Queens of the West
Horses, rhinestones, spurs, and heartbreak: the journey to be Miss Rodeo America.
If you want to be Miss Rodeo America, here’s what awaits you.
You will wake up at 4 in the morning, get ready in a tiny RV bathroom with six other women, and show up at the parade by 6 a.m. with enormous cascading curls, full glitz makeup, and a smile that never leaves. You will do this, day in and day out, for a year. During the busiest travel month, July, you’ll spend maybe 24 hours at home.
You will know the signs of colic in horses, and the hometown of the cowboy who took home the grand prize in the 1986 Cheyenne Frontier Days. You will outline animal rights activists’ criticisms of rodeo, then explain why they’re wrong.
You’ll parade through town on horseback during a 96-degree summer day in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, warm felt hat and about 40 pounds of leather. You’ll ride a bejeweled horse with sparkly hooves and a 20-pound flower bouquet swaying on its rump through small Western towns. You’ll smile and wave at thousands of rural Americans, and they will smile and wave back at you.
You will tear through an arena on horseback at full gallop, holding an American flag while the fans scream. If that horse falls — and it will, someday; all horses slip and all riders can tumble — you need to fall just right, get back up, keep smiling.
You’ll drive your truck thousands and thousands of miles, your horse in a trailer behind you, setting up camp on the outskirts of tiny towns through Wyoming, Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, Oregon — anywhere that has a rodeo.
You will get on a horse you’ve never seen before and perform intricate routines. You will figure out ways to make that animal look graceful, athletic, capable as the judges (and a full arena of spectators) look on.
You will hide your relationship, because rodeo queens don’t have boyfriends, or at least not publicly. It cannot be Facebook-official. Rodeo queening is my job, you’ll say, and would you bring a boyfriend to your job?
You come from a rodeo family, or at least the kind of family that sets you on a horse for the first time in early childhood, a family that will support you as you take a year off work and school, a family that can help you get a wardrobe of Western clothes worth thousands of dollars.
You will leave your friends, your family, your job, your school, your home, and your life behind and commit to being a rodeo queen. It’s not easy.
You will cement your place in the rodeo world.
Nicole Schrock, 24, is wearing a full-length leather dress, standing on a stage at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, smiling as big as she can. She’s in her formal Miss Rodeo Oregon attire — huge belt buckle, pristine cowboy hat, a hand-engraved gold tiara sitting on that hat, cascading blonde curls. All around her are the 26 other state rodeo queens.
In the audience, the families of the girls on stage collectively hold their breath. They haven’t spoken to their daughters for more than a few minutes at a time since the pageant began seven days ago, because once the competition begins, the girls are completely on their own — no cell phones, no contact. This is the moment that the past year, past five, past decade, have been building to.
In the next 10 minutes, one of the contestants will be crowned Miss Rodeo America 2014. The rest of them will be done rodeo queening forever.
The male emcee clears his throat.
“The top 10 finalists of the 2014 Miss Rodeo America pageant are…”
The highest title a rodeo queen can hold is Miss Rodeo America.
Who, exactly, will be Miss Rodeo America is decided each December at the MGM Hotel in Las Vegas. It’s timed to coincide with the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, which is considered the Super Bowl of rodeo.
Some states are perennial powerhouses, with extensive in-state networks and seminars to prepare their girl. Miss Rodeo Texas, for example, gets her own apartment; the Miss Rodeo Utah organization is famous for polishing its contestants to perfection and nearly always turns out a top-five finalist.
The competition itself is brutal, not only for the contestants but the hundreds of volunteers. The days begin at 4 a.m. and end around midnight. For nine days, their lives are a blur of one-on-one interviews with judges, intricate and high-pressure horsemanship routines, current events questions answered in front of huge audiences, speeches, written tests.
Whoever walks away with the crown — a Black Hills gold, pearl, and Alexandrite band that sits atop a cowboy hat — will travel the world. She’ll get $20,000 in scholarship money, plus cowboy hats worth $10,000 from her sponsors. She’ll get custom boots, buckles with her name engraved in silver, and more. She’ll meet and shake hands with thousands, including agribusiness CEOs, senators, and a wide swath of America’s conservative, rural elite.
