Omigod! The Making of the 2007 Rose Queen

The selection process is an elaborately choreographed two-month competition
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OCTOBER 26, 2006: The Coronation of the Rose Queen

Everybody’s dressed for a garden party—linen sports jackets and ties for the men, high heels and flowery prints for the women. The Tournament of Roses Association, the nonprofit organization that has staged the annual New Year’s Day parade since 1896, has pitched a big white tent on the vast front lawn of Pasadena’s Wrigley Mansion. Several hundred Pasadena dignitaries and dozens of sponsors are streaming in for the coronation of the 89th Rose Queen.

Past Tournament of Roses presidents stand out like cherry pops in their bright red sports coats. Chairmen and -women of the 34 committees that make up the Tournament Association are less conspicuous in their dark blue blazers and gray slacks or skirts, with ties in a wine dark rose pattern against a navy background. The crowd is dotted with “white-suiters.” Clad head to toe in white suits purchased from San Marino haberdasher P.M. Jacoy and white bucks from Rangoni’s on Pasadena’s South Lake Avenue, white-suiters are a familiar if slightly zany presence overseeing the hundreds of thousands who show up on New Year’s Eve with their camp chairs and ice chests to reserve the best places to sleep along Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard parade route.

I’m at the journalists’ table, exiled to the farthest corner of the tent, drawn by an obsession with the Rose Parade. Sometimes silly, sometimes touching, frequently surreal, the event has been a can’t miss for me for a couple of decades.

The Rose Parade’s 50-plus floats, dozens of bands, and hundreds of equestrians represent the ethos of Pasadena—a little dowdy, very sincere. Pasadena’s past is symbolized by the three-story, 22-room, 18,500-square-foot Wrigley Mansion, and the parade is Pasadena’s curiously stately Mardi Gras.

The coronation’s luncheon entertainment wouldn’t have been out of place at a Republican convention in 1976. A trio claiming descent from the 1960s group the Lettermen—“living proof that recycling works,” they joked—opened with a fist-waving, red-faced “God Bless the U.S.A.,” followed by a loose segue into “The 12th of Never,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and their evergreen, “Shangri-La.”

The processional commences with the 2007 Royal Court princesses entering in pale green, floor-length gowns, their dads on their arms. The last to enter the tent is the girl who’s just been chosen the 2007 Rose Tournament Queen, Mary McCluggage, 17, a senior at Flintridge Prep. She is dressed in white, looking like the bride atop a wedding cake. Her hand is on the arm of her father, Kerry, a former executive at both Paramount and Universal Television. When Mary and her dad pass the table where her mother, Vicki, and her older brother, Matt, are seated, all their eyes well up with tears of pride. Mary and Kerry reach the risers, where he stops and gives her a kiss on the cheek; then she steps onto the stage to join the other girls.

After a brief interview with McCluggage—“The only reason I’m standing up here is because I spoke my heart in interviews”—the event’s hostess, NBC4 anchor Kelly Mack, expressed what many in the tent were thinking: “As a parent, these girls are exactly what you hope for in a daughter.” Brad Ratliff, the chairman of the Queen and Court Committee, which is charged with choosing the queen and her court, introduces Paul Holman, the tournament president. He approaches with the crown.

McCluggage bends at the knee, exactly as she had done the day before at the rehearsal, and Holman places on her head the crown, made by cultured pearl titan Mikimoto, of diamonds and pearls set in sterling silver. “Now,” he intones, “I officially crown you ‘Her Majesty, Queen Mary.’” The crowd bursts into sustained applause.

“To get a standing ovation,” the queen would later tell me, “is probably the coolest thing that ever happened to me.”

When you write about the Rose Parade, you better leave your cynicism back at the ranch. There’s not a lot of room for irony in the tournament, and snarkiness won’t render it, either. “If enough people believe something is real, it’s real,” I thought to myself. Like everybody else in the crowd, I was swept up in the emotion. The tournament is a celebration of innocence, a community ritual of hope and optimism that has been going strong for more than a century. But everybody knows that. What fascinated me was the Tournament of Roses Association—how had it been able to maintain its structure and its momentum for so long with so few tangible rewards? I was more than curious.

