Rodeo Queens: For Madonna, the look is just another fling. But to others, it has a deeper meaning

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Kendall Morgan / The Dallas Morning News

Everywhere you look, Rodeo Queens seem to be in the center of a cultural whirlwind.

They grace the pages of fashion magazines from Jane to V to Allure. They're lovingly portrayed in publisher Lisa Eisner's recent Rodeo Girl photography book. They're the subject of an upcoming documentary by Unzipped director Doug Keeve, which he plans to take to the Sundance Film Festival in January.

And then there's Madonna. Pop culture pundits may chalk up the ever-evolving diva's new look to ghetto fabulosity, but the cowboy hat and tiara combination she sports in the video for Music is pure rodeo queen.

Still, you can't appreciate what a vision a rodeo queen really is until you see one in the flesh.

She has perfectly done nails, shiny white teeth and full makeup that never runs or smears. Her clothing manages to be both flashy and demure: The leather and suede dresses in shades of red, purple and teal are draped with spangles, rhinestones, appliques and fringe; she always wears long sleeves; and skirts are usually down to the tops of her matching, dyed boots.

And the hair! Queens don't merely have hair, they have fluffy cumulus clouds cascading from their milk-white baby-powdered cowboy hats. Most of the time, the hair comes in shades of blonde, blonder and blondest.

A gathering of rodeo girls resembles a flock of exotic birds. Queens can ride, sometimes rope and discuss current events with equal ease.

Talk of "Western heritage" peppers their speech, and their main goal is to serve as beautiful ambassadors for the rodeo.

Any little girl who's seen a queen isn't likely to forget it. Photographer Lisa Eisner (a former West Coast editor for Vogue and occasional muse to designers such as Tom Ford and Isaac Mizrahi) had this experience as a child in Cheyenne, Wyo., where "the only game in town, once a year, is Frontier Days, which is the biggest rodeo in the world. It lasts 10 days and triples Cheyenne in population," she says.

She was a young tomboy when she rode by and first noticed the rodeo queens: "They were all sparkly and glittery and accessorized and girly, and I was, like, 'I wanna be a girl!' I always think I got into fashion because these rodeo queens, because they're super high fashion." Her dream ended when, in a stint as flag girl, her geriatric horse decided to jump a fence and missed. In true queen style, though, Ms. Eisner hit the dusty ground but kept her flag held high.

The memories remained, and in 1994, she decided to turn her lifelong obsession into a project. That year, she started to shoot the photos for Rodeo Girl, and early this year, she published it through Greybull Press, an imprint she formed with partners Roman Alonso and Lorraine Wild.

A buyer for the hip French boutique Colette saw Rodeo Girl at a Frankfurt, Germany, book fair and proposed a book party and gallery show during the collections in Paris in March. The event was the hit of the season.

Meanwhile, Ms. Eisner had talked with friends Doug Keeve and Unzipped producer Nina Santisi, piquing their interest in the film project. Soon, designer Ralph Lauren, who built a fashion empire on images of the American West, was also involved.

Ms. Eisner's enthusiasm was catching.

"Lisa sort of painted this amazing portrait of that world," says Mr. Keeve. "It's a beautiful world that is one of the only things I've seen that hasn't changed in many decades. It was like fashion [runway shows] — nothing prepares you for actually being there and what the experience is like. I want to show people the beauty and the nostalgia and the brutality and the passion that people have, and the queens are a big part of that."

In Paris for the show and party, Miss Rodeo America stopped traffic on the Champs Elysee. "The minute they leave their house, they cannot get out of their tiara and cowboy hat and their sash and buckle — the whole kit and caboodle," Ms. Eisner says.

Other stylemakers apparently took notice, too — among them, photographer Jean Baptiste Mondino, who knew of a certain pop star in need of a new image.

"The word is, he called Madonna and said, 'You've got to get this book Rodeo Girl, it really should be your look.' She got it, and that's how it happened. I saw the pictures in (the current issue of) Rolling Stone and she looks like Tammy Wynette," says Ms. Eisner. "It sort of all makes sense with the tiara and the jewelry. She turned it into a cowboy rap thing." But for the queens themselves, the look is a way of life.

They've come a long way from the polyester pants suits with matching gloves popular when Miss Rodeo America was launched in 1955. Yet today's queens still look much like their counterparts of the early 1980s. Fringe and sparkles may come and go, and colored hats are definitely out, but the modern rodeo queen retains both the style and the values of a bygone era.

"They really do have that Western way of life," says Ms. Eisner. While shooting the book and visiting Paris, the girls never whined or complained, she says. "Those girls never broke. I was with them a lot, and they were always there to meet anyone. ... Even though they look girly, they have the same sort of rules cowboys have.

They want to represent that world, and what's not to respect about that?"

"They're the ambassadors for the rodeo," says Mr. Keeve, who notes that it would have been easy to do a beauty-queen-bashing film, "because it has its extreme side that we can easily laugh at. But that's the obvious thing, and it's not really the truth. The truth is, there's a purpose, there's incredible hard work and there's a lot of integrity and meaning to it which is not so visible on the surface."

