PLANT CITY — Kay Newsome Varnum said she gave her daughter Jessi Rae a bit of motherly advice as they were driving to the Florida Strawberry Festival queen’s pageant.
“I told her to just relax and be herself. Just let them (the judges) see the real you,” Kay Varnum told the 18-year-old. “Just put it all in God’s hands.”
Kay Varnum knows all about the jitters of competing for festival queen. In 1985, she won the crown.
Jessi Rae said she kept that bit of wisdom in mind as she advanced through the various phases of the evening’s competitions that ended with her selection for the title.
“I knew that whatever happened, it was God’s plan. I am so honored and blessed,” she said.
Jessi Rae is the youngest of Kay and Scott Varnum’s three children and grew up on the family’s farm. She has visited the festival her whole life, and entered festival livestock contests starting as a sixth-grader in Turkey Creek Middle School’s FFA chapter.
Jessi Rae planned to enter the festival queen’s pageant, but waited a couple of years beyond her first year of eligibility, when she turned 16.
“My mother told me that it comes with great responsibility, and I wanted to make sure I was ready,” she said.
The Durant High School cheerleading captain was selected as festival queen from a field of 20 competitors. She was only the second daughter of a former queen to win the crown; the first was 1987 Queen Beckie Brown Klein, who won 33 years after her mother Ruth Shuman Brown held the title.
Kay Varnum said she and her husband always encouraged their children to seek out challenges and to draw on their religious faith. Their oldest son, Mitchell, 23, is entering seminary in North Carolina and their 20-year-old son, Clay, is a junior studying turf management at Florida Southern College.
Jessi Rae is active in Welcome Baptist Church where she is a youth group leader and sings in the choir. All three siblings are musical and sing as a trio at church.
Kay Varnum said her daughter showed maturity beyond her years starting as a child, in part because Jessi Rae has had juvenile diabetes since she was 8. Starting in elementary school, she had to learn to manage her own care when she was in class or otherwise away from home, including by testing her own blood sugar and watching her diet.
She’s always been outgoing and comfortable in front of a crowd, from singing with her brothers at church to delivering speeches for FFA, Kay Varnum said. At Durant High, she’s a member of the National Honor Society, vice president of student government, producer of the morning TV show and yearbook managing editor, among other responsibilities.
She plans to enroll in Florida Southern and major in sports medicine, with an emphasis on physical therapy.
She said she’s looking forward to her role as festival queen. Over the course of the year, she’ll make at least 80 guest appearances, including helping introduce festival headline acts and riding in parades.