AUGUST 11: The Meeting of the Queen and Court Committee

The Tournament of Roses is one of Southern California’s oldest and most resonant traditions, and its history and Pasadena’s have always been entwined. On January 1, 1890, just four years after the city was founded, members of the Valley Hunt Club staged a parade of flower-decorated horse-drawn buggies. At the picnic that followed, young men competed in an old Spanish game in which mounted horsemen, each carrying a 12-foot lance, tried to spear three floral rings hung about 30 feet apart while riding at top speed. The tourney of rings, coupled with the floral displays, was modeled after a festival of roses in Nice, France. “Now,” the Hunt Club’s president said, “we have the name we want—the Tournament of Roses.”

In the years that followed, there were ostrich derbies and chariot races and an elephant-camel competition. In the fourth year, floats were entered for the first time, and viewing stands were built along the parade route. Two thousand people showed up for the inaugural. By 1895, it had grown too big for the Valley Hunt Club to produce. To keep the event alive, the Tournament of Roses Association was formed.

The first Rose Bowl game took place in 1902, when the “Point-a-Minute” University of Michigan 11 stomped Stanford mercilessly, precipitating a riot. The second game wouldn’t be played until 1916. The first Rose Queen, Hallie Woods, was chosen by her classmates at Pasadena High School in 1905. She made her own gown and helped build the float on which she would ride.

In those days Orange Grove Boulevard, where midwestern and eastern industrialists retreated for the winter, was called Millionaire’s Row. One of the more modest domiciles was an Italian Renaissance-style mansion built in 1906, one of six family residences belonging to William Wrigley Jr., the “Chewing Gum King.” After her husband’s death in 1932, the widow Wrigley remained in what had become her favorite residence. When she died in 1958, it was donated to the Tournament of Roses, which renamed it Tournament House before giving it to the city.

L.A.’s founders were poor people, peasants and foot soldiers willing to travel across trackless nature for the opportunity to make a home. Pasadena’s pobladores were millionaires named Huntington and Green and Throop, drawn by the climate, the bountiful orchards and arbors. The interplay of class and real estate has fueled the imagination of Pasadenans ever since.

Though only the dining room still has its original furnishings, the house has been rigorously maintained, the kind of place that you want to approach wearing a coat and tie. The American Society of Interior Designers did a makeover three years ago, even locating a replica of the silk wallpaper the Wrigleys had brought over from France. The four and a half acres of gardens contain 1,500 varieties of roses, camellias, and annuals. The official tournament rose is coral pink, celebrated with its own garden and fountain on the house’s south side, but over the years the claret-toned “Charlene” rose has come to symbolize the tournament.

The mansion is rarely rented out, and fundraisers have never been allowed. The policy makes the house special—mysterious, grand, and a little remote. Coming through the four-inch-thick mahogany front door makes you feel like you’re coming home to a grandmother you never had. Its wood-paneled solidity bespeaks prosperity and ease.

The Tournament of Roses Association has a paid staff of between 25 and 30, but the heart of the parade and the football game are 935 volunteers who pay at least $55 a year in dues for the privilege of putting in a minimum of 30 hours and in most cases many more to make the tournament go. Volunteers are required to be interviewed by association members and to live within 15 miles of Pasadena City Hall. Every volunteer spends the first two years working the parade route on New Year’s Eve. “Generation after generation, for people who grew up in this area, the tourney becomes a part of you,” one white-suiter says. “Everybody knows somebody whose job is to move crowds along at the viewing of the floats.”

Many committees have more members than the Queen and Court Committee, but few have its juice. One sweltering August day the Queen and Court Committee, under the chairmanship of Brad Ratliff, convene around a long table beneath the stern gaze of William Wrigley Jr.’s portrait. The walls are decorated with framed Rose Tournament posters from the early 20th century. Changing into a dark suit for the meeting, Ratliff exudes the calm and thoughtful air of a custodian of tradition.

Of the nine men and women serving alongside Ratliff, all have put in a minimum of 12 years. Ratliff has been volunteering for 18. He has chosen his members in close consultation with tourney president Paul Holman and the president before him.

Ratliff owns a building supply company, and he has lived in Pasadena nearly all his life. His father was tournament president a few years earlier. He and his wife, Susan, have two daughters, a 20-year-old at Pasadena City College and a 17-year-old at La Canada High School. “I look at all these girls,” he says, “as if they were daughters.”

