Monday, September 26, 2016

Land of Tiaras

The Cattle Queen on a bull

The 2008 Cattle Festival Queen, Kristen Hoover, poses for a photo with Mr. Puzzles. Photo: David Valdes Greenwood

On a hot day in August 2008, David Valdes Greenwood was in Rayne, Louisiana, a Cajun town of some 8,500 people about three hours west of New Orleans. He had just arrived at the Rayne Civic Center and RV Park, having briefly met the five young women who were competing to be Frog Queen, a highlight of the annual Rayne Frog Festival.

Each contestant was having closed-door interviews with the judges, who tested them on their knowledge of the frog industry as well as the ability to speak with confidence about it. All was quiet until 19-year-old Chelsea Richard emerged from the interview room, her eyes filling with tears.

“I’d only had five minutes of conversation with her before she met the judges,” says Valdes Greenwood, a lecturer in English in the School of Arts and Sciences. “But I’m a father, she’s a little tiny thing, and so I said, ‘Are you all right?’ ”

Convinced she’d blown the interview, she was soon crying on his shoulder. “I messed it up. Why can’t I just say what I’m feeling?” she implored.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment for Valdes Greenwood, and the opening of his new book, The Rhinestone Sisterhood: A Journey Through Small-Town America One Tiara at a Time (Crown). It’s the story of four young women and their yearlong reigns as festival queens—kissing animals, riding floats, opening shopping centers, giving speeches, all the while growing up with family, boyfriends, jobs and school. It is, Valdes Greenwood says, a story of small-town America that is seldom told.

Most city-dwellers probably can’t understand how big a deal being Frog Queen is in southern Louisiana. The same holds true for Swine Queen, Yam Queen or any of the 150 or so country festival titles.

These aren’t beauty pageants. The contestants, ages 17 to 23, represent their towns and industries and travel to dozens of events during their crown year to promote their festivals and products. Rayne, which calls itself the Frog Capital of the World, once exported a goodly amount of legs to France, where such delicacies are more appreciated than they are this side of the Atlantic. The Frog Queen’s mission is to champion the history of the local amphibians. It’s a job with an unusual requirement: holding frogs for photo shoots.

All those queens and their titles seem ripe for humor, but The Rhinestone Sisterhood doesn’t trade in sarcasm. “I wrote this book and wrote it the way I did because I just feel like snark has had its day,” Valdes Greenwood says. “Our culture has just beaten that horse.

“People in the festival world, not just in Louisiana, but in general, they really manage a lovely balance of ‘it’s funny’ and ‘it’s serious,’ ” he says. “There’s plenty that’s funny, but they know it’s funny.”

For example: “There are queens the size of linebackers and others who appear wraithlike, girls just tall enough to go on the big rides at Disneyland and others who have to duck through doorways. It’s not just body type that doesn’t conform to one neat image; there are queens with eyeglasses, problem skin and braces—surface details that matter less to judges than the glow of the girl within.”

Typically when you see portrayals of small town life, Valdes Greenwood notes, “it’s very hick, as if people don’t read, go to school, shop, have jobs, watch TV—which is ridiculous, of course.” Reading his book, you don’t have to know about pageants or small towns: it’s a story about four girls, with their attendant joys, hopes and sorrows.

“If I have a brand, it’s smart uplift,” Valdes Greenwood says. “You can be uplifting without being stupid. You can be positive and have something behind it.”

Skinning Muskrats and Racing Frogs

Valdes Greenwood—also the author of Homo Domesticus: Notes from a Same-Sex Marriage and A Little Fruitcake: A Childhood in Holidays—ended up on the Louisiana tiara beat in part due to his daughter’s choice of a Halloween costume in 2007. Lily, then two and a half years old, “overnight turned into a princess,” he says. “And classic leftie parent, I was horrified—oh my God, she can’t be princess!” He calmed down, and Halloween went on with pink dress and frills.

But it started him thinking about portrayals of women: either they “like dress up and sparkly things and are stupid, or they are strong and active and smart,” he says. Casting about for ideas for a new book, he decided he wanted to write about “interesting role models who liked dress up and were kick-ass.” An NPR story about the Miss Outdoors contest in rural Maryland—the winner has to skin a muskrat as part of her duties—gave him just the inspiration he needed.

Valdes Greenwood had grown up in a town of 3,000 in Maine, where other municipalities crowned a Brown Egg Queen, a Lobster Queen and a Blueberry Queen. His new book, he decided, would document small-town America through the lens of those festival queens, tiaras and all.

He pitched the idea to his agent, and soon was making his way to the Wild Turkey Festival in McArthur, Ohio, and the Rhododendron Festival in Port Townsend, Washington, scouting for queens to write about. His third stop was Rayne, Louisiana. He picked it because the town he grew up in had an annual frog race, which happened to be on the same summer weekend as the Rayne Frog Festival. “Thirty years ago, when I was a kid racing frogs, so were they,” he says.

He soon found that people in Rayne were “so friendly—I mean, crazy friendly,” he says. “Here’s this gay guy from the Northeast who comes down with a microphone and a camera, and the woman who runs the festival and the pageant basically told me, ‘Come on in.’ ”

After that first day, the festival folks took him out to a local bar. They hung out with a local denizen, an older man who was holding court and telling dirty jokes. Wanting to know if the small town would really accept him, or was simply being Southern-polite, when the barfly kidded Valdes Greenwood about something, he replied, “I don’t think my husband would like that.”

“What your husband doesn’t know doesn’t have to hurt him,” the man responded, without missing a beat. It was then that Valdes Greenwood knew Cajun country was indeed going to be his second home for a year while he chronicled the reign of the Frog Queen.

He chose three other festival queens to follow besides Chelsea: the Fur & Wildlife Queen, the Cotton Queen and the Cattle Queen. He even went to the D.C. Mardi Gras in Washington (a Louisiana bash of mammoth proportions at the Capitol Hilton) and the biggest event of all: the Queen of Queens Pageant, when the top festival queen is chosen in New Orleans. Inevitably, as would be the case with girls in or just out of their teens, there was drama—life always intervenes in our otherwise-perfect plans—which Valdes Greenwood reports with grace and aplomb.

In the end, he says, he became quite close to the queens and their families—some have come up north to visit and all implore him to bring his husband and daughter to visit.

And Lily, his daughter—does she still want to be a princess? That was three years ago, he says. “The princess thing is all gone now.”

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.