Not Your Average Beauty Queen
The confusion begins with young people. Melissa Schmidlin Cronin '94 said during her 1990 reign as Oregon Dairy Princess, she received "more marriage proposals from second-graders than I can count." The students were awe-struck by their first encounter with royalty. "They'd always ask me, 'Can I come live in your castle with you?'"
Many adults are confused, too. Even those who have attended a rodeo or have seen the princesses and queens waving from parade floats sometimes question what the women are doing, and why. Something about the contrast between the tiara and the cowboy hat leads people to wonder: Is it just a beauty contest? What are the rewards? And what do these women have to do with farm life, rodeos, or the dairy industry?
A number of women from the Pacific community have been named princesses or queens for Oregon festivals and rodeos. Five students and alumni share their experiences and offer insights that may help to eliminate a bit of the confusion.
The women made it clear that their competitions were not beauty contests. They took part in lengthy application processes - not swimsuit or evening gown competitions. "There was no stress on us to fit into a size six or anything like that," said Cronin. "They wanted to know about you, not what you can and cannot do in heels."
Each application process is a little different, however. Emily Miller '07, who was Tillamook (Ore.) County Rodeo Queen in 2005, was interviewed and tested on horsemanship, but she also had to model an outfit, though she said the competition's emphasis was on knowledge of horses, rodeos, and current events.
When Kellie Twigg '04 became the 2004 Oregon Dairy Princess, she said appearance was one factor considered by the judges, who used a point system to make their selection. Twigg was also interviewed by a panel of judges, gave a speech, and presented a one-person commercial she created especially for the competition.
Twigg's commercial had a "Milk: My Fountain of Youth" tag line and showed the difference between two elderly women portrayed by Twigg: one who drank soda, had bad teeth, and a hunched back; and one who drank milk, had great teeth, and was ready to play tennis. In Cronin's commercial 14 years earlier, she also focused on the power of milk, which she demonstrated by using her Tae Kwon Do skills to break a board.
The commercials get to the heart of the competition, at least for would-be Oregon Dairy princesses. Applicants are expected to understand the dairy industry and must be able to communicate that knowledge in an engaging manner. Cronin's sister, Emily Schmidlin Jansen '99, was the Oregon Dairy Princess in 1995. "You hear so much that it's a beauty contest," she said. "It's not. It's about being a good ambassador for the state of Oregon. The basis is knowledge and communication, and representing family farms."
The competitions do not require the women to be raised on farms. However, the women attracted to the positions tend to have a personal history connecting them to farm life.
Twigg was raised on a dairy farm south of Hillsboro, Ore., and now works for Blooming Nursery in Cornelius, Ore. Growing up, she said, "we were always outside, building forts, riding horses, and raising animals for 4-H," but Twigg admitted she's unsure about entering the family business. "I've watched my dad work long hours and work when no one else could. You don't get many days off."
Like Twigg, Miller enjoyed farm life when she was young. "When other people were playing after school and I was pitching stalls, it was hard, but looking back, it was worth it," she said.
What exactly do they do? That simple question is often the least understood. Some princesses ride into the arena at the start of rodeos. Most wave from parade floats. But those are only the most visible roles for positions that involve a great deal of time and effort.
Jessica Wells '07 was on the Pendleton (Ore.) Round-Up Court in 2004. She traveled with the rest of the court to rodeos and parades in Calgary, Canada; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and across Oregon. The court members also spoke at a variety of banquets and other local events. "We'd basically talk about the rodeo and promote it. We'd tell people what goes on the week of Round-Up, and get them excited about coming."
Miller promoted Tillamook and the sport of rodeo at events across the state. She attended dinners and coronations in other counties, spoke to service organizations in Tillamook, and participated in up to five rodeos and parades every weekend for an entire summer.
The three women who were Oregon Dairy princesses spent long hours at fairs and in schools across the state, teaching children about the industry. "Sometimes you go to fairs and you hear parents say that brown cows give chocolate milk and the others give white milk," Jansen said. "It's important to inform people, not just about the basics, but about the industry as a whole."
All in the Family
Many of the women seem to enjoy something of a royal bloodline. Cronin and Jansen, whose mother, Betty, works at Pacific, are the only sisters ever to serve as Oregon Dairy princesses. "It's really something we have a bond with," said Cronin.
Wells' mother was on the Pendleton Round-Up court in 1973, and she encouraged her daughter to take part. "She said it was great because when she was on the court, she got to travel, met lots of people, went places she never would've gone otherwise, and got to represent the rodeo," said Wells.
Oregon Dairy princesses first have to be selected as county princesses. Twigg's sister, Lisa Twigg '07, was the Washington County Princess for 2004. In fact, Kellie Twigg had the honor of crowning her sister. "I told Lisa if I won state, she had to try for county," Kellie Twigg said. "We've always been close, but through the competition and traveling together, we grew closer and closer."
The most tangible reward the women take away is the substantial scholarship money, which can range into the tens of thousands of dollars. The women also said they were thankful for the contacts they made, the young people whose lives they touched, and the confidence they gained.
"The whole experience changed my life," said Jansen. Some of the skills she learned have transferred into her job at Intel, where she is a default reduction technician. "I learned to work with different people and handle people with respect," she added.
After giving dozens of speeches during her reign, Cronin said she gained confidence to speak in front of groups - an important skill in her current position as human resources manager for Robinsons-May. "I'll never be afraid to speak in public again. If someone asks me if I have something to say, well, of course I do," she laughed.
The Grand Finale
Most of the women served their year and handed their crown to the next woman in line. For Wells, the ending wasn't so sweet and simple. The Pendleton Round-Up was to be her last event, and she and the rest of the court - all graduates of Pendleton High School - were to ride their horses into their home arena on each of three days.
The horses, with their royal riders aboard, were supposed to sprint in, jump two sets of rails, and come to a crowd-pleasing, sliding stop in front of thousands of fans. On the second day, Wells' horse, Buster, jumped both sets of rails with ease, but he carried too much momentum over the second jump. "Instead of sliding to a stop, he turned to the left really fast when he saw the grandstands," Wells explained.
Wells said that's about all she remembers, because she was catapulted off Buster's back and into the railing, where she broke two ribs, lacerated her liver, and was knocked unconscious. She missed two weeks of school, but made a full recovery and can now laugh a little about what she calls "the grand finale of my rodeo reign."
Even with the accident, Wells echoed what all the women said - that it was a memorable and fun experience. "It was very time-consuming, and one year was definitely enough for me," she said, "but I'm really glad I did it."