PLANT CITY — The queen was late.
By the time she pulled into the new RaceTrac, hundreds of people already packed the parking lot for the grand opening.
The high school marching band was tuning up, the Budweiser Clydesdales were huffing in their harnesses, and the queen's court was waiting beneath a balloon arch. The four teen girls wore what the queen wore: ruffly red sundresses, white jackets with strawberry sequins and the mandatory lipstick they called "old lady red."
The queen grabbed her crown off the dashboard of her red VW Jetta and stepped into the sunlight. Bending into her driver's side mirror, she pulled back her long blond curls and pinned on the 7-inch tiara.
"Hey!" called a middle-aged man in a Polo shirt. "We got royalty here!"
Chelsea Bowden, 18, pasted on a smile. In almost a year as Plant City's strawberry queen, she had learned to react with poise and grace — even the time a guy wanted to lick her crown to see if it tasted like strawberries.
"Okay, your job is easy," a woman wearing a RaceTrac shirt told Chelsea, leading her past the gas pumps toward the red carpet. "The store manager is going to cut the ribbon. All you have to do is stand here and look pretty."
As the Junior ROTC color guard waved flags and someone sang The Star-Spangled Banner, the queen held her manicured hand over her heart, closed her eyes, and prayed that she could fulfill everyone's expectations.
At least for one more day.
• • •
Every year about this time, when nights are still cool, days are drenched in winter sun and strawberries swell on their vines, the men in Plant City dust off their red jackets. Women dig out their strawberry scarves. Kids look with yearning toward the Ferris wheel sprouting from the field. Farmers in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World fill booths with flats of their best fruit.
And Plant City, population 35,000, welcomes a half-million visitors to its signature event: the Florida Strawberry Festival.
The living symbol of this eight-decade-long tradition is the strawberry queen, selected (it would be so wrong to say "picked") for her beauty, her charm, her poise during a Q&A.
Throughout the 10-day festival, and for the rest of the year, the queen and her court wave in parades, judge the shortcake-eating contest, start pig races. The role may sound hokey, but it means something in a town that has reveled in the tradition since 1930. The strawberry girls are expected to be modest, polite, well spoken — wholesome and sweet, like the fruit they celebrate.
"Plant City girls don't play house or dress up as princesses," said Chelsea's cousin, Regan Knotts, 19. "We played beauty pageant."
Chelsea Bowden comes from royalty. Both of her grandmothers were queens.
She was born, fittingly, on the first day of the 1994 festival, the youngest of three children. Her dad is a driver's ed teacher at Plant City High. Her mom is principal of Durant High.
Growing up, Chelsea played volleyball, made the honor roll, went to church, babysat. Pretty and confident, she grew to 5-11 — 6-3 when she trades her Nikes for heels. "But she never looks down on anyone," said strawberry maid Olivia Higgins. "She's just the sweetest thing."
Chelsea likes Rascal Flatts and the Beatles, Swamp People on TV, Twilight movies. She has never been to Disney World. "Why would I, when we have the festival right here?"
During Chelsea's senior year in high school, her mom hired a pageant coach for $75 an hour in Orlando instead of Plant City "so I wouldn't be like everyone else." Her parents bought her a midnight blue evening gown at Regalia for $3,000 — more than the scholarships she could earn.
When Chelsea won, she knew she had made her parents and her pastor proud, and earned her hometown's highest honor.
It turned out to be more complicated than that.
To become strawberry queen is to enter into a kind of contract. It's not just that you promise not to smoke, bare your midriff, curse or kiss in public. The assumption is that you will represent Plant City forever, that you will marry a Plant City boy and raise sons who will one day wear red jackets and daughters who will dream of becoming queens.
Chelsea didn't know the crown would be so heavy.
• • •
At first, it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
When Chelsea outlasted two dozen other girls for the crown, her friends at Durant High made a banner congratulating the new queen. Parishioners at First Baptist Church gave her a standing ovation. A boy she had known since elementary school finally asked her out.
Sandee Sytsma, who oversees the queen and her court, used her budget to buy each girl $1,000 worth of clothes — 10 matching outfits! Capri pants and pirate gauchos and Western shirts, all covered in glittering strawberries. Miss Sandee, as the girls call her, got them hairstylists and makeup artists and etiquette coaches.
Oh, the perks! Chelsea got to leave high school to go to Chamber of Commerce breakfasts and Lions Club luncheons and radio interviews. Sometimes she had four royal appearances a day. Chelsea threw out the first pitch for the Little League, visited the swine tent, met the governor.
Even after the festival was over, she often had four events a week. "It was amazing, all that attention," she said.