Between September and February, committee members will put in between 6 and 20 hours a week, a regimen that also involves a huge commitment from spouses. Unmarried men are rarely asked to serve on the Queen and Court Committee. Once the queen and her court are chosen, the girls will be swept up in a whirlwind of social activity that will require them to be driven to every event by a committee member; after dark, spouses are expected to come along to chaperone.

Though the all-white, all-male character of the Rose Tourney has faded along with the all-white, all-male character of Pasadena politics, the tournament’s past strongly shapes its present. This year’s committee includes a white female administrator at Cal Poly Pomona, a Latina fourth-grade teacher, and a tall, quiet African American coach and teacher. There’s a certified financial planner, a fundraiser for Pomona College, and a retired bank vice president, but all of them sport a style that wouldn’t have been out of place in a brand-new American suburb in the 1950s. There are aspects of the Rose Tourney Association that place it somewhere between a cult and a culture.

It’s not just the pins with the hierarchical markings that every member wears in his or her lapel—a pin with a circular red band around its outer edge can only be worn by the executive committee’s 14 members; a circular blue band means its wearer has been a volunteer for more than 25 years—nor the relentless cheerfulness with which members go about their tasks. It’s about the invocation of a history that may or may not have ever existed, a Pasadena of the mind where most anybody would want to spend their years.

SEPTEMBER 11 & 12: School Presentations

It was only the first week of school, but the Queen and Court Committee was operating at warp speed, fanning out to Altadena, Arcadia, Temple City, and nearly every other high school, public and private, in the Pasadena Area Community College District. Wherever they went, committee members brought along reps from the 2006 court. At Pasadena High School they introduced Princess Alyssa Jones, awillowy, wisecracking PCC student in black gaucho pants, high-heeled boots, and a dark red top who wants to be an elementary school teacher.

They also showed Reach for the Dream, a recruiting film for the Tournament of Roses steeped in the girlish wonder that is the tournament. A woman who’d tried out for the court in 1951 recalled, “I stood on a bench at my father’s pharmacy on Colorado Boulevard,” staring out the window as the Rose Queen and her Royal Court rolled by. “I wanted to be that queen. I wanted to be that beautiful girl.”

I’d walked into the auditorium a few moments after the movie started, and Princess Alyssa had already come over and “rosed” me, pushing a one-inch-high dark red rose with Velcro-strength backing into my shirt collar with her thumb. Rosing is both friendly and aggressive, a wholesome, confident, oddly intimate way to reach out to strangers and reel them in. When the lights came up, I realized that there were about 200 girls in the huge auditorium, and probably 80 percent of them were either Latina or African American. Nearly everybody was wearing jeans and sporting roses.

Princess Alyssa and committee members handed out brochures with the tourney’s eligibility requirements. After nearly a century, the rules have been honed down: Only unmarried women who have not been previously married, have no children, and agree not to be married before January 3, 2007, are eligible. Only legal residents of the Pasadena Area Community College District, seniors in high school, or full-time college students at PCC or Caltech between the ages of 17 and 21 carrying at least a C average may apply. Maybe because there hasn’t been a Royal Court member from Pasadena High School in 23 years—were the odds stacked against these public school girls?—the meeting took on elements of a mass sisterly pep talk.

“It’s not about how you look,” Princess Alyssa told the girls, “or what your name is, or what school you go to, but what you’re like on the inside.”

The first question from the audience—“Do you have to get drug tested?”—set the students atwitter. A second girl asked the princess if she got to keep her tiara. Alyssa shook her head. The queen’s crown and the princesses’ tiaras are kept in a vault at Mikimoto and transported to the day’s events by armored car. A third girl asked, “What do we get if we win?”

If you make it to the Royal Court, you get shoes, purses, and five complete matching outfits—around 30 pieces of clothing—from Macy’s. You get a necklace of Mikimoto cultured pearls and matching pearl earrings. Everybody who tries out gets two tickets to a semiformal Royal Ball at the Pasadena Convention Center. “You get to ride in the Goodyear Blimp,” she laughed. She added with a “Be still my beating heart” gesture, “I got to sit next to Matt Leinart,” the handsome USC quarterback, at the Lawry’s “Beef Bowl,” a prime rib feed for both Rose Bowl teams.

