The contestants were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sparkly crowns danced in their heads – or so it may be the night before the Miss South Carolina Strawberry Festival Pageant each spring.
The pageant kicks off the week of events leading up to the main weekend of Fort Mill’s award-winning S.C. Strawberry Festival and queens are tasked with representing the town during the festival and at local events year round.
Now in its seventh year, the pageant is the brainchild of Fort Mill native and WRHI radio personality Patti Mercer. As pageant director, she tries to be a mainstay for contestants, responding to endless texts about wardrobe and hair, heels and makeup, and just who are the judges, anyway?
Mercer will help with all questions except the last one – she knows, but she’s not telling.
She equates directing a pageant to hosting a dinner party.
“You know how many guests you’re going to invite and what you’re going to serve. You don’t know who’s going to show up, what they’re going to be wearing and what energy they’re going to bring… It’s almost like an experiment in human behavior.”
A former Mrs. South Carolina International title holder, Mercer understands the joy, the tears, the sacrifice – and even the heel blisters – that come with competing for and wearing a crown.
But the crown, she says, is just the beginning. Mercer believes it is her calling to motivate and inspire contestants to “think about something bigger than themselves” and “embrace who they are, even the quirky stuff.”
“This whole track of being in a pageant has helped me find my confidence and that’s what I see really lacking in young women today,” she said.
While Mercer’s not always privy to personality dynamics before the pageant season begins, the excitement and opportunity to invest in the next generation of women keeps her coming back for more. She reiterates the pageant’s motto “Cause Before Crown” to remind contestants that the causes they advocate for – their platforms – always come before the glitz and glamor.
“You learn, you grow, you mature. The more responsibility you have, the more accountability you have with your words and actions,” Mercer said.
“(Contestants) can generate opportunities for themselves. They can elevate other people and their causes. Those opportunities will find you but you have to believe it. You have to believe that you can.”
This year’s pageant will be held 7 p.m. April 30 at Nation Ford High School, 1400 A.O. Jones Blvd., Fort Mill. For more, go to scstrawberryfestival.com.
Kelly Lessard: firstname.lastname@example.org, @KellyLessardFM
Highlights through the years
▪ 2010 – Miss Anna Skidmore, Teen Avery Close; Pageant platform “Alive at 25” Contestant Miranda Soprano spoke on driver safety after her own experience in a tragic car accident. She went on to share her story with the student body at Nation Ford High School and without the pageant said she wouldn’t have had the confidence to speak publicly.
▪ 2011 – Mrs. Christy Roberts, Miss Nikita Maigur, Teen Morgan Jasper; Pageant platform “Autism Speaks” First year adding a Mrs. division.
▪ 2012 – Mrs. Paula Stone, Miss Brennan Altman, Teen Kaylee Wolfe and Junior Teen Chelsea Priest; Because of the number of teen contestants, a Junior Teen crown was added this year. Pageant platform “Hidden Wounds,” an organization raising awareness of veterans battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Contestant Brittany Cobb’s father committed suicide and she also tried to take her own life. “This pageant gave her courage to believe in a greater purpose through her pain,” Mercer said. Cobb went on to become a spokesperson for the organization.
▪ 2013 – Mrs. Dana Boutwell, Miss Halle Hillman, Teen Liza Walker; Pageant platform “All Youth On Board” raising awareness to end bullying.
▪ 2014 – Mrs. Erika Mauldin, Miss Ashley Jones, Teen CeCe Hensley; Pageant platform: “Cookies for Kids Cancer.” “We did a Power Point presentation during the pageant honoring families who had lost or fought childhood cancer…it was very heartfelt,” Mercer said.
▪ 2015 – Mrs. Michelle Cherikos, Miss Carly Becknell, Teen Casey Hillman; Pageant platform: “Cookies for Kids Cancer.” Carly Becknell became the first contestant in pageant history to compete with a service dog. Becknell has Usher’s Syndrome, which affects her hearing and eyesight. Amber Wesson, a contestant with Down Syndrome, took the stage with her powerful message to “End the R Word.”