September 10, 2012 12:00 PM

Other reality-TV families have their California dream houses and Jersey McMansions. But the hottest stars of the moment live in a cramped white clapboard house in rural McIntyre, Ga., where the Christmas lights stay up year-round and the train tracks run alongside the backyard. Inside, it’s worn but homey. And other than her dad’s shrine to Dale Earnhardt, the only nod to decor is Alana Thompson’s impressive wall of pageant trophies and tiaras. There, the 7-year-old giddily spins in circles while posing for a PEOPLE photographer. “This is just her after going to school this morning, so you know she ain’t had no Go-Go Juice!” says her mother June, a.k.a. “Mama,” referring to the infamous mix of Red Bull and Mountain Dew that Alana guzzled on an episode of TLC’s child-pageant series Toddlers & Tiaras earlier this year. Suddenly 6-week-old baby Kaitlyn, daughter of Alana’s 18-year-old sister Anna, starts wailing, and before long Alana is doing the same. Of meltdowns like that one, June, 33, says later: “Alana’s only 7. She’s not gonna be happy, happy, joy, joy, all the time.”

Spunky, spunky, loud, loud, yes. “Alana is quiet when she’s asleep,” says her 12-year-old sister Lauryn. Most of the time, the country-fried half-pint otherwise known as Honey Boo Boo is determined to be the center of attention. “I’m famous because I’m on TV,” explains Alana, whose supersize personality and “Boo Boo”-isms (“A dolla makes me holla!”) launched a Toddlers spin-off, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, starring Alana and her proudly self-proclaimed “redneck” clan (see box).

With its mix of they-did-what? antics (a mud-pit belly flop contest, a pet pig who soiled the kitchen table) and farts-and-all family bonding, the series is a ratings hit. But the show has also drawn criticism for what many see as promoting southern stereotypes and an unhealthy lifestyle. “The world as we know it is about to end,” wrote The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s critic. As take-charge offscreen as on, June shrugs off the slams. “If you make people happy 100 percent of the time then let me shake your hand,” she says.

Is all this hillbilly hilarity for real? A lot of it is. The family has been mud-bogging (riding ATVs in the mud) for years; ditto for dining on roadkill (“The authorities call us and say, ‘Somebody hit a deer, you want it?'” says June). But before filming, they had never visited the Redneck Games, where Lauryn bobbed for pigs’ feet. And family members tell different stories at different times about whether Alana or producers came up with catchphrases such as “redneckonize.”

But it’s clear, on TV and in person, that there’s plenty of love amid the chaos. June acknowledges that parenting “is a learning experience. I don’t think anybody is a perfect parent all the time.” Just 15 when she had her oldest daughter, Anna, “I’m not gonna tell you it was all peaches and cream,” says the former warehouse worker, whose mother largely raised Anna. “You do what you have to do.” (Each of her four girls has a different father, and with the exception of Alana’s taciturn dad, Mike “Sugar Bear” Thompson, 40, who lives with the family, June says none of the other men is in the picture.)

The show has also sparked scrutiny of June’s legal woes, including a 2008 arrest for contempt of court that she says originated from a child support issue with her mom; that charge and an unrelated theft charge were both dismissed. Says June: “I don’t have anything to hide.” Then in March the controversial “Go-Go Juice” episode of Toddlers– with a video of Alana dancing on a bar top that surfaced online-drew the attention of child protection authorities in Georgia, who investigated the family. (No charges were filed.) “It was the worst four days of my whole entire life,” June says of the investigation. Today Alana relies on Pixy Stix candy for pageant-day energy boosts, says June, who says she tries to cook healthy dinners at home and teaches her kids that beauty comes in all sizes. “I tell my girls all the time that I would still love them if they were 1,000 lbs.,” she says, “and I know that if I weighed 1,000 lbs. they would still love me.”

Still active in pageants-June estimates that they spend $10,000 or so on Alana’s hobby per year-the family is trying to sock away the money they’ve earned from the show (rumored to be a few thousand dollars an episode, typical for a first season; TLC would only confirm that the family is paid). “Mike still works [as a contractor laying pipeline] seven days a week,” says June. “We’re living off the money we were living off before. Because you never know when this awesome ride may end.” When it does, Alana already has lots of big plans in place. “I want to be a doctor, a nurse, a hair saloner, a makeup saloner, work at Wal-Mart, work at Kmart, work at McDonald’s where I can eat all the chicken nuggets and work at a hotel so I can go swimming,” she says. “And I wanna be a mama too!” Next stop, Hollywood? No way, says June. “I don’t really think we fit in out there-they’re too richy and uppy for us. I’m happy with the way we are.”

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