TRAVERSE CITY — The week leading up to the crowning of the National Cherry Queen is a bit like a reality TV show, with a handful of beautiful young women in close quarters all vying for a big, silver crown.
“This is survival of the fittest,” said Kay Relyea, long-time director of the queen’s activities and a past festival president. “We really get to know each other very, very well.”
For a full week, the four queen candidates and current queen are under the constant watch of two chaperones who keep them on a strict schedule. They have to function without — gasp — their cell phones and computers. They don’t go home at night, but stay at the Great Wolf Lodge, said Relyea.
“We stay in one room at the Great Wolf Lodge, five girls, two chaperones, one bathroom, and we’re all ready to go every day, believe it or not,” Relyea said.
The room is outfitted with two, ahem, queen-size beds, one king-size bed, and a pull-up sleeper sofa, she said.
“It’s cherry queen camp,” Relyea said. “You’ve got to get these girls toughened up. It’s a big week. We have a ball.”
The candidates checked in at Great Wolf on June 28, and began an intensely packed schedule of festival events and interviews. The excitement will peak on Friday night with the Queen’s Coronation Ball and Royale Auction, when the new queen is crowned.
”It gets tougher on Thursday, it just gets tough,” said Gary Kaberle, a past festival president, whose daughter was both a runner-up and queen. “They get emotional.”
Six judges mingle in the crowds and observe the candidates, but they’re discreet. None of the queen candidates know who they are.
Queen candidate Ashley Wade, 24, said it can get a little nerve-wracking at times.
“You don’ t know who the judges are or what their expectations are, but it’s really a great group of girls,” said Wade, a Lake City graduate. “Even though we don’t have that alone time, it’s nice to have the support of the chaperones to encourage us and help us through.”
And the days can get tough, she said.
“It’s just a different way,” she said. “You’re not parading around in a tiara in your normal life. You’re very easily recognized, there are a lot of people to see, and a lot of people to talk to. It can just be tiring.”
At least they don’t have to think about what to wear. Each day, candidates wear matching shoes and outfits, compliments of Younkers. And that’s not all.
“If one gets cold and puts on a sweater, everyone does,” Relyea said. “ If someone has the sun in their eyes and puts on her sunglasses, everyone puts on their sunglasses.”
This morning, three judges were scheduled to interview the candidates at the hotel, one by one, for four minutes. On Thursday, the other three judges will take their turn. The candidates field questions that might touch on their passions, pet peeves, and life’s biggest disappointment.
The candidates can’t talk on the phone during the day. Only at evening’s end can they touch base with family or friends, but they must use a cell phone supplied by Verizon.
Relyea briefs the women ahead of time to explain to boyfriends that contact will be very limited.
“I tell them that you need him to understand that this week is about you, and not to get his feelings hurt,” she said. “He can’t call and nag you.”
Sara McGuire, crowned queen in 1995, said the constant chaperoning made her feel special. The week was a big experience so talking to friends and family quickly became unimportant. She remembers a bit of competitiveness among the candidates.
“But I honestly left with some of the girls being lifelong friends,” said McGuire, owner of Royal Farms in Elk Rapids.
Wade said it’s been a fun week thus far. As a repeat candidate, she has a bit of perspective, and is grateful that all the personalities are meshing this year.
As for reality TV?
“We don’t have any drama, so maybe we wouldn’t be that interesting,” she said.