Strawberry Girls Reign Over Winter Strawberry Festival

Strawberries grow thick along the dusty roads of Plant City, Fla., about an hour outside Tampa. Little bursts of tender fruit grow row after row under the Florida sunshine.

But these succulent ruby red berries aren't the only bounty produced here. Year after year, a local festival produces a bumper crop of pageant royalty.

They're less role models than living monuments to a fading slice of Americana.

While the passing decades have transformed Florida from farms to resort towns choked with chain restaurants and tourist magnets, the strawberry queen and her court stand in defiance of the rush to urbanization.

Click here to see photos of the strawberry queen and her court.

'Trying to Stay on Top of Things'

Most of the girls are barely out of their teens, but at six feet tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Megan Cochran looks like a supermodel in training. The high school senior and brain surgery survivor is as athletic as she is smart.

Last year, she underwent brain surgery to relieve her chronic headaches, but now she's back to feeling 100 percent like herself.

A bright scholar who scored 1300 on the SATs, she laughs, "I'm in all [Advanced Placement] classes, trying to stay on top of things."

A few years back, the Strawberry Pageant made the [Grade Point Average] requirements stricter, from 2.5 to 3.0, and it did away with the swimsuit competition.

There were some in town who grumbled about what the court might end up looking like, but one look at Cochran makes one realize smart and attractive are not mutually exclusive.

Perspective on Others' Lives

Over the 70-year history of the pageant, only two Hispanics and one African American have been selected for the court. Minorities make up only 10 percent of Plant City's population, and some work as migrant farm hands picking strawberries.

Morgan Feaster is a sultry brunette with a friendly smile who works as a hairdresser at her mom's salon and wants to make a career of it.

In high school, Feaster tutored migrant workers' children. The experience tutoring one young girl whose parents work in the fields gave her a greater appreciation and awareness of the workers' sacrifices.

"Sometimes you take for granted what her family does, you know, 'cause we just, I mean, eat the strawberries," she says. "We don't have to pick them. And so sometimes we take for granted, you know, what they're here for. But then once you meet their children and see how their life is, you kind of [have sympathy]."

Strong AND Attractive

Joclyn Emerson waits tables at the Beef O'Brady's.

Just for kicks a few years back, she entered a bodybuilding competition.

To prepare, she worked out twice daily for three months, both lifting weights and doing cardio. She also changed her diet, eating nothing but grilled chicken and green beans.

All 100 ripped pounds of her won the high school title of Miss Cougar 2006. One look at Emerson and you quickly realize strong and attractive aren't mutually exclusive, either.

Young Woman and Her Steer Compete

Sara Beth Newsome is first maid in the Strawberry Court. She's also showing her steer, Woody, at the festival.

Woody gets ready for the festival with a little primping of his own. Newsome cleans him up in preparation for his appearance.

"That would be the blow dryer," she explains, referring to the yellow contraption hanging in her barn. "It's just an easier way of keeping 'em clean if you dry their hair first, and keeps them healthy, too."

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