Queens of the cherry blossoms

In Washington’s annual fairy tale season, when delicate, white-petal flowers bloom on the city’s cherry trees, something else emerges: a class of princesses.

For 60 years, young women from around the country and U.S. territories have come together to form a single group of ambassadors, returning the good will that was extended to the U.S. from Japan when, in 1912, the mayor of Tokyo presented Washington with 3,000 cherry trees as a gift symbolizing the friendship between the two countries.

“You have to give the blossoms a face,” says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in explaining the princesses’ role in the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. “The princesses are the face.”

Many of those faces are familiar on Capitol Hill. Throughout the years, a cluster of Hill staffers or relatives of lawmakers have buffed their dress shoes, fine-tuned their diplomacy skills and practiced their parade walk to represent their home state in the princess cadre. Cherry Blossom Princess alumnae include not only two lawmakers, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), but relatives of past and present lawmakers alike, including those of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and the late Sens. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).

This year — the 60th anniversary of the National Conference of State Societies’ (NCSS) Cherry Blossom Princess Program — is no exception. Among the 2008 Hill-related Cherry Blossom Princesses are a Democratic staffer, a Republican staffer and a great-granddaughter of a 1950s-era senator.

The 2008 North Dakota princess, Cady Gokey, has already begun to dream of the elegant dress she’ll wear to the festivities.

“I’m kind of excited to go shopping and buy a ball gown,” says the 20-year-old Georgetown University sophomore. She is the great-granddaughter of William Langer, a Republican who represented North Dakota in the Senate in the 1940s and 1950s. Gokey’s aunt was also a Cherry Blossom Princess.

“I think my mom’s going to come out and visit me, and we’re going to go shopping together,” she said.
Gokey admits some of her college friends poke fun at her, but she brushes it off. “They always ask if I wear a tiara,” she said.

The princess program is not a beauty competition. Princess applicants are accepted or denied based on their knowledge of and connection to the state they hope to represent. NCSS also recommends that princesses be single and between 19 and 24 years of age and have a bachelor’s degree or be college students. Unlike beauty queens, who typically hold a year-long reign, the princesses’ commitment involves two weeks of Cherry Blossom festivities.

California’s 2008 princess, Monica Carmean, and Miranda L. Kessel, this year’s West Virginia princess, both Hill aides, say they are excited to meet new people through the program and visit the different embassies that hold festival events. (The Japanese Embassy, for instance, invites the princesses to an annual Cherry Blossom party it holds at the ambassador’s residence.)

Carmean, 22, is a staff assistant for Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.). Kessel, 24, a former Miss Roane County (W.Va.) beauty-pageant winner, is a legislative correspondent for —perhaps not so coincidentally — Capito.

“The congresswoman being a former Cherry Blossom Princess definitely influenced me to participate as a princess this year, I’ll have to say,” Kessel said.

Capito recalls her near-miss as the 1972 queen when the so-called “wheel of fortune,” the device used to randomly select the queen, teetered between West Virginia and the next state.

“All I could think of was, ‘Oh, please, I don’t want to be the queen,’ ” Capito said, even though the queen gets to take a trip to Japan. The wheel ticker finally settled on the state next to West Virginia.

Overall, Capito enjoyed the experience.

“It gave me nice exposure to Washington at that time,” she said.

Though princesses must meet a certain standard of dress — pantyhose are a must, and open-toed shoes are a no-no, much to Princess Kessel’s chagrin — program activities focus more on cultural exchange, community outreach and professional development. This year’s princesses will read to children at area schools, visit recovering military personnel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and learn about Washington career opportunities on a trip to the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va.

“If somebody in the group doesn’t take away with them worthwhile, lifelong experiences, something is wrong,” said Lou Barrett, the NCSS president.

What jumps out most in Murkowski’s mind is standing next to the princess of American Samoa. She remembers her time as a 1980 Cherry Blossom Princess as a great way to gain exposure to new people, places and ideas.

“For a young woman from Alaska, it was a wonderful opportunity,” she said.