Our Town

Behind the scenes at the Sweetheart pageant

Behind the scenes, and on stage, at the 2015 Sam Steele Youth Ambassador Pageant. - Sally MacDonald photos
Behind the scenes, and on stage, at the 2015 Sam Steele Youth Ambassador Pageant.
— image credit: Sally MacDonald photos

The curtain has just lowered on the first half of the Sam Steele youth ambassador pageant. On the darkened stage, seven young women in period dress are huddled in a cluster, arms around each other. As hundreds of audience members chatter in the Key City Theatre, the girls raise their arms and stage-whisper, "Sweet 14!" They come off stage and the entire backstage crew greets them with hugs, tears and words of congratulations.

On Friday, June 20, seven girls took part in the Sweethearts pageant, an annual Cranbrook tradition that is the crowning moment of Sam Steele Days. I was invited backstage to take in the pageant from a unique perspective, and I was surprised by what I saw.

When I arrived at 7 p.m., half an hour until show time, the green room was calm and quiet. One of the candidates, Carley Roller, was dressed for the opening number and sitting on a sofa. Carley wouldn't be performing in the opening number though; she hurt her knee a week before the pageant in a softball game and was told she couldn't dance. With only a few days to spare, Carley had to learn a new talent – she was planning to perform a juggling act but switched to a monologue at the last minute. She couldn't climb stairs, so Carley had to change outfits in the men's bathroom on the main floor backstage.

MC Jason Wheeldon arrives backstage with a tale to tell: on the way to the theatre, he lifted his foot to put it into his vehicle and the sole of his tuxedo shoe stayed behind. He rushed to the local tailor, where he was able to borrow a pair of shoes for the pageant, just in the nick of time.

Upstairs, some of the candidates are standing in the hallway outside their change rooms, practising their introductory speeches.

With 10 minutes till the curtain rises, long-time coordinator Karin Penner gathers the seven candidates together for one final pep talk.

"You are doing this for yourself," she tells them. "No one expects you to be clever or sensational. You're not out there to impress anybody, only to be the best that you can be."

And with that, the girls, dressed in brightly coloured flowing tops to go with their opening dance to the soundtrack of Rio 2, head to the stage. The curtain is about to rise on the most intimidating job interview they've ever done.

The first Sam Steele Sweetheart was crowned in 1966, and every year since then Cranbrook has appointed two or three girls to act as our ambassadors both in the community and around western Canada and the United States.

But the pageant isn't just an opportunity for the girls who will be crowned Sweetheart and Princess. Each candidate goes through an intense six-month process that teaches them valuable skills such as public speaking, community involvement and volunteerism, goal setting, time management, financial planning, interview skills and etiquette.

They meet weekly from January to April, and twice weekly from April to June. After a coming-out banquet in April where they are announced as the year's candidates, they begin to attend community fundraisers such as the MS Walk and the Relay for Life.

The girls draw the name of their sponsor from a hat in February. Those sponsors each give their candidate $250 that she uses to buy material for her Sam Steele gown and her interview suit. Each girl has the same budget, to ensure an equal playing field.

All of that preparation culminates in the days leading up to the pageant, when a selection panel comes together in Cranbrook to prepare for judging. Two days before the pageant, each candidate has a 15-minute interview with the judges one-on-one. The following day, they meet for afternoon tea with judges in an informal setting where they chat in groups of three or four.

"By the time they get to the theatre, those judges have had the opportunity to see the girls in a number of different settings, and a large part of the judging has been done," coordinator Karin Penner tells me, adding that she and fellow coordinator Loree Duczek stay away from the judges, leaving fellow volunteer Robyn Graham to take care of the selection panel. That's to stop rumours about the successful candidate being a favourite of the coordinators.

Which brings us to here, this moment, with the girls lined up behind the curtain, nervously poised to begin their opening number. Suddenly, backstage manager Nikki Gipman raises the curtain, the lights and sound go up, and the candidates spring into action.

