ROCKLAND, Maine — Many girls grow up wanting to be a princess. But somewhere along the path to adulthood that fantasy fades.
For 65 years the Maine Lobster Festival has given high school graduates a chance to be a sea princess for a spell. On Wednesday night, at the official kickoff to the five-day event, the community came together to crown one young woman Maine Sea Goddess.
Melissa Philbrook, 18, of Warren clinched the title.
Surrounded by friends and family and wearing a glamorous crown and radiant smile, the newest face of the festival stepped into the spotlight.
As a bridge between Rockland’s rich past, borne from the bountiful sea, and the future, riding the waves of tourism, the Sea Goddess is a living embodiment of the midcoast.
For girls who grew up in the area, including Sierra Robinson of Rockland, entering the contest is a rite of passage.
“I’ve always looked up to all the other sea princesses ahead of me, so I wanted to be somebody else’s role model,” said the 17-year-old contestant.
The monthlong odyssey from competition to coronation has the trappings of a beauty pageant or a debutante ball. There are one-on-one interviews, public speaking appearances, impromptu performances and fancy dinners.
But knowing how many traps a lobsterman carries and having confidence and poise under pressure matter more than a baton-twirling routine and size 2 figure.
“Our main objective is to teach these girls as much as possible about the midcoast area. We want to be sure they know how to present themselves in public,” said Sharon Lombardo, coronation director and former sea princess circa 1962. “This is our job.”
Perhaps nobody knows the poignancy of the coronation better than Lombardo.
Growing up steps from the festival, she dreamed of becoming the queen of the sea. As a teenager Lombardo entered the competition because she wanted to spend the night in a hotel. But she soon became engrossed in the town’s seafaring past, which the festival salutes.
“It was such a wonderful experience for me, I made all new friends. That’s our goal — we want to make it a very enjoyable, fun experience for all the sea princesses today.”
On Wednesday afternoon that plan seemed to be working.
However, at the Skin Klinic and Day Spa a few hours before coronation time, tensions were a bit high. The pod of princesses having their makeup done put on brave faces when asked what would happen if they did not walk off with the crown.
“I think I’ll be OK,” said Elizabeth Lombardo, 18, of Thomaston. “Life does go on after this. I’m going to school so I will definitely be thinking of my future, and maybe this experience can follow me through my career.”
That has certainly been true for 2012 Sea Goddess Alexandra Dienesch-Calamari of Owls Head, who yielded the throne Wednesday night.
Coming off a year of appearances at the State House, The Big E fair in Massachusetts and the Maine Boats, Homes and Harbor Show in Rockland, she was ready to give another princess a shot.
As the face of the seafood industry in Maine and spokesperson for one of its biggest summer attractions, Dienesch-Calamari says pride and knowledge are key attributes.
“You have to be proud of who you are and proud of what you represent. I represent the lobster industry,” she said.
Beyond the glamorous gowns and events, princesses get an up-close view of how the all-volunteer festival comes together.
“I have a lot of respect for the people that put in so many hours,” said Dienesch-Calamari.
To compete you have to donate time. All princesses worked to prepare the grounds for the 100,000 people who will visit the festival this weekend. In turn, the community supports them. Besides the crown, the Sea Goddess receives a $2,000 cash prize, the runner-up $1,000, and Miss Congeniality is handed $200 toward college scholarships.
Unbeknownst to the throngs of festival-goers and gourmands descending on the midcoast to eat lobster six ways till Sunday, this moment was months in the making.
And its lineage is decades old.
“We work all year long on this, starting from the first of September for next year,” said Lombardo, who has been mentoring sea princesses for 22 years.
The judging process is just as arduous.
First-time judge Malcolm Bedell, a marketer from Thomaston, was surprised by the intensity of the role.
“I found myself really caring about who was going to win,” said Bedell, who like all five judges dedicated 20 to 25 hours for competitions, field trips to the Maine Lighthouse Museum, the Farnsworth Art Museum and a banquet at The Samoset Resort.
This can be grueling for the competing 17- to 21-year-olds.
Over the course of several weeks they are evaluated on their ability to communicate, level of community service and lobster knowledge.
“The fact that this isn’t being filmed and turned into a reality show is a mistake, I think,” said Bedell. “It’s such a gala event.”
The results, reams of evaluation sheets, are kept under lock and key until the coronation. Earlier this week judges delivered their paperwork in a sealed envelope to a local lawyer’s office.
“We spend a day tallying the results,” James Brannan, the lawyer who has been the keeper of the Sea Goddess ballots for years, said Wednesday. “Last night we came to the conclusion. But we are sworn to top secrecy.”
Before the princesses took the stage, the winner’s name was slipped into King Neptune’s treasure chest.
After much pomp and circumstance, Philbrook’s name was announced. Her parents leapt to the stage.
“She’s a princess in our eyes,” said her mother, Denise Philbrook. “But this is fantastic.”