“Every second — every second — you have to be perfect and look perfect while you’re doing it,” Nicole said. “People that don’t know anything about the rodeo will come up to you and say something offensive and you just have to smile and keep on going… sometimes, people have meltdowns.”
Since 2009, Nicole has never competed for a crown and lost. She was Miss Benton County Fair and Rodeo, then Miss Northwest Professional Rodeo Association, then Miss Rodeo Oregon.
She studies bioresource research, applied genetics and agricultural education at Oregon State University — she’ll spend all of next year on a research project, examining how to make, say, large-nut hazelnut trees more blight-resistant. She is a professional horse trainer. She’s been working on her family farm since she was a tiny girl.
She talks easily to anyone, can explain any part of the rodeo in detailed yet compelling ways, or diagram out the likelihood that her little sister’s pregnant horse will have, say, a smoky black-colored foal.
But for the first 16 years of her life, she said almost nothing at all.
“I was shy to the point where it was socially inhibiting. I couldn’t talk to anyone,” she said, adding that if she was in public and, say, wanted a sandwich, she would bring her little sister Katie along because even saying what kind of sandwich she wanted terrified her.
“I think a big part of it is I was afraid of messing up. There’s a lot of power to words, and I was afraid of saying the wrong thing.”
Her transformation, Nicole said, began when she became the Benton County Fair and Rodeo queen in 2007. Because a rodeo queen becomes the public face of the rodeo, she has to be able to talk to anyone, do media interviews, sign autographs — in other words, things that would scare most of us, let alone someone who was cripplingly shy.
“At first, it was when I put the hat and crown on that I could finally be outgoing and confident, because that was my job, and then I took it off and I was shy again,” she said. “But as the years went on, it started to leak out into my day-to-day life. I became the person I’d always wanted to be when the crown was on, and then there was less and less of a gap between that and my real life. By the time I became Miss Rodeo Oregon, I was the same person no matter what.”
Five months earlier, Nicole and her fellow queens were wandering around downtown Portland, Oregon, in full gear.
There’s Gillian Shields, Miss Rodeo Canada, 22, who already has her national crown and therefore has spent the past year having as much fun as she possibly can. There’s Ashlee Rose, Miss Rodeo New Mexico, who loves Lord of the Rings and dreams of one day being New Mexico’s attorney general. There’s Miss Rodeo Nebraska, Sam Chykta, who is the sweetest — everyone loves Sam, even the clique-y queens. And finally, Miss Rodeo Wyoming, Holly Kennedy, who can make the other girls cry from laughing so hard.
One of the highlights of being a state rodeo queen is traveling with fellow royalty and attending rodeos all over the country.
The depth of their bond is hard to overstate: They are the only ones who really understand what it means to give up your life in pursuit of this goal, and rodeo queening doesn’t leave much time for normal friendships. But, of course, they are still one other’s competition.
“We’ve all become so close,” Nicole says — and then Holly adds that they want to buy their own sorority house, right in the middle of the country where everyone could drive to it, because otherwise at the end of the year they would all miss each other too much.
The week in Oregon will culminate with a visit to the Pendleton Round-Up, one of the country’s biggest rodeos. On their statewide trip before the Round-Up, the women will see the beach, the mountains, an old saw mill, go boating and have an elegant picnic at a family friend’s river property, and get some skeet shooting lessons from Nicole’s dad at the Schrock farm.
But today, they’re in the big city — Portland is huge compared with their hometowns, many of which have less than a thousand people. After oohing and ahhing over VooDoo Donuts (and SnapChatting a picture of a donut the size of a pillow), they head to the food carts.
Nicole, Ashlee, Sam, and Holly all decide to be adventurous and try Thai food — they’ve never had it before — and Holly SnapChats her sealed bubble tea.
“We call them butt bouquets”
A few days later, it is the morning of the Westward Ho! parade, which runs down the main street of Pendleton, Oregon. There are horses everywhere, although the rodeo queens’ horses are the most conspicuous. They are covered in spray glitter — one horse even has green and gold glitter encrusted on her hooves — plus flower garlands, ribbons, and the enormous floral “back packs.” “We call them butt bouquets,” Jessie Tennant, Miss Rodeo Washington, says drily.
