There they were last week, bright exotic birds in a cluster. The pink, purple, green, blue and yellow plumage was not unusual for Las Vegas, but these girls, 21 of them, were not opening in a new revue. They were present and breathing to compete for the title of Miss Rodeo America, the winning of which, as one aspirant put it, "is something every girl dreams of."
Presumably her dreams had expectable motivations, which included some $1,700, $6,000 worth of stock in the Mary Kay Cosmetics company, 27 complete outfits and a new saddle—although this year there was one contestant who simply explained her presence, "I just like rodeos."
The pageant was held for the fourth year at the Frontier Hotel, which volunteered in a news release that "wholesome Western-type beauties" would bring "...their skills in horsemanship for the suspenseful competition. A five-day period of trials will follow under the watchful and observing eyes of judges from IRM [International Rodeo Management Association]. Ratings will be based upon Personality, Appearance and Horsemanship." There is no bathing suit competition in the Miss Rodeo America contest, but please remember that at Atlantic City they don't tie goats.
Nineteen states and Canada sent queens (Texas, reportedly being large, sent two) and the girls flitted around the pageant's registration booth in the lobby of the Frontier, flashing smiles at each other and, when in doubt, at the wall or at a chair. Occasionally the radiance dimmed and a certain squinchy-eyed look, usually associated with cowboys staring down an empty main street at the bad guy, took its place, but that was pretty much confined to moments when a rival checked in and got checked out.
The contestants, finally assembled, were firmly led off to the official suite to have certain rules laid on them by coordinator Dorothy Alexander who, although new to Miss Rodeo America, is the veteran of many a Miss America triumph. "One bad incident can wreck a pageant," she said darkly, and proceeded to make sure that nothing of the sort would occur in Nevada. The girls, two to a room, were not allowed to leave it without a chaperone. Doors were to be bolted at all times and, no matter who was knocking, were to be opened only to a chaperone. Naturally—if ironically in Las Vegas—drinking and gambling were forbidden under pain of disqualification, as were phone calls and conversations without the chaperone. No communication was permitted with parents, who were thus forced to lurk about the lobby and dining room of the Frontier in the hope of a passing glimpse of daughter and/or her competition.
Pondering all this, the girls were returned under close escort to their rooms to change for a reception to launch the festivities. This was hosted by singer Wayne Newton, and it was clear that the five-day period of trials was under way. A plain Miss America candidate would have had it all over a Miss Rodeo America hopeful at this one, as Western attire calls for gloves. Some of the girls gave up the battle with plates, hors d'oeuvres, publicity poses and the gloves and simply ate with them on, inviting unimaginable damage to their Appearance ratings.
The judges duly judged the girls eating dinner and were there again at 7:30 in the morning for breakfast. The smiling contestants took their places, and each managed a short talk about herself and her state. This seemed to kill some appetites, but tension was relieved when Fran Devereux, Miss Rodeo Arkansas, stood up and gave a lusty hog call. (Miss Devereux was subsequently elected Miss Congeniality.) At lunch, as Miss Rodeo America is expected to be able to think fast, the girls were tested by having to field questions on subjects ranging from national affairs to tricky rodeo problems. After this, each had three interviews, one for Appearance, one for Personality, one for Horsemanship.
The Appearance judges all but used a jeweler's loupe to examine the contestants. The girls first modeled their outfits (a rodeo queen's wardrobe does not, of course, include a dress) and then took off their jackets, a maneuver that would have taxed Gypsy Rose Lee, entailing, as it did, removing the gloves, unpinning the state banner at shoulder and hip, and answering questions while unbuttoning and removing the jacket. Tall and dashing Valerie Foutz, Miss Rodeo New Mexico, filled in the time by explaining that her yellow crushed velvet outfit weighed 20 pounds. "Yellow is my favorite color," she said, "but I couldn't find the material I wanted except in upholstery fabric. It is hot and heavy, but when I get tired of it I can always cover a piece of furniture."
Geri Gibson, Miss Rodeo Utah, ultimately won the Miss Appearance award. A Sunday-school teacher, among other things, she admitted that she had spent all her state-award money on clothes—three $235 suits, ordered by catalog from Denver. Marilyn Norris, Miss Rodeo Texas, who was third runner-up, said with justifiable pride that her clothes were custom-tailored by her mother. Her boots, however, were of ostrich skin.
As one chaperone said, she could spot tailor-made clothes at a glance. "The suit, for example, can run between $250 and $350. Boots start at about $50, and the hat at $25. Then there is the shirt, scarf or tie, gloves, belt and buckle, and so on. I figure most well-turned-out contestants are standing up in about $600 worth of clothes, and most have at least 10 complete changes."
