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Strawberry Festival teen has a steer and a role in the Queen and Court

PLANT CITY

Her perfectly styled long brown locks might not stay that way throughout the Florida Strawberry Festival. • Her makeup will likely need to be touched up, too. And please ignore those brown cowboy boots. • Fortunately, everyone in town will understand Lindsey English's situation. She is a member of the Strawberry Festival's Queen and Court. She is also competing with Shelton, her large and furry partner, during the festival's steer show. • It'll be a hectic and crazy time, but English says she is up for the challenge and thinks it will be a lot fun to juggle both roles. • "It's just who I am," the Plant City High School senior said. "It's what I do."

English, 17, was one of 20 girls vying to be the 2014 festival queen. She and four others made it to the Top 5, and then competed to see who would be queen.

Judges named Jessi Rae Varnum queen, and English earned runnerup, or what is called "1st Maid," in Strawberry Festival pageant language.

Making the five-member Queen and Court meant English would have two roles in the festival: donning fancy dresses to act as an ambassador of the Strawberry Festival and wearing simpler clothes and cowboy boots to take part in the steer competition.

So, which role does she favor? The fancy dresses and all the pomp associated with the Queen and Court, or the inevitable dirt on your cowboy boots and hay in your hair while caring for Shelton?

"It's hard to say," English said, laughing. "I can't really pick."

To the organizers of the Strawberry Festival, the pageant, which dates to 1930, is a huge deal. It boasts a $20,000 budget and has been featured on Good Morning America, the New Yorker and Southern Living.

The livestock and the kids who show them make up a big part of the festival's history. So every effort is made to support the pageant girls who are showing an animal or in some cases, plants. There are restroom facilities nearby outfitted with showers; festival organizers coordinate to make sure they can attend all the events.

Almost every year, someone in the pageant's Famous Five is also involved with showing an animal or a plant.

"I strongly encourage it because it keeps who we are intact," said Sandee Sytsma, coordinator for the Queen and Court and a member of the Strawberry Festival's board of directors. "This is who we are."

The Strawberry Festival Scholarship Pageant rules require teens to have good grades and be great citizens. Applicants need a 3.0 grade point average, a "clean social media" presence and must be between ages 16 and 20. Good public speaking skills are a benefit too, Sytsma added.

"These girls are role models for the community," Sytsma said. "We just have high standards."

In addition to high school, English is also enrolled as a sophomore at Hillsborough Community College. She is a member of the National Honor Society and also president of the Plant City High School Senior FFA.

This year, English is the only member of the Queen and Court with two roles. On at least two occasions, English will appear on stage to introduce the night's musical act wearing cowboy boots, black jeans, a white shirt, blue corduroy jacket and scarf while the other members of the court wear stylish dresses.

Then, she'll run to the steer barn to tend to her other job — caring and showing Shelton.

English bought Shelton from a neighbor when he was a calf. He is now 1 ½ years old and weighs about 1,000 pounds. Shelton must be fed, watered and exercised. English also has to clean his stall.

English joked that she has developed some muscles caring for the animal. She has a good relationship with Shelton — but he knows that she's the boss.

"If they know you're scared, they'll take advantage of you," she said.

English likes the steer, saying he is nicer than the one she had last year. That steer stepped on her foot, leaving a nasty bruise. She is not so sure that mishap was an accident.

It's likely Shelton will be purchased for beef. English plans to put any winnings from the steer show toward college, an amount that could be between $2,000 and $20,000. She wants to be a lawyer and hopes to attend Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

But she'll definitely have mixed emotions when Shelton is sold.

"He's really gentle-mannered," she said. "He's sweet. I've seen him grow up. I'll be a little sad but that's part of the project."

English said she looks forward to each day of Strawberry Festival, which runs through March 9. It probably will be the busiest and craziest days of her senior year but she is not complaining.

English earned $1,000 in scholarship money for her win as the Queen and Court's 1st Maid, and has a chance to win more money with Shelton. She will enjoy all the perks associated with the Queen and Court, and get to hobnob with visiting celebrities.

"To me," she said, grinning ear from ear, "this is amazing. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Monica Bennett can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Strawberry Festival teen has a steer and a role in the Queen and Court 02/26/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 26, 2014 6:30pm]
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