‘Coal Princesses’: Inside The World Of Coal-Themed Beauty Pageants


Even if one day there is no coal industry in West Virginia, there will still be West Virginia coal queens and princesses. Maxine Cole-Tinnel will make sure of it.

“It is my baby. It is like my pride and joy,” Cole-Tinnel said of her yearly pageant. “Even if I one day moved south, I would probably still come back up here once a year just to have a coal festival pageant, even if the coal industry’s dead.”

The decline of the U.S. coal industry has been a hot topic lately, especially with the recent unveiling of President Obama’s plan to reduce carbon emissions from existing fossil fuel-fired plants. Conservatives and industry players have called the regulations an attempt to “carpet bomb” and “destroy” the industry — part of a “war on coal” that will cause debilitating job loss throughout the country.

It is my baby. It is like my pride and joy.

But people like Cole-Tinnel, part of a subset of Americans who see coal mining as the backbone of their communities, have been watching their beloved industry decline for some time, and are holding tight to the things that keep their culture alive. One of those traditions is West Virginia’s annual Coal Festival, which has featured Cole-Tinnel’s beauty pageant for teens, toddlers, and infants, for the last nine years. The participants are dubbed coal queens, coal princes, and coal princesses when they win their crowns.

The pageant is “semi-glam” — light make-up and hair, no huge up-dos — and has categories for best personality, prettiest eyes, and most photogenic. Both boys and girls can participate. Crowns are embellished with black rhinestones in the shape of a diamond.

Pride And Loyalty

Though they may seem unique, coal-themed beauty pageants are not just a West Virginia phenomenon. They are held throughout the country, widely seen as a way to celebrate miners and what they’ve done for their communities.

The ‘Miss Coal Miner’s Daughter Pageant’ in Jasper, Alabama, for example — an event sponsored by the political advocacy group Friends of Coal — will be held at the end of June. There’s also the ‘Miss Coal Hearted’ pageant in Virginia, the money from which goes toward families affected by recent coal industry lay-offs.

And the practice of celebrating coal through a glamorous women’s talent show didn’t even start in America. It can be traced back to at least back the 1960s, when girls from the once-thriving mining industry in Northumberland, England competed to become coal queens, an honor that suited the more down-home girls of coal country.

But notably, America has no annual steel mill beauty queens, or oil and gas princesses — why go to such extravagant lengths to celebrate coal, specifically?

“There’s something about the coal community that can’t easily be explained to those who are not from it,” film critic Mike McGranaghan wrote in a review of ‘The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania,’ a 2005 documentary about Uniontown, Pennsylvania’s famous coal-themed beauty pageant. “The shared experience of darkness, danger, and dirt creates a sense of pride among those special types who have a penchant for that kind of work,” McGranaghan wrote. “In other words, you don’t live in a mining community; you are a mining community.”

You don’t live in a mining community; you are a mining community.

And in a mining culture, loyalty and pride are deep-seated sentiments, said Lorelie Scarbro, a lifelong resident of Coal River Valley, West Virginia.

“They love what they do, the contribution that they make, being able to support their families, and the contribution they make to the electricity needs of the nation,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons to be proud.”

That same sense of pride and loyalty, however, is making it difficult for miners and mining communities to accept a changing reality, Scarbro said. Every year, coal contributes less and less to the electricity needs of the country. With that, miners’ jobs have long been declining, due in large part to the mechanization of the coal industry, and are increasingly at risk. Coal companies are pulling promised health benefits out from under their workers’ feet. At the same time, the industry spends millions of lobbying dollars to keep other energy options out of West Virginia, leaving coal as the only good job option for many communities.

The problem has plagued West Virginia for years, but many of the state’s leaders have been slow and unwilling to support policies that seek to help cushion the blow of a declining industry. Legislation that would advance other industries, such as a tax credit for new solar projects, have been continually shut down, creating a disincentive for those companies to create jobs in the state.

“The people that live here have no choices, and that is by design — by the industry and politicians who are loyal to [coal],” said Scarbro, whose late husband, father, grandfather, son-in-law, and brothers either were or are all coal miners.