For a year the queen and her court are locally famous, doing interviews and photo sessions, making appearances at old folks’ homes and children’s hospitals to rose the patients. As committee member Rick Nassif said to me at the end of the Pasadena High School presentation, “On Thursday they’re hanging out at Starbucks text messaging, and Monday they’re royalty.”

The auditorium emptied out fast after the presentation. I asked a couple of Latina students if they were going to try out. “I’m afraid I’d get all twitchy,” one responded. The other said, “I’d want to do it not just for me but to show the average girl they can do it, too.” Despite Princess Alyssa’s entreaties, I got the feeling that these girls sensed the Tournament of Roses was not for them.

Another day I visited Mayfield Senior School with 2006 queen Camille Clark, Princess Carolyn Loo, and two members of the committee, Robin Flynn and Nassif. Mayfield is one of the blondest schools in Southern California; last year three Mayfield girls made it to the finals. We’re sitting in what was once the living room of the mansion at the center of the campus. A balcony affords fine views of the Arroyo Seco. Forty or fifty girls are lounging on couches or on a sumptuous Persian rug in their checked, pleated skirts.

Queen Camille is a beautiful African American Latina, a graduate of Catholic La Salle High School with straight black hair who introduced herself to me with a firm handshake and marked aplomb. “Trying out was never a question,” she told the Mayfield girls. “Ever since I was four years old, I wanted to be part of it.”

Each speaker tried to articulate what they thought the judges would be seeking. Princess Carolyn told the girls, “What the judges look for is the ABCs—articulate, bright, and charming.” Queen Camille reassured, “They’re not looking for a cookie-cutter-type girl.” Princess Carolyn warned against wearing anything too flamboyant. “We’re not showing anything off. Keep it conservative.”

Both Queen Camille and Princess Carolyn reminded the girls that if they made it to the Royal Court, they would find themselves extremely busy, attending Pasadena Rotary and Kiwanis Club meetings, doing media events with the tournament sponsors. When the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton reopened, it renamed the Presidential Suite the Tournament of Roses Suite, and the queen and court did the ribbon cutting. Between November 1 and New Year’s Day, there can be as many as seven events in a day. “You have to be prepared for your grades to slip,” Princess Carolyn cautioned. “It’s a huge commitment.”

Queen Camille was practical about the challenges. “When you’re on the court, you bring a lot of honor to your school, so the teachers are going to work with you. You do your homework on car rides.” To a girl who was worried about college applications, Camille responded firmly, “It’s all about time management.”

SEPTEMBER 16: Round One

Brad Ratliff doesn’t leave anything to chance. He’s warned his committee members that they ought not wear blue oxford broadcloth shirts for the first round because they show sweat on a hot day. But he needn’t have worried. It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Pasadena, cool in the shadows. The wrought-iron balconies of the Wrigley Mansion are draped with green and blue bunting and flags with frogs on them to celebrate this year’s theme: “Our Good Nature.” It’s the kind of day that has lured people to Southern California for a hundred years, just perfect for a cattle call.

Some 1325 young women have signed up, the largest turnout since the years when Pasadena City College made all the girls in gym class try out. There are so many candidates that the first-round judging lasts two days. The only two girls in the senior class at Flintridge Prep who didn’t sign up reside outside the community college district.

There’s no easy way to categorize these young ladies. Some are in high heels, some in flats. Some wear summer dresses; some are in pants. One girl has on jeans and a pink and purple head scarf. Another is on crutches with a cast on her foot. One girl, in a yellow and black soccer uniform, looks like a bumblebee, but most are dressed as if they were interviewing for a job, which, in effect they are. Everyone has a number prominently displayed on her chest, although 1, 2, 3,13, and 69 have purposely been eliminated. I’ve never been around so many girls in my life. I feel like I’m in the middle of a herd of elk. These are alpha girls, smart and well-raised and ready to bust a move.

Queen Camille greets the first 100 candidates on the front porch with “Good morning, ladies. Please stay in numerical order.” The girls descend in groups of 10 to 12 to sit in folding chairs in the shade of a gigantic Moreton Bay fig tree, waiting their turn before the judges. The garden is swarming with photographers and camera operators, almost all of them male. The contestants have been told to give out only their first names.