For the next hour and a half, there's constant movement on stage and behind the scenes. Alexis Shuffler has only a few minutes to change into her interview suit to deliver her speech. It takes less than a minute and she's dressed, with Karin calling for a lint brush for final touch-ups. Donna Butler crouches to give Alexis one last check over, before Alexis rushes off to the stage, maintaining her composure all the way.

After each candidate has performed her talent and delivered her speech, they each change into their grand, beautiful gowns of the Sam Steele era. It's surprisingly quick for the girls to don those many layers. Before I know it, they are slipping on those pretty white gloves to complete the outfit, and the first candidate is off to the stage to model the gown.

At this point in the pageant, each candidate is asked an impromptu question that they must answer on the spot for the judges to consider. It's a lot of pressure for someone who is 16 years old and facing a crowd of hundreds, but each girl handles it with barely a tremor.

Meanwhile, the sound has been switched off in the green room so the other candidates don't hear the question ahead of time. There is one candidate waiting in the wings, but she is hooked up to headphones blasting pop music so loud she wouldn't hear if a grand piano fell onto the stage.

As each young lady leaves the stage, she joins whoever is waiting backstage. By the end of the modelling segment, all seven girls have started an impromptu dance party to the tinny music carrying through from the headphones.

Meanwhile, the chivalrous Dagen Duczek, 7, whose job is to present each candidate with a rose as they model their gown, is dashing from side to side of the stage to be ready for his next entrance. His mom, pageant coordinator Loree Duczek, is in the lighting booth running the show, but she’s communicating via headset with stage manager Nikki Gipman. When Dagen says he no longer wants to smile on stage, Nikki tells him that his mom promises a fast-food dinner if he complies. He doesn’t believe it until he can speak to her through the headset himself, and finally gives the audience a dazzling grin on his last trip on stage, to great reaction from the audience.

Finally, all of the girls are back onstage for the finale of the pageant’s first half. As they twirl and smile in their gowns, all of the backstage volunteers gather to watch. There are about 10 people working behind the scenes to make sure everything runs smoothly – and every last one of them is a former candidate herself. When the girls come off stage as the intermission begins, the backstage workers rush to congratulate them, each fully aware of the work the candidates have put in to reach this point.

During the intermission, the candidates visibly relax. In the green room, visiting royalty from across B.C. and western U.S. greet the girls and congratulate them.

The candidates hug each other, say how proud of each other they are, and chatter excitedly. There’s no sense of competition between the girls, and coordinator Karin Penner said they aren’t dwelling on which of them will be the next Sweetheart.

“It’s not about who wins,” Karin tells me. “It’s not about beauty of face or figure. It’s about bringing out the best in them.”

Cranbrook’s Jennifer Spyksma, a former candidate, Darlene Forsdick, a former coordinator of Miss Summerland, and Jo Summerfeld, coordinator of Miss Penticton, make up the judging panel, and the three are locked away in another part of the theatre making their decision as the second half of the pageant gets underway.

Before you know it, it’s time for the crowning of the 2014 youth ambassadors. Outgoing Sweetheart Makenzie Yates and Princess Alicia Leasak prepare to transfer their crowns, while the candidates nervously grasp hands as they smile at the audience.

With one last hiccup – MCs Jason Wheeldon and Christy Pick have trouble opening the sealed envelopes – the announcement is made. Kendall Bostock is the 2014 Princess of Sam Steele. Devon Kennedy is this year’s Sweetheart of Sam Steele.

With that, the show is over and the stage is flooded by friends and family of the candidates. For an overwhelming half an hour, the seven candidates are swamped by well-wishers – photos are taken, hugs are given, flowers are handed out. Finally, as the theatre empties, the girls come together one last time and are whisked away to an after-party with their loved ones at the Heritage.

The Sweetheart pageant may be essentially one intense job interview for the role of representing Cranbrook, but it has lasting impacts for the girls who are candidates. By the time the pageant rolls around, each of them is mature, polite and composed under pressure, and these are skills they will carry with them into adulthood, along with strong friendships with one another.

And they had a lot of fun getting there.

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