Reign on: In becoming the longest-serving Iowa State Fair Queen, Hannah Koellner found herself
Hannah Koellner will, for the first time in State Fair history, serve as the State Fair Queen for the second year in a row Des Moines Register
High school degree in hand and William Penn University deposit sent, Hannah Koellner had an entire summer to reflect on the ways her life was about to change. She was in that no-man land’s between childhood and adulthood, that place where you are not who you were, but not yet who you will become.
And in that moment of metamorphosis, one prayer kept popping up during Koellner's nightly devotions.
“Lord, let people see me.”
By summer’s end, Koellner’s plea would be answered — and she’d get some sparkly hardware to boot.
Koellner became the first State Fair Queen to hail from Mahaska County last year. Now — thanks to this year’s fair cancellation and her continuation as royalty into 2021 — she’ll own another record: longest-serving Iowa State Fair Queen.
“It's one for the history books,” she says, smiling almost as brightly as her neon shirt, emblazoned with corn dogs and the phrase, “Fair Vibes.” “There's no other queen that has been able to have this long of an impact and, for that, I am so lucky and so grateful.”
Keeping the crown until next summer means she’ll get to continue her volunteer work tackling food insecurity and her visits to children’s hospitals, which is not only her favorite part of the gig but also an “honor,” she tells me as our interview echoes over the empty fairgrounds.
But this added year will also allow Koellner to continue the unexpected journey she’s taken since dipping her high heel into the pageant world. While wearing the crown, Koellner’s learned to speak up. She’s stopped waiting for someone to give her a seat at the table and started bringing her own chair. And she’s battled her biggest bully.
Using the crown to light the way, she’s arrived at her truest self — a self she realizes still has a lot of growing and changing to do.
“This whole past year, I've tried really just pushing myself,” she said. “I’m trying to speak with grace and just show people who I really am, and sometimes that’s a person I didn’t even realize I was.”
And all this self-actualization started right here, she tells me as we find a shady spot near the Bill Riley Stage.
The 19-and-a-half-year-old still has a hard time believing that a shy, timid country girl who never, ever felt comfortable alone in the spotlight managed to keep her knees under her standing on stage, let alone do the winner’s runway walk without collapsing.
“It just chokes me up because it's something I never imagined,” she said as tears pooled in the corners of her eyes. “This hometown, small, little farm girl just even being on stage, it's still hard to even wrap my mind around.”
A true perfectionist
Koellner’s CV reads more like a grocery list than a resume — and she hasn’t even cracked her 20s yet.
In high school, she danced, played basketball and volleyball, ran track, managed the baseball team, shook pompoms as a cheerleader, participated in FFA and sat on student council. Oh, and three days before the Eddyville native walked across her high school stage, she graduated with an associate degree from Indian Hills Community College, which allowed her to start at William Penn as a junior.
By the time she hands over her crown next summer, she will already have her bachelor's in elementary education.
So, when she says she’s a Type-A person, she’s sort of underselling. And when she self-identifies as a “perfectionist,” the only appropriate response is, “Well … obviously.”
But in most of those activities, she got to be part of a team, one of many.
When she’s on her own, she prefers quiet endeavors. Photography. Crafts. Enterprises where she can focus intensely, losing herself in the process and not worrying about the world around her. Private. Still. Calm.
So, when her dad, Jim, proposed she try out for State Fair Queen as a high school junior, the suggestion came way out of left field.
You love the fair, her dad said, and getting in some interview practice and making new friends couldn’t hurt. That veil between childhood and adulthood was on the horizon, he said.
Her first thought was, “Will I be making a fool out of myself?” Second up was, “Am I good enough?” The barbed anxiety that comes from being your harshest critic reared up inside her.
Not in 2018, she decided, and went on a mission trip instead. The anxiety receded.
When he brought it up again a year later, there was no mission trip to offer up as an alternative. But, by then, she’d already prayed for the Lord to let someone see her, and, well, maybe this was it, she thought.
“I was kind of like, ‘OK, if I've been brought to this position, I just need to go out there and do it,’” she said.
Before getting a chance at the State Fair Queen title, Koellner had to become a county fair queen. Mahaska County, where Koellner lives, follows a very similar procedure to the state competition in having all participants compete in three rounds of interviews and then walk the stage in a gown.
For weeks, Koellner had her parents hurl questions during mock interviews. She picked out just the right dress. She primped and prepped and covered up her anxiety by repeating the prayer she’d put out into the world early that summer: Let people see me.
And, despite having no pageant experience, they did. She won.
With a 1% chance at winning, a perspective shift
As Koellner drove to Des Moines for the annual “Queens Week” — a dayslong schedule of sightseeing and workshops leading up to the crowning — she went over her preparations. She’d thought about every detail from her gown to her interview clothes, she’d done her research on past queens, she’d spent so many hours in practice interviews.
