Every year, up to 55 princesses — each representing a state, a U.S. territory or D.C. — are selected on the basis of written applications that show off their leadership abilities, volunteer work and passion for the places they represent. (There are also a few international princesses chosen by embassies and international organizations.) They are then feted at a week’s worth of parties that culminate in the Cherry Blossom Grand Ball, where one woman wins the title of Cherry Blossom Queen via a spin of the so-called “wheel of fortune.” Her majesty receives a Mikimoto pearl necklace and then goes on a free, 10-day trip to Japan, where she makes public appearances with Japan’s Cherry Blossom Queen.
“I think it’s one of the most wonderful experiences of a lifetime. They get to represent their state in the Cherry Blossom Parade, and the wealth of friendships they are going to make carry through for years and years,” says Teri Galvez, a former co-chairwoman of the princess program.
The program, organized by the National Conference of State Societies, isn’t really about swanning around in gowns, Galvez says. It’s about leadership development and networking.
“I got my first job through a connection I made as a Cherry Blossom Princess,” says Amy Anda, a current princess program chairwoman. Cherry Blossom Princesses attend leadership workshops, get coached on their public speaking skills and attend a variety of cultural events during a week of the month-long festival.
The 2017 festival kicked off on Wednesday, so it’s too late to apply to be a princess this year. But now is the perfect time to start plotting your ascent to the throne in 2018. Here are tips from program organizers and past princesses:
Step 1: Be a young woman who likes pink.
The contest is limited to women ages 19 to 24 who have never been married, don’t have children, have graduated from high school and are U.S. citizens. (Princesses chosen by international embassies are not eligible to become the queen.) Older women (typically up to 26) can apply if they get special permission from their state society. If you have a visible tattoo or piercing, get it removed — body art isn’t allowed for princesses. Also, make sure you’re cool with dress codes: Princesses aren’t allowed to wear open-toe shoes at official events and are required to buy the year’s official pink dress. You’ll also need a white gown and white gloves for the Grand Ball.
Step 2: Decide which state or territory to represent.
Most of the princesses live in the D.C. area but have a connection to a particular state. If you were born in D.C., went to college in California and have lived in Virginia ever since, you have your pick of those three places to represent. Choose the one that you have the closest connection to — and the one with the least competition. “Smaller states tend to have fewer applicants,” Galvez says. D.C., for instance, produces only one to three applicants a year, while dozens of women vie to be the California princess each year.
Step 3: Get involved in your state society.
Every state has a society in D.C. that hosts regular events where you can talk about how the food or weather in D.C. sucks compared to the food or weather in your state. These societies also pick the Cherry Blossom Princesses — check their websites for events like college football watching parties and picnics so you can schmooze. You may also want to attend some of the public Cherry Blossom Festival events (listed below) where you can meet the current princesses and state society leaders.
Step 4: Pump up your résumé.
Prime candidates for Cherry Blossom Princess generally do a lot of volunteer work, get good grades and hold leadership positions. “We’re looking for well-rounded young ladies with leadership ability, beauty and brains,” says Aylene Mafnas, president of the Guam Society of America, which selects a princess each year. By “beauty,” she adds, she means that you “need to look presentable.”
Step 5: Apply.
Application deadlines and requirements vary, but all wannabe princesses must submit a short essay on their connection to their state or territory and why they’d make a good representative. “We want people to show they know something about the program and their home state,” Galvez says. Start checking your state society page for application information in late summer, Anda adds.
Notable moments from Cherry Blossom Princess history
1948: The Cherry Blossom Princess Program is created to rekindle feelings of friendship between the United States and Japan following World War II.
1957: Japanese jewelry company Mikimoto donates an enormous pearl crown to the princess program. It’s made of 2 pounds of gold, 1,585 pearls and an ermine band. Each Cherry Blossom Queen wears it for only a few minutes after her coronation and then switches to a smaller crown that she gets to keep.
1950s and ’60s: For the duration of the festival, the princesses are matched up with single men — volunteers from local military installations — based on height alone. The men escort the princesses to all of the week’s social events, resulting in some exasperation and at least one wedding.
1960: Two rival Iowa state societies nominate two different Cherry Blossom Princesses. One is the governor’s daughter, the other a D.C. resident. D.C. resident Marilyn Canby takes the title, in part because her society submitted her name in time and the other nominee’s didn’t.
1968: No Cherry Blossom Queen is crowned at a smaller festival due to the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
1970: Linda Smythe of D.C. becomes the first black Cherry Blossom Princess. She celebrates her appointment as D.C.’s princess by yelling, “Black power!” and is later voted Miss Congeniality by her fellow princesses.
2012: Taylor Barfield becomes the first black Cherry Blossom Queen, making headlines in Japan for accepting the honor barefoot and getting kissed on the cheek by the governor of Tokyo.
Where to meet this year’s royalty
Japanese Stone Lantern Lighting Ceremony: The Cherry Blossom Princess representing the Japanese Embassy will light a 400-year-old stone lantern that stands among the cherry trees at the Tidal Basin, with the other princesses and government officials in attendance. The lighting will be followed by musical performances by the Washington D.C. Choral Society and the Toho Koto Society. Tidal Basin at Independence Avenue & 17th Street SW; April 2, 3-4:30 p.m., free.
Celebration of States and Territories: Meet all the Cherry Blossom Princesses at this casual reception, which includes light fare. Clyde’s in Chinatown, 707 Seventh St. NW; April 3, 6:30-8:30 p.m., $50.
Cherry Blossom Grand Ball: If you go to this annual formal dinner, you’ll watch as one lucky Cherry Blossom Princess is randomly selected by a spin of the “wheel of fortune” to become queen. It includes a sushi reception and dancing to music by The Rhythm Method Band. Crystal Gateway Marriott, 1700 Jefferson Davis Highway; April 7, 6:30 p.m.-midnight, $200, register online.
National Cherry Blossom Parade: The Cherry Blossom Princesses take up three floats in this parade, which also includes giant balloons and marching bands. Constitution Avenue from Seventh to 17th streets NW; April 8, 10 a.m.-noon, free.
Japanese Street Festival: The princesses will be among those milling around the street festival, which includes demonstrations of martial arts, taiko drumming, calligraphy and more. M Street and New Jersey Avenue SE; April 8, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m., $10.