Many people misunderstand the National Watermelon Association’s queen program. The queen program is not a beauty pageant, it is a job that requires more than beauty — the young women are intelligent, well-spoken and well-trained in representing the watermelon industry, as the annual Syngenta-sponsored queen-training weekend showed recently in Naples, FL.
The NWA has nine chapters representing watermelon-producing states. Each of those chapters has a queen who serves 12 months. From that group, one is selected to spend another year representing the industry as national queen.
The queens can turn up anywhere duringtheir 12-month reign — trade shows, fairs, schools, corporate events, in grocery stores doing watermelon promotions and even on Capitol Hill helping industry lobbyists carry their concerns to member of Congress. The national queen — and increasingly the chapter queens, as demand is rising — ventures beyond U.S. borders to meet with heads of state and high-ranking officials in countries like Canada, Mexico and Japan to deliver the good word about watermelon.
“The watermelon queens get a lot of exposure, and because of their training the Promotion Board uses them to create an opportunity, not just fill one,” said Stephanie Barlow, director of public relations and social media for the National Watermelon Promotion Board in Orlando, FL, the NWA sister organization that handles marketing for the industry. “There is a lot of strategy behind it. They are told from jump street that it is a job, it is not a pageant cycle. It is not a sit-around-and-look-pretty position. [Their] job is promotional ambassador and spokesperson for the association, industry and product. They get that, and they have that very well drilled into them. By the time they get to us, they’ve weeded out those who aren’t serious and don’t understand the opportunities and potential presented to them.”
Jean Marinaro, director of public relations for Sunny Fresh Inc. in Vero Beach, FL, and a professional event planner and media trainer, as well as a long-time member of the NWA queen committee, serves as chief image consultant for the chapter and national queens. She is available around the clock.
“I do get phone calls at 10 or 11 o’clock at night when they’re worried about something, but I don’t mind doing it because it is an industry we’re out there trying to represent,” said Ms. Marinaro, who is not paid for her work with the queen program. “Many years ago, we decided that the queens needed some advanced training rather than just crowning them and sending them out there like loose cannons. Most of them have never done a TV or newspaper interview, they haven’t done in-store promotions, some of them don’t have a clue about etiquette and sometimes their grammar is terrible. We are trying to prepare them on food safety, how they need to go in looking great, we are trying to show them what it’s like to stand on their feet all day and still smile.
The national queen is crowned each year at the NWA annual convention in February from the previous year’s chapter queens, and the new chapter queens begin their reign shortly thereafter. A notebook, painstakingly assembled over the last six year years by Ms. Barlow and others, guides them through the early going. By the time the ladies arrive at the training weekend, they are expected to know the material and be ready to go to work.
“They have digested it, but they haven’t experienced it,” Ms. Barlow said. “None of them have any idea how much they’re going to experience in that one year, how full their schedule is. For the queens, the training weekend is where they need to embrace that job and embrace the industry and know what they’re talking about.“
“I really stress that if you don’t do anything else as queen, show that you have grace and professionalism” Ms. Marinaro said. “Grace will take you through no matter where you’re at or what you do. It will show, and it will gain you respect.”
Respect can sometimes be hard to come by for a professional queen.
“People jump to some harsh conclusions,” Ms. Barlow admitted, “but once you understand the program you become an advocate of it. It takes that engagement. If people are skeptical about what the queens are or why they’re there, it’s an opportunity to engage them. All in all, their year as a watermelon queen is enriching their development as adults and individuals and they become just these fantastic professional women in the end who generally go on to do great things.”