September 26, 2011 12:00 PM

When Madisyn Verst arrived at a recent PEOPLE photo shoot, she’d just completed her first day of kindergarten and was dressed as she usually is for school: blonde hair pulled into pigtails, wearing a colorful matching top and leggings. Then her transformation began. The 5-year-old rural Tennessee native, who began competing in beauty pageants at just 6 months old, sat patiently while a makeup artist and hairstylist began the same intensive three-hour makeover that they typically give Madisyn on the pageant circuit. “She has an inner and outer confidence I can only attribute to [competing in pageants],” says her mom, Lindsay, 29. “On pageant days, she is raring to go.”

Madisyn and Lindsay aren’t the only ones who are getting worked up. With TLC’s runaway reality hit Toddlers & Tiaras sparking intense debate-nearly 15 years after the unsolved murder of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey first thrust child pageants into the national spotlight-we canvassed pageant organizers, participants, critics and child psychologists for their views on the controversy surrounding the subjects of this week’s cover story. Wendy Dickey, who ignited outrage on the Sept. 7 episode of Toddlers in which she dressed her 3-year-old daughter Paisley like Julia Roberts‘s prostitute character in Pretty Woman, says pageants are “unfairly scrutinized” compared to dance or gymnastics competitions. Do you agree? Disagree? As for Madisyn, she left our shoot exactly as she arrived: wig and false eyelashes removed, face wiped clean of makeup and ready to go get ice cream with her mom and grandma. Just like any other 5-year-old.


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