If you’re going to appear on a show like Toddlers & Tiaras, you’re going to have to be a little weird.
We recently followed up on some of the stars of the hit TLC reality show, and in the process, we found Emerald Gordon Wulf and her mother, Chelsea. They appeared in several episodes, including her introductory episode, “Glamorous Beauties.” In contrast to many of the show’s participants, they seemed fairly grounded. They didn’t obsess over winning, and Emerald never threw a tantrum or seemed unhappy with her pageant prep.
“Even though we don’t do over-the-top makeup and hair, she continues to win because she’s just so exquisitely beautiful,” Chelsea said on the show. “My daughter loves pageants. She’s really reserved and kind of shy in real life, and then she gets on stage and just sort of goes wild and has a great time.”
In “Glamorous Beauties,” Emerald won her pageant, but according to her mother, that was beside the point. The family agreed to be on the show because they saw it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
They were right, as 3-year-old Emerald quickly won over viewers with her sweet personality and occasional weirdness. When asked how long she’d been doing pageants, she said 16 years. When asked what she wanted to be when she grows up, she said she intended to become a photographer—or an octopus.
These days, she’s closer to the octopus. Emerald, now 11, is a professional contortionist; depending on your views on contortionists, her routines are either downright amazing or incredibly disturbing (we’re somewhere in the middle). She effortlessly does backbends, handstands, and other feats of dexterity and strength, often wearing the same bright smile that helped her bring home countless pageant trophies.
We spoke with Chelsea and Emerald to find out what Toddlers & Tiaras was really like, how they got into pageantry, and why Emerald enjoys freaking people out at IKEA.
[Editorial note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
URBO: I want to start by asking a bit about Emerald’s time in the world of pageantry, and, obviously, how you ended up on Toddlers & Tiaras. Take me through that; how did you get started?
CHELSEA: The reason we were doing pageants was just because she was desperate for a chance to perform. Where we were, there just weren’t a lot of opportunities to perform.
So once I came across pageants, and she was doing them, it was about giving her a chance to be up in front of an audience and have fun. We weren’t doing it, necessarily, for the beauty aspect of it. Her just being natural up there, having a great time, and that was what we were looking for.
On the show, you said that you didn’t even bring up the concept of winning until you guys had been on the pageant circuit for a while.
Yeah, actually—it was pretty funny because her friends were the ones who were talking to her about winning. She had already been in pageants for several months at that point.
And she turned and she looked at me, and she said, “Mommy, what is winning?” And I had to explain to her—you know—normally, we’d go to a pageant, and we’d just say, “Em, just go do your best, and have fun,” but I told her, “Winning is when you go up there, and you get trophies, and money, and all of that stuff.”
And she was like, “Oh, I like that stuff, too!” (Laughs)
So Emerald obviously wasn’t thinking about it, but as a parent, did you care about winning before that point?
Well—I never wanted to see her get up there and not be received well by the audience or the judges, but no, I didn’t really care about her winning. And I also knew I had complete confidence in her.
I knew that as long as she was up there having a good time, that was going to show. There was no chance that she wasn’t going to do well.
People tend to have very strong opinions about shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and about pageantry in general. What misconceptions do you think people have about pageantry?
I think that they expect that kids have to be pushed in pageants. And I think that that’s a huge misconception because a kid who doesn’t want to be there is going to go on stage and cry and scream and do horribly and parents aren’t going to put their kids up there if the kids are doing horribly.
Like, nobody’s going to do that. They’re way too expensive for parents to continually put their kids in the pageant if they’re going to do badly. So I think most of those kids who are in pageants are there because they love to perform, and they really enjoy what they do. I think pageant kids tend to be a really happy bunch.
[Editorial note: She’s certainly not kidding about the costs. According to a piece from Nasdaq, parents might drop $400 to $500 on a low-end pageant, but at the higher levels, parents can easily spend $1,500 or more on costumes, makeup, hair, and other expenses. Many parents are from lower income brackets, and as costs add up, they’re forced to sacrifice in other areas of their lives in order to compete.