Ratliff is a firm believer in UCLA coach John Wooden’s motivational “Pyramid of Success.” Before his committee members take their places at the judging stations, they put their fists together in a crowded circle and chant, “One, two, three—success!” Seated at a long row of tables draped with red tablecloths under a medieval-looking white canopy, they appear ready to referee a joust. Both male and female judges are in gray slacks and blue blazers. “Good morning,” Ratliff begins in a voice both pleasant and portentous. “Welcome to the Royal Court tryouts.”

When a girl’s number is called, she walks clown a moss-covered path to stand at a red X in front of the judges. The ryegrass lawn may have given TV stations an unseasonably verdant background for their cameras, but spiked high heels keep sinking into the turf. Many of the girls’ legs are shaking. Some pick nervously at their skirts or grip their hands tightly behind their backs so the judges can’t see them tremble.

This is not a beauty contest. There’s no bathing suit or talent competition, although as recently as 20 years ago, entrants were asked to do “the walk” for the judges.

Each girl has 15 seconds to say why she wants to be on the Royal Court. Some have clearly practiced a response, but many are tripped up by the timer, who cuts them off politely but firmly in midsentence, followed immediately by a chorus of thank-yous from the judges.

A lot of girls offer variations on “I want to give back to my community.” Dozens swear they love kids and want to be a mentor to little girls. “Coming from a Latino-Anglo background, I want to be a role model for immigrants.” “It would mean a lot to my family in Iran.” “It’s a natural extension of my volunteer work for the American Red Cross.” “I have an amazing enthusiasm for everybody.” “I want to be a light to the world.”

I’m surprised at the number of girls who say they’ve wanted to be a Rose Queen since they first saw the parade on TV when they were in preschool. Many girls claim they’ve spent the night on Colorado Boulevard with their families before the parade at least once.

A girl with long curly blond hair and braces says she wants to be on the Royal Court “because my morn is a junkie and my dad is an alcoholic and I want to prove I can rise above my circumstances.” She is followed by a girl who angrily proclaims, “I want to show my dad that you don’t have to treat women like a jerk.” Neither made it to the second round.

So many of the girls are pretty, attractively dressed, bubbly, and cheerful, I can’t see how the judges could decide. Princess Shannon Bowman of the 2006 Royal Court claims, “You can see the sparkle.” The judges rate each girl from one to four—hopeless to shoe-in—then total up the points and average out the scores. At this stage it’s clearly not what you say but how you say it that matters. Ratliff tells me later that “as soon as they open their mouths, I know.”

When each girl finishes, a white-suiter, looking courtly as a Southern planter, escorts her up a red carpet, turf still dangling from her shoes, to the Rose Room, a former Wrigley Mansion dining room transformed into an instant glamour factory. Each girl is quickly brought in front of a photographer, handed a fresh spray of dark red roses, and given an elemental modeling lesson: Turn your left leg out, turn your body a little bit away from the camera, look over your shoulder, and smile. “Beautiful” the tourney photographer exclaims as he clicks away. “Gorgeous! Now a biiiig smile.” Click. Each girl leaves with a souvenir portrait.

Back in the entry hall, beside a handsome staircase, the girls receive little gift bags holding a can of Tab, a plastic makeup bag, a fistful of skin care products from Macy’s and Estee Lauder, and tickets to the Royal Ball. As they make their way out, more girls are pushing through the mahogany front door, eager for their chance.

SEPTEMBER 23: The Quarterfinals

Two hundred fifty girls got a letter with a red rose on the envelope inviting them to return for the quarterfinals. The rest received nothing. “I freaked out when I brought in the mail and the letter fell to the floor,” one excited quarterfinalist said. “I called my mother at work, and she just started screaming,” enthused a second. “It just popped out of a bunch of college pamphlets,” said a third. “I was so excited, I ran outside to tell my mom and locked us out of the house!”

The living room of Tournament House is gorgeous: Florentine marble fireplace, antique Baccarat crystal chandelier, painted ceilings. At any moment a hundred girls might be hanging out, and even from out on the front lawn you can hear the roar of bonding girls, periodically erupting into high-pitched laughter. I can’t imagine what the mansion’s living room would be like if this were a bunch of dudes. The wallpaper would get marked up; things would get broken; there’d be rough-housing. This year a half-dozen high school boys tried out. They were polite, they wore ties, and the tournament let them interview, but they weren’t asked back. Most of the girls I talked to resented it. To them it was boys messing with a girl thing.

