The Crown, the Snakepit and the Naples Graduate
When shy Monique Evans became Miss Texas, she had no idea how it would change her life.
photo by Erik Kellar; hair and makeup by Koula
Welcome to Sweetwater, Texas, home of the world’s largest Rattlesnake Roundup. It’s exactly what it sounds like. And it’s terrifying.
A pit of prized serpents, worth a nice $12 per pound to their wranglers, has the building literally vibrating. Fifteen hundred solid, stinking, writhing bodies with venom-signaling arrowed heads. Attendants shuffle through them and stir them like a reptilian soup, an attempt to keep those on the bottom from suffocating.
Enter Miss Texas 2014, 23-year-old Monique Evans. She’s dressed in boots, jeans and a fashionably faded Western top—approachable and appropriate, just as she was coached. She and her toothbrush-scrubbed crown sparkle against dingy white walls and the sea of patterned brown scales. Perfect teeth, perfect hair, smiling eyes.
“Miss Texas, it’s your turn to get into the pit!” someone says. She covers her crystal-studded sash with both arms, joking but not really: “I’m not Miss Texas!”
No one’s buying it. She pulls on some thick pants, straps on some chaps, tapes up her inviting ankles and keeps her hands at her waist. Those snakes can jump, you know.
“And I got in the pit,” she says. “Now, Monique would never get in the pit. But Miss Texas gets in the pit.”
“It’s very interesting because you find yourself, but at the same time you lose yourself,” Evans says of being Miss Texas. “It’s kind of a paradox. So right now I’m going to be in the process of re-finding myself.”
Less than a week after handing over the proverbial crown (she got to keep hers), she sits at the head of her parents’ dining room table in downtown Naples. She’s open but poised, measured but genuine. She’s picked up a little of that Texas twang, like a slow, sentimental drawl on the phrase “my life,” and the telltale habit of rounding back to the question asked of her to tie up her response in a neat bow.
She pauses more than once in sharing her story to sweetly placate her strapping German boyfriend—her first boyfriend—who periodically paces shirtless through the room in swim trunks. Short, neon orange swim trunks. It’s been a whirlwind, long-distance romance since they met back in December, introduced by a mutual friend in Texas. Today he’s very concerned about the state of the Jet Skis in the backyard.
It’s 9 a.m. on vacation in her own home, but Evans wears a full face of makeup. She doesn’t need a stitch. In her defense, she’s whittled her previous hour for makeup, half-hour for hair and half-hour for dressing down to a mere 20 minutes. Four years of pageant competition and one year of 470 appearances as the busiest Miss Texas in history will do that for you.
Her goal to best the previous record-holder was largely to reach more people, but partly, she admits, because she doesn’t like to be outdone. Hence why she got into the literal snake pit—and held one on her own, skinned one, tasted one and trapped one in the wild. Her word of the year? “Yes.”
Not many students entering their senior year of college and applying to 18 physician assistant schools would worry about having too much time on their hands, but Evans is used to being given a brand-new itinerary each day and waking up at 5:30 for appearances across the state. By the end of her yearlong reign, she’d put 25,000 miles on the Infiniti she was gifted.
Regina Casaday, a 36-year veteran of the pageant system and one of Evans’ 18 travel companions, remembers one instance of 12 appearances in 24 hours.
“Your life is not your own for that year,” Casaday says. “You’re at everyone else’s beck and call.”
Photo courtesy of the Miss America Organization
It wasn’t Evans’ competitive nature, engrained by a lifetime of professional ballet training, that nudged her into this pageant world. It was actually a painful shyness.
If you went to Naples High School when she did, Evans says, chances are you had never heard of her. During lunch period, she went to the science lab to study. After school, it was six hours of ballet and then homework with her feet in a bucket of ice.
She’s unsure why she was so reserved. It could have been her nomadic childhood; from the time she was 4, she and her younger brother traveled with their parents—who wanted to escape the stress of her father’s job and give their kids a unique education—to 47 states and 87 countries before settling in Naples. Maybe it was her brother’s outgoing personality, or that she loved hearing the stories of others more than sharing her own. She also rotated through several private schools, and she didn’t get the warmest welcome as a newcomer to public high school.
“I wasn’t one to go out socializing,” she says. “And I saw that as a flaw. I wanted to be able to open up.”
Step one was to move to Texas, where she had some family, to go to a school where no one knew her. Step two was to join the Toastmasters club at the University of Texas in Austin. But after her dad joked she should become Miss Texas to get in-state residency, she started researching the system.
“The job of Miss Texas, as much as people think that it’s sitting in the back of a car waving—I think I did that a total of four times during the year,” Evans says. “You go to schools, you go to galas, you go to luncheons, and you are their keynote speaker, and that’s the job. So I am no longer shy.” She laughs. Ain’t that the truth.
Flip through her Instagram and you’ll see the same girl—smiling with her family, working out at the gym, performing that perfect jewelry box-trinket twirl. But you’ll also see a new woman—seated gracefully on TV sets, rocking radio interviews, eye to eye with adoring children, commanding the attention of important adults, and posing with hundreds of new friends.
