Pageant contestants share a cultural bond

It’s been 54 years since she was named Miss Shenandoah County Pageant Queen in 1963.

Jane Senseny (now Rhodes) was the fourth young woman to win the modern title and she is looking forward to meeting more than half the 56 former fair queens who will be part of the Fair’s 100th anniversary celebration, as well as the 2017 queen.

That legacy gathering will be held tonight at Woodstock’s Central High School after the crowning of this year’s queen.

“It will interesting to talk and see what they experienced when they won,” said Mrs. Rhodes, 74. “We can share that and what happened in Richmond. I’m sure that has changed.”

Shenandoah queens compete in the annual Virginia Association of Fairs contest, where six have prevailed, including the 2016 Shenandoah County Fair winner Queen Jensen Hoover, who also won the state contest.

Pageant winners – and contestants – share a unique bond, much like high school alumni or former teammates in sports, based on their common experience of prepping for and participating in the competition and making friends.

When the queens get together, they will be part of a “pageant culture,” said Bridgette Fischer, co-director of the Shenandoah County Fair Scholarship Pageant.

Fisher has been involved in pageants since she was a toddler and has the perspective of someone who competed for 15 years and has helped put on pageants for more than 20 years. She owns the Main Street Tease and Tweeze salon in Woodstock.

“I competed in Page County pageants when I was 3 years old and I made friends then that are still good friends now,” said Fisher. “Mom put me in the pageant because I was very shy and obviously, I’m not shy now.”

Mothers often enter their young daughters in pageants because of the fun getting them dressed up and the socialization of being around other little girls.

“It definitely made me more well rounded,” said Fischer. “I had to communicate with people in all aspects, whatever the situation was and it definitely helped me overcome my shyness. It brings young girls out of their shell and that builds bonds.”

Political correctness has changed the name of pageants. They are no longer called “beauty” pageants, although with their gowns, coiffured hair, dazzling smiles and physical presence, isn’t beauty the key to winning a competition?

“No, absolutely not,” said Fischer. “The majority of them are based on talents and the interview. The fair looks at how active they are in the community.”

“Judges are from out of town,” she added. “We live in the Pageant Belt so sometimes it is hard to get people who have pageant judging experience and don’t know the contestants.”

“People have a stereotype that pageant winners don’t want to work, don’t want to get dirty but they are all-around girls and it’s a lot of hard work,” said Fisher.

That is one reason that when winners are announced, the runners-up are often gracious and appear happy for the winner.

They know how hard everyone worked, and they are happy because the winner put in as much hard work as they did, said Fisher.

“It’s a good basis for forming a friendship,” she said.

Kennedy Whetzel, 12, who won the national Miss Junior High School of America pageant this year and has been a contestant in the Shenandoah County pageant has friends all over the country.

“I have a friend in Hawaii I text all the time,” she said. “We have a lot of things in common.”

Rhodes, who who has lived and worked in the area her entire life and has lost touch with a couple of the winners after her, noted, “I want to talk to different girls and find out what they felt when they won.”

Fischer said she has lifelong friends she met when she was 3 years old and they now may be married to a doctor, a NASCAR driver or lawyer. One friend is an actress on Broadway, she said.

Fischer was in charge of contacting the prior winners and the fair received 30 RSVPs.

“It was exciting getting that many back,” said Fisher. There will be a reception dinner before tonight’s pageant and the group will recognized on stage and receive some gifts from sponsors.

“They were hard to track down but we finally got to them all. They married and moved all over,” said Fischer.

The first modern queen was Brenda Holsinger in 1960. In 1968 she married H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who went on to become a four-star general and rose to fame as the commander of Desert Storm in 1991. He died of complications from pneumonia in 2012.