After the parade, it’s time for a luncheon, and then a rodeo performance, and then autograph signing, and then they just need some downtime in the air conditioning — it is 96 degrees, and they are all wearing jeans, long sleeved shirts, hats, and boots.
That night, they decide, it’s time to go out dancing. The RV that six of them are sleeping in looks like it has been hit by a Western-feminine tornado. Boots, hats, turquoise jewelry, jeans, makeup, and eight queens in various states of readiness are everywhere. A lonely cheetah-print bra, owner unknown, is sitting on a counter. After a brief search, Miss Nebraska—Sam—sets it down on a cheetah-print suitcase.
“These probably belong to the same person,” she reasons.
As each new queen clatters up the stairs and through the trailer’s screen door, they coo over one other’s headband and accessory choices, ask which necklace everyone likes better, this one or this one?, generally act like a big group of women getting ready for a night of breaking hearts.
Nicole, who is always early for everything, keeps popping her head in to ask if everyone is FINALLY ready, because she is READY TO GO and COME ON, how long does this TAKE? Miss Wyoming, aka Holly Kennedy, is famous for taking a long time to get ready and tonight is no exception, but finally, everyone is polished, made-up, beautiful. No crowns tonight, just endless strands of turquoise, tight rhinestoned jeans, and red lipstick.
They hit the hot Western night riding in the bed of a pickup truck. Long sheafs of platinum hair fly in the hot night. Cowboys yell, “Let ‘er buck!”, the rodeo’s catchphrase, as they drive by. They scream back and toss their heads back and laugh. Miss Rodeo Canada proposes a singalong and instantly all of them are hollering Darius Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” into the night.
So rock me mama like a wagon, wheel; rock me mama, any way you feel
Heyyyyyyy, mama, rock me!
Everyone who is not in this pickup truck bed stares, with jealousy or delight or desire or a combination of all three. An 18-wheeler drives by and Gillian, true to form, starts making the honking motion. He honks, three long blasts, then hangs his head out of the truck to gawk at them. Who, after all, is going to say no to a rodeo queen?
“The funny thing is, we’re not drunk,” said Gillian. And she’s right, they’re not. But there’s a kind of intoxication from being the most beautiful girls in town, from riding in a truck bed and singing your favorite songs with your best girlfriends, from knowing, deep in your bones, that you belong here.
“Every state will be sending their Nicole.”
It’s a dreary November Saturday, a week before Nicole, her family, and an RV full of 30 outfits will head to Las Vegas for Miss Rodeo America. Friends and family have gathered at the Schrock farm for an informal send-off.
As the men congregate near the sausage rolls and football game, Nicole models her outfits one at a time to a discerning audience. She’s got Mackenzie Carr-Ivie, who was Miss Rodeo Oregon in 2011 before taking the Miss Rodeo America crown the next year, and her mom, Barbara Carr, who sits on the executive board of Miss Rodeo America, plus her mom, sister, and family friends who were rodeo queens themselves.
Kristi Schrock, Nicole’s mother, complains over a particular pair of cowboy boots that have been nothing but trouble—“We tried to dye them, and they came out looking this dead-meat grey color,” she says, shaking her head. All the outfits are hung, in order, with the corresponding bags of jewelry, cowboy hat, belt buckle, and boots that will be worn, a heavy mass of rhinestones, leather, Western shirts, and embroidery. Nicole runs through her speech about Oregon a few times, and Mackenzie gives last-minute advice.
I ask Barbara about Nicole’s chances. “Nicole is a strong contender,” she says. “But every state will be sending their Nicole.”
“Our Western way of life”
Everyone at Miss Rodeo America gets a chaperone. The contestants get chaperones. The judges get a chaperone. The reporter gets a chaperone. If the contestants want to go to the bathroom, a chaperone has to go with them. The constant chaperoning gets to some of them, particularly the older ones.
One 25-year-old, who has graduated college, has a career, and lives on her own, says it makes her feel like a child. One mother whispers that her daughter said if she could leave the pageant she would, just to escape the chaperones. As long as she could take all her clothes with her.
