LARAMIE, Wyo. — In middle school, Lexie Madden wore white Wranglers and black cowboy boots. Prancing next to her in the dirt ring at 4-H Club was the family goat.
Three weeks ago, the now 21-year-old Torrington native donned 5-inch heels and a heavily beaded black gown to take a spin on a Las Vegas stage.
It was a far cry from the fairgrounds, but Madden still dazzled at this year's Miss America competition. Her fourth-place finish marked the state's second-highest showing and its best since 1948, when Carol Held of Douglas took second in the national pageant.
"I never, ever would have dreamed that I would have been on that stage," said Madden, a University of Wyoming senior. "And that was just a year ago."
Madden only caught the tail end of the 2012 national pageant on TV. Crowned Wyoming's Junior Royal Miss as a teen in 2009, she said she waffled on whether to compete for the Miss Wyoming title. She submitted her application for the competition two days before the deadline. On her way to the contest in Sheridan last summer, she got a flat tire.
She walked into the Miss Wyoming workshop wearing 2-inch heels. Sans "pageant hair" and wearing little makeup, Madden said, her attire needed some encouragement.
"They were like, 'You look like a soccer mom,'" Madden said. "I was an athlete. I didn’t ever have to wear heels."
Miss Wyoming staff members helped Madden with fashion and interview tips — "Stop wiggling your feet," they told her — and, luckily, Madden was already good at talking with her hands.
Matthew Rubin, a former co-executive director of the Miss Wyoming Organization who worked with Madden from day one as a Miss Wyoming contestant, said his job was to help Madden be the best Wyoming representative she could be, building on talents she already had.
"In general, there's this sort of idea in the pageant world to look a certain way, dress a certain way, because that's how it's always been done," Rubin said. "Pageants struggle with the idea of how do you hold onto an idea of the tradition of Miss America, while trying to be really relevant."
Madden won the Miss Wyoming title on June 23, 2012. Seventy-two state and national "appearances" and 16,000 miles of traveling later, Madden and her three suitcases arrived in Las Vegas on Jan. 2 to represent Wyoming at the Miss America competition.
She had learned the definition of "pageant hair" and made shopping trips to Houston with her personal pageant coach. She had worked out while flipping through ABC, CNN and Fox News apps on her iPhone, prepping for a nerve-wracking 10-minute interview on current events. She had only fallen in rehearsal once.
At showtime, Madden performed a self-composed piano solo and fielded questions from judges particularly intrigued by her 4-H Club past.
"They thought it was really interesting that I raised goats," Madden said. With a champion livestock auctioneer for a father and a mother with a pageant past of her own, Madden said a group of five childhood friends called themselves the "Goat Girls."
Some of the family's goats were born with a genetic condition that caused their muscles to lock up when startled or excited, and whose habit of toppling over, stiff-legged, when spooked earned them the moniker "fainting goats."
"When (the goats) were really little, we could just pour grain into their bucket and they'd fall over," Madden said.
Rebecca Mettler, one of Madden's 50-some sorority sisters, watched the pageant with a group of Delta Delta Deltas from UW's campus.
"It was a lot of screaming," said Mettler, who acknowledged that she had never been interested in the Miss America pageant before Madden took part. "I had faith in Lexie."
Back to life
Today, Madden's gowns are stowed in boxes at her home in Torrington.
Her crystal-studded crown sits in a velvet-lined box in her Laramie apartment. Her Miss Wyoming sashes hang from a bulletin board that's plastered with photos of friends.
Madden drinks tea before class on a Tuesday morning, cross-legged on her sage couch.
"It’s good to be back in Wyoming. It's not anything different. It's cold," Madden said, laughing. "It was snowing yesterday."
She will graduate from UW in December with a bachelor's degree in kinesiology and $15,000 toward grad school, thanks to a scholarship that came with the crown. She hopes to work with kids, as a physical or occupational therapist.
The Miss America pageant isn't far from her mind these days. Madden remembers Miss Delaware's Batman footie pajamas, Miss Tennessee's towering height and Miss New Hampshire's remarkable selflessness.
As Madden, one of the top five finalists, waited to walk onstage fewer than 10 seconds before the final crowning, the back to her earring fell off. Unfazed, Madden slid the earring off entirely and flung it to the ground behind her, planning to cover her ear with her hair.
Miss New Hampshire picked it up, attached to it the back of her own earring, and handed it to Madden.
"'If you’re crowned Miss America,'" Madden recalls Miss New Hampshire saying, "'you’re going to want two earrings.'"
From here, Madden hopes to continue promoting her fitness platform — "Forever Fit" — throughout the state. She's headed to New York City, a place she's never been, for Miss New York's homecoming in March. She wants the number of young Wyoming women involved in pageantry to grow.
"If people realize the benefits associated with the Miss America organization, and that there is an emphasis on education and scholarship and community service, a lot of women would be willing to do it and would be interested," Madden said.
But for now, Madden focuses on school. Her zebra-striped backpack loaded with books, she crosses 15th Street with a horde of her sorority sisters, making her way to a morning psychology class.