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Father Knows Glitz

updated 11/01/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 11/01/2010 01:00AM

The morning of his daughter's beauty pageant, Lon Enos is racing to finish up some very painstaking work. Sitting at a hotel-room desk in Costa Mesa, Calif., Enos, a burly guy with a shaved head and tattoos, is using his big hands to delicately glue rhinestones to the cuff of 11-year-old Hali'a's western-wear outfit, which needs to be finished before he can get to stitching a bow tie onto her magic costume. How did he start his day? "Got up, dried her hair," he says. "The fake hair."

No, Enos is not a single dad. Nor did his wife, Chrissy-who spent the morning putting hot rollers in Hali'a's real hair-force him to do any of this. "It's just fun," the home remodeler, 36, says with a shrug. Hali'a's take? "It's cool."

Not everyone used to think so. Enos recalls that at his first pageant six years ago, "I was the outcast." But now, he is among a growing number of dads (several of whom have been featured on TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras) who are actively involved in turning their kids into pageant kings and queens. "Just like you see soccer dads and football dads, you see pageant dads," says Kim Colby, director of the Temecula, Calif.-based National Gold Coast Beauty Pageants. Some guys coach, choreograph or cheer, but others are wardrobe designers and wield hair and makeup brushes. A few-such as Dwayne Cottrell, 30, a convenience store assistant manager from Bentree, W.Va.-do it all. "You get to taste your creative side," explains the former high school show choir member and father of Jayla, 7. While Colby admits that some fathers "are really intense," compared to pageant moms, the dads "are always more relaxed."

What lures so many of them into the world of "pretty feet" isn't so much the glitz but something far simpler: "It's good bonding time," says San Clemente, Calif.-based Steve Lee, 34, whose pageant responsibilities include spray-tanning daughter Rylan, 5. Texas dad Bryan Latta, 35, has taken his daughter Lakyn, 2, onstage and also builds props for her. "My focus is spending time with the girls," says the project manager for a general contractor, also dad to Laney, 8. "But if I get to build stuff, why not?" In fact, when crafty dads pitch in, it saves the family money. "I'm not spending $6,000 for a dress when it takes me three hours to make one," says David Perez, 38, a school music director in Santa Rosa, Texas, who whips up pageant gowns for Ava, 4. "All the things that make her costumes and dresses unique-it's all by me."

And the kids love it. "I'm lucky my dad can do that stuff," says Hali'a. After she won last year's Junior Miss California Gold Coast title, his work wasn't over. Says Enos: "She told me I've got to build her a trophy room."

"pageants make us closer"

The week leading up to Hali'a's pageant, Lon Enos says he spent "at least six hours a day" sewing. It's a skill his mother taught him when he was a child-and now he uses her sewing box. His handiwork has attracted attention. Once, after Hali'a won a pageant in a dress Enos had spent 15 hours rhinestoning, "a lady in the parking lot offered us $700 for it," he recalls. (They didn't sell.) "Hali'a appreciates the time we put into it," adds Enos, who stresses he doesn't pressure his daughter to compete. "This is all about her."

"it's just another event"

Sales rep Eric Demyan, 43, says he provides Lindsay, 9, with financial and moral support: "You're just cheering for your kid, whether it's a football game or a pageant." To critics who argue that pageants exploit kids, he counters, "If you think of it like they're playing dress-up, and they're having fun, who cares?"

"I know all of her old routines"

Before he became a pageant dad, Alex Salazar never imagined he'd be lacing up his daughter's jeweled corset one day. "I grew up playing sports," says the cabinetmaker, 33, who now reads INSTYLE to help keep up on trends as he sketches and designs gowns for Emily, 6. "Some of my friends tease me," he confesses. "They say, 'We hope we don't see you onstage strutting your stuff.' " Too late: He and Emily have won a father-daughter title.

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