This vigilance is informed by a larger feeling that the rodeo family is misunderstood, misjudged, and perhaps even under attack from those outside the life. Outsiders are looked on with suspicion. It is not the most welcoming community
“Our Western way of life” is mentioned at nearly every event, and is understood to mean any number of things: agriculture, horsemanship, conservative social values, and the beautiful young women and brave men who carry the banner of the American West when everyone else has forgotten.
And then, of course, there is the fact that the contestants are staying in a hotel that contains more rooms than there are people in most of their hometowns.
“Why would you be all over your boyfriend if you’re at work?”
The conservatism of this world goes far beyond the chaperones. State queens cannot be married, or ever have been married. They cannot have a child, or have ever been pregnant. Many of them are not supposed to travel with unrelated males.
They are allowed to have boyfriends — sort of. It should not be obvious while they are “queening.” During the Oregon trip, one of the rodeo queen’s boyfriends surprised her by returning, two months ahead of schedule, from his contracting job in Iraq and driving out from the Midwest. The two were holding hands during a tour, and a chaperone sniffed: “She shouldn’t be doing that. If they really need that much time together, she should head home.”
Nicole explains it this way: “Being a rodeo queen is my job. And you wouldn’t bring your boyfriend to your job. Why would you be all over your boyfriend if you’re at work?”
Even if it can’t be public, it’s often an open secret — you see a lot of the same good-looking cowboys sitting with the contestants’ families. Once their reign is over, a lot of them get big rings on the left hand in no time.
It’s a conservative view of marriage. It’s a conservative view of life. Nicole doesn’t know of any openly lesbian rodeo queens, and says she has a hard time picturing it.
Christianity is a very important part of this world — events open with prayers; big crosses are as common a theme in jewelry as turquoise or cowhide. When answering a political question, Miss Rodeo America 2012 Mackenzie Carr notes, you can and should have your own views — but if you’re in the middle, come down on the conservative side.
“If you can’t ride, there’s no purpose in being here.”
The heart of the Miss Rodeo America competition is the horsemanship competition.
“If you can’t ride, there’s no purpose in being here,” says Tammy Peak, who was Miss Rodeo Arkansas in 1985 and is now on the national advisory council. “You’ve got to get up there and hop on a horse you’ve never laid eyes on, and if you can’t ride, you’re in trouble.”
Under the florescent lights of the Las Vegas Convention Center, the outgoing Miss Rodeo America, Chenae’ Shiner, sets the first pattern — one of three the women have been practicing all year. It’s a fast lope around the ring, circling to center, lead change, backing the horse up, and so on, for 90 seconds. Each woman is assigned a horse via draw, and then they get on those horses and ride in random order.
This simulates the conditions in many rodeos; while they often bring their own horses, sometimes it’s impossible and they need to be able to ride any horse.
“Literally, the chaperone comes up and says, ‘OK, I need [you] six,’” Nicole says. “You don’t know what set you’re going to be in until it’s time to go.”
While the competition is riding, the queens sit in a brightly colored flock across from the rest of the audience taking notes on each horse — what he or she looks like running, how they turn, what bothers them, what they do naturally. This info will be critical in the second round, when they each draw another horse and then have 90 seconds to show off that animal’s athleticism and talent to the best of their ability.
Nicole’s family is literally sitting on the edge of their hard plastic seats, leaning toward the arena, watching her — and all the competition — intently. They are not thrilled with her horse — “He’s jittery, and stubborn,” her sister Katie Schrock, 21, explains, before getting into the countless details Nicole must be keeping track of if she hopes to win.
Horsemanship itself involves such subtlety that it’s hard, as an outsider, to grasp everything that’s happening. And some things that seem like they would be a huge deal are not.
During her freestyle pattern, Miss Rodeo Colorado — Sarah Faith Wiens — rounds a bend at a full gallop. Wiens is considered one of the strongest contestants. She studied at Oxford, is a former FFA debate champion, comes from a Colorado ranching dynasty, and has worked her family’s ranch since she was 3.
As she rounds the bend, everyone gasps and leaps to their feet — the horse has fallen, with Sarah under it.
Time stands still. Everyone is silent as Sarah lies in the dust for a split second. And then she is up, beaming and back on the horse.
I ask Katie if this meant Sarah is out of the running. No, she says — it was a bad patch in the arena, and the fall isn’t Sarah’s fault. In fact, Miss Mississippi will fall in the same spot a few minutes later.