The next day, after more breakfast speeches, a second round of interviews got under way. Personality Judges, to take the girls unaware, resorted to such questions as, "Do you believe in polygamy?" for Miss Rodeo Utah (who replied tranquilly, "Yes. I had five mothers"). Miss Rodeo Nevada was less tranquil when asked what the Pentagon Papers were—"Gee, I just know we studied that in school"—and an interesting number of the girls listed Look as one of their regular magazines. Miss Rodeo Southwest Texas came through nicely, however, by explaining the Dewey Decimal System and replying, when asked if she felt there should be a swimsuit category, "Why? Western clothes are cut so tight they aren't going to hide anything about a girl's figure."
The following morning saw the girls off to a nearby ranch to show how well they could handle a horse. Since Miss Rodeo America is expected to ride any horse she's given at the various rodeos she will adorn, the judges were understandably bent on sifting out any Sunday riders. The test consisted of two go-rounds on two strange horses, chosen by draw. The rider had to execute a figure eight with change of lead, come to a sliding stop, do quarter turns on the haunches, a clover leaf around barrels and finish with a Miss Rodeo Queen gallop around the ring, acknowledging the crowd; on a third horse they did a pole-bending pattern, a sort of equestrian slalom. This was followed by the goat-tying. In real rodeos it is calf-roping, but (Women's Lib or no) it is admitted that the girls are not as strong as the boys, so the former tie a tethered goat, which is lighter than a calf. They gallop to it, stop, leap off and run for the goat as though it were on the end of a lasso attached to the saddle. Quite a few fingernails bit the dust, but on the whole the girls picked up the animals and flanked them like pros. Despite a much needed change of goat halfway through the proceedings, the replacement bellowed in such outrage every time she was flanked that one judge remarked, "That goat's going to be glad we're at the end of the alphabet."
No doubt the girls were, too. Except for the final seven breakfast speakers, the judging was over. That evening there was a pajama party at the unfashionably early hour, for pajama parties, of 9 p.m. It featured, in addition to soft drinks, potato chips and the like, an exchange of gifts among the contestants. Miss Rodeo Colorado had miniature cowboy hats—it had taken her grandmother three weeks to knit them—attached to state recipe books. Miss Rodeo California passed around state spoons. Miss Rodeo Texas distributed Neiman-Marcus shopping bags and yellow roses of Texas folded into scarves with Texas charms attached. Miss Rodeo Oklahoma had some leather and wood hair slides made by the prisoners at the state penitentiary, and Miss Rodeo Nebraska passed out a replica of the state mascot. She and Miss Rodeo Oklahoma had a few words to say to each other about football—not a new subject between them. Idaho proved the most munificent state, as ashtrays, paperweights, beef jerky and candy bars came out of cardboard cartons. Iola Anglin, the Idaho state rodeo queen, explained that there had also been some cheese; it had turned moldy in shipping, but at least she had some pencils to hand out from the cheese makers. Shortly, some of the girls were exchanging their addresses and even addressed envelopes as they planned to keep in touch. Clearly, they were sharing an important experience. Many of them had come on their first plane ride and others were visiting the biggest city they had ever seen—insofar as they got to see it at all. Even Dorothy Alexander unbent to the extent of relaxing the rules against visiting between rooms.
By the next day she had toughened up again. At the afternoon rehearsal for the evening's big moment, she showed her charges where and how to stand and then announced, in a speech calling to mind the best of Mary Poppins and Casey Stengel, "Now one thing I do not want, after they start with fourth runner-up and so on, and one of you knows that you are the only girl left and you know, whoever you are, that you are Miss Rodeo America—I don't want clutching of the face and a great EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEeeeeeee!"
The ladies heeded her words. After the last special trophy for Miss Horsemanship (tiny Vicki Christensen of Oregon) the five finalists were called forward. The only person who displayed emotion was Susan Merrill, the retiring Miss Rodeo America, who choked and teared most becomingly. But when Miss Rodeo Nevada, Pam Martin (4-H Junior Leader; Nevada Cowboy's Association "Rookie of the Year" 1971; member, Elks Helldorado Committee, Lodge #1468; and registered model), saw that she was going to be the chosen one, she kept herself well in hand. Clutching the Miss Personality trophy, attired in all the regalia—banner, roses and crown (worn, in this instance, around her hat like a large hatband)—she accepted the honor graciously. She stepped forward, grasped the mike and began the speech, the one that begins, "I want to thank my parents...."
But who's to say about winners. Miss Rodeo Nebraska, Chris Ferguson, who had stood all afternoon valiantly squinting through her contacts and exchanging quips with Miss Rodeo Oklahoma, was also ready to receive congratulations. The oldest contestant (at 21), she had changed her goal from schoolteaching to horse training because "After all," as she said, "it's better to be called an old maid horse trainer than an old maid schoolteacher." But then she decided against both. Chris Ferguson announced her engagement.