Words: Dwain HebdaImages: courtesy Sheri Stell and Suzanne McEvoy
Oct 1, 2022 | People
The 2021 Arkansas State Fair was one for the ages. The annual event attracted more than half a million guests, an all-time record, as well as countless head of livestock, multiple jam-packed concerts and untold pounds of corn dogs and funnel cakes consumed.
It was also a banner year for beauties from the River Valley as two of the four state fair titles handed out came home to Fort Smith. And under those tiaras are two very smart, accomplished women who have spent their respective reigns as walking examples of the power of attitude over age.
“It’s great for women our age to realize they can still do the things that they love,” says Sheri Stell, Arkansas State Fair Sr. Mrs. “Who says that you have to stop? If it’s something you enjoy, why, just because we’re getting older, should we stop?”
“I just love helping promote [the state fair] not only for the pageant girls, but for the talent kids and also for the kids who show their cows, chickens, and other livestock,” says Suzanne McEvoy, Arkansas State Fair Mrs. “I also hope to inspire and encourage women my age and older to do whatever they put their minds to. We’re not too old. You’re never too old.”
The duo’s respective backgrounds share a lot in common. Both competed in pageants when younger and have remained active behind the scenes in pageants ever since. Sheri won Miss Arkansas USA in 1987 and went on to represent the state at the Miss USA Pageant in New Mexico that year. Suzanne competed in local pageants in high school and then became a dedicated “pageant mom” when her daughter started competing.
Still, both needed a measure of persuasion to get back into the game last year after decades out of the spotlight.
“It actually took a lot of convincing to get me to do it again, but so glad I did,” Sheri says. “It really has changed things for me, especially my perspective on pageants and ladies my age competing again. It was great.
“I think so often we think that pageants are only for the young, that it’s a young beauty thing. Older women sometimes categorize the things that you used to do when you’re younger as things you can’t do anymore. You’re too old. There might have been some of that with me, thinking that’s not something that we do at this age.
”Suzanne has a passion for the state’s county fairs, which are a critical feeder system for state fair competition of all types. She says she saw the state pageant as a chance to promote wider participation at the local level, and since being crowned, that’s exactly what she’s done.
“I grew up around our local county fair. They’ve always had a special place in my heart,” she says. “I love helping kids out and just knowing the amount of money and scholarships that are available, I wanted to help promote that and make people aware that it’s not just about showing livestock. The county fairs have so much more to offer!”
The two state fair queens also stand in sharp contrast to the stereotypes that plague pageants and pageant contestants. Both women are successful in their respective careers and heavily engaged in their communities. Suzanne – who is director of the Sebastian County Fair’s pageant and talent competitions, holds a degree in criminal justice and excelled during her professional career, first as a parole officer then for thirty years in sales – is a prime example.
“A lot of times pageant contestants get a lot of flak, like, ‘Why do you want to do that?’” she says. “Some people have this negative stigma of pageant girls, but these girls are good students and volunteer heavily in their communities. And, then there is the scholarship money out there, and that’s why a lot of these girls do it, because college is expensive.
”Sheri’s original competitive career may have ended in 1987, but she never got too far from the stage. Her singing talent has kept her booked in gigs with various bands through the years as well as special invitations to governors’ inaugural balls and the National Baseball League Hall of Fame induction ceremonies. A former director of a local Christian preschool, she now owns and operates Sheri’s Bridal and Formal in Fort Smith.
“Being a girl, there’s nothing better than dressing up in a pretty gown. It’s my happy place,” she said. “When I walk in the door here and the sunlight hits all the sparkles and beads, I just stand there like a little girl in a candy story.
“I have absolutely made it my mission to promote self-esteem and good body image for the girls who come in here. It’s hard for the ones who just don’t feel good about themselves. Even if they never buy a dress but just look at themselves and smile as they’re walking out, which they weren’t doing when they walked in, then I honestly have succeeded. That’s the truth and that’s just how I feel about it.
”The duo has carried similar messages of empowerment and grace at any age throughout their yearlong reign. Along with the Miss Arkansas State Fair and Junior Arkansas State Fair queens, Sheri and Suzanne have been in demand since earning their tiaras last October as appearances at galas and small community festivals alike are standard fare for pageant winners.
“Since we got crowned, I have been to the Cattle Baron’s Ball in Little Rock and the Heart Ball,” Suzanne says. “I have judged and helped out with the state 4H-A-Rama and talked with some 4-H kids at their events. Here recently every weekend, I’m at as many of the county fair pageant and talent shows as I can possibly fit into a weekend. Some days I may be hitting more than one, making an appearance.
”Interactions with youth are the highest priority for the twosome, passing on encouragement and a kind word to the next generation. It’s work that will culminate at the upcoming state fair where the final acts of their respective reigns will center on the various pageant competitions that attract contestants of all ages from across Arkansas.
“Being backstage, just walking through and seeing the girls, you can spot the ones who are nervous and unsure about what’s going on,” Sheri says. “I feel like it’s almost an obligation to stop and talk to them, calm their nerves. ‘OK, let’s don’t look at the big picture here; let’s take this a step at a time. Take a deep breath.’”As for taking this memorable ride at the same time, both women said it was extra special. The women have known each other for some time and their sons trained and now serve together as Fort Smith firefighters.
“Sheri is an amazing person,” Suzanne says. “She has so much background in the pageant industry and her singing career. We have had a ball. It was so exciting because it had been so long since I had competed in pageants, and I was an absolute nervous wreck at the state fair. She has this way of calming your nerves that is just unlike anything else.“It was so exciting when she was crowned first and then when they crowned me, I was walking off the stage and she was standing right there at the edge just smiling. We were just like, ‘Oh my God! We did it! We did it!’ It meant a lot for both of us to be from the same town. It’s pretty cool.”