Rodeo queens revealed
Twenty-one years ago a ski bum won the title Miss Hailey Rodeo. For the next two decades, Jules Frazier dedicated her career to photographing this icon of the Wild West. By Megan Thomas.
“These girls didn’t need to be glamorized, they already were,” said Jules Frazier, a Seattle-based photographer devoted to capturing images of these uniquely Western women. “They needed images that showed their true self. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about the girls is that the cowboy has been symbolized so much, whereas the girls have been overlooked. They are so colorful, so dedicated. They are really the spokeswoman of the rodeo.”
Dressed to the nines, cowgirl-style, rodeo queens inject a shot of glamour into this rugged American pastime. But behind the veneer Frazier discovered a complex subculture, one she first stumbled across in the Wood River Valley.
“It is a tight-knit family who, after generations of ranching and farming and 4-H, have developed a community that is bonded together through the sport and events of rodeo,” said Frazier. “The rodeo queen is the fresh new face of that rodeo. In a present-day nomadic style, the people involved in rodeo travel together all year long, over hundreds of miles. Whatever they are like as individuals, these girls share a passion to be cowgirls, to work with horses and to represent their rodeos the best they can. Beyond their visual nature is a genuine spirit of the rodeo queen, which keeps the West alive.”
Frazier’s journey into the rodeo queen family was a circuitous one. After graduating from the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, the aspiring photographer went home to Seattle to prepare for her move to New York, where she planned to enter the world of fashion photography.
“Three weeks after selling my car and putting money on an apartment, a last minute trip to Sun Valley to ski some fresh powder changed everything.”
She never made it to New York.
Once the snows had receded, Frazier’s friend Sarah Thomas discovered a unique cash-earning opportunity at Hailey’s Days of the Old West rodeo. A staple since 1947, the Sawtooth Rangers Riding Club-sponsored affair attracts seasoned cowboys and cowgirls to compete in bull riding, barrel racing, calf roping and, of course, the Miss Hailey Rodeo/Days of the Old West Rodeo Queen contest. With stunt riding as well as financial ambitions, Thomas entered the amateur bull-riding contest, and dared Frazier to enter the rodeo queen competition. “I had never been to a rodeo; I didn’t know anything about rodeo history, but I loved anything that had to do with horses.”
Riding a borrowed horse, dressed in thrift-store clothes, and with no queen experience, Frazier won the title Miss Hailey Rodeo and Miss Days of the Old West 1985, along with the Horsemanship Award. Her rewards were rich indeed: a big trophy buckle, sterling silver spurs, boots, money and horse tack for the horse she did not own. But of most importance to Frazier, although she didn’t know it yet, was the experience. The Hailey Rodeo gave Frazier her first taste of the Old West.
In the weeks following her crowning, she embraced the Miss Hailey Rodeo fashion requirements and lived the life of a rodeo queen, a yearlong commitment that required her to promote the Hailey Rodeo across the region. “Miss Rodeo Idaho at the time had custom-made suits, so I scrounged around in every thrift store!” Frazier customized her tight polyester finds with fringe, lamé, western yokes and glitter-sprayed boots.
The homemade attire carried Frazier to the state event in Twin Falls, where she “failed miserably.” It started out well enough. The competition called for a fashion show. “My first outfit was of aqua lamé with a white fringe prairie shirt and skirt ensemble, and I finished with an Elvis-like hot pink polyester suit. The judges comments were very good about my appearance, especially my hair.” But it was her rodeo trivia knowledge, or lack thereof, that let her down. “When they asked me to describe the Idaho state flag, I had no idea. I had only been living in Idaho as a ski bum.” To add insult to injury, her horsemanship skills were severely hampered. “My borrowed horse was either drugged or too tired … and I ended up riding into the arena backwards.”
Although Frazier’s rodeo queen experience was destined to procure no further tiaras or titles, it did produce something better: A photographic study of rodeo queens that spans two decades. “I came to Sun Valley for a quick trip and ended up staying. Had I not done that, I would not have this body of work. My career would have gone down a whole different path. The rodeo definitely opened up this whole genre of work.”
In 1986, she left the Wood River Valley and returned to Seattle, where she pursued a successful career in commercial photography. But visions of those dazzling queens remained in her mind and, in her free time, Frazier logged more than 50,000 miles in her ’61 Plymouth Belvedere visiting rodeos, ranches and homes. Sleeping in less-than-cozy accommodations, such as horse paddocks, bad motel rooms and dusty, hot tents in dirt parking lots, Frazier got up close and personal with the world of the rodeo queen. She discovered that the queens possess poise, sincerity, intelligence and dedication. They are well-spoken, active in the community and, most importantly, immensely able to handle a horse.
During this photojournalistic odyssey, she began to broaden the focus of her Canon 35mm and antique Hasselblad to capture an overall portrait of the American West, titled Faded Icons.
“I hope people take away the spirit of the West from my work. It still lives on. It’s a way of life for a lot of people. It represents a part of America people really don’t see.”