Thankfully the house was dark and the spotlights were on the exhilaratingly cheerful Miss Rodeo America contestants. No one in the packed Las Vegas theatre could see the condescending sneer on my face as I watched 28 cowgirls in rhinestone-studded paramilitary jumpsuits toprock to “Danger Zone.” If ever a group of girls was more comfortable on quarter horses than on stage, this was it. But they didn’t have a choice. Bodacious dance numbers are standard fare in the 2011 Miss Rodeo America competition. So is scrapbooking.
Depending on her state title, the Miss Rodeo America contestant may be as adept at chili recipes as she is at barrel racing, lassoing, dress-designing, speechwriting, public speaking, beading, handwriting, rodeo regulations, Western history, current events, tailoring, and the ever-important hygiene (equine and human).
Sponsored in part by Wrangler and hosted by the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, the annual Miss Rodeo America pageant coincides with the 10-day National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas, when livestock and cowboys stampede into town; and the town, yearning to reclaim the dignity of its wild west roots, rediscovers the thrills and charms of a fanciful life on the open range. Like all the NFR rodeo events, the Miss Rodeo America Fashion Show was plumb sold out.
From my seat in the MGM Hollywood Theatre, I contemplated the fashion show performance, which fetched contestants aged 19 – 26 from 28 states. Dance numbers punctuated a showcase of Western wear designers in the much anticipated build-up to the formal gown competition.
Fashion is a key component of the “Western Lifestyle,” a domestic phrase larding the Las Vegas NFR events like butter on cornbread. With only 20% of the American population actually living in rural areas, a significant portion of the other 80% yearn for the giddy-up connection to land and nature that the “Western Lifestyle” represents. Rodeo sports keep alive the traditions synonymous with national identity—shucks, Americans are famous for their cowboy culture world round. For wannabes who can’t actually leap from a galloping horse onto the back of a cow, the easiest way to lay a claim to the Western ethos is to don a ten-gallon hat, a pair of hand-tooled boots and an extreme belt buckle.
As the crow flies, I thought the Miss Rodeo America stage was a long way from the high-fashion runways at the Carrousel du Louvre, but amid the ho-down of suede fringe and boot polish, I changed my mind. I reckon that some of the beaded jackets did look a bit Chanel. And weren’t the embroidered leather purses right out of Versace? I rustled my souvenir kettle corn, the rodeo snack du jour, as applause thundered for the grand finale moment, when the contestants presented custom-made iterations of the pageant gown—high-necked and long-sleeved, with the hem demurely brushing the toes of the girls’ shiny dress boots.
The value of modesty remains high in grassroots rodeo culture, although the days of homespun calico are long gone. The contestants preferred tailored suede, leather and lambskin, “embellished” (a favorite Miss Rodeo America fashion word) with feathers, sequins, studs, turquoise, conches, and “genuine Swarovski crystals.” The pride with which the Miss Rodeo America hopefuls walked—or stomped—across the stage filled the Hollywood Theatre with admiration and awe. I saw tears glistening the cheeks of Ma’s and Pa’s alike.
Lord knows, it took a heap of work for the contestants to get there—countless bake sales and Four-H projects, horse-shoeing and hat-brushing, rising before sunrise to care for a beast or a herd, staying up late at night to memorize the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association rule book. Earlier this year in Utah, a group of rodeo queen contestants had to perform a complex dressage routine on toy hobbyhorses because an outbreak of equine herpes kept the real horses in their stables. The girls actually ran around and around the arena in Farmington, Utah, with a stick between their legs. That takes gumption.
You could see the determination in their eyes as they posed in their custom-made Western wear gowns—a determination that can meet Feminist criticism of the rodeo queen lifestyle one sure-footed step at a time. Some of the girls were tall, some compact, some thin, some full of muscle. Miss Rodeo America organizers are quick to announce that the pageant is not a beauty contest. Officially, the girls are assessed in terms of “personality, appearance, horsemanship, and rodeo knowledge & presentation,” and must demonstrate their “skills in public speaking, personal interviewing, horsemanship, knowledge of rodeo and general equine science, current event awareness, photogenic qualities, visual poise, and overall professionalism” (sic). Once she gets her crown, Miss Rodeo America serves as a spokesperson and diplomat for rodeo events, often hoisting a flag in one hand and reining her horse in another, as she canters through the stadium or maneuvers her mount at official events.
During the year of her rule, she’ll hardly have time to stitch fringe into the yolk of her shirt, let alone pole race.
But in exchange for all the hard work it took to get to the top, the winners and the runners-up get tens of thousands of dollars in scholarship monies. Some of them are pursuing graduate degrees in speech pathology and computer science. That’s what choked me up as I leafed through their scrapbooks, watched them raffle-off prairie-dog safaris, and lift their chins for yet another photo shoot.
P’shaw. These girls are going to college.