Princesses of Rodeo: Inside Arizona’s Miss Sweetheart Pageant

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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.

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