Small Town Queens Reign During Festival Season and in ‘The Rhinestone Sisterhood’

Meet Lauren, Kristen, Chelsea and Brandy. Otherwise known as Fur, Cattle, Frog and Cotton. They are four of Louisiana’s esteemed festival queens, and author David Valdes Greenwood has an awfully fun time introducing them to you in The Rhinestone Sisterhood.

In exploring the small-town festival circuit, Greenwood has found a fascinating sub-culture, one that you could imagine shining through a variety of treatments — a lavish full-color spread of pageant night in National Geographic, an illuminating Oxford American article on Southern traditions, a Marie Claire feature with a serious moral about standards of beauty. For Rhinestone Sisterhood — Greenwood’s third book, following two memoirs — he chooses a chummy style, writing like a protective older sister as he follows the ups and downs of the queens during their pageants, their festivals, and their reign.

Small towns organize festivals because they are tradition and because they help advertise local industry. To be a queen of, say, Rice, Hot Sauce, Oil & Gas, Oranges, Swine or Crawfish, you need to understand this industry inside and out. You will be quizzed on it during your closed-door interview with the judges — the most heavily weighted part of the pageant. Plus, successful queens will need to represent their town and its industry at other festivals across the state, which they attend with gusto.

“Do you sit at home and let your crown get full of dust, or do you put on your crown and let it get full of festival dirt?” So says Chelsea, the 2008 Rayne Frog Festival Queen. She is literally talking about dirt, which may be acquired while chasing after a greased pig at the Swine Festival or creating a stylish outfit out of a burlap sack for the Yam Festival. The difference between beauty pageants and festival pageants is not quite the difference between Sassy and Seventeen, My So-Called Life and 90210. Festival queens are primped and polished and do, of course, wear rhinestone-studded crowns.

With no swimsuit contest to fear, these queens come in all shapes and sizes. They also must be unflaggingly game. Gracing the book’s cover is Kristen the Cattle Queen, who poses for photos while wearing her crown, a cow-print dress and matching flip-flops, all while straddling a cow. (“She not only keeps her poise, but changes position a few times, even stretching out lengthwise in the pose of a daydreamer who just happens to be nestled on bullhorns instead of pillows.”)

Sitting on a cow or chasing a slippery pig is not the closest that this sub-culture gets to mud-slinging — that, as Greenwood explains, would be the Voy boards. This website has both “positive” and “negative” boards. On the negative boards, the childish, the vindictive, and the downright mean spread rumors about rigged results, the personal lives of queens, and other dirty laundry. A young woman may be called a “crown chaser” for vying for a title outside of her home area… or she may be called much, much worse.

Voy board vitriol is not the only challenge faced by Greenwood’s four queens. During the year covered by the book, they also learn that “your crown has no magic when you’re at work, around the dinner table with your folks, or dealing with a recalcitrant boyfriend.” Greenwood delves into the queens’ relationships with boyfriends and parents with mixed results. Clearly, these issues are of significant importance to the young women, and have an impact on their quest for titles and their reign as queens.

However, Greenwood is in full “older sister” mode at these moments, and you begin feeling a little old to be reading this book. Speaking of Chelsea after she caught her train on someone’s foot during a pageant, he writes that “honestly, it is not the train incident that has her feeling blue; it’s [her boyfriend] Jace… It’s not as if a satin banner with your name on it offers you any protection from disappointment and heartache.” Greenwood tells her that if she is a queen, she should find a guy who treats her like a princess.

Yes, Greenwood’s prose can be a bit cloying. “To be a festival queen,” he says, “there is no height-weight chart except for the one a girl sets for herself… [S]urface details… matter less to judges than the glow of the girl within.” You might want to cringe ever-so-slightly at the Splenda-sweetness of it all.

Just like a determined aspirant to the festival throne, Rhinestone is too upbeat to let any missteps slow it down. Greenwood describes festivals as “a chance to feast on joy, to ditch the cynical side of modern life and embrace old-fashioned play”. The same is true of his book.

RATING 6 / 10