PLANT CITY – She didn’t walk away with a sash or crown. But 11-year-old Tompkins Middle School student Delaney Tucker said winning wasn’t her main reason for entering the 2014 Florida Strawberry Festival Junior Royalty Pageant.
“This is my first time being in the pageant,” said Tucker. “I just heard about it and thought it sounded like fun and would give me some experience getting up in front of people.”
It was her cousin, 13-year-old Ashley Merrin, also a Tomlin student, who encouraged Tucker to join her on the runway. This was Merrin’s second time competing in the pageant, a strawberry festival tradition.
Like Tucker, Merrin said she didn’t enter the Jan. 11 pageant with the aim of capturing the crown.
“I entered because I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and, hopefully, gain some confidence in the process,” said Merrin.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that the pageant gave the girls the perfect excuse to have their hair and nails done and dress up in elegant evening gowns.
Cloe Lupo said the positive attitudes displayed by Merrin and Tucker was what she hoped to see when she agreed to judge the pageant at the festival’s agriculture center.
A Tampa resident majoring in public relations at the University of South Florida, Lupo is a pageant pro. She entered her first pageant at the age of 16 so she’d have a platform to advocate for alcoholism prevention and education. Four of her family members have died from the disease.
Now the reigning Miss Orlando 2013 and a runner-up at the Miss Florida Pageant in July, Lupo said her titles gives her the opportunity to speak to school children throughout the county on the dangers of drinking and, hopefully, save lives.
“Pageants gave me the confidence to go out and speak on a subject that’s very near to my heart,” she said. “And it was so great to see these young girls here tonight overcome their fears and walk out on that stage. It’s a lot harder than it looks. And maybe this will help give them the confidence to follow their dreams.”
Jennifer Nolan was admittedly reluctant when her daughter, Morgan, approached her about entering the Junior Royalty Pageant last year. However, after witnessing the positive effect it had on her daughter, Nolan not only allowed Morgan, 11, to enter the pageant again this year but permitted her 5-year-old daughter, Lacy, to join her.
“I left it completely up to them,” said Nolan. “As long as they keep a positive attitude about it, I think it can be a great confidence builder for young girls.” Looking like a cotton candy confection in their pastel satin and tulle evening gowns, 120 girls in all, age 5 to 15, vied for the chance to represent the Strawberry Festival as Junior Royalty.
The judges awarded points based on personality, stage presence and overall beauty, declaring winners in four divisions: baroness, 5- and 6-year-olds; duchess, 7- to 9-year-olds; princess, 10- to 12-year-olds; and queen, 13- to 15-year-olds.
Taking top honors as Junior Royalty Queen was Drew Knotts, a 15-year-old Plant City High School student. She’ll be joined by Junior Royalty Princess Tori Wegner, a 10-year-old Nativity Catholic School student; Junior Royalty Duchess Giselle Gutierrez, a 9-year-old Bailey Elementary School student; and Junior Royalty Baroness Abigail Lee Mullis, a 6-year-old student at Shiloh Charter School.
Knotts, Wegner and Gutierrez hold previous Junior Royalty titles. Knotts served as Junior Royalty Princess in 2011 and Gutierrez was Junior Royalty Baroness the same year. Wegner served as Junior Royalty Duchess in 2012 and as Baroness in 2009.
The Junior Royalty will represent the Florida Strawberry Festival throughout the year, making appearances at events and in the annual Plant City Christmas Parade and Grand Parade during the Strawberry Festival.
The other major Strawberry Festival pageant, the queen’s contest for women 16 to 20, will take place 6 p.m. Jan. 25, also at the festival’s agriculture center.
For information, go to www.flstrawberryfestival.com.