WHIPPANY, N.J. — Mya Lamp stood among a group of 8-year-old girls, all with curled hair and puffy dresses, waiting for 50-year-old "Mr. Tim" to finish crooning so they could glide down the stage.
In the audience, Mya's parents, Teresa and John, anxiously waited for her turn to introduce herself and walk in her long pink dress adorned with lace and crystals.
"You can tell when someone's new," John said as one girl walked nervously, tightly holding onto her dress.
Other contestants showed "confidence" by talking about themselves in the third-person.
As soon as Mya's name was announced, her parents cheered loudly.
"It's like rooting for a team in sports," John said.
"Hello, my name is Mya Lamp coming to you from Pasadena, Maryland," Mya said over the microphone. "I am 8 years old and I love playing softball, writing stories and playing with my friends. When I grow up, I want to become a doctor to help save lives, help those who are suffering and help find a cure for cancer. Thank you."
Mya practiced that speech for weeks to prepare for the East Coast USA pageant in New Jersey — one of several day-long pageants she's competed in over the past year and a half.
Mya, who splits her time between her mother's and father's homes in Pasadena and Glen Burnie, was crowned Little Miss Maryland in February. She qualified to be the first to represent Maryland in the Little Miss United States pageant in July, where she made it to the top 11.
"It gives another opportunity for these girls to get involved in their community at a young age and meet our older queens and compete on a national stage," said Laura Eilers Clark, executive director of Little Miss Maryland.
She said her pageant will continue to grow, and hopes in the future the organization will add local qualifying competitions. Clark said the popularity of pageants is dependent on the cost.
"I think it's gone through a decrease, and families with children in that age range are focusing more on spending their money on other things," she said.
There are pageants all across the United States for competitors as young as 1 month old and as old as 50. Contestants participate in several categories throughout the day — at the East Coast United States pageant, Mya competed in interview, beauty, runway, swimsuit, fitness and patriotic categories.
The highest title a pageant girl can win is Ultimate Grand Supreme, which means a competitor has defeated every contestant in all age groups.
Mya has won cash and toys and, through Little Miss Maryland, she has the opportunity to participate in various events and even meet celebrities. At her father's home, she has a pink "princess" room full of crystal tiaras.
Mya mostly competes in natural pageants — she's only allowed to wear very minimal makeup, if at all.
Teresa, who also competed as a child, put Mya in her first pageant at Marley Station mall in Glen Burnie.
"It was very scary because I didn't know what it would be like, and I saw all the other girls go on stage and they were just having fun so that's what I did," Mya said.
Competing in pageants requires a time commitment between practicing and traveling for various pageants, the Lamps said. Being involved in pageants also can become a financial burden.
Entry fees alone can cost anywhere from $300 to $600 in natural pageants. Teresa saves money by coaching Mya herself, researching less expensive costumes, buying second-hand and borrowing from other girls.
"It can get expensive, but she loves it and has fun onstage," she said.
At about noon, Mya has completed what she considered a successful appearance in the interview portion of the pageant held at a hotel, where many contestants dress like Hilary Clinton and are asked about their goals.
Next up was seven more hours of running around backstage, getting several hair and costume changes, and finding time for last-minute practice.
Tammy Samuels of Virginia said she goes to pageants every weekend to do hair and makeup. At this pageant, she worked on more than 30 girls, and each hair style took about 20 minutes.
"It can get pretty stressful. It's a fun stress," Samuels said. "Sometimes the babies don't like getting their hair done. They don't want to sit and they hate the hair spray."
For the most part, Mya doesn't make a fuss about getting her hair done, but she doesn't like rollers.
"They hurt when you sleep in them because they're always in that right spot that you're supposed to sleep on," she said.
After enduring having her hair pulled in all directions, it was time to get dressed. Teresa laced her up in her gown and put on her shoes, and her grandmother helped put on the underskirt.
Mya and Teresa walked to another part of the hotel to practice — something she does between every category.
"Mya, barely touch your dress, remember?" Teresa said.
Registering for pageants has been Mya's choice, the Lamps said. After the pageant in New Jersey, she's decided to take a break until November.
"All of us every once and a while get to a limit and we have to say, 'I'm getting way too stressed out about this and I need to stop,'" John said.
Backstage, Mya and Teresa helped a new pageant girl prepare. Mothers panic when they don't have safety pins, and having someone there to offer a helping hand can be a big help.
While some pageant mothers are eager to help their daughters' competitors, others are more reticent.
"Oh yeah, there's cattiness," Teresa said.
After Mya won Ultimate Grand Supreme in one pageant, the Lamp family couldn't get their truck started. After getting it towed, they found out someone tampered with it.
"We've had some nastiness," John said. "Some of the girls, the parents let them go crazy and they act snobbish and disrespectful."
John said the kicking, screaming and yelling seen on the TV show "Toddlers and Tiaras," which follows children in the glitz pageants, isn't the norm. Glitz pageants require the girls to wear full makeup, fake hair, a spray tan and fake teeth. They also wear $3,000 costumes.
John said he does his best to raise Mya to be respectful, courteous and humble.
"I tell her all the time, 'I'll take every crown you have and throw them all away,'" John said.
Around 6 p.m., Mya had competed in five categories without much rest. After her belly dance-inspired routine in the fitness category, Mya wasn't happy with her "medium" performance. In the dressing room, she crossed her arms and looked toward the floor.
"I'm just tired at the end of the day," Mya said.
So is Teresa.
"It's a long day and you just keep going and going, it's crazy," she said.
But it's nothing Pixie Stix can't fix — at any pageant, girls can be seen walking around the hotels getting energy from the candy.
Mya finds the energy for the patriotic category, for which she walks slowly and smiles while "God Bless the U.S.A." plays in the background. Other girls shake their hips to songs like Miley Cirus' "Party in the U.S.A."
When she finished her routine, John and Teresa gave their daughter hugs and kisses. They must wait until the next day to hear the results. That night, Teresa said she was so nervous she didn't get any sleep.
Mya is crowned National Little Miss the next day. It's not the Ultimate Grand Supreme, but she got the highest score in her age group.
"It was great," Teresa said. "I'm glad she got the red sash like she wanted and she got higher than she did last year, so that's always great. I was happy."
Mya said she plans to continue to do pageants for "a long time."
"We'll have to get a bigger place for your crowns," Teresa said.