As she thought about what lay ahead, the number 102 kept appearing in her mind. There were 102 women — yes, there are more queens than counties — who would be vying for the crown that week.
Quick math told her that was 1%. She had a 1% chance of winning.
She wasn’t a pageant girl. Any weekend she had off — see resume above — she’d spent among the cattle and corn on her family’s farm in little Milton. Any moment to herself she preferred to be quiet. Still. Calm.
Right then, in the car on the way to Des Moines, something inside Koellner shifted. The anxiety that percolated, sometimes stopping her from truly being herself, disappeared, like a switch flipping. No more preparations, no more worrying about what could happen, she was going to go in there “just doing myself.”
“I just want to go there, meet some new girls, see who I am, watch the change from beginning to end,” she said. “And just have fun.”
In her interviews, she tried her best, of course, but she looked at each question as an opportunity to find out more about herself rather than to impress others. And as she started talking to other queens, she noticed a lot of them seemed to have the same fears and anxieties she had.
“We really got down to the core of each person, finding out where they came from, and what they want to do,” she said.
In all her stillness and quiet, she’d thought she was the only one with that internal voice telling her to sit down, telling her to stay out of the spotlight. Well, here was a group of women with the same worries and the same feeling that they weren’t worthy.
“It was a true eye-opener,” she said.
By the end of Day 2, the competition aspect of the queen pageant was definitely in the rear-view.
On crowning night, Koellner stood on stage and went through the list of women she thought might win. She would be a great queen, Koellner thought of one girl on her left. Or, she was so nice all week, she deserves this, she thought of another.
She waited for host Bill Riley Jr. to deliver his catchphrase: “Your 2019 Iowa State Fair Queen reigns from…”
“But this time he said, ‘Your 2019 Iowa State Fair Queen is Hannah Koellner from Mahaska County,’” she said. “And I remember in that moment being like, ‘Oh, who else is named Hannah?’”
The rest of the evening is a blur of taffeta and tears. She was shuttled home to get clothes and a wink before coming back to a packed schedule of appearances.
“I told the judges that night, after crowning, I said, ‘I didn’t even think you noticed me,” Koellner remembered. “And they said, ‘We noticed you night one.’ So that was a pretty special thing to hear.”
She lay in bed, but there was no going to sleep. Riley’s voice played in her head: “Hannah Koellner.”
Let people see me, she had asked the Lord.
That night, she had been.
Being human while being queen
Most of the State Fair Queen’s duties end when the August event’s 11 days are over. But Koellner decided she would use the crown to open doors for her to help the central Iowa community.
So, this winter, she packaged food, worked at soup kitchens, ran in memorial 5Ks, participated in holiday parades and collected for Toys for Tots. Driven by her passion for children, she also made time to visit families at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, ChildServe and Des Moines’ Ronald McDonald House — an especially important stop because Koellner’s parents were temporary residents when she needed a blood transfusion after birth.
“It was pretty cool even talking to those doctors because, being a NICU baby, they never know what they're going to see years down the road,” she said. “For parents, they don't what's going to happen to their kiddos and to see a success story, even telling them I'm the Iowa State Fair Queen now and for them to be like, whoa, anything's possible.”
Koellner’s planned summer of visiting the most county fairs ever — the current record is 48 — was halted when the coronavirus pandemic started to seep into Iowa. As most fairs shut down, Koellner wondered how she would leave a mark during her time with the title.
Koellner got a call from the State Fair about two weeks before the much-ballyhooed public vote to cancel. Would she be willing to reign on? They asked.
Of course, she said.
It’s hard to be bitter about this lost summer when it means she gets to keep making an impact for another year. Like so many of us, “it’s easy to sit at home and show up to what is scheduled,” Koellner said. But she’s learning to speak up, to ask how she can help, instead of waiting for people to tell her.
“I want to do even better than what I have before,” she said.
Doing better has also meant attacking what held her back, which, like so many women, has been herself. For so long, she was the first to pump others up — saying the outcome wasn't important and trying their best is all that matters — yet she didn’t allow herself that “grace.”
Now she is.
“It’s OK to show people our mistakes and the sides of us that don't always have it all together,” she said. “What I always say as Queen is that it doesn't have to be perfect, how I eat or what I wear. I'm still human, and that is OK to show other people and it's OK to even show myself and accept it.”
It’s easy to look at a pageant or a title as some vestige of a forgotten time, but for Koellner, becoming State Fair Queen showed her what she was capable of. It helped her cross no man’s land, to move from childhood to adulthood.
The journey to her truest self started on the Bill Riley stage, she says, gesturing to the empty set in front of us. But she knows it's a lifelong quest.
The crown may have lit the path for her, but it’s hers to walk long after her reign ends.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. She's never been in a pageant, but she's covered many Iowa State Fair Queens. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
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