For many little girls growing up, being a beauty queen means perfecting that wave, that smile, the strut, and eventually the reaction upon hearing those four life-changing words, “And the runner-up is–” and praying her name doesn’t follow them.
But for rodeo queens it’s a little different. For some, being queen might be about the sport of rodeo in general. For others it might be showing the grace and beauty of a cowgirl, while maintaining the hardiness of the western culture. For Ashley Andrews and Brenda Lee Bonogofsky Pickett, the only two Miss Rodeo North Dakotas to claim the national crown, their initial interest in rodeo pageants may have been about finding her place or winning those prizes. In the end, however, it would be about being a leader.
This, says North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame President Phil Baird, is what rodeo pageants are all about. “Miss Rodeo competitions are much more than just looking good riding a horse,” says Baird. “It’s best described as a leadership program for young western girls, and there are a lot of skills that need to be developed, from personal skills to communication and knowing the western culture and heritage. Not everyone can do that.”
According to Baird, preparing for the competition requires character building, professionalism and leadership. The girls who compete in these pageants exemplify true leaders, and none more so than Miss Rodeo America 2007 Ashley Andrews. Having worked with Andrews, Baird can recognize those qualities, including her ability to overcome personal challenges, while never “letting off the pedal” on her mission to achieving goals. This, he says, requires significant fortitude and faith, and he says Andrews did so in pure “Roughrider State fashion.”
“The deal with North Dakota is that it’s smaller and doesn’t have the money to invest in a program like this like larger states, such as Texas,” says Baird. “So, truly, those who have risen to accomplish and become a number one leader – you know they have something very, very special.”
In other words, the North Dakota queens didn’t prepare for this pageant by perfecting a smile and a wave. They prepared for it through support of family and friends and the North Dakota spirit – working hard and daring to be independent.
Miss Rodeo 2007, Ashley Andrews
Rodeo and the North Dakota western culture was something into which 22-year-old Ashley Andrews was born. She was on a horse before she could walk or talk and helped on the farm and ranch while growing up. Involvement in rodeo only seemed natural as her five older siblings excelled in their particular events. She began her career in rodeo – as most little cowpokes do – in the boot race and stick horse race. As she matured beyond those races and into the events involving real horses, new challenges greeted her. With her siblings preceding her, the wisdom and advice they offered her should have been useful in choosing an event, but for Andrews, it was often confusing.
“Being the baby of six and there being five girls, everyone had input on what I was doing,” Andrews explains. “Everyone was a standout in their own event in rodeo, and it was really hard for me to pick one because everyone was telling me how to do everything. There was a lot of pressure.”
So with the tenacity and independence inherent of the western culture, Andrews chose her own path, a path not taken by any of her older sisters. She chose the path of a rodeo queen. “When I was younger, it wasn’t something I ever thought I cared to do. But a rodeo queen was something nobody in my family had ever done before. So, I just did it on my own and nobody knew anything about it so they couldn’t tell me how to do it! I just did my own thing and it worked out.”
For her own thing to just “work out,” however, is an understatement as that chosen path was continually benchmarked with success. She began competing in the pageants in high school and earned the crown of Miss High School Rodeo. Later she also became Miss Rodeo Mandan and held that title until winning Miss Rodeo North Dakota. All were titles and experiences to put under her belt as she looked forward to the next challenge – the Miss Rodeo America pageant. Other challenges, however, were in the near future.
Rising to new challenges
In December 2006, Andrews was crowned Miss Rodeo America 2007, and in January, the newly crowned queen entered the Denver Coliseum to thunderous applause from supporters and admirers. This rodeo, the Western Stock Show, is an emotional one for any newly crowned queen as it marks her initial debut as the First Lady of Rodeo, but for Andrews, making the entrance into the Coliseum was exceptionally sweet. Just one year before, this place was the beginning of one of the biggest challenges she had ever faced. Today it was much different. Her entrance now marked her greatest victory as she rode around the arena and took in the audience’s inexhaustible support.
For Andrews, this was a great experience because just one year before, it was at this rodeo as Miss Rodeo North Dakota that she first found out she had Hodgkins Lymphoma. She spent the next six months undergoing chemotherapy. The physical strain, however, did not put a damper on Andrews’s spirit or ambition. In fact, according to Andrews, it only helped. “If I didn’t have Miss Rodeo America to look forward to, I wouldn’t have had anything to get up for everyday to keep my mind fresh. So when I was sick, I couldn’t even think about it because I had so many things to think about. I just had to get up and go every single day.”
Andrews took only one sick day during her treatments from studying up on current events, horsemanship, rodeo knowledge and equine science, as well as appearance and public speaking preparations for the pageant. Andrews certainly proved she had the grit and strength of any old cowboy, but what Andrews had most was faith and unwavering optimism. Six months later she was given a clean bill of health and now looks back at the experience as a good one.
“I think that something good comes from every bad situation, and I’m living proof of that. I’m blessed after having gone through cancer, I mean it definitely wasn’t fun going through it, but beating cancer has helped me turn around and show people that there is hope. You really can do it,” says Andrews. “It’s allowed me to inspire people. Doing something good for other people as much as I can is worth the sick days and hard times I had to go through. It’s all worth it.”
In February, Andrews announced the three wigs (which she had nicknamed Bridget, Brandy and Brittney) she’d used while her hair was growing back from chemotherapy were officially retired, marking another stage in her progress. “You don’t need hair to be beautiful,” she said with resolve. “It’s what is inside of you that matters.” And that beauty shines bright wherever Andrews goes.
