“I am still bleeding a little,” Hannah Neeleman said.
She was sitting in front of a glowing ring light in a Las Vegas hotel room, cradling a newborn, as a makeup artist hovered close by, eye-shadow brush in hand.
Two weeks after giving birth to her eighth child, Ms. Neeleman, 33, said she no longer needed to wear postpartum diapers. That was convenient, since she was about to take part in the swimsuit round of the Mrs. World beauty pageant, an annual competition for married women from around the globe.
“A lot of us have kids, and I don’t think there’s any shame in showing I just had a baby,” Ms. Neeleman said. “Like, I’m not going to have a perfectly flat stomach.” The beauty team draped a blanket over the infant, Flora Jo. “She’s breathed in a lot of hair spray,” she joked, “but other than that she’s stayed safe.”
Ms. Neeleman, a Juilliard-trained former ballerina, is known more as a social media star than a pageant queen. Online, she goes by the name Ballerina Farm, and millions of people watch her almost daily videos depicting her life in the countryside 30 miles from Salt Lake City.
In 2021, she had just over 200,000 Instagram followers. By Jan. 21, the day of the pageant, the count had surged to nine million, who regularly tune in to watch her milking her cow, Tulip, and baking sourdough bread in a vintage green stove she found on Craigslist. The stove is named Agnes.
The brand — and Ballerina Farm is as much a brand as it is a person — is wholesome and bucolic. In addition to being the star of this social media show, Ms. Neeleman lists herself as Ballerina Farm’s founder and chief executive. There is no cake she can’t bake, no number of children or livestock she can’t handle. Her husband, Daniel, makes cameos as the gourmand who happily wolfs down whatever she cooks.
Ms. Neeleman is something like a Utah version of Joanna Gaines, who runs the Magnolia lifestyle empire with her husband, Chip. And like the Gainses, whose moments of spousal bickering help make them all the more appealing, Ms. Neeleman lets her viewers see her flaws. “I wish you could smell my house right now — it smells so good,” she joked in a recent video that showed her holding a smoking tray of potatoes she had left in the oven too long.
In a polarized time, Ms. Neeleman is simultaneously one of the most popular social media stars in the country and a lightning rod for criticism. Is she, as her fans would have it, a woman who has made the commendable decision to stay home, raise the kids and support the family farm? Or is she, as her detractors would argue, someone who uses social media to push for a return to traditional gender roles while glossing over the privileges that allowed her to have such a lifestyle in the first place?
Like many online influencers, Ms. Neeleman has monetized her popularity. FedEx sponsored a video last year that showed the family getting ready for a “last-minute vacation” to Hawaii. As part of the preparations, Ms. Neeleman was express-mailing some Ballerina Farm meat products to their vacation house.
Fans can buy dehydrated packets of her sourdough starter — the starter is named Willa — for $18. Other offerings include croissants, a gingham apron and a set of enamel dishes. A Ballerina Farm store and cafe are in the works, as is a dairy operation, said Ms. Neeleman, who regularly posts videos that show her drinking raw, unpasteurized milk.
Her online followers, which include the actors Jennifer Garner and Hilary Duff, are loyal, vocal and legion. They are rivaled in volume by those who try to poke holes in her sunny depictions of family life on the farm. Among other things, these critics call her a “tradwife,” internet shorthand for traditional wife.
In Las Vegas, Ms. Neeleman said she was unfamiliar with the term. “I think everyone’s mission is different. I find so much joy and satisfaction in being with my kids,” she said, adding that many of her fellow Mrs. World entrants were doctors and lawyers.
Some commenters note the family’s financial status, pointing out that Ms. Neeleman’s father-in-law, David Neeleman, is the founder of multiple airlines, including JetBlue. A few also claim that Ms. Neeleman must employ a small child care army, hidden offscreen. She maintained that she had no nannies, though she said she had other employees, including farm workers, a personal assistant, a babysitter for “date night” and a teacher to home-school five of her children in a “one-room classroom.”
A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Ms. Neeleman occasionally references her faith, but her posts are not overtly religious. Neither does she weigh in on political candidates or the issues of the day. Her TikTok and Instagram work is characterized by a can-do attitude, presenting a woman who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves and get her hands dirty on the farm — and then take part in a beauty pageant.
Ms. Neeleman said she thought, briefly, about not entering the Mrs. World competition. She and her husband prayed on it. “He was like, ‘God, let Hannah know what she needs to do. Either let her know that it’s OK not to go, or give her the strength and the healing to get her there,’” she said.
After she had reached her decision, a hairstylist stopped in at the family’s house in Kamas, Utah, to freshen up her highlights. An Instagram video showed the dye going down the drain of the same bathtub where Ms. Neeleman had labored days earlier, unmedicated and surrounded by her family.
“She just kind of slipped out,” she said of her eighth child. “She was nearly born in the toilet.”
After the hotel-room makeup session, Ms. Neeleman joined the 37 other Mrs. World contestants in a preliminary round. As Buster Poindexter’s “Hot Hot Hot” blasted out of the speakers, they crisscrossed the stage of the Westgate Resort and Casino in aqua-colored swimsuit and platform heels.
Mrs. Russia and Mrs. Ukraine passed close to each other. They flashed smiles and locked eyes with the panel of judges in the front row, which included a male marketing executive for a dental company, the wife of the lead singer of the band Creed and the 2020 Mrs. World.
