HOLLYWOOD — Nearly every seat in the auditorium was occupied.
The stage was full, too, of contestants.
The 62nd annual Miss Florida Seminole Princess Pageant, which was held July 27 at the Tribal headquarters auditorium, will no doubt be remembered for quality and quantity.
Call it the “Cheyenne factor.”
Before she became the first Seminole to win Miss Indian World, Cheyenne Kippenberger won the Princess Pageant a year ago when there were six contestants; this year’s pageant attracted 14.
“It’s good to see the great turnout that we have here tonight,” Hollywood Councilman Chris Osceola told the audience. “I’d like to congratulate the parents for getting these girls ready. I was shocked when I heard we had as many contestants as we had, and I think our new Miss Indian World has been an inspiration to a lot of these young girls here.”
The reign of the Tribe’s royalty lasts one year, so the 2018-19 princesses – Kippenberger as Miss Florida Seminole and Clarice DeMayo as Jr. Miss Florida Seminole – provided heartfelt, emotional farewell speeches and then proudly crowned the new winners.
Durante Blais-Billie, 22, of the Hollywood Reservation won the Miss Florida Seminole title against five other contestants. Aubee Billie, 16, of the Brighton Reservation, won Jr. Miss Florida Seminole which featured eight contestants.
The pageant was emceed by 1986 Miss Florida Seminole Tina Osceola.
“We’re going to clap and we are going to celebrate 14 Seminole women who are going to be the leaders of our future,” she said to the audience at the start of the four-hour program. “They’re going to be the moms, and the grandmas, and the aunties, and the Tribal Councilmen, and maybe another female chairperson.”
Throughout the evening, Osceola enlightened the audience with behind-the-scenes stories that are forever etched into the fabric of pageant memories, including an impromptu run to Popeyes when the pageant was held in Immokalee, the times it was held at John Bay Auditorium in Okeechobee and how a fire alarm went off just as the winners were to be announced at last year’s pageant.
Tribal Secretary and program director Lavonne Rose recalled the year both the air conditioning and caterers decided to take the night off when the pageant was held in the Ahfachkee School cafeteria.
Time will tell if this year’s brief moment of unanticipated drama – a few panicky seconds when the location of the Miss Florida Seminole crown wasn’t immediately known just before the winner was announced – will make it into pageant lore.
The evening began with an invocation from Judybill Osceola. Rose recognized the hard work put in by the Princess Pageant Committee members who are also former Miss Seminoles: Wanda Bowers (1968, 1969), Christine McCall (2005), Naomi Wilson (1985), Connie Gowan (1957), Alice Billie (1997), Tina Osceola (1986), Cassandra Jimmie (2010), Vanessa Frank (1996), Randee Osceola (2017) and Cheyenne Kippenberger (2018).
Other royalty was in attendance, too, including from the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and Miss Native USA Karyl Frankiewicz from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The judges were Patina Park (Mnicoujou Lakota), Kella With Horn (Lakota) and James Williams Jr. (Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians), coming from Minnesota, South Dakota and Michigan, respectively.
The pageant culminated a week full of practicing and bonding for the girls.
“These girls have worked so hard these past three days. We’ve watched them blossom and grow and open up in the most beautiful way all together,” Kippenberger said.
Durante Blais-Billie won the essay contest for Miss Florida Seminole; Winnie Gopher won it for Jr. Miss Florida.
The evening allowed the judges to see the contestants in various areas, including introductions, modeling of traditional outfits, talent and impromptu questions. Seminole culture served as the foundation for the talent portion, such as how to collect fiber from a palmetto tree with a machete (Satie Rico), how to make grass baskets (Patsy Veliz) and shakers (Tehya Howard), the traditional mosquito repellent method (Gherri Osceola) and the importance of the Creek language (Winnie Gopher).
The winners of the talent portion – Durante Blais-Billie and Aubee Billie – were soon after crowned Miss Florida Seminole and Jr. Miss Florida, respectively.
Blais-Billie, daughter of France Blais-Billie and the late July Billie, recently earned a Master of the Arts degree in both management and art history from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
She is taking a year off from academia. She said she would like to have a career in museum curation in modern art.
For now, she’s focused on her new duties as 2019-20 Miss Florida Seminole.
“It means so much,” she said. “I’m so glad that I have this opportunity to show Tribal members that we have the resources here to achieve our dreams, and the education and culture preservation are really the path to go to.”
In the modeling category, Blais-Billie wore an outfit sewn by Melissa DeMayo that featured an autumn colored ensemble, including depiction of corn that recalls the harvest season. Designs on the outfit included man on horse, zig zag and arrowhead.
For the talent portion, Blais-Billie provided a discussion and demonstration about the role sweetgrass baskets have in Seminole history.
“These baskets were made to be sold in souvenir shops so our Tribe could support itself independently,” she told the audience.
The impromptu question she was asked was: Why is the Everglades significant to the Seminoles?
“I think there’s a strong historic significance as during the three Seminole wars it was a refuge for our people as well as in the early 20th century it provide lots of the materials for our unique crafts,” she responded. “In contemporary times, we now act as the guardians of the Everglades (and) speak up on behalf of the nature there.”
Before she was crowned Jr. Miss Florida, Aubee Billie, who was contestant No. 1, told the audience about her strengths.
“Compassionate and hard-working are just some of the qualities that I identify myself with,” she said in the introduction portion.
Billie, daughter of Maria Billie and former Chairman James Billie, will be entering her junior year at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, where she had the lead role in the school’s production of “Miss Saigon” earlier this year. Her interests include musical theatre and archery.
As for the traditional dress portion, she wore an outfit made by Diane Snow which featured two rows of patchwork, a lightning design on the bottom and a fire design on the top.
Its ruffles represented the Tribe’s medicine colors of white, black, red and yellow.
Billie used Seminole storytelling as her base in the talent portion, explaining the story about how the raccoon got its mask.
“Throughout Seminole history, storytelling has been a way for us to communicate and to teach life lessons and about the environment around us,” she said to the audience.
After being crowned, Billie said she was shocked to win the Jr. Miss title.
“It means everything to me,” she said. “I truly didn’t think I was going to get it; I just wanted to learn from the other girls and have a bond with them. It truly was a blessing.”
Alycia Mora, 20, of Immokalee, won 1st runner-up for Miss Florida Seminole. She said she would like to work in accounting for Hard Rock.
Second runner-up was Kailani Osceola.
Third runner-up was Gherri Osceola.
Lena Stubbs, 16, of Hollywood, who received the loudest cheers of the night from the audience, won 1st runner-up for Jr. Miss. She is heading into her junior year at American Heritage School in Plantation.
Second runner-up was Winnie Gopher.
Third runner-up was Patsy Veliz.