One Harvard undergraduate researcher set out to determine why parents bother with child pageantry. Many of them gave responses similar to what Chelsea told us; they believed that the pageants gave their kids confidence and allowed them to develop performance skills.
“She learns skills such as going out in a crowd, not to be shy, and to be herself while people are watching and focusing on her,” one mother noted.
Another parent shared: “I want my child to be aware that theres always going to be somebody better than her. It’s a hard thing to learn it was for me and I want her to start early.”
As Chelsea told us, her reasoning was simple: Emerald wanted to perform, and there weren’t many other opportunities.]
What was the experience like being on Toddlers & Tiaras? How did you get on the show? Did you approach them, or did they approach you?
The way that it worked for us is that pageant directors submitted you. She actually was submitted three times, and the third time was the time that they picked her. The first few times, they said, “I’m sorry, but she’s just not crazy enough.”
And I was like, “Well, I guess that’s a compliment!” But the third time, I guess we’d gotten officially crazy enough, or they’d finally seen enough of our crazy to let us be on the show.
EMERALD: And there was the chocolate bowling.
[Editorial note: Okay, this requires some explanation. To motivate Emerald, Chelsea and her husband created “chocolate bowling.” When Emerald did her best at her routine, Chelsea would bowl chocolate balls into her mouth over their (clean) floor. It’s cute, yes, but admittedly pretty weird. After all, weirdness was a necessary selling point; in a promo for the show, 3-year-old Emerald proudly declared, “My Mommy is crazy. My whole family is crazy.”]
CHELSEA: Yeah, we think it was the chocolate bowling that did it. They saw the unusual approach we took to practicing. They’re like, “Okay, well, maybe we can put that up there.”
They kind of want you to bring your crazy out, and we actually had a hard time with that because there really wasn’t a lot of crazy to be had.
What did they do to try to make you “bring the crazy out?”
One of the things that they really wanted us to say was, “My daughter’s going to the pageant, and she’s going to win.” And I refused to say that. That was just not the way that our family works, and so instead, I said something like, “We’re going to the pageant, and she’s going to do her best.”
Also, they were wanting my husband to talk about how horrible he felt seeing his daughter in makeup. Instead, he went on, and he said, “You know, I’ve been painting her toes since she was a year old when she wanted me to paint her toenails. Why would I have a hard time [with makeup]? This is a costume to her. I’m here to help her enjoy her life, and whatever it is she’s enjoying doing, I’ll be part of.”
When you saw the episode, did you feel that it was accurate and representative of what the experience was like?
We had an absolutely wonderful time on the show. Everybody was so nice to her, and she had a lot of fun. You know, she had seen a couple of the episodes before, and seeing from kids who were behaving in a way that she wouldn’t approve of—even at 3 or 4 years old—and when they came, she told them, “You’re not going to catch me acting like a brat on this show.” And they thought that was hysterical!
So yes, I think it was representative of who she was. She was not a bratty kid, she was very well behaved, and it was really important for her to show that she was well behaved. I think because of that, we had a really seamless, fun experience on the show, and I think that that’s what came across.
When her episode came on, you saw a kid who was really happy, who loves doing what she was doing—maybe a little weird, but she is a little weird (laughs). We were okay with that.
Are you still doing any pageantry, or did you get out of that?
No, actually, she only did it for about a year. I think that the pageant she did for Toddlers & Tiaras was one of her last ones. It was really a stepping stone for her to get more into modeling and acting, and it worked; she was able to get a lot of gigs back-to-back doing other things that she loved and getting to perform.
In other pieces we’ve done with people who were on game shows and reality shows, we’ve heard that being on one show really opens you up to producers—that when you’re on one, you get lots of offers rather quickly. Was that your experience?
Yes, that was exactly the experience we had. And that was one of the reasons that we were interested in doing this show. She loves to perform, and we had so few opportunities in San Antonio, we were hoping that she would be able to be marketed to a more global audience and have more opportunities. It worked exactly that way.
How soon after that did she get into contortion?