There’d also been a small brawl the previous Saturday night at the Royal Ball. It was hot and crowded, one girl told me, and a bunch of guys got into a fight over a football game. She said the first punch landed louder than the music. Her friend snorted in disgust: “Next year they should only allow girls.”

I asked several girls if they felt that the tryouts exploited women or objectified them. They stared at me like I was a Martian. One responded with a kindly, condescending look. “What girl doesn’t want to be a princess? I mean, c’mon.” There was something I liked about her, something wised up. She wasn’t asked back.

For the quarterfinals the judges set up their long, red-cloth-covered tables in the Rose Room. Flanked by the American and Rose Bowl flags, loose-leaf binders open, tins of Altoids at the ready, the judges waited for the quarterfinalists to enter the room. One by one they hit their mark, a vermilion X directly in front of Ratliff. This time the girls had 30 seconds to respond. There is a list of 50 to 75 questions that has been passed down from one Queen and Court Committee to the next, but this summer Ratliff asked his committee to come up with some new ones.

The questions rotate from judge to judge, but invariably they are asked in the same friendly yet uninflected voice: “If you were able to travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?”

“I would go back to Australia,” number 113 replied, “because I never had a chance to pet a koala.” The judges smiled.

“Please give an example of how you are involved in public service.” One volunteered at Huntington Hospital. Another ran an annual jog-athon that raises money to protect the rain forest. A third raised $15,000 at an AIDS marathon.

“If you could meet any person living or dead, who would it be?”

“Thomas Jefferson, because he was such a great Founding Father.”

One girl trips over the question and freezes. I lean out from behind a Chinese screen where I’ve been eavesdropping to note the panic in her eyes. By the time she has reengaged her tongue, her time is up.

“If you had an unlimited amount of money, how would you spend it?”

Answers ranged from “I’d give all my money to cancer research” to “I’d invest it in real estate.”

One question referred to this year’s theme: “Give us an example of your own good nature.”

“I’m very bubbly and a lot of fun,” was a typical reply. “I’m a very loving and generous person,” was another. One girl said she loves to “get out there and love as many people as I can.” Others answered, “I love puppies and would like to help them all find good homes.” “I go down to skid row and hand out school supplies.” “I’m happy all the time.” “I have a very big passion for trees.”

At one point Holman, the tournament president, slipped into the Rose Room to listen. Retired after 38 years in the financial services industry, most recently as a mortgage banker, Holman started volunteering for the Rose Tourney in 1978, chairing ten committees and spending eight years on the executive committee before becoming the tournament’s 2007 president. He’s been a Boy Scout leader, a Little League coach, and a member of the Optimist Club of Pasadena. His wife is an elementary school teacher. He stood in the back of the room, visible to the judges but out of sight of the girls, looking like the early-20th-century Russian impresario Diaghilev surveying possible soloists for his corps de ballet. The official timer was at his right. When a girl was down to her last ten seconds, Holman raised one hand. When her time was up, he followed with a throat-cut gesture.

SEPTEMBER 28: The Semifinals

Walking in the front door at Tournament House I was greeted with a blast of intensity. Where did it come from? The girls are brushing on lip gloss as if it were war paint. Everybody’s hair is shinier. Some girls are glamorous and grown-up. Others look like kids. This time 80 girls have received call-back letters, and any one of them seems capable of winning. Ratliff says the two qualities he looks for “above all others is speaking ability and the ability to be engaging, to carry on a conversation,” because that is basically what the girls do—they go out and talk to people and weave them into the fantasy that they’re talking to a princess or a queen. These are outgoing girls, the popular girls. Just about every one I talk to has a strong family background. All are motivated. You get the feeling that they will be successful in their lives. The grandfather clock in the foyer tolls the hour.

The judges’ questions during this round are more personal, and so are the answers. “If you could use one word to describe yourself, what would it be?” “Passionate,” responds a girl who will later tell me she is the editor of her school newspaper. “I have a very weird laugh that has been described as sounding like a dying animal.” “Ambitious. I take every opportunity that comes at me.” “Very athletic, very competitive, and optimistic.”

One girl, who mentors seventh- and ninth-grade girls, tells the judges that when she sees “somebody drop a schoolbook in a hall and nobody helps that person pick it up, it breaks my heart,” and there is little doubt that she means it. One girl stumbles over a word and begins to cry.

The last question always comes from Ratliff. “Do you have any concern about having your hair cut or styled by professionals or being made up by professionals?”