The week Chelsea was crowned, she was accepted at Samford University near Birmingham, Ala. But she couldn't go away to college and still fulfill her duties as queen. "It was the hardest choice I ever had to make," she said.
College could wait, she decided.
Being queen "was awesome, pretty much, all summer," Chelsea said.
But then some of her friends started leaving for school, for their new lives. She stayed behind in her parents' house, enrolled at the community college and looked reliably pretty at a golf tournament, a hospital, an antidrug walk.
"I mean, it's such an honor," she said. "I'm so lucky I got this chance."
It wasn't as if Chelsea wanted to do anything drastic, "like get drunk or have sex or get a tattoo." She just wanted to go to dinner in gym shorts, instead of having to do her hair to go to Outback. She wanted to wear pink lipstick, coral lipstick — no lipstick at all. Anything but the old lady red.
And okay, sometimes she fantasized about doing something no one would ever suspect the strawberry queen would do.
Like paint her nails black.
• • •
After the ribbon cutting at the RaceTrac, Chelsea and her court rehearsed for the next evening's pageant, where the 2013 queen would be crowned. At 8 p.m., they all headed for Brandon Mall to meet Miss Sandee for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory .
"Can you believe it's all over?" said Calli Jo Parker.
Another strawberry maid wiped her eyes. "I guess we're done for life."
Over salads, the girls reminisced about their year: meeting singer Luke Bryan, riding in the Christmas parade, posing for magazine shoots.
The talk turned to life after strawberry supremacy.
Calli Jo is engaged to a local guy. "Did I show you my ring?" she kept saying.
Olivia Higgins and her Plant City boyfriend have been together for four years, so even though he's away at the University of Virginia, "It's natural for me to think about marriage."
Erica Kelley dreams of opening a store that sells pageant dresses "right here in Plant City."
Chelsea ate her pasta, not saying a word.
She loves the town, loves everyone in it, appreciates all everyone has done for her. "Plant City is the most perfect place to grow up," Chelsea said, whenever anyone asked.
But she knows the town has a gravitational pull on people who grow up there. She saw people who tried to leave but couldn't, and many more who never even tried. Now that her reign was almost over, she could finally admit that she had plans for a life beyond the forever fields.
She cleared her throat and confided in her court, right there in the Cheesecake Factory. "I filled out my college housing form this afternoon." As soon as the Strawberry Festival was over, she was heading to Birmingham to see Samford. In August she would move there to study nursing. Her boyfriend, Justin Keel, also a Plant City native, was studying economics at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, but he wants to live in New York someday. Maybe, Chelsea thought, she would go with him.
Calli Jo put down her fork. "But you're coming back, right?" she asked. "I mean, to get married, have kids?"
• • •
The first pageant, in 1930, wasn't about beauty or public speaking or even representing Plant City. It was about publicity for the festival.
"People put jars with girls' photos on them in stores all over town," said Gil Gott, 71, who oversees the town's history center. "For a penny a vote, you could cast as many as you wanted."
By 1948, when Chelsea's paternal grandmother, Barbara Alley, was crowned, out-of-town judges selected the winners.
Chelsea's maternal grandmother, Ruby Jean Barker, won five years later. "They gave me a toaster and a coffee pot, for when I got married," said Ruby Jean, 77. Her last name is Redman now. "I told them I wasn't getting married. I was going to go to college and be an old maid schoolteacher and see the world."
She got as far as Florida State before she reconnected with Jim Redman, who had grown up down the street.
"Jim always wanted to come back to Plant City," she said. So they did. He opened a law practice, ran for the state House of Representatives, served 12 years in the Florida Legislature. (Today, the Redman name is on the hospital ER and the highway he widened.) Ruby Jean taught third grade for a couple of years but quit to raise their three girls.
All three went away to college, earned master's degrees, married Plant City boys and moved back to raise their children. All three still volunteer at the festival.
Jim died seven years ago, after 49 years of marriage to Ruby Jean. Other men have asked the former strawberry queen to lunch. But, "Jim was my only one." His red Strawberry Festival jackets still crowd her closet.
• • •
Two hours before the pageant, on her last day as queen, Chelsea bounced into Studio 3 Salon, carrying her crown and a zippered case filled with fake hair.
"Are we going curly tonight?" stylist Morgan Feaster asked.
"Yep," Chelsea said. "For the last time."
On a day when she doesn't have to be queen, Chelsea can get ready in 20 minutes. She pulls her hair into a ponytail, tugs on a ball cap, seldom bothers with makeup.
Before public appearances, it takes Chelsea, her hairstylist and a makeup artist at least two hours to complete the royal look.
