Senior editor Pamela Colloff, who trailed five young women as they vied for the title of rodeo queen, talks about small towns and big dreams.
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texasmonthly.com: How did the idea for this story come about?
PC: A friend of mine who’s a filmmaker happened to go to last year’s Llano rodeo, and he was fascinated by the rodeo queen contest. He thought about making a documentary about it, but was generous enough to let me write an article first.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while doing this story?
PC: Well, the most interesting things I learned I couldn’t actually include in my article. And I can’t repeat them here, either. Llano is a small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. People told me all sorts of rumors—a few of them about the queen contestants and their families. I’ll never know what was true or untrue, but it was interesting to listen. Superficially, everyone in Llano was friendly and nice to one another. But there was a lot going on beneath the surface.
texasmonthly.com: Being from New York, did you find it hard to relate to these girls?
PC: Not at all. I had a different teenage experience than these girls did. I didn’t own a horse or live in the country. But being a teenager is essentially the same anywhere. You have to figure out your identity, and where you fit in the world, and what sort of person you want to become. I have a lot of respect for these girls, because they are strong and confident and almost fearless—much more so than I remember being at that age. It takes a lot of guts to run for rodeo queen.
texasmonthly.com: What was the hardest thing about writing this story?
PC: I had to balance telling the story with giving these girls the privacy to be teenagers. There were some awkward moments and embarrassing details that I didn’t include in the article for that reason. Writing about a teenager is very different than writing about someone who is, say, forty-years-old and a public figure.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of impact do you think losing will have on the unlucky girls, if any?
PC: At that age, you feel emotions in the extreme. But you also can recover fairly quickly from heartbreak or disappointment. I think it’s the same with these girls. Before the winner was announced, they all said that they would never run again if they didn’t win. Only an hour or so after the crowning, they started talking about running the following year.
texasmonthly.com: Were siblings or parents as involved in the rodeo queen contest as the competitors?
PC: I was surprised by what a big role the fathers played. All the girls were close to their fathers and admired them a lot. Their fathers were their role models. Often it was their fathers who had taught them how to ride. I’d be willing to guess that these men were much more involved than, say, the average suburban dad who works long hours and has a long commute home. These men were very much a part of their daughters’ lives.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think being a rodeo queen is as important as it used to be fifteen years ago?
PC: Actually, I think it’s much more important in Llano than it was fifteen years ago. It has become harder and harder to make a living ranching; at the same time, the symbols attached to ranching—like the rodeo—have become more important. Many people in Llano said that the contestants and people around town took the rodeo queen competition much more seriously nowadays than they did a generation ago.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think the pressure of the competition is worth it?
PC: I think the pressure was hard on every single contestant, but the pageant itself was an important experience. I doubt any of them regrets having run. They were each gutsy enough to run, and I think the town respects them for trying as hard as they all did.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
PC: Yes, my favorite story from my time in Llano. One night I called Kathy Hussey, the pageant coordinator, on my cell phone to ask her a few questions about the next day’s contest. We talked for a few minutes before Kathy realized that I was calling her from my cell phone. She politely cut the conversation short and asked that I call her back from a regular phone, which I did. She then explained that local people sometimes scanned cell phone traffic, and that if our conversation had been picked up, sooner or later everyone in town would know what we’d been talking about. Pretty amazing.