The room is dark, there’s tension in the air. 32 girls are lined up in their ballgowns and best cowboy hats as a drum roll sounds. Sequins glint under spotlights. The winner of the Miss Rodeo America 2016 pageant is about to be announced. For Rachel Owens, Miss Rodeo California, this is the moment the past nine years have been leading up to.
“As a European filmmaker, my perception of the rodeo world was always filtered through the aesthetic presented to me by Hollywood and the tobacco industry,” says Adrien Cothier, the director of the new documentary. “In each instance, the western culture displayed was strictly dominated by a patriarchal perspective. By the end, Rodeo Queen became a cinematic tale about a unique case of female empowerment in a traditional American landscape.”
Over the course of the competition and looking back over Owens’s lifetime growing up in Lakeside, California, Rodeo Queen follows Owens as she reaches the pinnacle of the years of training she’s been through since first falling in love with rodeo at the age of 13. Through Rachel we gain access to the Americana glamour world of rodeo pageants. The kitsch, the glitz, the polished boots, and the fringed chaps, the rhinestone-studded finest. It’s an aesthetic Cothier immediately became captivated by. “As a photographer, the visual appeal of this community was instant. The outfits, the make-up, the horses. It became very crucial to capture the female perspective of this patriarchal world,” he says.
Cothier first came across rodeo pageants by chance when he stumbled upon a music video featuring a young cowgirl in her rodeo outfit. Struck by the aesthetic and strong symbolism behind it, Cothier started on a quest to discover everything he could about female rodeo which eventually led him to Owens. “Rachel is incredibly charismatic. She is smart and witty, and her determination to shine in a patriarchal community quite inspiring,” he says. “I was instantly fascinated by her world and I knew that if I were to document this subculture, it would have to be through Rachel's eyes and perspective.”
Cothier joined Owens at the precipice of the biggest moment of her professional life. After nine years of training she had been crowned Miss Rodeo California and now had just one shot to go after the ultimate goal of Miss Rodeo America. Cothier knew this was a story he wanted to tell. “From a storytelling perspective, her story had already the dramatic arc one searches for in documentary filmmaking. I knew that this kind of personal stakes would translate into a strong empathy from an audience,” Cothier says. “I also saw that this was not the end for her, that her desires to continue to spread her knowledge and help young girls was more important than the outcome of the competition. This would be the real story.”
Here we speak to Rachel Owens about starring in the film, her beauty and fitness, and what it means to be rodeo queen.
When did you first start riding horses?
Rachel Owens: I’ve been pretty much riding my whole life. We took a small hiatus for a few years when I was super young. I’ve been very blessed to have a supportive family.
Have you ever had any accidents?
Rachel Owens: Too many to count!
Can you explain what a rodeo queen is?
Rachel Owens: Being a rodeo queen is being an ambassador to the sport of professional rodeo. It’s our job to go into the community and promote rodeo, our sponsoring organisations, and the western lifestyle.
How is it different from a normal pageant?
Rachel Owens: Our pageants have a test that we need to take on rodeo knowledge and equine science. Many of our questions focus on the sport of rodeo, horses and personality. In addition, our ‘talent’ is the horsemanship competition.
How old were you when you started competing?
Rachel Owens: I believe my first pageant was at 15, but I did not win a title until I was 17!
When did you first win Miss Rodeo California and what did it mean to you?
Rachel Owens: I first competed in 2014 and got second runner up, which to me was a huge accomplishment. I went back in 2015 and somehow pulled it together to win the title of 2016 Miss Rodeo California. I literally could not stop crying, I was so thankful and excited. It had been a dream of mine for so long to become Miss Rodeo California. I was in awe that I finally made it happen.
How do you prepare for contests?
Rachel Owens: A lot of studying! I always tried to be up on my knowledge, I really think rodeo queen pageants can be won or lost in the knowledge category. It affects every aspect of the competition.
What's your favourite category and why?
Rachel Owens: Horsemanship usually means the most to a rodeo queen. A cowgirl is what we strive to be seen as from the start, so winning a category like horsemanship just shows you did your job. I also loved giving speeches though. I love public speaking.
What makes a good rodeo queen?
Rachel Owens: I’ve always said one word to describe a rodeo queen is charismatic. I really feel it envelops so many attributes that are important. It means you are friendly, approachable, alluring, and easy to get along with.
What's your beauty regime like?
Rachel Owens: I usually just worry about sunscreen and chapstick. Wash my face, put on a dark spot remover, eye cream and a moisturiser. I don’t like taking a lot of time doing things like that.
Do you wear make-up every day?
Rachel Owens: I do when I am going to work or going out. If I’m just going to ride the horses, I just wear sunscreen.
How do you style your hair and nails?
Rachel Owens: Nowadays, I usually wear my hair natural. I have big, wild curls. Same with my nails, no polish.
How important are the costumes?
Rachel Owens: Rodeo outfits can really express your personality as well as give a nod to the Western Lifestyle. Appearance is a category in most of the pageants, it’s not necessarily who looks the best or wore the most expensive outfits. It’s about how you present yourself and how the clothes flatter you. I wore plenty of shirts from the thrift store that we would add jewels to!
Can you tell me about some of the dresses and styles worn at the rodeo?
Rachel Owens: Western fashion is always evolving. For rodeo queens at rodeos, we would be in a long sleeve shirt, belts with your buckle and chaps. But when you get into the crowd, there are lots of fun fashion things to see. Bell bottoms, animal prints and turquoise are all noticeable these days!
Is there a pressure to always look good?
Rachel Owens: I personally do not feel that pressure. However, I could easily see how it’s there. I think self-confidence usually makes people look pretty dang good!
How will you feel when you stop competing and what will you do?
Rachel Owens: I’ve been ‘retired’ from it since 2016. I competed for Miss Rodeo America, and that was the end of the road for me. I reached my goal and am so happy I got to do so. Now that I am done, I coach contestants at a local level, co-host the “That Western Life Podcast”, and barrel race when I can.
What does beauty mean to you?
Rachel Owens: Beauty is being comfortable in your skin, and rocking your own style.
Do you have any regrets?
Rachel Owens: Lots of them, but you just take it as a lesson and move on. There is no reason to dwell on it. It doesn’t change anything.
How would you like to be remembered?
Rachel Owens: I hope people remember me as funny and friendly.
What's the future of beauty?
Rachel Owens: The future of beauty is all-inclusive, fun, and kind.