It wasn’t right away. Being in San Antonio, she started gymnastics. That was what was available for her. So she was in gymnastics for several years, and when we moved to California, she was able to start training as a contortionist. And before that, she was kind of working on doing contortion in Texas.
EMERALD: We didn’t really know it was contortion. We just thought it was, like—
CHELSEA: We thought she was just very bendy. We didn’t know, really. She was just completely self-taught, we didn’t really know what we were doing.
I watched her performance on Little Big Shots, and I thought the whole of the performance was really amazing. It wasn’t just one or two moves—it’s an entire routine, and it’s pretty engaging and entertaining all the way through.
[Editorial Note: Little Big Shots is a television show in which kids show off their talents. Emerald appeared on the Australian version of the show. You can check out her performance here.]
You know, I think that that absolutely comes from her experience doing pageants. When we first started working with a coach in California, she said, “I’ve seen you do pageants, let’s bring some of that into your routine and make it your own.”
And I think that’s exactly what she’s done, you know. She brings in her faces and the attitude and just the fun that she would always bring to her routines in pageants, and she puts that into her contortion routine.
What’s a typical day like? I know you said over email that you had training this morning. It sounded like a pretty long session.
CHELSEA: Well, she’s homeschooled, and so we work on school—she does public school online—and after that, she usually trains—
EMERALD: I train in the morning before you get up, and then I do school, and then I eat lunch, do some more school, and then more training. And then we have dinner, and then we go to bed (laughs).
CHELSEA: She is part of two circuses here in San Diego, and so she trains for both of them and goes back and forth. But typically, she spends about five hours training every day.
Emerald, do you ever feel exhausted or tired of that routine? It sounds like it could be pretty difficult at times.
EMERALD: Well, I’m exhausted, but I’m not tired of the routine, I’m just tired from working so hard.
CHELSEA: You know, we just got back from New York, and she was part of a 24-hour photo shoot. She had to be awake for almost 24 hours. So we’re still recovering from that.
I saw on your Instagram that you guys sometimes enjoy freaking people out—for lack of a better term, I guess—with the contortion. Any memorable stories of times where people didn’t expect you to, uh, do what you do?
EMERALD: Several times, we decided to scare some people. And so we went to IKEA, and I hid under the furniture and behind the desks, and chairs, and plants and stuff. And unfortunately, Mommy didn’t record it. But I scared this guy, like, half to death. And it was really funny! He started screaming and cursing and running away.
CHELSEA: She follows them in a backbend, so she crawls along the floor, backbend.
EMERALD: I‘m really fast, so I can basically run in backbend, so I chase them.
That’s absolutely terrifying. Have you guys gotten any requests from horror movie directors or anything?
EMERALD: Unfortunately, we haven’t yet, but I would love to do a horror movie. Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year, probably because I love scaring people a lot.
Yeah, you guys could have a lot of fun scaring trick-or-treaters.
CHELSEA: She definitely does do that. She loves scaring trick-or-treaters.
EMERALD: We always have a huge haunted house, and I can hide and scare them since they’re not expecting a contortionist.
What’s next for you guys? Do you have anything big on the horizon anytime soon?
CHELSEA: She’s got a lot of stuff coming up. She’s doing Macbeth right now in San Diego, and there will be a couple of performances of that in October, and then she’s got a performance in Los Angeles in November, and she is currently trying to break a couple of records in the Guinness Book of World Records and hoping to get on a couple of shows doing that.
What records are you trying to break?
We can’t say (laughs).
I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that they involve contortion.
You would be correct in that.
And to double back—no pun intended—you said she’s doing Macbeth?
Yeah, her circus is putting on the show Macbeth, and she is a creepy ghoulish creature. That’s what she was training for today, just working on her routine for Macbeth.
That sounds wonderful. If I was near California, I’d certainly check it out.
EMERALD: Where do you live?
I’m in St. Louis.
EMERALD: We haven’t been there yet.
Maybe if you’re ever in town, you can do an impersonation of the Arch and freak out some tourists.
CHELSEA: (laughs) I’m sure she could.