“Everyone’s horse falls. It just happens,” Katie says. “It’s how you fall, and how you handle it, that determines your score.”
Sarah finishes her ride with arena dust up the sides of her pristine aqua outfit, and a huge smile on her face.
A glimpse at their future
The Miss Rodeo America fashion show is one of the biggest moments in Western fashion for the year. One of the unspoken but understood perks of being Miss Rodeo America is setting trends in Western fashion. Whatever Miss Rodeo America wears, you will soon see on women at rodeos across the country. This year, high-low skirts, headbands and pendant-necklace clay figurines of chieftains in war bonnets are big.
The contestants do a seemingly endless series of choreographed dances as they model new Wrangler products, jewelry, boots, hats and an outfit of their own design. Some are clearly delighted to be up on stage dancing in front of a crowd of 500; others, not so much.
The biggest moment of the show is when Miss Rodeo America 2013 Chenae’ Shiner takes her goodbye spotlight walk.
Chenae’ knows all the girls personally. She has given each one advice. She has traveled with them for the past year. They love her. The audience loves her, too — over the course of the contest, each time she is introduced, the emcee notes approvingly what a great Miss Rodeo America she has been. A true model of Western womanhood, and a terrific lady, to boot.
Chenae’ goes out with a bang — a red sheath completely covered in red sequins, boots that are just as sparkly and a long red ostrich feather train.
“She’s got her head in the clouds, and she’s not backing down,” Alicia Keys sings over the loudspeaker. Chenae’ flounces down the catwalk, blond hair perfectly curled, red lipstick, huge smile.
“This girl is on FIRE!”
The crowd is on its feet, screaming, hollering, paying tribute to this ideal Western woman. And then, a surprise — her boyfriend Stetson Vest, a champion calf-roper and member of rodeo’s first family, has joined her on stage.
They two-step together, her feather train flying as he twirls her, and the crowd eats it up. The contestants peek out from behind the curtains, witnessing firsthand what their lives could be like if they leave with the crown.
Backstage, one woman knows what they are all going through. Tammy Peak is on-hand to help the show run smoothly. She, like the dozens of volunteers who coordinate the competition, are completely unpaid — they fly themselves to Las Vegas, pay for their own hotel room and assume all expenses. They do it because they love it.
Even those who don’t win, she said, have a bright future ahead of them. They have spent the year networking with everyone from senators to agribusiness CEOs. They’ve learned how to speak in front of a crowd, how to run on four hours of sleep, how to market themselves.
“It’s unlimited as to what these girls can do,” she said. “A lot of them come back as judges … the girl that won the year I competed, she and I are still friends. And Vegas is like a big family reunion. There’s just nothing like it — it’s a family.”
But, she said, things have changed since her competition.
“My entire wardrobe, when I came, was $2,500,” she said. “Now, that’s one dress, one shirt, one jacket …”
The Moment of Truth
After days of competition and years of preparation, it is time for the coronation. The families pile into the theater — so many of them wearing, as usual, the buttons with their daughters’ big, smiling faces.
The Schrock family is all together, looking tremendously stressed and nervous. Most of the audience is. But, her sister says, no matter what happens, they know that Nicole did an incredible job, and they are proud of her.
“As an athlete, if you’ve played your hardest and done your absolute best then you’ve won,” Katie says. “And Nicole has.”
Each contestant is introduced and walks, arm-in-arm with her dad, on stage. Endless awards are given out — rising star award, people’s choice, best scrapbook, best scrapbook cover, this scholarship for congeniality, that scholarship for rodeo knowledge — and finally we are down to the top five. The audience can barely breathe.
The women hold hands in a glittery line.
The announcer pauses, then slowly names the chosen: Miss Rodeo Arizona. Miss Rodeo Colorado. Miss Rodeo North Dakota. Miss Rodeo Mississippi. Miss Rodeo Oregon. Nicole’s smile, pasted on since the beginning on the program, gets a tiny bit wider.
The chosen five shuffle backstage into a soundproof room, and each comes out and answers how she would help publicize and modernize Miss Rodeo America — Nicole talks about the importance of social media outreach, and explaining rodeo to a new generation who may never have experienced it — and then it’s in the judges’ hands.
