Queens of the West
They have the gift of grit, gab and glamour. They proudly carry the flag and they are guided by the Cowboy Code. They are legend. They are emulated. They are the ambassadors of rodeo.
Photography: Kendall Nelson
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A girl of roughly nine in a colorful cowgirl costume stands before a mirror throwing poses. There’s the shoot from the hip, the tip of the hat, and the toss of the ponytail. She tries out her expressions, from silly to sincere, seductive to severe.
Not too many years beyond this girlish goofiness, in an image held in the girl’s mind’s eye, a young woman is being formed.
If the child looks deeply, she can see her future self. Her costume more sophisticated, her glances more refined.
-Michelle Bobbitt, queen coordinator.
One can only wonder why one girl looks in the mirror and sees a soccer player, another sees a dancer, and another sees a rodeo queen.
But then, there they are, at any self-respecting rodeo: the girl in the glitzy outfit, riding hell-for-leather into the arena to add to the excitement of America’s unique celebration of the cowboy and cowgirl at their best. She’s the queen of the rodeo. As with any dream or aspiration, perhaps it is fortunate that in its vestiges the dreamer sees only the final outcome of inspiration.
What the dreamer sees is a young woman in matching brightly-colored boots and chaps. A blouse bedecked in sequins, belt buckle and sash, and topping it all, a high-crowned hat with the famous gold tiara announcing her, for the world to see . . . “Queen.” She sees little more than the exhilaration. When she slides into the saddle and embarks on what could be a 10-year ride to meet that future title, she does not immediately see the endless hours and miles ahead.
Learning to be a beauty in boots
Soon enough, she will learn what is expected: She’s got to look all sparkly and happy while charging around a dust-filled arena at full tilt on a strange horse, trying to stay in a saddle that’s too large, with stirrups too long, while carrying a flag that’s too heavy.
It doesn’t look that hard from behind the chutes of a small town’s rodeo ring, where she watches a friend check her makeup, or helps her sister tuck in her sequined shirt and tighten down her cowboy hat. And oftentimes it is here where admiration feeds the imagination and possibilities are revealed. It’s now when she inserts her name after the speakers blare, “And this year’s queen is…”
And now the work must begin.
Once she secures a horse, plants herself in the saddle and her eye firmly on the crown, the foundation of this path may be something simple, like a parade. Accompanied by the music of marching bands, snapping flags and the clopping and sideways dancing of horses on asphalt, it’s a fitting dress rehearsal. A parade has all the color and pageantry of a stage, with the audience constantly renewed block by block. Each wave of the hand and tip of the hat bringing fresh applause. Enough adoration to allow any queen to hone her signature moves.
But before she even gets there, before there is glitz, there is grit, and the real cowgirl—one who can balance both with a smile—will be defined.
Winning titles to reach the top
Witness the current Miss Rodeo Idaho. Her coronation in January of this year marked at least nine years of competing. Beginning with her first win as a Princess at the 1997 Elmore County Fair in Mountain Home, Idaho, Scharlee Roberts went on to win the coveted queen’s tiara in several local and regional events. Most notably, she was Miss Jr. Rodeo Idaho in 2000, Miss High School Rodeo in 2001, and Miss Teen Rodeo Idaho in 2004. These awards helped prepare her to clinch the state title at the Snake River Stampede in Nampa, Idaho, in 2005. As reigning queen, Scharlee is expected to represent Idaho and the sport of professional rodeo for one year. In December, she will compete for a final crown—Miss Rodeo America 2007—at the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada. Should Scharlee acquire the Black Hills Gold Tiara, she will bring Idaho the status of tying Texas for the most representative wins from any state—seven—in the pageant’s 51-year history. She will be expected to travel approximately 100,000 miles and attend at least 100 events as queen and foremost representative of the sport of rodeo. That’s one appearance roughly every 3½ days, enough to frighten a rock star! The end of that sort of year would mark over 10 in the queen competition business. For Scharlee, at age 21, that would mean . . . half her life. This sort of dedication is not unusual. Shelly Williams, the last young woman from Idaho to claim the national title in 1999, also spent at least 10 years pursuing that particular dream, and counts them among the most memorable years of her life.
America’s home-grown sport
Rodeo, a public competition where bronc riding and calf roping are graded for the skill demonstrated, is often billed as “America’s home-grown sport.” Its uniqueness lies in the sense that it evolved from a ranching necessity to a popular sport. It developed from the everyday chores performed by the American cowboy. Most of the elements of the work have trickled down intact into the competitive sport it is today. Most—like calf roping, team penning, and bucking horse riding—are a true part of everyday ranch life.
The cowboy life has a rich and varied history and a strong sense of tradition. That tradition is rooted deep in Spanish influences that came north from the great ranches of Mexico in the early 1800’s. Even our “Western” language owes much to that history. For instance, “Buckaroo” comes from early Texans mispronouncing the word “Vaquero.” The word “Paniolo” (Hawaiian cowboys, some of the best ropers in the world) resulted from the islanders’ inability to pronounce the word “Spaniards,” men imported to help them deal with cows overrunning the islands.
Today’s rodeo is sort of like a traveling circus, but one with different management at each location and where the participants pay to perform. Almost anybody with the price of entry can get in on the act. >>>