren’t supporting our show because they’re asking for acceptance from the world, yet they can’t accept a 7-year-old girl,” he says.
“I’m a little biased because I’m on a TV show with Eden. But I also am a gay guy, and I feel my life as a gay guy and the role I play on Eden’s World is a lot more positive than what Logo shows had on in the past,” Sullivan continues. “If I were the parent of a gay kid I’d rather have my kid watch Andrew Sullivan helping a child star than the A List throwing drinks in each other’s faces.
Sullivan is not the only gay presence on the show (one episode featured a gay pageant coach and self-described “female illusionist” — a.k.a. drag queen — for instance). And when she’s dolled up for most of her scenes, Eden wears almost as much makeup, fake hair, feathers, and sparkly clothes as many of those drag queens on Drag Race. Simon Doonan, author of Gay Men Don’t Get Fat, creative director of Barneys, and child pageant enthusiast, says he understands Eden's appeal. “The gays can all relate to the manic theatricality of child pageants. Eden is an icon in her world,” he writes in an email. “She is the Shirley Temple-ish of the 21st Century. Go Eden!”
But what is surely more interesting to the broader public, gay or not, is not the gayness of the show. It’s Eden: the 7-year-old reality star of her own show. Though Sullivan and Mickie describe Eden’s fanbase as girls from the ages of around 10 into their 20s, this is clearly adults’ entertainment — kids’ shows don’t air at 10 p.m. on Logo.
So, is Eden's World sick? Exploitative? Creepy?
Mickie insists Eden would not be doing any of the things she’s doing if she didn’t want to do them. She says Eden has not made a million dollars yet, but already has a college fund stored away. “I want her to grow up with the concept that she is a normal little girl, and it’s not all this hoopla because she’s on TV,” Mickie says. “But people don’t want to know about that — they want to see the fancy life.” It’s true — I’d have far less interest in the show if Eden wasn’t a living, breathing miniature Barbie Doll. If you want to watch people playing in the dirt, there’s always Swamp People.
Eden always travels with her mother or father, and has a teacher and computer on set with her so she can complete the schoolwork mandated by law. (Sullivan says she can’t quite read yet, but she’s getting there.) Mickie also shields Eden from negative publicity. When she’s not filming Eden’s World or holding doors at the airport for little old ladies or doing a voiceover part for an animated children’s series or recording songs, she’s not reading mean comments sure to end up on posts like this — she’s at home on her farm, eating Cheerios, refusing to bathe, and playing with her pets. “It’s really a small-town, easy-going laid-back existence,” Mickie says. “I sit outside and she jumps on the trampoline. We have a free-range guinea pig, and she’ll put it on the trampoline and jump with her. Her cat has six kittens and she goes out there in the rain and fishes the kittens out of the four-wheeler."
But Eden still seems to be exposed to plenty of adult crap, like the fights between her manager and publicist (we see Mickie diffuse their spats in basically every episode). Eden even tells the audience occasionally that the adults who are yelling at each other need to get along.
I asked Dr. Robyn Silverman, a child and teen development specialist and author of Good Girls Don't Get Fat: How Weight Obsession Is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It, if Eden wanting to do the show was a good enough reason for her to do it. When I was 7 I probably wanted to eat ice cream for every meal, but my parents never let me even though it was what I wanted. “Children make decisions based on the here and now. It’s very impulsive — things are either black or white,” Silverman says. “It’s not, ‘I want to do it but here are my reservations.’ This is all this girl knows." So, why would she say no?
“We think of it as strange because we’re private people," Silverman continues. "But when you’re exposed at 2 or 3 or whatever it was for this little girl, it becomes normalized. What we find intrusive they may just find commonplace.”
Silverman says there is a healthy way to raise a child star: parents should teach them to value character over appearance; parents should advocate for their children’s best interests when other people see them as a paycheck (in Eden’s case, perhaps the folks at Beach Bum tanning who wanted her to put her name on a line of self-tanner); and parents should consider the question of whether their daughter or son would be embarrassed by their exposure 10 years down the line. “If they’d laugh at it and think it’s cute, then you may be on the right path, but if they’re looking back and going, ‘Oh my goodness, I can’t believe someone said yes to this and broadcast it for all the world to see,’ you better take a look at what you’re doing and about face.”
Not all child stars are doomed to end up in rehab, like Drew Barrymore and Lindsay Lohan. Jonathan Lipnicki, the cute little boy in the Jerry Maguire movie, went in and out of acting into his teens, eventually emerging as a hot buff man. Kristen Stewart appeared in Panic Room at the age of 9 but went on to become a bona fide movie star whose greatest scandal is occasionally wearing sneakers on the red carpet. But none of them started on reality television like Eden. Child reality stars are such a new breed of celebrity that we don't really have any examples of what could happen to them a decade in the future.
Mickie certainly seems like she cares for her child. She doesn’t come off as a crazy stage mom in our conversation, which, she knows, is how many observers see her. Dr. Jane O’Connor, senior lecturer and researcher in Childhood Studies at Wolverhampton University in the U.K. and author of The Cultural Significance of the Child Star suggests that Mickie might actually be more forward-thinking than the rest of us in terms of how she sees her child’s role in the world. “People generally feel uncomfortable about children dressed as mini-adults, working, earning money, and having a public profile because these don’t fit with the dominant Western construction of childhood, which is largely protectionist and sees children as innocent, pure, passive,” she explains in an email. “This could explain the way in which child stars and former child stars are often vilified in the media — the plethora of ‘child star gone bad’ stories. It is almost as if these individuals are being publicly punished for defying the boundaries of childhood put in place by society.”
But O’Connor also highlights the show’s potentially disturbing side. “If we look at how the ideals of feminine beauty have evolved over the last few decades it is clear that the ‘perfect’ woman has been getting ever skinnier and younger. In this respect the beauty pageant girls such as Eden now represent the epitomy of female beauty — after all, you don’t get younger or thinner than a pre-pubescent child,” she explains. But there is an appeal in this as well: “Children this age are not sexually challenging for adult women — they aren’t going to ‘steal their husbands,’ etc., so their perceived or projected innocence makes them a safe spectacle to be consumed and marveled over.”
No long-term studies have been done on children like Eden who compete in pageants as young children, so we don't really know the consequences of a pageant childhood for adults. But researches do know that putting too much emphasis on personal appearance can lead to things like depression and eating disorders.
Doonan, for one, is not worried about little Eden. “Kids who are deprived of attention (I can hear you! I'm right here) end up spending the rest of their lives in a desperate quest to get it,” he says. “Eden will probably be a very chill grown-up.”
Eden teaches New Yorkers how to pageant walk.