"I'm glad I'm done," she told Feaster. "I'll never look like this at college."
In the next chair, another girl was getting ready for the pageant. "Are you really leaving?" Jordan Williams, 19, asked Chelsea. "I could never go away."
"It's only a 10-hour drive," said Chelsea. Far away from the spotlight and someone else's script, where no one knows her name, or has ever heard of a strawberry queen.
• • •
At the fairgrounds, more than 1,200 people had paid $15 to see the pageant. Vendors peddled T-shirts, sodas and, of course, strawberries.
Volunteers had transformed the steer showroom. Red curtains and potted palms hid the walls, and a runway jutted into the arena ring.
Ruby Jean sat behind 14 other former strawberry queens, almost all of them lifelong residents, like her.
"Our strawberry girls have always been leaders" said festival president Ron Gainey. "These girls come from good stock. They're our pick of the litter. Even when they leave the community, they come back here to have kids."
Backstage, the 2013 contestants were struggling to tie paper strawberry numbers on their arms. "Don't worry," Chelsea told them. "You look beautiful."
Then she walked out to sit in the front row.
"And now let us all applaud our 2012 queen and her court," said 2006 queen Hannah Benton. "You all have been such great representatives of our town."
On a large screen beside the stage, a video played. It showed Chelsea and the other strawberry girls at the Relay for Life, with Charlie Daniels and the Chick-fil-A cow. The four strawberry maids cried.
The queen closed her eyes and thanked God. For making her everything her town wanted her to be. For letting her get away with it when she kissed Justin at the Little League game.
"Okay, you ready?" a woman from the Lions Club whispered. "It's time to do your final walk. This is your last big moment."
Chelsea knew it wasn't true. She was sure she would have many more, out from under the tiara.
She crowned her successor and posed with Ruby Jean for a portrait of former queens. Then she dashed into the men's room, which had been annexed as the royal dressing area.
Sinking to the bathroom floor, she peeled off her crown, the towering sandals, the strawberry ball gown. Stepped into a tan blouse, black jeans, flat sandals. "No one cares about us now," she told Calli Jo. "It'll be so nice to just be me."
Calli Jo hugged her, then pulled back to wipe her tears. "Peace out, queenie," she said. "Around here, you'll always be queen."
Chelsea smiled, leaned into the mirror and wiped off her red lipstick.
• • •
A few weeks after Chelsea handed over her crown, Ruby Jean gathered four generations of her family for supper in her brick ranch house. Fried chicken and rice, barbecue pork and homemade bread. Strawberry placemats, strawberry napkins.
Over brownies, Chelsea announced, "Justin changed his mind." New York was out. Now he thought he would come back to Plant City, be an accountant for his dad's medical supply company.
"Turns out, he loves it here," Chelsea said. "I don't get it."
Her mom patted her shoulder. "Oh, I think after school you'll wind up back here too," she said. "Like all of us,"
"Oh no," Chelsea said. "You're so wrong. I'm going to Europe. I want to live abroad. I'm going to go to the Caribbean and Aruba and be a traveling nurse."
Across the table, Chelsea's older sister Katie laughed.
"Look at me," she said. "I went to school in Nebraska, married a guy from Brooklyn who joined the military, moved to Korea, then North Carolina with him. And now I brought him and our baby back here."
Chelsea retreated to the kitchen. Ruby Jean reached up and slipped her arm around her granddaughter's waist. "You'll get out of here, honey," she said.
Chelsea covered her mouth with her hand. That's when her grandmother noticed: She had painted her fingernails black.
• • •
Chelsea was late.
By the time she got to the Strawberry Festival for Thursday's opening day, thousands of people already packed the fairgrounds. The new queen and her court had already introduced Chubby Checker.
It was almost dark when she met up with Justin. She seemed subdued, distracted. She didn't hold Justin's hand. She walked with him and her parents past the bright midway, past the funnel cakes and fried Oreos. Every few steps, someone stopped them to talk or hug or tell Chelsea how pretty she looked. Everyone here knew her, even without the crown.
"So," asked a woman selling rhinestone strawberry shirts, "what's next for our former queen?"
Chelsea explained about Samford.
"Oh no," said the woman. "We've got to keep you here."
"Oh no," Chelsea said. "I've got to go."
Soon, at one of the stalls, Chelsea spied a red knit cap with ear flaps. It looked just like a strawberry. She had decided to leave behind her mementoes — the sash, the crown — when she went to college. But the little strawberry cap seemed to call to her.
"Okay, that's cute," she said, her old instincts kicking in.
"Try it on, honey," said her mom.
Chelsea thought for a moment. Then she shook her head and walked off ahead of everyone, not looking back.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.