One out of 7: How the Rose Queen is chosen from the Royal Court

by Laura Berthold Monteros

Rose Queen crown by Mikimoto. c. 2011 LBM
Rose Queen crown by Mikimoto. c. 2011 LBM

On a weekend in early September, nearly 1,000 young women walk by a dais of judges, hoping to be chosen for the Tournament of Roses Royal Court. One of these will become the next Rose Queen. She will preside over a court of six princesses and appear at some 100 events before and after the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl Game. How does the Queen & Court Committee make this seemingly impossible decision?

It begins with narrowing the field from 1,000 to about 350-400 girls in the quarter-finals, and then down to around 75 for the semi-finals. During this time, they are known only by the numbers pinned on their dresses. The 30-40 finalists who line up on the steps of Tournament House in late September are for the first time identified by name, age, and school. Less than a week later, the seven young ladies who make up the Royal Court are announced to a horde of reporters, and from these, the Rose Queen will be chosen.

Committee members become the “Court Parents,” who will watch over the girls and make sure they get to their engagements.  Unlike most of the Tournament of Roses committees, the Queen & Court Committee involves   the spouses of the members in assisting the Rose Princesses as they go about their duties and make appearances as ambassadors of the Tournament.

The Royal Court heads off for a retreat in Newport Beach the following weekend, where they get to know each other. Q&C members observe their interaction in activities that involve teamwork, such as putting on a skit and playing games. They get to know the girls as individuals and members of a team that will represent the Tournament and the City of Pasadena. Over the weekend and in the next several days, the committee determines who has emerged as a leader.

Once the decision is made, only the members of Q&C, the president of the Tournament, the public relations department, and the dress designer know who the Queen will be. Finally, the well-kept secret is revealed to the media, the public, and the young lady at the gala coronation. The Queen becomes a member of a very exclusive society: the Tournament of Roses Queens Club. She takes on a role that has been filled by some 100 young women over more than a century.

It hasn’t always been this way.  Here’s a brief summary of the changes:

  • Hallie Woods was selected as the first Rose Queen in 1905 by her classmates at Pasadena High School. She made her own gown and helped decorate the horse-drawn wagon in which she rode.  All 16 of the girls who tried out with her rode along.
  • The first formal coronation was of 1907 Queen Joan Woodbury, a young society matron and wife of the founder of the Maryland Hotel.
  • Between 1905 and 1930, there were celebrity queens, kings and queens, and 14 years with no royalty at all.
  • Holly Halsted became the first in an unbroken succession of Rose Queens from 1930 through today.
  • The selection process was standardized for the 1935 parade, with mandatory tryouts for all female students at Pasadena City College. Girls who knew they would not be chosen because of their body type or ethnicity often slipped out before judging.
  • Voluntary tryouts, open to all young women who live and attend school within the Pasadena City College district boundaries and who meet certain age and academic criteria, began in the fall of 1965.
  • The first non-white queen, Japanese-American Leslie Kawai, was chosen in 1981; the first African-American, Kristina Smith, in 1985; and Afghan-American Yasmine Delawari in 1990. Since Queen Leslie, the top spot on the court has gradually come to more closely echo the diversity of Pasadena.