The rodeo queen phenomenon began with a group of men brainstorming about how to promote rodeo, says Raeana Wadhams, business manager for Miss Rodeo America. "They said, 'What's better than a really pretty, talented girl who could ride a horse and speak to the public?' " That's how it started." The national pageant, held each November in Las Vegas, has its headquarters in Colorado. The winner gets a $10,000 college scholarship; awards for appearance, personality, speech, congeniality and horsemanship also come with scholarship money.

About 30 to 35 delegates attend Miss Rodeo America —and not just from the South and West. There are Miss Rodeos Hawaii, Washington, Wisconsin and Florida and, occasionally, a Miss Rodeo New York.

The road to rodeo queen stardom starts with a title. It doesn't have to come from a judged pageant; it can be gained from a local convention and tourist bureau, from becoming a roping arena queen or by representing a hometown.

Entering the state pageant requires months, if not years, of preparation. Most girls are born into rodeo families and grow up learning the horsemanship skills they need.

For elements such as public speaking, manners and that queen quality, they turn to experts such as Marjorie Murphy, director of a Miss Rodeo pageant and team, who holds a clinic twice a year for prospective queens.

"You want a girl that's presentable. When she walks up, she doesn't have to be the most gorgeous girl, she does not have to be the most curvaceous. You can't tell a book by its cover, but that cover had better be attractive enough for you to open it up. Nothing takes the place of good grooming."

Chewing gum or ice in class is forbidden. Panty lines are a definite no-no. Girls are encouraged to fix their teeth, if need be, and keep their nails manicured because "people are watching them when they sign autographs."

Ms. Murphy says, "A lot of these girls came from small towns. I came from one myself. If you never get out of that town, you do not have a clue to what proper etiquette is. They need to enhance what they already have, they just need to polish."

Makeup tips and other hints are shared. A rodeo queen needs makeup that will not only match her outfit but also stay on while she's riding and performing.

Makeuup artist LuAnn Mancini's work with three Miss Americas and three Miss USAs led her to the rodeo queens. "The queens need to have something they can do quickly in their trailer, and they need to be able to do it without water. It's not truly theatrical makeup, but it's borderline," she says.

She works with one or two queens a year, the cream of the crop, she says, who've "had some custom clothes made and some special saddles. It's very expensive, so by the time they find me, they're pretty serious about winning."

The clothing, too, is pricey and elaborate. All those spangles and fringes may seem a bit extreme in the cold, hard light of day, but in the rodeo ring they look just right. "You've got to remember that the background in rodeo is brown earth and you have minimal light, so you've got to wear something that stands out," says Candace Clark, a pageant coordinator for Miss Rodeo Pioneer Days.

Typically, spangly shirts are worn with tight Wranglers for horse events, but when a queen really wants to make an impression, nothing but one of those appliqued leather dresses will do.

Some queens have moms that sew. Others are sponsored by businesses or people in the community. Another option is to remake gowns of royalty gone by. For more casual Western shirts, it's glitz, glitz and more glitz. Trends come and go, such as redos of the classic 1940s cowboy look from Hollywood designer Nudie, but a girl can never go wrong with basic rhinestones and sequins.

Still, the look is only a tiny part of the package.

There's no room for catty beauty pageant antics here: Most of the girls are not only civil to one another, they're friends. Says 22-year-old Brandy DeJongh, the reigning Miss Rodeo America, "There really isn't backbiting.

These girls are applying for a job, and that's the way we look at it. Whoever is the best ambassador is the one that's going to win, and they know that. So it doesn't do any good to get an attitude. We live in a friendly environment — that's the Western way of life."

The work that goes into becoming a queen seems like a combination of training for Miss America, the Olympics and finals.

Says Courtney Warden, "They send you a media guide, and I sit there and read it and read it, and I read it again."

That may seem extreme, but queens are routinely asked their views on issues such as abortion or President Clinton's philandering ways. Diplomacy learned through such exercises is useful later at civic events, or at government or military functions.

All of the preparation doesn't leave much time for the opposite sex. Boys are forbidden to hang around, because their presence distracts the girls and keeps fans from approaching. Queens can be friends with the cowboys, but no more than friends, until the end of their reign.

A real cowgirl might have to put the more extreme rodeo sports on the back burner as well. Courtney Stephens, the newly crowned Miss Rodeo Pioneer Days, is fond of "rough stock" events such as bull riding. Injuries are common in the sport —she's had a broken nose and ribs — and they could interrupt a queen's constant duties.

In fact, the rodeo queens show a tenacity and versatility that the toughest cowboys could envy.

"There's two words to sum it up: attitude and integrity," says Ms. Murphy. "You have to care about other people. You have to go to rodeos, you have to sign autographs, you have to be nice to people.

"Being a queen makes a girl a more well-rounded person and gives her an insight into our past and present. Everyone is proud of the way the West was won. Every little boy wants to play cowboys. And every little girl wants to be Dale Evans."