The Charlie Grimes Family Agricultural Center was aglow with glitz and glam Saturday night as contestants vied for a title in the 2023 Junior Royalty Pageant sponsored by the Florida Strawberry Festival. The five judges had their work cut out for them as more than 100 contestants confidently displayed their grace, poise and personality during the pageant, emceed by brother/sister duo Kyle Robinson and Kerri Robinson Knox.
This year’s theme, “We Have A Winner!”, was intuitive because four winners were announced at the end of the competition. Fourteen-year-old Plant City High School student Madelynn Marie Hardwick is this year’s Queen with Bella Grace Bikowski as the first-runner up. Eleven-year-old Marshall Middle Magnet IB World School student Giselle Elena McDowell is this year’s Princess with Kennedy Duncan as the first runner up. Eight-year-old Lincoln Elementary Magnet School student Olivia Pilar McDowell is this year’s Duchess with Kenslie Culbreath as the first runner-up. Six-year-old Lakeland Christian School student Aubrey Sweeney is this year’s Baroness with Drew Taylor as the first runner-up.
The field of contestants was narrowed down to 10 finalists in each category after contestants were introduced and walked the stage. Contestants were judged on personality (30%), stage presence (30%) and overall beauty (40%). Each finalist in the Duchess, Baroness and Princess category answered an on-stage interview question: “What makes The Florida Strawberry Festival a winner in your eyes?”. Answers included riding the midway rides, livestock exhibits, spending time with family, and eating the delicious festival food, from the hot dogs to the gigantic fried doughnuts. “The line for doughnuts starts behind ME,” proclaimed Olivia McDowell. Many of the answers also included chowing down on strawberry shortcake.
This year, the Queen finalists had the daunting task of answering one of three impromptu questions selected from a bowl. Without pause, all 10 finalists delivered answers with enough clarity and charisma to make any professional public speaker envious.
Pageant Chairman Jessi Rae Varnum, herself the 2014 pageant winner, was grateful for the group of volunteers that help make the pageant a success, including the backstage volunteers tasked with keeping the girls quiet and assisting with bathroom breaks all while maintaining excitement and energy. “When the finalists were named we had 120 girls huddled near the stage and it was an enormous task to maneuver the finalists on-stage quickly,” she said.
The 2022 pageant winners had front-row seats at this year’s contest. Former Queen Kennedie Clinton, who is a contestant in this week’s Queen’s pageant, said the moment was bittersweet. “It’s sad closing the doors on this pageant but I’m very excited to compete in the Queen’s pageant,” she said. She and her court (Baroness Kezley Salinas, Duchess Rowen Ashford Morgan and Princess Ivy Belle Garner) got teary-eyed during the slideshow that documented their adventures last year. Clinton’s advice to this year’s winners are enjoy every minute of it. “This was the best year ever,” said Garner.
A unique feat at this year’s pageant was the crowning of sisters Giselle Elena McDowell and Olivia Pilar McDowell. Their mom, Diana McDowell, was speechless when she heard her daughters’ names announced as winners. “They’re going to be able to make so many memories together,” she said. Varnum can’t recall another time when sisters have won a title in the same year. “This will be an amazing bonding experience for them,” she said.
Hardwick and her court can be seen at festival and community events throughout the year. “I’m honored to represent The Florida Strawberry Festival and Plant City community and look forward to getting to know the other court winners,” she said.