The five stand on stage, all eyes on them, holding hands, smiling, trembling.
Miss Rodeo Colorado wins appearance, Miss Mississippi takes personality and horsemanship.
Miss Rodeo Arizona is fourth runner-up. Miss Rodeo North Dakota is third-runner up.
“And the second runner up is … Nicole Schrock, Miss Rodeo Oregon!”
Nicole steps out of the spotlight and into the background. From the audience, it’s impossible to tell what she’s thinking.
Now, it’s just Sarah, Miss Colorado and Paige, Miss Rodeo Mississippi, holding hands, staring at each other, crying.
“Your first runner up for Miss Rodeo America is … Sarah Wiens, Miss Rodeo Colorado!”
Paige takes a split-second to absorb this, then screams with joy. She is the Miss Rodeo America 2014.
Now all of the girls are sobbing. They circle around Paige, hugging her, hugging each other. For a year, they wore these crowns, but the crowns also wore them. They would not have seen what they’ve seen, done what they’ve done, forged the deep friendships, become who they are without those hammered confections that shine under the stage lights.
The audience slowly files out. News releases are filed, Facebook updates posted. Backstage, there is a lot of mascara running. Some people are genuinely sad they didn’t win, others are just hugging everyone and saying how much they’ll miss each other. Miss Illinois is picking up all the rhinestones backstage that have fallen off dresses — “I’m going to scrapbook them,” she said, then laughs as she cries.
Meanwhile, Paige’s reign has already begun — she has a press conference to get to, an official photo shoot that very night, and is heading to Wayne Newton’s ranch tomorrow for her official portrait. Her family looks dazed, tired, and absolutely overjoyed.
“I am so flattered, so honored, so excited,” Paige said, then smiles even wider. “SO excited! I was already on the biggest high you can imagine from making top five.”
“There’s not a word to describe what it feels like when dreams come true.”
While Paige is talking to press, the other girls are reuniting with their families, packing up their rooms, crying. It’s a heartbreaking day for a lot of them — Jessie Tennant, Miss Rodeo Washington, cried for three hours straight.
But at least they’re done. They know. And now, they can escape the chaperones, stop waking up at 4 a.m. and actually have fun with each other. Lots of them will stay another week in Vegas, reunite with their families, and finally get to just spend time with each other as friends.
After the crown …
And then, they’ll stow the hats in hatboxes, pack the RVs with no-longer-needed outfits and head home. Over the next month or so, many of them will post Facebook albums with pictures and prices of the boots, dresses, accessories and hats they’ll sell to next year’s rodeo queens.
The first few months back in real life can be really, really hard.
“You go from more than a full-time job to nothing,” Jessie said. “Some girls go back to marriage proposals or good jobs, but some of us are left in no-man’s-land.”
But even as she’s struggled, she said, doors have opened — she’s started her own business, signed with a talent agency and now has the ability to get her Western accessories line off the ground. She looks forward to the day when she can swap her Miss Rodeo Washington belt buckle for an Women’s Professional Rodeo Association barrel racing one.
Chenae’ decides to get a barrel racing horse of her own and hit the arena with Stetson; they are now engaged. Ashlee Rose, Miss Rodeo New Mexico, has been sworn in as a municipal judge in her hometown. Miss Rodeo Canada, Gillian Shields, takes a job with the tourism commission in Edmonton, and moves to the city for the first time in her life. Miss Rodeo Colorado is engaged.
“After the pageant, I was emotional,” Nicole said. “It was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, but at that point it’s just the end of a chapter.”
But since then she’s been training horses, getting back to art — she mostly works in charcoal and pencil — and working hard on her organic chemistry, statistics and animal reproduction coursework.
On a recent day at her family’s farm, Nicole and her sister Katie saddled up their horses and rode through the Oregon sunshine, across fields of still-green hay. A couple of labradors bounded after them, and the two discussed their plan to break into an all-male rodeo event using a loophole in the rules Nicole discovered.
All the stress, the endless hours of preparation, the heartache of losing — it’s all worth it, Nicole says, and she would do it over again. “Finding rodeo and finding my way into that family made me feel like I finally had a place to belong.”