The 2019 Florida Strawberry Festival Queen Pageant is always one of the most cherished events of the year. Plant City High School senior Kendall Gaudens walked away Saturday evening with the coveted crown.
Kendall Gaudens doesn’t have generations of her family tree branching out of Plant City. Her parents own HD Wheels on Reynolds Street and brought their family to the strawberry town when Gaudens was a mere three years old.
She may not have been born into a family teeming with connections, but Gaudens said she has never thought of anywhere else as home.
“I do consider myself raised here, I don’t remember anywhere else,” Gaudens said. “I think that’s something that makes this town special. Everyone here is so welcoming, so kind. My parents have lived all over, but they said this has been the best place one could ever raise a family. I really did fall in love with Plant City.”
For Gaudens, Plant City has been her entire world, yet she knows that when she set foot on the vibrant festival grounds as a child she was looking at the experience with a fresh set of eyes. She’s walked in the shoes of an outsider coming in for the first time and because of it she said she feels aptly prepared to open her arms as Queen and show everyone just what makes Plant City and the Florida Strawberry Festival a one-of-a-kind experience.
“I decided a long time ago that I wanted to go out for Strawberry Queen,” Gaudens said. “I’ve always looked up to her and her court. I really encouraged my sister to go out for it when she was in high school. She made the court and in a way I wanted to live vicariously through her.”
Last year was the first time Gaudens was old enough to don an evening gown and show off her passion for the festival. However, she had already committed to show a steer. She used the mentorship of a family friend to help guide her toward success, pouring everything she had into raising the perfect steer.
When she tackles something, she gives it 100 percent. She decided to push off her dream for one more year and focus on her animal.
“I wanted to do it on my own, to earn the reward on my own of having accomplished this task,” Gaudens said. “I knew it would take up a lot of my time and I didn’t want to do either if I couldn’t give them everything I had. So I chose to focus on my steer and to go out for Strawberry Queen next year.”
Gaudens is no stranger to pageantry. While her sister was serving on the Strawberry Queen’s court, she had just won the crown for Junior Royalty Queen.
“It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” Gaudens said. “There were 30 other contestants and they were all so smart and well-spoken, everyone was so amazing this year. Never in a million years did I dream they would choose me. My goal was to make it to top 10. I struggled to imagine I would be considered a leader of a group. It was such an honor and then my friends were called to be on the court as well. I couldn’t believe we had the opportunity to represent the festival.”
The shock was apparent as Gaudens had a delayed response to her number being called for Queen. She paused, scrunching her face as she glanced down at her number to confirm it was in fact her that had been chosen. Then she burst into tears, which Gaudens said is so unlike her she still is surprised.
Now that the weight of the crown has fully settled on her golden locks she is ready to dive into making sure she can impact as many people as she has the chance to meet while she’s serving under this title.
She summed up her goal for the next year perfectly with her answer to the question on stage: What do you feel would be the most important quality to have as the 2019 Florida Strawberry Festival Queen?
For Gaudens, it’s making sure everyone feels loved. Repeating the oft chanted mantra from Maya Angelou she smiled to the massive crowd as she said, “People may not remember what you said, people may not remember what you did, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”
Her love for the festival began when she was a child. Her best friend’s mother, Susan Batley, has volunteered at the bus lot for as long as she can remember. Every year she would check her daughter and Gaudens out of school for one special day and take them to enjoy the festival. They would help her at the lot, run around playing games and eating fair food and soak in the ambiance that only comes once a year.
Looking back, Gaudens said she knows that was only possible because of the immense safety measures the festival ensures are in place to keep the fairground monitored and protected. The energy at the bus lot was infectious and to this day she joins her friend in volunteering, jumping on incoming busses and letting the attendees know what events are going on that day and handing out stickers to remind them where the bus is parked.
“I’ve been able to experience the festival as the guests do,” Gaudens said. “This festival, really this entire town, has impacted my life and made me into the person I am today. I am so thankful and honored to be able to use this opportunity to serve the festival with the same compassion, love and support that has been showed to me all these years.”
She’s one of the brightest students in her class and is set to graduate high school with an AA. From there the plan is to pursue mechanical engineering at the University of Florida. It’s a career she can take anywhere and its one of the things that drew her in most. Eventually she’ll be ready to settle down and start a family. When she is, she said there’s nowhere other than Plant City she would dream of making that a reality.
As for girls coming up behind her who are looking at her court with admiration she only has one simple piece of advice: just believe in yourself.
“You can do it, just remember this isn’t about you,” Gaudens said. “People get worked up about their dress, hair or makeup, but that’s not what this is about. You’re going to be part of something much bigger, representing all of the festival and Plant City. Trust God has a plan for you. Keep those two things in mind and you’ll have the perfect mindset to remain calm and still be excited for the pageant.”
Q&A with Kendall:
What was your first thought when your name was called?
I was in complete shock. This was something I wanted for as long as I can remember. After working so hard for so long, I’m so honored and shocked. It just seemed almost unattainable to me because there were so many amazing girls this year. It honestly still hasn’t hit me yet that all of this is real.
What was your family’s reaction?
The first person I saw was my older sister, who was the first maid in 2016. I was crying a lot, but she may have been crying even more. My family, well I guess you could say we were bawling hysterically. Especially since Madi and Kennedy were called as well. My parents, my other older sister, really it was humbling to see them so proud of me. I’m so thankful for them.
How would you describe your personality in one word?
Comfortable. I think I come across as a very comfortable person. If I’m ever anxious or scared or upset I can hide it and be very personable. You’d never know. I like to make people comfortable around me so I kind of adopt that calm presence.
What’s something interesting about you?
I can juggle pompoms. Before games on Friday nights we cheer with Sparkle Effect cheerleaders. One day I remember trying to juggle three pompoms and I was actually OK at it. It doesn’t last for too long, but I’m getting better.
What are you most excited to eat at the festival?
We were just talking to the Lions Club and they told us about this strawberry fritter, which is at the Lions Club booth. I’ve never had that before and it really sounds exciting.
What are you most looking forward to about the festival?
Seeing all of the people. Last year we had over 526,000 people attend from all over the nation. It is going to be really cool to see that many people and get to show them what makes the festival and Plant City so special.
What is your most used emoji?
The laughing face emoji. Honestly probably 95 percent of the time when I’m texting it’s a joke.
Who is someone you admire? Who is a woman you admire?
This girl Jade at our school. She’s an ESE student and my buddy though football season with cheer. She gets her hair done at the cosmetology building and I’ve seen them give her some really wild hairdos and she just loves it. I admire her so much. She’s taught me that no matter what you’re doing or who you are that you can find joy and strength in every moment. A woman I admire would be Carrie Underwood. She’s one of those people who went through fame and has never really changed under all that pressure. I can’t imagine how she does it and raises a family at the same time. I look up to her a lot.
What is a book or story from childhood that had an impact on your life?
Mine was the SkippyJon Jones books. I love these books so much. They were fun to read and taught me to not be scared at all what anyone else does or says. They taught me to be my own person.