There's a new face behind the scenes at the Montgomery County Fair pageant this June in Butler.
Meet Ashley Vinyard, the 2003 Macoupin County Fair Queen and second runner-up in the Miss Illinois County Fair pageant.
"Deep down, I have always hoped to direct a county fair pageant," Vinyard said. "They have a special place in my heart because that is where I got my start in pageantry."
Vinyard said she was pleasantly surprised earlier this year when members of the Montgomery County Fair Board approached her about directing this year's pageant.
"I was honored to be asked and am really looking forward to this summer," Vinyard said.
She currently resides in Carlinville with her husband and their four children, and is currently employed at Cross Church as the children's ministry coordinator.
"Upon retiring my county crown, I had a strong desire to start a pageant in my hometown of Carlinville," she said.
Vinyard began working with city officials to gain support and business owners to secure sponsorships. And she launched her first pageant in 2005. This April, the Miss Carlinville pageant celebrated its 15th annivesary.
"Over the last 15 years, I have had the privilege to direct over 250 young ladies that have come through that program, and they are what keep me coming back year after year," Vinyard said.
She added that pageants have sort of become a family affair in her family, as her son was crowned Little Mister Macoupin County in 2014 and her daughter was Little Miss Carlinville in 2017. In addition, her husband has served as emcee of the Miss Carlinville pageant for the last 15 years.
"I enjoy spending my summers judging other local and county fair pageants, as well as Miss America preliminary pageants," she said. "I also love coaching and preparing girls for their pageant experiences."
Over the years, Vinyard said she's been asked why she would donate her time to a queen pageant, and was it worth it.
"To an outsider, pageants may seem very superficial," she said. "But that is the furthest thing from the truth."
She said she continues to donate her time to pageants because of all the contestants that cross the stage.
"I have seen over and over, year after year, such transformations in these young girls," Vinyard said. "Girls come to us, sometimes insecure, with low self-esteem or can't talk in front of a group. We work with them on being confident and proud of who they are."
Vinyard said she and her team teach pageant contestants about communication skills, how to pick their best qualities and showcase themselves to people they don't know.
"And in the course of two months, they blossom into such beautiful, confident women," she said. "It truly is remarkable."
And although only one contestant is crowned the winner, they all have a chance to take something from what they've learned in their pageant experience.
"On pageant day, one person 'wins,'" Vinyard said. "And is it subjective? Yes. However, isn't that life? Not everyone gets the job, not everyone makes the team, not everyone gets the part. There will be rejection throughout their entire lives. The most important thing is what you choose to take from it."
Applications are currently available for this year's Montgomery County Fair pageant on Wednesday, June 19. Candidates for the Miss Montgomery County Fair pageant must be 16 to 21 years of age by the pageant day. The winner will receive a $1,500 scholarship.
Candidates for the Junior Miss Montgomery County Fair pageant must be 11 to 13 by pageant night, and candidates for the Little Miss Montgomery County Fair pageant must be between five and seven years of age by pageant night.
The deadline to register for this year's event is April 30. For more information, contact Pageant Director Ashley Vinyard at 217-825-4866 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional updates are posted on the Montgomery County Fair Pageant Facebook page.