April 11, 2009— -- 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.
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.
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.
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."
It was Shakespeare who wrote "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown," and for Lauren Der, the strawberry queen, it's quite literal. The crown is huge and weighs more than you would expect.
"It is very heavy. There's something that all the queens know about. We call it the queen's dent," Der says. "And after a full day of wearing that, you literally have a dent in your head from where the crown has been sitting."
She's a size zero and barely five feet tall, but she herds cattle with her father. Daddy's little girl also is a poised hunting partner. In her bedroom, she proudly displays the skull of a buck she shot with a 243 rifle. Both of her strawberry queen sashes hang from the antlers.
Der's grandparents planted acres and acres of orange groves that they still maintain and sell to orange juice conglomerates. She grew up playing in these orchards. As queen, Der embodies the small town sensibility. Behind her impossibly long lashes and dazzling smile is a whip-smart mind that holds wisdom beyond her years.
"Agriculture literally is the backbone of our country. I've learned hard work and a responsibility and a sense of integrity and being proud of where you come from," she says.
'You Can Be Current and ... Very Tasteful'
But as newly appointed ambassadors to that tradition, the queen and her court are given a crash course in etiquette.
They learn how to pass bread, which utensil to use at dinner, and even how to properly greet people.
Sandee Sytsma is equal parts den mother and corporate CEO. Still the only female member of the Strawberry Festivals board, she is the keeper of the flame.
For Sytsma, it's important the young women represent their community with class.
"They don't smoke, they don't drink. Foul language isn't approved of, [or] public displays of affection. The girls don't live with boyfriends," she says. "No high dresses and cleavage. I don't want little old ladies, but you can be current and you can be very tasteful."
Over 70 years, this little country fair has blossomed into a multimillion-dollar, 11-day extravaganza, all in homage to the humble strawberry.
In their own private hair and makeup room known as "the palace," the ladies prep, primp and pump themselves up with the kind of enthusiasm only a festival royalty can exude.
Five-hundred-thousand people pay the $10 gate fee to see everything from motocross racing to pig-swim races and big-name country music stars. But the real stars of the festival are all dressed in their strawberry best.
Everywhere they go, they get the royal introduction: "Ladies and gentlemen ... the strawberry queen and her court!" an announcer bellows when they make an entrance.
Newsome, one of the court members, says, "People recognize you, and the little kids look up to you, and that's a great experience in itself."
Feaster points out that "everyone looks forward to it every year and every girl dreams of being in it."
She attended as a child and says, "I've probably been [to the festival] every day of every year."
'Festival Represents What's Good About America'
During the Florida real estate boom, it was easy to dismiss the festival as a quaint produce event, but people might yearn once again for what can feel like sturdy bedrock under an avalanche of foreclosures. Even one of the main sponsors, a car dealership, went belly up.
The festival found a new sponsor, but everyone, even the queen, is mindful that the economic landscape has changed.
Der explains, "As much as we are experiencing bad times in our country, I feel like the festival represents what's good about America. It represents volunteering in your community, and it represents being proud of where you come from."