One girl’s answer is typical: “I can’t wait.”

I wander out of the mansion to where half a dozen moms (never a dad) are waiting around for their daughters. One is reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. I tell her she’s the only person I’ve seen here reading a book, and she says she’s reading it because her mother is dying. She’s from back east, married to an academic, with short salt-and-pepper hair and little makeup. She considers the irony. “I was never a soccer mom. Now I’m a Rose Court mom.” I wonder if she thinks her daughter is comfortable with her hanging around. She assures me her daughter thinks her being there is nothing but good luck. (Which turns out to be true: Her daughter was chosen for the court.)

At this point some of the girls’ collegiality is wearing thin. A girl gripping a Tab tells me, “I’m a very competitive person. If somebody asked me what the questions were, I wouldn’t tell them.” Another, cupping a Sprite, nods in firm agreement. One girl who made it to this round last year as a high school senior and is trying again as a first-year PCC student says each round gets more intense. “The further you get, the more you want it.”

OCTOBER 5: The Finals

Thirty-two girls made the finals. Seven are from La Canada, one of the most affluent enclaves in the community college district. Queen Camille and Princess Alyssa have returned for one of their last royal acts, reminding the girls to “stay confident and be yourself.” One finalist tells me she’s feeling lucky because on the way over she heard her favorite song, “Crocodile Rock.” Not only that, but the number she’s worn in the Royal Court tryouts and the number she drew today to decide the interview order are both divisible by five.

What is the biggest challenge facing young people today? What’s the most embarrassing moment of your life, and how did you deal with it? What do you like most about yourself? I’ve begun to realize it’s not the answers but the questions that matter, communicating what the judges think is important, what they expect a successful girl’s concerns to be. It’s a way a community passes on its values to its young.

The committee has brought in a trio of professionals to smooth the rough edges off the winners’ styles. A retired Bullock’s model named Linda Reimers will choose the Royal Court’s wardrobes and show the girls how to pose with their feet in a T to make their legs look skinnier. Rosemary Scott will polish the girls’ speaking skills. Pamela Hillings teaches manners: how to twirl pasta without a spoon, how to use forks with the tines down, in the European manner. The queen and her court are going to be sitting on a dais, she explains, and people will be watching them eat.

When they come out of the Rose Room, a volunteer congratulates each girl and roses her again. I asked her, Why the congratulations? She replied, “Because they’ve made it this far, and they’re all amazing.” Passing a soda bar outside the Rose Room, one girl, trying to buck up another’s confidence, shouted, “I’ll see you next Monday.” That’s the day Ratliff will announce the Royal Court.

OCTOBER 9: The Announcement of the Royal Court

Hundreds of nervous, giddy parents and relatives have gathered on the south lawn of the mansion to find out who will be named princesses. Many carry handwritten signs supporting a kid, a schoolmate, a sister. A dozen or so camerapeople are poised on risers, waiting for the girls to come out of the Rose Room. As Ratliff announces finalists’ numbers and—for the first time—their names, the 32 girls emerge from the mansion, each cradling a long-stemmed red rose, to take their place on the steps.

Then he announces the members of the 2007 Tournament of Roses Royal Court: number 11, Princess Christina Barsamian, Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy; number 64, Princess Aneesah Giroux, John Marshall Fundamental High School; number 60, Princess Blair Ramirez, La Salle High School; number 678, Princess Danielle Vine, Pasadena High School; number 577, Princess Kaitlin Terpstra-Sweeney, Pasadena City College; number 1086, Princess Sue Park, La Canada High School; number 113, Princess Mary McCluggage, Flintridge Preparatory School.

It’s a wise and politic decision, a reflection in miniature of the community’s demographics. One girl is of Armenian descent, one’s Latina, two are African American, one is Korean American, two would be considered Anglo. Three go to public high schools, two go to Catholic schools, one goes to private school, one is a freshman at PCC. Most are tall and nearly all have straight hair.

One by one the winners descend to a red platform rimmed with gargantuan bouquets. Wild cheers erupt as the red-and-gold-clad Pasadena City College band blares out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” while the 25 also-rans troop bravely back into the house followed by Ratliff. Unable to hold back his tears, he tells the girls who didn’t make it, “The future of the country is in great hands with young women like you.”