The people that live here have no choices, and that is by design…

The industry-sponsored festival that houses the coal queen beauty pageant is just one way the coal industry helps promote that sense of loyalty. And that loyalty, Scarbro says, keeps people from supporting a more diversified job market in the state.

“If you are a loyal soldier, you advance,” she said. “If you give resistance to anything at all having to do with the industry, of course you don’t.”

Supporting Miner’s Daughters

A West Virginia coal princess. CREDIT: Youtube user Sabe Ellis
A West Virginia coal princess. CREDIT: Youtube user Sabe Ellis

The interesting thing about the coal queen pageant, though, is that it’s not funded by the coal industry. Cole-Tinnel funds the entire event herself.

“In the past we have had some coal industry sponsors, but this is the thing — I don’t ask the mining companies, because they support the festival,” she said. “If the mines were booming, it’d be no problem.”

The real reason she puts on the pageant every year is because of the girls in the Coal Queen contest, generally teens with family connections to the declining coal industry. Daughters of current and former miners, many of the participants are in dire need of the pageant’s scholarship award, Cole-Tinnel said.

“My goal to give them a double scholarship this year,” Cole-Tinnel said. “At least give them another 500 dollars — that’d give them their parking passes and their soup cards.”

To raise the money for that award, Cole-Tinnel collects entry fees for the children’s princess and prince pageant, and receives sparing donations from local vendors. Then, she puts that money aside for the winner of the teen contest.

In Boone County, one of the state’s most coal-dependent areas, Cole-Tinnel says industry layoffs have created serious hardships for many of the girls. In the last year, there have been mass layoffs at Boone County mines owned by Alpha Natural Resources and Patriot Coal. Beyond Boone County, the snag is even worse, with coal production in the Central Appalachian region down 20 percent from 1997′s peak regional production, and approximately 38,000 coal jobs lost since 1983.

“It’s horrible. It’s really bad,” Cole-Tinnel said, noting that she does not yet know how much the scholarship will be this year.

But while Cole-Tinnel hails the pageant as an embrace of the girls’ roots and a support system for their families, others believe the show represents something more complicated and sadly ironic — how communities are willing to continuously praise an industry that has poisoned their economy and environment, furthering the need for more scholarships and support.

“While politicians and others tout the ‘billion dollar coalfields,’ obviously, the need to have a coal queen/princess pageant every year to help fund scholarships for girls is not only ironic, but also one more example of the injustice in the coal communities,” said Janet Keating, Executive Director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC). “West Virginia, with all it’s abundant natural wealth … sadly is generally last or nearly last on all positive economic and social indicators in the country.”

West Virginia … is generally last or nearly last on all positive economic and social indicators in the country.

OVEC member Maria Gunnoe put it more simply: “Anyone who is willing to die in a mine to support their family should make enough money to send their child to any school.”

Cole-Tinnel disputes that coal has played a role in the degradation of West Virginia, arguing instead that mining has been helpful for flattening the state’s once mountainous land, giving them usable spaces to build. “Down here in Logan, they took a reclaimed mine site and built hospital on it,” she said. “We were even able to build a school.”

Still, there is no denying that West Virginia as a whole suffers from some of the worst socioeconomic conditions in the country, a fact that many have attributed to its dependence on coal. In rural counties like Boone, which houses the coal festival and many of the state’s remaining coal industry workers, the poverty rate is 20.4 percent, five points higher than the urban poverty rate.

But as coal continues its downward trend, there is greater attention being given to the topic of economic diversification in Appalachia. The EPA’s new rules for fossil fuel-fired power plants require West Virginia to make a 20 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. If the state chooses to meet that goal by investing in cleaner technology like solar and wind, jobs will be created across multiple sectors — manufacturing, construction, and agriculture — industries which are already in dire need of a boost.

That’s not to say there won’t be losses for coal, but if federal money could be allocated for worker re-training or infrastructure projects for laid-off coal workers, the transition could be smoothed out more. Even aside from the rules, a small but growing movement has already begun to invest in West Virginia’s renewable energy sources — particularly wind, which the state offers tax credits for on an industrial scale — and other industries, such as agriculture and tourism.

Should the switch to wind ever occur, would Cole-Tinnel ever consider putting on a “wind princess” pageant?

“Oh, no,” she said, not skipping a beat. “Definitely not.”