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Princesses of Rodeo: Inside Arizona’s Miss Sweetheart Pageant

Photo: Angie Smith

Rodeos began as competitions between cowboys — but in 1955,  a group of gentleman came up with the idea to also crown a queen of the rodeo. Now, 35 states hold an annual pageant, open to women 19 to 26, that culminates in a coveted national title: Rodeo Queen.

Rodeo queens are well-coiffed ambassadors of the western way of life — think Miss America on horseback. Part beauty queens, part American mascots, contestants are judged on personality, appearance, speech, photogenic qualities, and horsemanship (i.e., their ability to ride and handle a horse). Winners of state pageants move up to compete in the national competition, Miss Rodeo America. Winners go on to traverse the country, running flags at rodeos, performing community service, and representing various brands and sponsors.

During this year’s three-day Miss Rodeo Arizona competition — which took place last month in Payson, Arizona —  the Cut met a few rodeo queens in training: girls ages 6 to 10 participating in a more junior competition called the Miss Sweetheart Pageant. While the Sweethearts do not compete, they are still outfitted in tiaras and sashes and have a chance show off their outfits. (Arizona also hosts a Miss Teen competition, for which prizes include college scholarships.) “We do this for young girls to be the future queens of tomorrow,” says Miss Arizona board member Nancy Smith, whose daughter, Jamie Smith, was crowned Miss Rodeo Arizona in 2012. “It’s a way to get girls to say, Hey this is what I want to do when I grow up.

The Miss Sweetheart Pageant’s theme this year was “Huntin’ for the Crown,” which the girls — many of whom were atop a horse as soon as they could sit up — interpreted as they saw fit with camouflage, glitter, sequins, and, of course, cowboy hats. The Cut spoke to ten of the participants.

Photo: Angie Smith

Avery Ward, 10,  Queen Creek, Arizona

What would you like to be when you grow up? I would like to be Miss Rodeo Arizona. How long have you been riding horses? I have been riding since I was 3 years old — seven years. Do you have a horse yourself? Yes. My horses name is Cheyenne Sue. She is a pony, and she is black and white. Do you think you’ll want to ride a bull someday? No. Because it is dangerous and they look scary. What is your favorite part about competing in the Miss Sweetheart pageant? My favorite part was the fashion show. Because I got new boots to wear, and I got to wear my camouflage jeans.

Photo: Angie Smith

Lacey Dunlap, 6,  Queen Creek, Arizona

How long have you been competing in Miss Sweetheart? This is my first year. What is your favorite rodeo event? Barrels. How long have you been riding horses? Since I was 2. Do your mom or dad do rodeo? My mom does it. She works cows. Why do you want to be in the rodeo? Because people will take pictures of me.

Photo: Angie Smith

Lainey Gross, 8,  Kingman, Arizona

Will you ride a bull someday? No, because you can get hurt really bad. I would ride a little bull. What do you like to do when you’re not at the rodeo? I like to gather cattle, or brand or just ride around the ranch, and practice my barrel racing. What is your favorite thing to dress up in? I didn’t really like dressing up like I did last time in the dress, because I’m more of a little bit of a tomboy, and I don’t really like dresses that much. If I ever wanted to be a rodeo queen, I would have to start wearing dresses. How did you decide what to wear? I wanted a shirt and pants, but my grandma and mom talked me into getting a shirt and a dress.

Photo: Angie Smith

Noelle Gross, 6

What do you want to be when you grow up? A trick rider. Why do you like the rodeo? Because I like watching my dad team rope, and I like to watch the bull riding. What do you like to do when you’re not at the rodeo? I like to practice dancing. How do you feel about dresses? I love them.

Photo: Angie Smith

Lily Kline, 7,  Phoenix, AZ

What is your favorite event at the rodeo? My favorite event is pole bending. It’s a little bit hard, but then you get to realize that you figured it out, and it gets a little easier. What is pole bending? There are six poles. And then you go up and you weave through them and you turn around the last pole and you weave through them again and you go down the other side. What would you like to be when you grow up? I would like to be a cattle-dog trainer. How did you decide to do the pageant? My mom asked me if I wanted to do it and I thought about it for a little while, and then I said yes.

Photo: Angie Smith

Gracie Perkins, 10,  Pinedale, Arizona

Does anyone in your family do rodeos? Everybody does. My dad and my mom and my older brother all rope. Do you live on a ranch? A little one. What would you like to be when you grow up? A rodeo queen. What do you like to wear to the pageants? Bling. Bling earrings and bling shirts.

Photo: Angie Smith

Sophia Handley, 7,  Gilbert, Arizona

How did you start to do rodeos? My cousin is a teen rodeo queen. What do you want to be when you grow up? I want to be a doctor. A surgery doctor. What was your favorite thing about the pageants? My favorite thing was meeting all the girls who did it, because I got a new friend. Will you ride a bull someday? No. Because it might flip me over.

Photo: Angie Smith

Jacquelyn Garner, 6 Wickenburg, Arizona

How did you get into rodeo? My mom used to be a rodeo queen, and my dad is a rodeo clown. What would you do as a rodeo queen? I would do what the other rodeo queens do: travel around the world to rodeos. How do you get dressed for rodeo-queen events? I wear my cowboy hat and crown and a sash. And the thing I like about it best is my boots. Tell me about your boots. They are blue and black and also pretty.

Photo: Angie Smith

Jada Bradford, 10, and Jillie Bradford, 9,  Bagdad, Arizona

When did you start to rodeo? Jada: I started when I was 10 years old. I have only done two pageants so far. How do you pick your outfits? Jada: Oh, it’s really hard. We have to try on lots of stuff. But then we find the perfect thing, and it is like, “This is the one.” How would you describe your style? Jada: My style? I would have to say I like bright colors. What do you want to be when you grow up? Jada: I want to be an interior designer. My brother wants to be an architect. How did you get involved in rodeos? Jillie: Well, my aunt Gina, she has two daughters that like rodeo a lot, and she thought it would be cool if we got into rodeo, too. What would you like to be when you grow up? Jillie: I want to be an artist. I like to draw reptiles. What’s your favorite reptile to draw? Jillie: Dinosaurs. What do you like to do when you’re not at a rodeo? Jillie: I like to play outside. I like to pick all the weeds and pretend I’m a chef.

Princesses of Rodeo: Inside a Girls’ Pageant