Leechburg area farmer produces show animals, beauty queens
Chet Welch tells people he raises two things on his 102-acre farm outside Leechburg in Westmoreland County: show animals and beauty queens.
It's understandable if this week Welch, who is executive director of the Miss Pennsylvania Scholarship Pageant, and his partner Bob Cherry, treasurer and a board member for the pageant, pay more attention to the contestants than the cattle.
The countdown to the competition has begun for the 38 young women vying for this year's title of Miss Pennsylvania. The winner will move on to compete at the Miss America Pageant on Sept. 14 in Atlantic City, N.J.
While contestants are spending time putting final touches on their wardrobes and talent performances for the statewide pageant from June 11 to 14 at Hillman Center for the Performing Arts at Shadyside Academy in Fox Chapel — an event Welch says traditionally draws sell-out crowds — Welch and Cherry know their big job is just beginning.
After the new Miss Pennsylvania is chosen, they will have two months to teach her everything she needs to know to go up against some of the most intelligent, talented and beautiful 17- to 24-year-old women in the country.
“It's not a lot of time,” Welch says. “We work with her in whatever she needs to help her get ready.”
Their duties include arranging one-on-one time with dressmakers in New York City, enlisting coaches to assist with private and onstage interview skills and finding instructors to fine-tune her talent performance.
“Through the years, we have gotten to know the best people to work with,” he says. “In addition, there's a major amount of paperwork that needs to be done instantly for the televised pageant.”
Welch, who has volunteered his time running the pageant for 36 years, says the new Miss Pennsylvania will stay at their farm during the intensive Miss America-training process.
When they're not tending to the latest crop of pageant hopefuls, he and his partner are busy raising 60 Scottish Highland beef cattle and 30 llamas, in addition to assorted other exotic animals and birds, including miniature Zebu cattle, alpaca and peacocks.
Welch says it was their unconventional lifestyle as farmers and pageant planners that brought a film crew from Great American Country television network to their farm last weekend to begin filming six episodes, a full season, of a new reality show, “Farm Queens,” scheduled to debut this fall on GAC.
The TV series will feature eight of the 38 Miss Pennsylvania contestants who won roles in the show through an audition process. The young women will compete in several farm chore challenges in the program that Welch says is “not necessarily a spinoff, but similar to” another GAC reality show, “Farm Kings,” filmed in neighboring Butler County.
Jocelyn Gruber, 21, of Grove City, the reigning Miss Jewel of the West and 2010 winner of the Miss Pennsylvania's Outstanding Teen pageant, is one of the Miss Pennsylvania contestants to be featured in “Farm Queens.”
Although she wouldn't go into detail about the first two days of a scheduled week of filming, she says her initial challenges revolved around “a relay race that involved some mud, and an activity that included cows, including my absurd and unfortunate run-in with those cows.”
Gruber says the reality show opportunity has pushed her out of her comfort zone and is helping to distract her from last-minute pageant jitters. She is staying at an area hotel during the filming but will return home to Grove City in time to pack up her “pageant gear” for the competition.
Miss Pymatuning Lake Area Melessie Clark, 20, of Greensburg, who attends Point Park University, says being a part of the TV filming was a great experience.
“As an actress, I had preconceived notions of what it would be like,” she says. “However, I'm walking away from filming having a new respect for reality television. I've learned so much about how everything operates, on-and-off-camera.”
“Farm Queens” isn't Welch's first experience with reality TV. He was a contestant on the 2008 edition of CBS's “Survivor: Micronesia.”
He became involved in the pageant business at age 20, when his Jaycees group in Armstrong County, where he lived, sponsored a local pageant and the director no longer wanted to be involved.
“They put me in charge because I used to show horses and cattle, and they figured I had the best knowledge of how to handle contestants,” he says. “I went from showing horses and cattle to showing contestants.”
Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
Local pageant hopefuls
The reigning Miss Pennsylvania 2013 is Annie Rosellini, a Point Park University student from Butler County. The 2014 Miss Pennsylvania contestants with connections to Western Pennsylvania are:
Miss Alle-Kiski: Erica Williams, 18, of Wexford. Student at North Allegheny High School
Miss Allegheny Valley: Jessica Michaela Danielle McCullough, 20, of Brighton, Tenn. Student at Community College of Beaver County
Miss Amethyst of the Valley: Anna Oberneder, 20 of Kittanning. Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Miss Armstrong County: Kaitlynne Kline, 20, of Carlton, Mercer County. University of Pittsburgh
Miss Butler County: Becca Bly, 19. Westminster College
Miss Jewel of the West: Jocelyn Gruber, 21, of Grove City. Eastern University
Miss Lakeshore: Erica Bristor, 22, of Waynesburg. Slippery Rock University graduate
Miss Laurel Highlands: Caroline Collins, 20, of West Middlesex, Mercer County. Point Park University
Miss Moraine State: Katie Alexander, 23, of Burgettstown. Duquesne University Mylan School of Pharmacy graduate
Miss Pymatuning Lake Area: Melessie Clark, 20, of Greensburg. Point Park University
Miss Southwestern Pennsylvania: Amanda Smith, 21, of Dade City, Fla. Carnegie Mellon University
Miss Steel Valley: Christy Rybak, 20, of Oil City. Clarion University of Pennsylvania
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