On the south lawn, Korean reporters swarm around Princess Sue Park’s family. Bathed in TV lights, her younger brother sits proudly on the lip of the stage with the family dog on his lap. Vicki McCluggage, Princess Mary’s mother—herself a former Maid of Cotton at the Cotton Bowl Parade—poses for pictures in front of the tourney’s l00th-anniversary rose garden, the sweater draped over her shoulders perfectly matching the roses’ coral pink.

The unsuccessful finalists exit out the front door to the delirious whoops of their families and friends waiting on the lawn. For a minute it’s impossible to tell which group of girls won and which lost.

OCTOBER 17: The Naming of the Rose Queen

After the court was announced, I had complimented a Rose Tourney publicist on the buzz they’d managed to generate. Just wait, she had promised, for the queen announcement. “I’ll have every camera in Los Angeles here, barring a fire,” she had said, and here they were. Camera trucks lined the driveway, their microwave antennae reaching into the sky like palms.

In the eight days since the Royal Court was named, contracts have been signed with the seven families, and a queen has been chosen by the committee, based on what it had seen during a weekend retreat at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. Before they left for Balboa, committee member Nassif told me, “All the girls are on the same level. By the end of the weekend someone will stand out.” The implication is interesting: The princesses themselves will, on an unconscious level, choose who will be their queen.

To watch the girls interact, the committee set up a weekend’s worth of play. Volleyball on the beach was a highlight: the seven Royal Court members on one side, the 15 committee members and their spouses on the other. The committee, Mary McCluggage (herself an all-California Interscholastic Federation volleyball player) joked later, always won. They went to Ruby’s, a faux-’50s diner, and the Fun Zone, a local amusement park. The girls put on a skit in which each princess imitated a committee member. After bringing the girls back to Pasadena Sunday afternoon, the committee repaired to Brad and Susan Ratliff’s house for dinner. Ratliff would only say that the choice was clear.

A special guest for the queen announcement is Jennifer Berry, this year’s Miss America, a hard-eyed blond from Tulsa who won Miss Oklahoma on her fifth attempt, then ascended through what she calls “the Miss America system.” Her hair is lacquered down to form a tiara landing pad.

Back in the mansion, the Royal Court gather in a circle, stick in their fists, and chant, “One, two, three—princesses!” Wearing giant grins and matching black-and-white polka-dot dresses with Mikimoto pearls, they pose in a semicircle behind Miss America, listening to her speech. The girls’ makeup has been applied with TV close-ups in mind, but the cumulative effect makes them seem even younger than they are.

Ratliff hands an oversize envelope to Holman, who reads out Mary McCluggage’s name. What is this thing that girls do with their hands covering their faces as if stifling a scream, their eyes bugging out in sweet surprise? McCluggage did it. Her knees seemed to give way as the girls fell into a group hug, jumping up and down.

By the time tourney staff waded through the cheering families to arrange a group portrait, McCluggage was in the middle holding the spray of roses—the tallest and the blondest—and her mother had tears running down her cheeks. “It makes me so happy to see my daughter so happy,” she said.

TWO WEEKS LATER

Outside of Tournament House, the Honda dealers who donated the tournament’s cars are lining up for pictures with the Royal Court. Inside, Ratliff and I are sitting in a windowless staff room. The hails are lined with pictures of the grand marshals of past years: Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Shirley Temple, Walt Disney, Bill Cosby, and many others, all with blissful grins, and waving from the backs of flower-decked vintage convertibles to the New Year’s Day crowds.

Ratliff is tiring of my questions about the tourney. “We are so in it,” he tells me. “You ask why? We just say, ‘It is.’”

Around the globe wars are raging; in downtown L.A. thousands of people are living in the streets. But for five and a half miles along Colorado Boulevard, the world will be fresh, as fresh as the 18 million flowers that make up the floats, as fresh as the faces of the queen and her court. It’s a New Year’s rite that only the most bitter among us would want to deny.

We are the last to leave at the end of the day. Ratliff is pointing out something I hadn’t noticed—that all the Hondas have special license plates reading T OF R. They’re not really license plates, he admits, but the state gives the tournament a special dispensation. The real plates are in the glove compartment.

“That’s incredible,” I say. “How’d you guys manage to do that?”

Ratliff smiles. “As I’m always telling people, don’t try to understand it. Just enjoy.”

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