“They truly are the welcome wagon of the Derby.”

Photo: Courier-Journal

As the saying goes, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.” And the Derby Festival Princess Program is a shining example of the sacrifice it takes to represent Kentucky, as well as the honor that comes with wearing the coveted tiara and sash. It’s a big job with pretty impressive shoes to fill, but each year, hundreds of girls ready themselves for the task. For the young ladies who make up the Derby Royal Court, trading in their wide-brimmed, ornate hats for jeweled crowns comes with a lot of history and responsibility.

To find out what it’s like to be royalty at one of the largest festivals and sporting events in the country (and in the South), we spoke with Shannon Adkins, Vice President of the Fillies, Inc., a Louisville women’s organization established in 1959 to support the Kentucky Derby Festival.

“We start a process every August,” said Adkins. “We’re always looking for the best of the best. This past year we had 131 applicants who represented 26 colleges and universities.”

The Fillies send notifications to Kentucky colleges and their female students. To meet the requirements, one must be a full-time college student, in good standing, with residency in Kentucky. However, you don’t have to attend college in the Bluegrass State—just maintain a residence. From there, the girls are judged by an out-of-state panel.

“We break it into two different preliminary judging days,” said Adkins. “We take the top scores from both days and move on to final judging, which takes place the first week after New Year’s. Then we narrow it down to the top five scores and two alternates. That is our Derby Princess Court.”

This year’s court members include: Sophomore Kailee Barnes of Louisville; senior Natalie Brown of Crestwood; sophomore Sidney Cobb of Frankfort; freshman Daphne Woolridge of Louisville; and freshman Taylor Marchelle Young of Louisville.

But beauty pageant contestants, these girls are not. While it’s true that a Festival princess should have “poise and personality,” Adkins wants applicants to know the program encompasses so much more.

“It’s also about your good standing within the community, your philanthropy, your charitable work, and, of course, grades,” said Adkins. “Beauty can have many contexts and definitions, so we like to say [they should have] poise, grace, and personality because they will be ambassadors for the Commonwealth of Kentucky during the Derby Festival.”

And displaying grace under pressure is quite important for the ladies, considering their laundry list of duties. Of which, Adkins noted, the girls “remain chipper and perky, with a constantly smile on their face,” while balancing a grueling schedule. It’s an exhaustive itinerary featuring more than 70 appearances during their reign, where they attend everything from a spring fashion show and spelling bee to the Governor’s luncheon and charity events.

They truly are the welcome wagon of the Derby when all of our out-of-town guests are coming in, said Adkins. We like to tell these girls that they are five individual women, but they are one entity when they’re all together.

Beyond the crown, there are intrinsic and monetary rewards for serving as princess. Not only do they each receive a $2,000 scholarship, but the girls also get a new wardrobe courtesy of Macy’s, which is a sponsor for this year’s program. Those gifts, however, aren’t boast-worthy, at least not on their own merit.  

“Anyone can be created equal when looking at achievements on paper, but this gives them [princesses] something else to talk about—to make them stand out,” said Adkins. “They’re very proud to say, ‘I was a Derby Princess.’”

But every Royal Court needs a queen, right? The Derby Princess Program is no exception. At the annual Fillies Derby Ball on April 8, 2017, this year’s queen was crowned, although not in the way we’re often accustomed to. There were no votes cast and no answers given pertaining to world peace. No, the queen was decided upon by the ongoing tradition of spinning a numbered roulette wheel, in which current Fillies President Kathy Bingham, along with Monte Durham of Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, were tasked with.

Photo: Courier-Journal

It’s the only fair way to determine the queen, because as Adkins suggested, “each one of these girls are worthy of that title, and it’s difficult to select one over another.” This year, 21-year-old University of Louisville student Natalie Brown (pictured above, fourth from left) took home the top prize. Brown joins the ranks of past Derby Festival Queens, such as former Governor Martha Layne Collins and the late Gail Gorski, the first female pilot for United Airlines. Her first royal duty? Making prominent individuals "dames" and "knights" for their contributions in the community.

“The Ball is a fundraiser for the Kentucky Derby Festival foundation,” said Adkins. "The funds raised go to some of the nonprofits in the community, like our autism groups, March of Dimes, police foundations, and all of these different entities that benefit from the proceeds.”

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The application process opens every August and closes mid-October. If interested, apply at kdf.org. Who knows? A crystal tiara and life-altering Derby experience could await you.