Fit for a Queen

Olivia Echeverria is congratulated by Mara Barsi Perez, after winning the Franca Barsi Memorial Scholarship Saturday during the Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen Pageant 2013 at the Gavilan College Theater.

The 34th Annual Miss Gilroy Garlic Queen pageant opened with a video montage – set to pop/country artist Taylor Swift’s song, “22” – and finished with crowd favorite Olivia Echeverria, 22, being crowned 2013 Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen Pageant winner.
Was Swift’s song a nod to Echeverria’s age or simply serendipitous coincidence?
Echeverria’s father, Ernie, says it was by no stroke of luck that his daughter walked off stage Saturday night with a bejeweled tiara to match her megawatt smile.
“If there’s a person who deserves it, it’s her,” beamed the proud dad as he stood at the foot of the stage waiting to rush on and hug his daughter.
Still standing beneath the spotlights inside the Gavilan College theater, Echeverria – the only returning contestant from last year’s pageant, where she was runner-up – absorbed the magnitude of her coronation as cameras flashed in her face.
“I feel accomplished. I feel like all of my hard work has been noticed,” said the ecstatic Gilroyan.
Echeverria, who lives in Gilroy and is undertaking a master’s degree in entertainment business studies from Full Sail University in Florida, sealed her win with a compelling operatic rendition of “Un Bel Di;” a speech based on the TV show “Cake Boss;” and an eloquent, on-the-spot answer to a question posted by a panel of judges.
The Miss Gilroy Garlic Festival Queen competition is open to local girls aged 18 to 24 who have never been married, have no children and are a high school graduate by June 2013. At stake was approximately $15,000 in big cash prizes – most notably a $5,000 scholarship from Christopher Ranch – but a bulging purse is only part of the deal for the winner.
In her role as garlicky monarch, the queen becomes the face of the Garlic Festival and a brand ambassador for Gilroy. She makes appearances at various community festivities including the Memorial Day Parade and, of course, the Garlic Festival. There is also a trip to Takko-Machi in Japan – one of Gilroy’s six sister cities – to attend the Garlic and Beef Festival, an undertaking that 2012’s Queen Julia Brewka described as “the most unique part of the year.”
Last Saturday, before the mantle of responsibility could be taken from Brewka and placed on one of the five, beautifully-coiffed heads, there was a show to put on.
Personal interviews with the judges are always conducted on the day of the pageant, which leaves the evening entirely devoted to the contestants giving speeches, showing off personal talents and strutting their stuff in evening gowns.
In the speech segment of Saturday’s competition, the roughly 200 Gavilan theatergoers were treated to a comedic gem from eventual first-runner up Melissa Wilder, 22, a 2009 graduate of Live Oak High School and only Morgan Hill contestant. She performed a spookily accurate impersonation of popular daytime show host Ellen DeGeneres for her “Today on Ellen” piece.
In an enthralling performance, Wilder was Ellen incarnate – including the TV star’s signature intro dance, mannerisms and speech patterns – and shared the stage with “Mr. Gilroy Garlic,” a scarecrow that she interviewed.
After the speech section wrapped up, it was time for the five young women – Echeverria, Wilder, Ariana Martinez,18, Vanessa Martinez, 20, and Ashley Fellows, 21 – to come back on and wow the judges during the talent section of the evening. Three girls expressed themselves through the medium of dance in pieces that ranged from a paragon of poise to fluid forces of nature.
When Echeverria glided across the stage to the microphone in a black, strapless dress, bejeweled with a necklace and wearing black gloves, the audience sensed something special was about to happen.
As she belted out “Un Bel Di” from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, there must have been people in the auditorium who thought they’d been transported to Carnegie Hall in New York. Soaring notes filled the theater and the audience sat transfixed for three minutes as Echeverria carried them along on a musical tour de force, the spell only broken when she fell silent.
“I’ve been singing opera for about six years,” explained Echeverria humbly. “Music has always been a passion of mine.”
Wilder was the other standout in the talent section. Strutting on stage in black leggings and wedge heels that made her a few inches taller, Wilder was the epitome of comedic sass, dominating the stage and her audience with a routine about her own shortcomings.
As she poked fun at her lack of singing ability – “I am the Queen of Karaoke at Station 55,” she laughed – Wilder entertained the audience with tales of ruining the works of Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston for everyone. To prove her point she launched into the opening bars of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You,” before stopping and remarking how pointless it would be to continue singing after the star turn that Echeverria had just given.
“I kind of just ran with it,” was Wilder’s appraisal of her own performance at the end of the night.
She plans on returning next year for another crack at the crown.
“By then I’ll be a seasoned professional,” she grinned.
Wilder graduated from West Valley College in Saratoga Thursday with a double major liberal arts degree with an emphasis in behavioral and social sciences and sociology. She lives in Morgan Hill and works as a nanny part-time in Willow Glen.
After a 10-minute intermission, a spectacle of spectacular dresses made up the evening gown section of the competition. Contestants sashayed across the stage and were asked a Garlic Festival-related question from masters of ceremony Micki Pirozzoli and John Zekanoski.
“How much money has the festival raised since 1979?” Zekonoski asked Echeverria.
“$10 million, which has gone back into the heart of Gilroy,” beamed Echeverria as the audience clapped and whistled.
Then it was time for the $15,000 in scholarships to be awarded and the winner to be crowned. In an emotional presentation, Lauretta Avina and her mother presented Echeverria with the $500 “Franca Barsi Miss Gilroy Garlic 1986 Memorial Scholarship.” Lauretta was Miss Gilroy Garlic Queen in 1983 and her sister Franca won in 1986 – the first sisters to do so – but tragically Franca lost her life due to domestic violence in 2006. Avina pointed out that her family had interviewed each contestant personally to pick the winner. Avina, her mother and Echeverria were all moist-eyed as they hugged on stage in a reprise of last year when Echeverria received the same award. As composure was regained onstage and throughout the crowd, Garlic Festival President Dennis Harrigan got the ball rolling.
“Let’s give away some money,” he boomed.
As Harrigan handed out the scholarships, the same young woman who nabbed the crown swept the board.
Out of the scholarships and cash prizes available, Echeverria snagged seven. The total: $7,600.
Afterwards, when Harrigan teased the name of 2013’s Miss Gilroy Garlic Queen from an envelope, the crowd held its breath and Echeverria’s father Ernie wrung his program like a wet towel.
As Echeverria’s name was read out, her family and friends erupted into scenes of unbridled joy as months of stress came to an end. The roars from the crowd suggested that a fan favorite had been anointed. Echeverria’s mother, Julie Nadeau, was almost beside herself waiting to get onstage and be with her daughter.
“This is very exciting,” Nadeau laughed. “We’re going to celebrate.”
Waiting for the paparazzi to clear, Nadeau was overjoyed that her daughter had gone one better than last year.
“She was runner-up last year, this is awesome” she beamed.
Onstage, like mother like daughter, Echeverria was also experiencing the sweet taste of victory. Getting everything perfect for the big night had taken about two months, she explained. Endless nights of practicing speeches in front of mirrors, memorizing facts and roping in family members to help – Echeverria has seven sisters at her disposal – had paid off.
“I’m really excited to be a role-model for the community,” Echeverria promised.