Strawberry Festival queen is part diplomat, part diva, and comes from royal stock

PLANT CITY

The tapping of heels announces the queen's arrival. • Through the doorway comes the crown perched atop a blond head. The smart white sash crosses from shoulder to hip. The ruffled red dress adds jaunt with its bubble hem. • Even the simple black heels sound a little bit more regal on the feet of a queen. • "I didn't know how to do my hair," says Chelsea Bowden, without sounding at all preoccupied about it. Her blond hair swoops delicately into a low ponytail, curled tendrils hanging by her ears. • "You're lucky you're cute," royal chaperone Sandee Sytsma tells her affectionately. • Later in the day, the 17-year-old queen will meet the governor. Sytsma tugs at the bow around the queen's waist, retying it straighter. • In the weeks leading up to her hometown's premier event, the Florida Strawberry Festival, the queen reigns over all things Plant City.

Chelsea has a noble lineage, the product of two grandmothers who once represented the festival, too. She will dazzle in the strawberry spotlight for the festival's 11-day run, introducing country warblers and relaxing in the Palace — the home away from home for royalty during the festival.

She's a symbol, an icon, the face of a small town with homey values.

• • •

"When I was little, I thought it was just the crown and the sash and all the beautiful clothes," Chelsea says.

But she's learning that the crown means much more than that.

The Durant High senior and volleyball player takes time off from school for appearances and luncheons. She provides authority on red lipstick for a TV segment on makeup and bequeaths a signed festival cookbook to a local morning show host.

"I am not a country girl at all," she says, but gamely gets on a horse at a photo shoot that puts her on the cover of a local magazine.

Politely and apolitically, she tells Rick Scott, "Thank you for being our governor." In front of a boardroom of people in beige suits, she smiles and invites the county commissioners to the festival.

She tosses a ceremonial first pitch at Little League. She learns to mind her manners by tearing her bread roll into pieces when dining at fancy functions. But she still complains, "You can't get enough butter on it!"

The youngest of three, she tries to return home every night in time for dinner with her parents, mother Pam, the Durant High principal, and father Bud, a Plant City High driver's ed teacher.

She comes under such great demand for photographs that she quickly falls into a natural pose, one leg slightly in front of the other. When asked about her favorite festival country music act, she struggles to choose just one.

"Oh, my gosh, that's so hard," she says. "Maybe Luke Bryan?"

This is what it means to be modern-day royalty, the Kate Middleton of strawberries. Within the bounds of proper and ceremonial, Chelsea pops with youthfulness and playfulness.

• • •

In 1930, Plant City made it official: The Strawberry Festival marked a celebration of the region's leading economic drive. All hail the strawberry, red and juicy and deliciously profitable.

This was a time when packing houses filled downtown streets, when railroad cars shipped crates and crates of berries on ice. Families bought from stores on credit and paid off their bills when the harvest came in. Schools closed for the winter so children could pick the fields.

Among the vendors, midway rides and shows, the organizers planned a contest to crown a festival queen. At a penny a vote, with no limit on how many ballots a person could submit, the community selected its queen by way of fundraising, according to Gil Gott, executive director of the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center.

"This wasn't intended to be a beauty contest," he says. "It was more of a popularity contest."

Out of 36 contestants, a winner emerged: Charlotte Rosenberg, daughter of local retailers. With nearly 50,000 votes, the beauty with blue-lavender eyes snagged the top honor. She led the grand parade through downtown, the event ending in her coronation.

• • •

The festival paused after 1941 for World War II. It came roaring back in 1948, the city abuzz with excitement for the festival to resume.

Girls flooded the queen's contest, competing only in formal dresses.

"All the judges saw was what was on stage," says Barbara Bowden, Chelsea's grandmother.

The former Miss Alley, now 82, won the crown as an 18-year-old Florida State University freshman in a white satin gown with long white gloves. She eventually married her escort, Hilman Bowden.

"That makes me king, doesn't it?" he jokes.

She received just one gift: a big bouquet of real red roses. She kept the ribbon and pressed it between pages of a scrapbook.

"Just to be named queen was honor enough," she says.

People sent her letters of congratulations, often addressed to her father. Soon after the coronation, she rushed back to college, and that, she says, was pretty much it.

• • •

Ruby Jean Redman put her name in for queen on a whim. The Jaycees knocked door to door in 1953 encouraging young ladies to compete.

"We kind of just entered it for kicks," says Redman, 77, Chelsea's maternal grandmother.

Redman showed off casual wear in shorts and formal wear in a dress with a crinoline. The judges inquired about her future plans.

When she won, her crown came with other prizes: a toaster, a coffee pot, pots and pans.

(Chelsea says: "I didn't get a toaster and I'm glad I didn't, because I don't need that." )

Back then, the festival seemed more modest than it is now, Redman recalls. There weren't so many treats, no deep-fried everything. The entertainment featured fewer "brand-name" acts.

She met so many people, so many strangers. "I needed to be a role model," she says, "and always have a good attitude and do the right thing. In that sense it made you grow up a little bit."

Some 50 years later, she sat in the audience with Barbara Bowden and watched Chelsea claim the title.

"Be yourself," was all Redman had advised.

• • •

On stage, Chelsea wasn't nervous but took her time on stage in heels. All the better for the judges to see her.

She strutted in casual wear and a midnight-blue evening gown with a detailed bodice, heels elevating her statuesque 5-foot-11 frame. Unlike Miss America, she didn't need to exhibit a talent or wear a swimsuit. Around the country, pageants have redubbed scanty swimsuit categories as "lifestyle and fitness competitions," but here they eliminated that altogether.

She had rehearsed with a coach to answer the judges' questions. What, they asked her, is the main role of the strawberry queen?

Weeks after the pageant, she still can recite the answer perfectly: "I think she's someone that's the face of the festival," she says, "and an ambassador for the Florida Strawberry Festival and Plant City. I also think she must be a role model and a person of integrity and class."

Victoria Watkins, last year's queen, transferred the crown to Chelsea's head.

Chelsea's phone filled with congratulatory text messages. Later that night, she had 47 friend requests on Facebook. Within a month, the newly crowned queen had hundreds of new Facebook friends.

The people of Plant City showered her with gifts. She received scholarships, a trophy, a little strawberry charm to hang from her cellphone. Little girls asked for her autograph.

"The next morning, I woke up and I was laying there in bed," she says. "And I was like, 'Did I really win strawberry queen last night? Did that happen?' "

Stephanie Wang can be reached at swang@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

. If you go

The festival

The 77th annual Florida Strawberry Festival runs through March 11. Tickets at the gate are $10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6 to 12; free admission for children under 6. Participating Sweetbay Supermarkets sell advance discounted tickets through the festival. For information and special admission days, go to flstrawberryfestival.com or call (813) 752-9194.

Strawberry Festival queen is part diplomat, part diva, and comes from royal stock 03/01/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 1, 2012 3:30am]

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