“She was very disciplined when she was a little girl,” says Machelle Evans, Monique’s mother. “I remember her dad would always try to teach them to put off gratification for another day. ‘I’ll give you one piece of candy now, or I will give you two candies when I get home.’ And Monique’s thing was, ‘If I don’t get candy for a week, then can I get a bag of candy?’”
That discipline kept her going for goal after years of what some would see as failure. First, as a college freshman, she competed for Miss Fort Worth. She was first runner-up. Next was Miss Austin. She won, and so she was able to compete for Miss Texas. She placed eighth. Next year, as Miss Hunt County, she placed 11th. As Miss Dallas, she placed 16th. Then, as Miss Park Cities, she won. She went on to place 13th in the Miss America pageant.
Speaking, of course, was the roughest-going at first. Though admittedly it was odd wearing heels with a bikini in the beginning, she had the bathing-suit physique. She had the talent. She was used to being on stage. But that was talking with the body.
“The interview was hard,” her mother says. “You have to be happy and uplifting and be able to speak, but she’s also a very serious girl. She likes politics and she likes talking about things, not people, and there’s a fine line in interview where you have to be intelligent but still be entertaining.”
Evans has learned to lighten up. There was that one time she was so nervous she introduced herself as Miss Austin when she was in fact Miss Hunt County. And the time she butchered the name of sacred-to-Texans quarterback Roger Staubach in front of a couple thousand marines at a military ball.
“We were auctioning his jersey. And so I said, ‘So the next item is Roger Steinbeck!’ And everybody started booing me. And you know, I just made a joke about it: ‘You know, sports have never really been my thing. Anybody see my baseball pitch?’”
She’s of course referencing her infamous opening to a Texas Rangers game. No boos on that one, but definitely a collective “poor dear” sigh, she says, when the ball went a lot more toward third base than home plate. Her business manager had advised her against attempting a ballet move. She didn’t listen.
Photo courtesy of the Miss America Organization
Which feels more like home: Texas or Florida? Evans studies the question as she might an on-stage inquiry. She can’t call one home more than the other, she decides. But though she grew up in Naples, she really grew up in Texas.
“My dad still says to this day that it’s the greatest finishing school,” she says of pageantry. She gives the old clichés: She has no regrets; she got back more than she gave. But she means them.
As she explained to the young lady who asked her if she thought she was “a princess or something,” her crown allowed her to speak to anyone and encouraged anyone to speak to her. And using her voice meant she could teach at-risk children about college. Sharing her story of being true to herself, she would find out, meant one less middle-schooler took his own life. And having a public platform meant she could educate an entire state about heart health, a longtime passion.
Evans also feels like she gained a second crown when she, as she puts it, found the Lord. It started when she saw a distinct light in certain young women in the Miss America pageant.
“And I thought, ‘Now what do they have that I don’t have, and how do I get it?’” she says, laughing. “You know, I’m very competitive, always trying to think how can I improve and what not. But I began talking to them, and I found that the young women that had the light had the Lord with them.”
But for all its payoff—including an affectionate if humorous on-stage Ring Pop proposal from a high schooler—pageantry is a strange reality.
On Evans’ speed dial: a fitness coach, multiple ballet teachers, a talent advisor, talent wardrobe creator, talent wardrobe advisor, swimsuit wardrobe advisor, evening gown wardrobe advisor, “probably five” interview coaches, a walking coach, a director, a business manager.
And anything you can think of, she had a sponsor—and obligations—for. She’ll miss the dry cleaning.
“I always said she’s Cinderella,” her mother says. “She lost her beautiful Infiniti, she lost her evening gowns and beautiful clothes, her masseuse and her facialist and her eyelash extension lady and her secretary and her driver and her manager. I think, when you have so many people around you telling what to do constantly, it’s going to be tough.”
She learned to be secure with herself from being pulled in so many directions.
“That’s a very fine line,” Casaday adds. “It’s not that you’re trying to be offensive to anybody or disrespectful or disobedient to a manager. A girl has to be strong enough to say, ‘That’s a great idea, but I think this is a better idea for me.’”
When prodded about the competition behind the curtain, Evans doesn’t budge: Ignore the jumped-to conclusions of poor eating habits; you get points for being strong, not thin. Forget movie stereotypes; these girls have to be smart. And she knows you might not believe this one, but the women are the best of friends.
Unfortunately, though, mean-girl mentality still surfaced—online.
“When people said things about her, it really, really affected her,” her mother says, adding, “When the girls become a frontrunner, there are a few people (who try) to tear you down and get their girl up. Its not a nice part of the pageant.”
It took her a long time to get there, Evans says, but she’s learned happiness starts with pleasing herself, not everybody else. Now that means achieving her new goal of becoming a PA, a medical career that would still allow her time to travel and start a family.
“There are going to be things till the day that I die that I’m going to keep trying to improve,” she says. “But I’m proud of who I am right now, and nobody can take that away from me.”
Her endless positivity teeters on irritating. But dig a little deeper, speak with her a little longer, and you discover it’s not for falsity. It’s because you’re thinking, “What does she have that I don’t have, and how do I get it?”