It's Toddlers And Tiaras, European-Style

A casting call for kids in the Swiss Alps offers a somewhat softer image than the all-or-nothing American children's paegants.

Looking princessy
Looking princessy
Olga Yurkina

VERBIER - “Hello, what would you like?”

“Curls!” the seven-year-old princess answers decisively as she sits in front of the mirror.

Next to her, another young model patiently waits while her hair is being straightened. Never mind the early hour and the snowstorm, Verbier’s movie theater is full of children. It looks like a Christmas show in the Swiss Alps town: dozens of balloons, a buffet filled with yummy treats and a whole lot of impatient children dressed in their Sunday best.

“Loic… Angel… Rihanna,” the organizer takes a roll call. The candidates, with their parents, parade in front of the photographers, smiles even brighter than the flashes. The contestants pose for the cameras – perhaps even too professionally for their age, except maybe for the toddlers, like Loic. He dismounts his rocking horse and runs through a forest of giant tripods before being caught by his mother. Next to him, the curly-haired princess sits on a red beanbag and flashes her winning smile. The stakes are high – if she does win this pageant, she will be sent for a photo shoot in Marrakesh, Morocco, for Swiss magazine Babybook.

Five years ago, Babybook editor in chief, Richard Blat, launched its first ever casting for children, from newborns to 12 years old, which has now become one of the biggest in Europe. The idea was to choose models for the magazine without having to go through professional agencies, and to turn what is usually a tedious affair into something fun for the whole family.

“This allows us to widen our panel of potential models and to save the children from endless waits in the agencies’ hallways. It’s a wonderful experience for the whole family,” explains Blat.

The festive atmosphere seems to have won over many parents. Julien and Delphine came with their 20-month-old son, Liam: “We’re not here to win the casting, we’re here to have fun and enjoy this event as a family.” Brown-eyed, with golden hair, Liam seems interested in everything. Isn’t a day like this a bit too tiring for him? “He smiles all the time because he likes being with us and taking pictures, he’s having fun,” reckons Delphine. “And we don’t live far from here.”

The Babybook casting charter enforces strict rules: casual clothing, no makeup, no heels – everything has to be as “natural” as possible. Bling is banned, unlike the American pageants where mothers dress their child to look like Barbie dolls and put them on top-model diets. “I banned everything that I consider to be contrary to my own normal parenting values,” says Richard Plat.

Jury president Emmanuel de Brantes adds, “We don’t want show-children who are living out their parent's dreams.” The jury tries to get an idea of the contestants’ real personalities – being photogenic is not enough, the children have to be sociable too.

“Excuse me, how do I get interviewed?”

What’s the best way to act natural under the spotlights? “Just be yourself. We choose a pose and the photographs tell us how to improve it, it’s their job,” explains 10-year-old Eva. The fact that Babybook promotes a more “natural” look reassures the parents who are hesitant about the idea of taking their children to casting calls. Pamela, the mother of 12-year-old Debora explains: “We want to protect our children and I like the fact that this competition is fun. But, I warned my daughter: we are going to take some pictures but if you are not selected, it doesn’t mean anything, it just means they were looking for a different profile.” Debora definitely has the natural charm the jury is looking for. Even if her radiant eyes show hints of exhaustion, she is still smiling. The casting was her idea but she doesn’t want to be a model. “I like fashion and haute couture, I’d like to be a designer. This event is an opportunity to immerse myself in this world.” So, what did she think? “It was nice, I met a lot of people. I felt the pressure of the competition, but I tried to shake it off. It’s a fun experience, and it should stay fun.” Aside from that, she doesn’t have big plans for her future. Others are more determined, though.

“Excuse me, how do I get interviewed?” the audacious young boy is called Steven, he’s 11 and has a very clear idea of what he wants to do when he grows up: play in commercials and movies. He loves shows and hopes the Marrakesh shooting session will bring him closer to his dream. He’s a regular here, he’s attended all five Babybook castings, and has a secret technique: “get to know the photographer and the jury.” Being a celebrity doesn’t scare him: “I only see the positive aspects, and if there are a couple of negative aspects, I’ll just learn to live with them.”

Cristina Cordula, a former model who is a member of the jury has some advice: “Obviously, you shouldn’t throw your child into the fashion business without giving him solid bases such as education and good family values. It would be dangerous to sacrifice everything for a few years of glory.”

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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