Running for queen

Tradition, sex appeal and marketing come together as candidates run for Reno Rodeo’s most visible ambassador

From left, Courtney Kemp, Megan Lucke, Kimberly Sundstrom and Jeanette Bye. Yes, they’re beautiful women, but they also have to compete with skills in horsemanship, public speaking and congeniality.

From left, Courtney Kemp, Megan Lucke, Kimberly Sundstrom and Jeanette Bye. Yes, they’re beautiful women, but they also have to compete with skills in horsemanship, public speaking and congeniality.

Photo By David Robert

Like many public roles, there is a disconnect between the imagined role of Reno Rodeo Queen and its reality.

“It’s not as glamorous as I thought,” says Jeanette Bye, the 2007 queen. “I thought it would be like being a star, but there is a lot of work, and it’s not always pretty.”

Following her grand entrance at a recent rodeo in Clovis, Calif., Bye immediately changed and began saddling and washing horses.

“It has been more work then I ever imagined, and more fun, too,” she says.

The three young candidates for this year’s Rodeo Queen look dazzling in the accoutrements of the western world that remain embedded in the DNA of Nevada. The details are important: the light-colored hat, boots, bright western shirt, the gleam of silver and gold buttons, along with sequins and rhinestones. They speak with the careful deliberations of concerned and informed salespeople, and they have the beauty and smiles of unknown Hollywood starlets. These rodeo advocates and spokespeople fuse salesmanship, sex appeal and sport for the benefit of the Western lifestyle they embrace.

Their glamour may seem incongruous with the coarse world from which they emerge. The role of Rodeo Queen is a bit like diamonds on a pipe wrench—the shine stands out in opposition to the grit.

But agriculture and beauty queens seem to go hand in hand. From the Reno Rodeo Queen, to the Butter and Egg Queen of Petaluma, Calif., good looks and poise have been the grassroots way of marketing for at least as long as Madison Avenue has been selling sex appeal.

Valerie Hart of Synergy Communication helps coordinate the Miss Reno Rodeo Pageant. “We hold regular clinics on competing in the pageant,” she says. “We cover everything from appearance to speaking, choosing speech topics, rodeo rules, how to curl hair, even how to dye jeans. When you’re competing to be rodeo queen, it’s important to know how to dye jeans.”

Rodeo roots
The three candidates differ considerably in appearance from each other and from last year’s queen, Bye, a tall, slender, bubbly blonde. Megan Lucke, who was crowned Miss Reno Rodeo 2008 on June 8, is a petite blonde with big eyes and an apprehensive smile. Of the candidates, Lucke is the only one who gives the impression of having been a shy little girl once upon a time. Courtney Kemp, the young candidate hailing from the Carson Valley, is a slim brunette with high cheekbones and angular features. She has a ready smile and a speaking manner that suggests a woman who has always been outgoing and confident. Kimberly Sundstrom, the third candidate, is also petite, with a curvy frame, dark wavy hair and an inviting persona. Her exuberance seems reflected in her appearance.

These women are taught that the ideal winner is well-groomed and well-spoken in addition to having a broad knowledge of the rodeo.

Courtney Kemp, who’s studying to become an agricultural teacher and lawyer, carries her saddle at Livestock Events Center. Contestants are judged on horsemanship as well as poise and personality.

Photo By David Robert

Straight beauty-queen types might steer clear of agricultural beauty pageants. For Reno Rodeo Queen candidates, the women themselves are all local, with roots in agriculture and, perhaps most importantly, roots in Reno Rodeo. All have family members involved in the Reno Rodeo. “My father has been a part of Reno Rodeo for 25 years,” says 20-year-old Lucke.

The women’s ages vary, but their association with the rodeo began young, usually as children. “When I was 12, I told my dad that I wanted to be the first woman to steer wrestle—until I got on my horse and saw how high up it was,” says Sundstrom.

Acting as advocates for the sport essentially means a deep connection and understanding of rodeo. This sort of passion and rootedness is seen throughout those involved in rodeo. The time and effort put in by the judges alone is a reflection of that. Judge Larry Roe traveled from Colorado; judge Clemie Jo Lamb traveled cross-country from Florida; and Barb Williams, a former rodeo queen candidate herself, took vacation time off from her job in Fort Worth, Texas, to attend as a judge.

“You don’t need cheerleaders to have a football game, but they add something to it,” says Lamb.

Acting as advocates for the sport essentially means a deep connection and understanding of rodeo. Along with knowing about current events, rodeo rules and having a strong riding ability, rodeo queen candidates are expected to be able to rattle off rodeo stats the way men proudly talk baseball or basketball stats.

“We don’t want them preaching to the choir,” says Lamb. “These girls get out and talk to people who don’t know about rodeo.”

“People can’t talk to the cowboys in the ring,” says candidate Kemp. “The queen is there to help answer questions, lend a hand and be a spokesperson. We need to know as much as possible about rodeo.”

If you talk to these women long enough, the conversation always returns to rodeo, whether it is addressing questions regarding animal cruelty and rodeo or about how much the rodeo gives back to the community.

In her role as official spokesperson, the rodeo queen acts as a lobbyist of sorts. While we’re attracted to the glamour and the flashiness, the Reno Rodeo pageant isn’t all about beauty. The girls also need personality, intellect, and of course, they have to know how to ride.

Nevertheless, all of the judges appreciate the value of a rodeo queen as a marketing tool. Judge Roe, a former rodeo committee member, spoke earnestly: “It’s that first impression, like a wildflower or a bookcover. It’s not all about beauty. Beauty is just the first step. … Their looks are a marketing tool because they are an extension of the [rodeo] board.”

“If a rodeo committee goes to the expense and work of developing these girls and don’t put them to their full use, then it’s a total waste because they can open a lot more doors than a bunch of gray, pot-bellied old men,” says Lamb. “They know how to market rodeo, and that is what they are there for.”

Regardless of what vanity might be glossed over by days of primping and coaching these women on how to answer the endless streams of questions, the women’s efforts are sincere. Whereas Miss USA or Miss Universe chooses a platform on which to campaign, rodeo is a part of these women’s lives, and it would be with or without the title attached to their name.

“These girls are different,” says Hart. “Seriously, at the end of a bad day, these girls go ride. At the end of a bad day, I eat ice cream.”