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story.lead_photo.caption Liza Hill, this year’s Cherry Blossom Princess for Arkansas, is congratulated by 2001 Princess Shannon Vinson on Monday in Washington, D.C. - Photo by Frank E. Lockwood

WASHINGTON -- In a city that is frequently hyper-competitive, there's been surprisingly little Arkansas interest lately in at least one time-honored title: state National Cherry Blossom Festival princess.

Only one person applied for the position this year and only one person applied last year, according to Arkansas State Society President Sarah Hudson.

In 2017, the position was empty altogether.

"We hope to have more applicants in the future" Hudson said earlier this week. "Next year, we hope to cast a wide net."

High school graduates ages 19-24 are eligible to apply for the position. Winners must be female, single, never married and childless.

Only American citizens can represent Arkansas, and each must have at least a minimal tie to the state.

There isn't a swimsuit competition or a talent contest. Would-be princesses are asked about their resumes: college degrees, job titles, "honors, awards, community service, social and civic activities."

Applicants also write essays explaining why they are "the best candidate to represent your state ... as a cherry blossom princess."

Winners are charged a $550 fee. In return, they get to represent the Natural State in the nation's capital during the Cherry Blossom Festival's final week, appearing at the Cherry Blossom Grand Ball and participating in today's National Cherry Blossom Parade.

At the ball, Japanese ambassadors spin a wheel of fortune featuring each of the participating states, territories and the District of Columbia.

The princess representing the lucky locale is named U.S. Cherry Blossom queen and wins a free trip to Japan. She also wears one of the most ornate pieces of jewelry in Washington -- a crown covered in pearls and containing 2 pounds of gold.

Usually, but not always, the "Queen Selection Process" goes smoothly.

But not always.

In 1959, U.S. Attorney General William P. Rogers spun the wheel too hard and it toppled over, The Washington Post reported. Eventually, the wheel was righted, and Arkansas' Carolyn Marie Harris was named queen.

The annual festival frequently attracts celebrities. Also, two former princesses have gone on to serve as U.S. senators: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

The festival is "the nation's greatest springtime celebration," organizers say, and it highlights U.S.-Japanese ties.

In 1912, Tokyo's mayor donated more than 3,000 ornamental cherry trees to Washington, D.C. Ever since, the trees have heralded the arrival of spring in the nation's capital.

Over time, disease has claimed some of the trees. Four of them were chopped down by an angry axe-wielder shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

The cherry blossom festival began in the mid-1930s. Today, it is one of Washington's top tourist attractions.

For the princesses, the festival's calendar is jampacked.

There's a stone-lantern lighting ceremony and a reception at the home of the Japanese ambassador to the United States.

Overall, the nearly monthlong festival attracts more than 1.5 million visitors, organizers say.

There are concerts and culinary opportunities, films and fireworks, even a giant meditation session.

The princess pageant is a post-World War II phenomenon. It began in 1948.

Last year, Harding University undergraduate Selby Bailey of Russellville represented Arkansas.

This year, the title is held by Sarah Elizabeth "Liza" McKenzie Hill, a 10th-generation Arkansan from Little Rock and the daughter of Martha Hill and U.S. Rep. French Hill.

A senior biochemistry major at the University of Texas at Austin, Liza Hill worked on her thesis this week in between cherry blossom festival appearances.

The honors student plans to return to Little Rock after graduation to study medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The festival is a great opportunity to network, Liza Hill said. The people -- and the trees -- have been lovely, she added.

"I've never been to D.C. while the blossoms are blooming," she said. "According to the National Park Service, there are 3,020 well-cared-for trees."

"All the blossoms are beautiful. And whenever the wind blows, it's literally like confetti just trickling down off the trees, which is so fun," she said.

Other Arkansans should consider applying to be Cherry Blossom Festival royalty, she said.

"The last couple of days have been so educational. I've learned so much about so many things. ...On top of that, I've met 50 incredibly talented, incredibly intelligent women who are from all 50 states, from all different backgrounds, all different walks of life," she said.

A Section on 04/13/2019

Print Headline: Entrants slim to none for Arkansas cherry blossom title; sole applicant turns into a princess


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