Do we look like a bunch of pretty little azaleas to you?  Nah, didn’t think so…I still have my dress today, but can’t zip it up past my belly-button.

At first I was just going to post pictures of the all the beautiful azaleas I’ve seen on the Florida Panhandle these past couple weeks.  I’ll stick those at the end of this post.  Not since Norfolk — where I grew up — have I lived somewhere with so many azaleas gracing us.  Norfolk has always had a special affinity for azaleas, and they’re celebrated extensively.  The flowers are huge, and the pink hues are more vivid than I remember than even 20 years ago…

…and speaking of 20 years ago, while I was remembering the pretty azaleas from Norfolk, it triggered a memory.

In 1991, this geeky girl was in the royal court of one of those traditional Southern Festivals.  It was Norfolk’s “International Azalea Festival”.  Unlike other Southern festivals that mainly tap into the local attractive, smart ladies for the royal court, Norfolk’s Azalea Festival is a celebration of NATO and the royal court itself was chosen based on NATO’s member nations.

NATO has a headquarters in Norfolk (no, not THE headquarters), so there were representatives from each of the member nations and they would choose young ladies native to each of the member nations.  In 1991, there were sixteen member nations that would contribute a queen and 15 princesses.

Then each of those ladies would have an “attendant” selected from the community.  Norfolk and Virginia Beach interviewed ladies at the local high schools and would submit one from each high school.  I was my high school’s selection in 1991.  I can’t say how other high schools did it, but I had a rather intensive interview where I remember questions about my plans for the future, knowledge about the local community, and one of those “if you could change the world” kinds of questions.  It seriously reminded me of a Miss America kind of thing and I didn’t think I’d get it.

But I did, and I had to get fitted for dresses, shoes, and was provided the list of events we’d be part of, and what kinds of outfits to wear for each of them.

I wasn’t used to this…I wore jeans and sweatshirts every day, usually.  Now I had to have cocktail dresses, business casual clothing, professional clothing, and evening gowns at the ready.  Luckily, the pink dresses you see above are the evening gowns, provided by the festival itself.  Air shows, receptions, meet-n-greets, a parade where each country was to be featured on its own float, the Azalea Ball and the coronation ceremony.

The pictures I have are only from the coronation and one picture of a some “cocktail dress” event that I’ll save for another time.  I wish I had more…I cleaned up pretty nicely 🙂

The escorts were brought in from the Virginia Military Institute.  Handsome, huh?  Too bad it’s a “free” weekend for the guys, and most of them were drunk the whole time, including my escort.  Ugh…
But…easy on the eyes 🙂

When I sought out the Norfolk International Azalea Festival website so I could share the information with you, I was really surprised at the changes that had taken place over the years.  Starting with the name of the event: it’s now the “Norfolk NATO Festival”.  Other changes include: the Azalea Queen is no longer.  Starting in 2008, the position migrated from daughters of prominent military members to military members themselves.  There are now “Festival Ambassadors” chosen from active duty military.  Starting this year, a MALE will be serving as a Festival Ambassador.

The princesses and attendants program also fell away, being replaced by a Youth Ambassador program set up to learn more about the children of the foreign NATO personnel assigned to southeastern Virginia.

Clearly, the emphasis has come away from the flowers and has become entirely a celebration of Norfolk’s importance as an internationally significant military community.  The Virginia International Tattoo is now a focal point of the celebration, a military splendor-filled night of music and pageantry.

I don’t know what to think of this…I’ve always been a stickler for tradition.  I’m sure there’s been a movement to lessen the “exploitation” of young ladies, and perhaps a concern was raised from the military community — the princesses usually were daughters of high-ranking NATO-nation military members.  I was assigned as attendant to a Canadian girl, her father was an admiral.

As promised, here are some pictures I’ve taken this week of the pretty azaleas in the area.  Most of them were taking with my phone while on a run.