With the challenges of her battle with cancer behind her, Andrews is now using her experiences to help others in their struggles and to promote the sport of rodeo – a sport that, like her lifestyle, has helped shape her into who she is today. Andrews acts as the publicist and spokesperson for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA), and by the end of her reign in December, she will have attended over 100 rodeos and covered over 100,000 miles. This, according to Andrews, is the dirty part of being a queen, as jet lag and lost luggage are just a few of the regular hassles she must worry about.
But with that traveling comes many unique experiences. Since setting off her year-long stint as Miss Rodeo America in January, Andrews has found herself doing things you wouldn’t catch your average beauty queen out trying. From hunting coyotes in South Dakota to hunting and wrestling hogs in Florida, Andrews has proven that being a pageant queen takes a whole lot more than a perfect smile or wave. She did, however, have to admit after visiting Gatorland in Florida that sometimes you need to draw the line. While there, Andrews was invited to come out and sit on an alligator and hold its mouth shut. “Miss Rodeo America doesn’t look right sitting on a gator,” admits Andrews. “I’ll take an American Quarter Horse over an alligator any day!”
And these experiences were just in the first month and a half of her reign. Andrews has had much more traveling and adventure since then and still has much more ahead.
Once all her travels are complete in December, Andrews will return to North Dakota and finish her studies in political science and public relations at the University of Mary in Bismarck. After that, she hopes to work in the public relations field, specializing in agriculture or cancer awareness. Regardless of which path she takes, those paths will be in North Dakota, because North Dakota, after all, is home.
“North Dakotans are the most outgoing, honest and hardworking people in the country, without a doubt,” says Andrews. “When I go other places, I will meet others who have those qualities, but you will never see everyone in one state possess so many of those qualities as in North Dakota. And people are so friendly here. In North Dakota, they are so willing to lend a hand and to give you the shirt off their back if you need it. You just don’t find that anywhere else.”
With that, Andrews summarized her own personality, and North Dakota has shown its pride and support in having such a brave young woman as the spokesperson for rodeo. To find a young woman selfless enough to count cancer as a blessing because of the hope it provides others is rare. According to her predecessor, Brenda Lee Bonogofsky Pickett, Andrews has shown her own North Dakota spirit in proving she is the heroine of her circumstances, not the victim.
Miss Rodeo America 1983, Brenda Lee Bonogofsky Pickett
For Andrews, deciding to contend in rodeo pageants was a way to set herself apart in a large family. For Pickett, an active, independent and hardy cowgirl, it was the prize that was a motivating factor in her decision.
“I never fancied myself a rodeo queen,” says Pickett, “but when I saw the truck and trailer they gave away to the winner, I reconsidered!”
Raised on a farm and ranch between the small southwest North Dakota towns of Almont and Carson, Pickett had grown up chasing cows and branding with her family. It was a part of her life and a part of her history since her tough Norwegian grandfather started the ranch in the 1940s. This western spirit and this farm were passed on to her mother, from whom she likes to think she inherited the quality of being tough.
Although being tough is not something usually sought in a beauty queen, Pickett used this North Dakota trait to go on to become Miss Rodeo Carson and then Miss Rodeo North Dakota 1982. The thought had not crossed her mind that she would ever win Miss Rodeo America since no other North Dakota woman had, but in 1983, Pickett captured the personality division and placed top 10 in horsemanship. Then, that well known North Dakota stubbornness and independence came out in the final question to help Pickett win the competition:
“I’ve had people say that my final question and answer was what clinched the national title for me.” She was asked, “The man of your dreams has asked you to marry him, but he has asked you to give up your career. What do you say to him?” Without hesitation, she answered, “He would not be the man of my dreams if he asked me to give up my career!”
It was similar resolve and independence that had helped pioneers survive out on the North Dakota prairies. Those qualities had also helped Pickett become a pioneer in her own right as the first North Dakotan to be crowned Miss Rodeo America.
As the First Lady of Rodeo, Pickett most remembers meeting two important men. The first was then-President Ronald Reagan. The second man was rodeo World Champion Dee Pickett. He must not have asked her to give up her career, because in 1988, the two got married. They now live in Eagle, Idaho, with their 11-year-old daughter, Carson.
Pickett continued her involvement in rodeo after her year as Miss Rodeo America by competing in college rodeo and the North Dakota Rodeo Association. Being queen wasn’t enough and in 1985, she won the state saddle for break-away roping. Today, both Dee and Brenda have retired from rodeo competitions for the golf course, but their western heritage is now being passed down to Carson, who is taking dressage lessons.
It’s now been 24 years since Pickett served as Miss Rodeo America, but with another North Dakotan at the helm of representing rodeo, Pickett is proud. “Her character and attitude makes all of us want to claim her as one of our own!” she says. Although she has moved out of state, North Dakota is an identity Pickett says she will always have, and it is this identity and not only a crown that she and Andrews have in common.
“Although I have resided in Idaho for nearly 20 years, my husband has given up on correcting me when I say North Dakota is my home. You see, those of us who have been raised here have a sense of pride that never dissipates. No matter if we have moved away from home, we take pride in being referred to as the ‘frozen chosen,’ too stubborn to leave or it’s the survival of the fittest. It is loyalty to a way of life that exemplifies independence, tenacity and courage to believe against all odds. What I admire most about the western heritage of North Dakota is that we are not victims.”
And that is also exactly why North Dakotans everywhere admire and look up to these rodeo queens and national leaders, Brenda Lee Bonogofsky Pickett and Ashley Andrews.