Rodeo queens, you may have noticed, always seem so bubbly and sweet and vivacious and happy and ... well, perky.
Really perky. Monumentally perky. To the point that you can't help but think there's just gotta be a dark side to all of that perkiness.
You know. Like those robotic, perkily-programmed, always-smiling women in the Ira Levin horror novel "The Stepford Wives" but with cowboy hats and horses instead of vacuum cleaners and dust mops.
And if I remember correctly, that book concluded with the perky women killing everyone in their neighborhoods, which is not the kind of behavior most Rim country folks should want to encourage.
That is why your intrepid reporter set out to answer this burning question: Is it possible for any human being to be as unabashedly perky as a rodeo queen for an extended period of time without experiencing some sort of unpleasant and/or violent mental breakdown?
The answer: Yes. I spent 30 minutes with three reigning rodeo queens, and not once, not for a millisecond, did their perkiness waver. And they didn't kill anybody, either.
But that's not to say the world of Arizona rodeo queens is all smiles and waves. As it turns out, there is a dark side. Sort of.
"During the competitions, you do see some pettiness and backstabbing among the contestants," admits Rodeo Queen Katie Lynn McNeely, the 26-year-old current holder of the title Ms. Country Western Arizona USA.
"I think the reason it happens is that hearts get broken when you have one title and four girls who want it. Or one title and 30 girls who want it. It's a natural human instinct to have to justify why you didn't win something," she said.
"One thing young women have to understand whether they're in a beauty pageant, a rodeo queen pageant or any kind of contest is that the outcome only reflects opinions of two or four judges. And you take the opinions of four people personally. You can't do it. If you did, you'd hate the world, because you're never going to agree with everything that everyone says or does. You just learn to get over it, you see what you can improve on, and you get better from there."
Now you know why rodeo queens are so perky. Reigning rodeo queens, anyway. And McNeely isn't the only one of those to be found in Payson.
There is also Hester Kane, 17, who has held the titles of Payson's Junior Teen Queen, Payson's Teen Queen and, currently, Miss Teen Country-Western. And then there's 14-year-old Emily Acord, 1998's Miss Payson Junior Team Queen and the current Miss Country Western Junior Team Queen.
All three of these women were recently gathered together in a single room to answer every single question there is to ask beyond the "dark side of perkiness" query about being a rodeo queen.
Q: How did you enter the world of rodeo queendom?
Katie: "My family came from a long line of rodeo cowboys and ranchers, so it was just my way of getting involved with the rodeo scene and my heritage. My mom was a beauty pageant queen and my dad was a cowboy, so this is in my blood. ... You know, every little girl wants to wear a crown, and I got my first one when I was sixteen. I was addicted!"
Emily: "One of the queen-coordinator people told my mom about it, and she didn't want me to get into horses or become a queen. But she finally let me, and everyone told me I wouldn't win on my first time running, and they were surprised. They had to eat their own words."
Hester: "I've been in the queen business for about eight years now. I just love all the people you meet, all the skills you develop to deal with them, and how to speak well with people on so many levels. It really helps you to develop yourself; it helps you to find out who you are and what you really like to do.
"My Mom was always into horses, but I always wanted to dress up in gowns and pretty clothes. I could never get the whole high-heel thing down, though, so I took the horse route. And once I started seeing rodeo queens in person, I just loved their clothes and hair."
Q: What did your first rodeo queen victory feel like?
Hester: "When I entered my first competition, I was six years old. I didn't win, and I was sure I had done something wrong because your parents are always saying, 'Oh, you're the best! You're the greatest!' But it was like my whole world was going to fall apart. From that day on, I was determined to win my next title. And I'll be darned if I didn't win the next year. When they called my name, it was amazing. Everything that I had worked for and wanted actually happened. That was very rewarding."
Katie: "The first time you win, you feel like a princess, like you're on top of the world. When you're young, though, it can be a very vain thing. When you get older, you start focusing on what you can do with the title rather than what you can get from it. When I was younger, my main goal was just to look pretty and smile and have fun; now it's community service."
Emily: "Yeah, it's just like they said."
Q: What are your assigned duties as reigning rodeo queens?
Katie: "I travel all over the state doing different benefits. I'm involved with the MDA. Once every other week I do jail-a-thons across the state, where they arrest people who then have to raise $1,000 bail. There's going to be one in Payson at the end of June ... Hopefully, it'll become an annual thing.
"Our main obligation, though, is to educate the community on Arizona's great western heritage. We speak in the schools, and we get backstage passes to all the country-western concerts in Arizona."
Q: Do you think you'll turn this into a career, and perhaps move away from rodeos to try out for state or national beauty pageants?
Hester: "I think I'll stick to rodeo. I've found my knack in rodeo, I think. I'm going to college next year, but I hope when I'm 18 I'll be able to run for the Payson Queen title. I'd be the only girl to have all three titles."
Emily: "Maybe. I'd like to, but I don't think I'll ever have the chance."
Katie: "They've been trying to get me to run for Mrs. Arizona, but I think that's a few years away for me. As soon as I'm done with this title, I'm going to do full-time barrel racing, be a full-time mommy, and hopefully be able to work a little more."
Q: What are the most important things you've learned during your rodeo-queen reigns?
Katie: "I've gotten a couple of things out of it. You're able to work with so many different personalities that you learn to work with people and get along with them, even when you disagree with them.
"But the one thing that makes it all worthwhile is going down a parade route and picking up that one child out of a whole group of people. Their eyes light up when they see you, and you just made their day if not their life. That's what keeps me going and keeps me doing it."
Emily: "Yeah. Me too."