The sash worn by Ms. Neeleman was emblazoned with the words “Mrs. American.” That let the judges know she was from the United States and that she had won last year’s Mrs. American pageant. Also onstage, somewhat confusingly, was a woman wearing a sash that read “Mrs. America.” “Mrs. American” and “Mrs. America” are separate pageants, each run by an 86-year-old mogul, Elaine Marmel, who is also in charge of the Mrs. World competition.
After Ms. Neeleman was crowned Mrs. American last summer, she went viral in conservative circles because of the answer she gave onstage to a question about female empowerment: “After I hold that newborn baby in my arms,” she said, “the feeling of motherhood and bringing them to the earth is the most empowering feeling I have ever felt.”
To qualify for Mrs. World, competitors must be older than 18 and a “natural born female,” according to the pageant’s guidelines. The women are not required to be married to a man, Ms. Marmel said, noting a past lesbian, Mrs. Vermont.
“We’re down to earth,” Ms. Marmel said. “We’re not the cure for cancer. And, you know, we don’t ask them to build a hydrogen bomb. It’s a way for them to dream. To be somebody a bit more special.”
Tickets to the two-day event cost $160. Printed program books sold for $20 at the door. During the competition, the women were introduced with bios that included, among academic and philanthropic credits (and the fun fact that Mrs. Ireland can leg-press 600 pounds), how many children they have and how many years they have been married.
Ms. Neeleman went to the event with her older sister, Micka Wright Perry, who helped with the baby as Ms. Neeleman shuttled between rehearsals and outings, including a group visit to an exhibit on Princess Diana. Ms. Perry had a baby of her own in tow, the 4-month-old Goldie, her tenth child.
Even with the packed schedule, the days in Sin City gave Ms. Neeleman a chance to bond with the family’s newest addition away from the chaos of Ballerina Farm. “We sleep together, just her and I,” she said. “It’s been really sweet.” On Instagram, she posted a photo of Flora Jo’s umbilical cord stump, which had fallen off in the hotel room.
While some of Ms. Neeleman’s online fans praised her decision to compete, hailing her as a super mom, others questioned whether she was setting an unreasonable standard for other postpartum women, or if it was unwise to take a newborn on an airplane and into a crowded casino.
“A pageant is not like I’m running a marathon,” Ms. Neeleman said. “I’m literally in a chair, getting pampered, mostly.”
That pampering does comes at a cost. The entrance fee for Mrs. World was around $2,500, according to Lucía Mendieta (that is, Mrs. Ecuador). There are also travel costs, and the contestants must provide most of their own gowns and other outfits. Maureen Mink, who competed as Mrs. Navajo Nation, estimated that she had spent $75,000 annually on pageants. Some contestants said they had received support through sponsors and pageant organizations. The winner of the Mrs. World crown does not receive a monetary prize.
After the swimwear portion, the 38 women donned glittering dresses, many with flowing capes. As they swanned across the stage, the emcee informed the audience of the causes and organizations they supported. During the course of the pageant, the list included cancer screenings, women’s empowerment, mental health awareness, blood donation and the right-wing advocacy group Moms for Liberty.
“Know your food — know your farmer!” the emcee declared as Ms. Neeleman appeared in a one-shoulder, champagne-colored dress.
In the audience, family members and supporters whooped and cheered. There were flags and air horns. Ms. Neeleman’s family, including her parents, her husband, and their seven other children, held signs in the front row.
A key part of the pageant took place behind closed doors, when the contestants met with the judges. Ms. Neeleman said they had asked her if she would be able to balance the duties of a Mrs. World crown-winner with her busy personal life. In addition to the new baby, her father is dying of cancer.
“Knowing that the end is probably close for him, and then having this newborn baby and welcoming this life into our family, it’s just been so rich with emotion,” she said. “I think that’s what a Mrs. World is. It’s a woman that wears so many hats.”
During the pageant’s costume portion, each woman donned a garment symbolizing her home country. For many contestants, that meant dressing as an oversize bird.
Mrs. America and Mrs. American both dressed as eagles. Mrs. Brazil was guised a sparkly blue macaw. A thunderbird, a hummingbird, and a stork (complete with a plastic baby) rounded out the group. In a departure from the avian, Mrs. India opted for a snake costume, with a train so long that it knocked over a microphone stand. Despite the flub, she went on to win the “Most Exotic” costume award.
Tasked with winnowing the field down to 17 semifinalists, the judges filled out score sheets for each part of the competition. On Sunday, Jan. 21, Ms. Neeleman attended church with her family. That evening, along with her fellow contestants, she returned to the stage for the three-hour final round.
The audience had doubled in size since the semifinals and now comprised, in addition to family members, a royal court’s worth of past and present beauty queens in formal wear, many clutching cocktails from the casino’s bar. The departing Mrs. World, Sargam Koushal, gave a speech describing the pageant as “giving married women hope that life does not end after marriage” to chuckles from the crowd.
Before the semifinalists were announced, Ms. Neeleman and the other hopefuls performed a dance routine to “Viva Las Vegas.” Ms. Neeleman was front and center, the ballerina of Ballerina Farm on full display, as Baby Flora Jo lay quiet in her stroller.
Ms. Neeleman made it to the next round, but not much beyond that. After her name was not among those called to progress to the top six, Flora Jo began to cry, as if on cue.
Mrs. Germany ended up winning the crown. She was all smiles, with no tears, as she curtsied to the crowd. The 37 contestants, including Ms. Neeleman, swarmed the pageant queen in a giant, standing hug. Family members and fans stormed the stage to take photos.
After a while, Ms. Neeleman slipped away from the sequins and selfies. It was time to breastfeed.