The dress is so ornate it requires few, if any, accessories, so she’s chosen elbow-length white gloves and simple pearl drop earrings. Her hair is pulled back in a modern updo, emphasizing a bare collarbone and graceful neck.
She’s glowing as she attempts to look perfect in her heavy gown even as the wire in one of two corsets is cutting into her skin.
Still, she maintains a smile, bright white teeth flashing the room as her king escorts her into the ball. This night she is not Sara Ramon, senior at Sharyland High School and star softball and volleyball player. Tonight she is the Duchess of Carrots, and nobody is to know the name behind the title.
Quest for queen
The gala was the first test for Ramon and other young ladies across the Rio Grande Valley vying for the royal court as part of the Texas Citrus Fiesta in January 2013. Though the court is named in 2013, they won’t be crowned until the following year. Their names are kept secret during the selection process to prevent favoritism.
The Duchess of Carrots would be soon appointed the next Queen Citrianna, but on this night in January 2013, she’s nervous, feeling like she’s constantly under scrutiny. Nobody knows who the five judges are, but she and the other duchesses believe it’s important to have a good time, spending much of the night on the dance floor during the Texas Citrus Fiesta’s annual Royal Reception.
The young ladies don’t know that the way they look is a small percentage of what the fiesta’s five judges are looking for in the next queen. They’ll score most of their points a few days later when they’re interviewed individually by the judges behind closed doors.
To qualify as a duchess, the girls must be between the ages of 16-19 and they must represent a Valley community. Each city in the Valley has a different product it showcases through the competition. For example, girls representing La Joya earn the title Duchess of Retama while the girls from Mission are titled Duchess of Ruby Red Grapefruit. Their gowns highlight their product.
Ramon took her role as duchess seriously, though the competition began at the suggestion of her aunt, who is involved with the fiesta, with support from her mom. Her best friend, too, planned to be a duchess.
Ramon first had to be approved by a city to represent its product in the competition. McAllen, where Ramon lives, had a girl selected months before, but Edinburg, where she grew up, was still taking applications, and ultimately selected Ramon to represent the city as the Duchess of Carrots.
Ramon began studying the citrus industry as well as the history of the Texas Citrus Fiesta. In the weeks leading up to the events, she would meet with her aunt, her mom and a friend of her aunt to be grilled weekly, sometimes twice weekly, on citrus.
“I would sit there and sit up straight, cross my legs,” Ramon said. “I actually had never done anything like it. The only time I did anything like this was maybe a dance recital when I was 4 or 5, but that’s not anything like it.”
Ramon, an athlete, embraced competition. And the more she prepared, the more she really wanted the title.
During her interview, she was asked questions like what she knows about the citrus industry and who admires her most. Ramon said she made the judges laugh when she answered what she’d change about herself—she’d change her shoe size to the same size as her mom so she didn’t have to squeeze her size 8 feet into her mom’s size 7 shoes.
Ramon felt good about the interview, but the night of the coronation when the royal court would be chosen, wasn’t as fun. Moments before she was led onto the stage, Ramon was crying because a wire had been poking out of her corset for hours, causing her pain. Just before Ramon was led out, she cut a hole in the corset and ripped out the wire.
“My aunt always says pain is beauty and beauty is pain,” Ramon said. “My face was twitching the whole time, and you’re supposed to smile the whole time.”
Then, when Ramon went to sit with the other duchesses on stage, her chair was pushed backed by her round bell-like dress. The Duchess of Carrots was forced to squat for the duration of the presentation and maintain her smile in fear the judges would take points off her score.
If she wasn’t going to win, Ramon had her eye on the Miss Congeniality title. But that name had long been called by the time she heard her own. By that time, her legs hurt from squatting so much she stood before they ever said her last name.
“I kind of freaked out because they had called all the other names, and I felt these girls had done really, really well,” Ramon said.
A year later, Ramon is a first-year student at Texas A&M University studying biomedical science. She plans to go to dental school.
There will be less pressure on Ramon during this year’s festivities as she accepts her crown and serves as a mentor to the girls competing for next year’s title.
Because she relocated to go to school in College Station, Ramon chose a seamstress in the Austin area to make her dress for her debut as Queen Citrianna. Austin’s closer, she said, adding that the seamstress also has done work for Sandra Bullock.
Brains over beauty
Berta Filut, executive director of the Texas Citrus Fiesta, is quick to point out the competition is not a beauty pageant.
“Here, I don’t care if the young lady is skinny, chubby, tall, color—that is not a factor when they’re being appointed,” Filut said. “It’s 60 points for interview, and I believe that beauty is like a total of five points.”
Filut said she does everything she can to keep the judging fair. With five judges, she said, the majority can overrule one who may be tempted to show favoritism toward a certain girl. The judges don’t compare scores and their score sheets are given to accountant to safeguard.
The majority of the judges’ decision is based on the interview portion of the competition. It’s held behind closed doors the week of the fiesta’s Royal Coronation and kept confidential.
Questions aren’t political or religious, but Filut said the duchesses better know their facts about the citrus industry.
“They need to know why is this product so important to the community, know about the economic value in the community,” she said. “With us, the girls better start speaking about the multi-millions the citrus industry brings into the Valley.”
But it’s not just about the product. Filut said she brings in smart judges who want to make sure the contestants mean what they say and aren’t just saying what they think will sound good and win approval.
Judges told Filut they weren’t just impressed that reigning Queen Citrianna Katy Jo Richards wanted to be a doctor. They were impressed that she spent two weeks at M.D. Anderson when she was 14 in a program for teens who planned to become doctors.
Meanwhile, Filut remembered another contestant who came off as cute and bright. The girl told judges her goal was to become the first female Hispanic governor of Texas. One of the judges, who in real life was a county judge in the Houston area and knew about politics, asked her how she planned to finance the campaign.
The girl’s answer was that she’d win over the minority vote.
“She didn’t answer the question,” Filut said. “If I hadn’t had somebody on there who was a little sharper on politics, she probably would have placed because everybody thought she was so vivacious.”
Another time, a duchess said she planned to work in the Canadian-French area. To prepare, she said she’d been taking French lessons since she was in fifth grade. A fine arts professor from the University of Texas Pan American was serving as one of the judges that year and asked her a question in French.
“She said, ‘Unfortunately, I’m not surrounded by people who speak to me in French all the time, so I don’t have the ability to practice it, but, sir, I believe you asked me if you would like a wedge of goat cheese with your grapefruit?” said Filut, adding that the girl impressed the judges.
Another girl said she wanted to be an opera singer and was able to name her favorite performer and sing a few bars of the music for judges.
“And those are the girls that win,” Filut said. “They’re smart. They back up what they have to say.”