At this year’s Funfest in Eagan, Reece Peters, 13, stood out among five young women dressed like real-life Disney princesses in fancy dresses and tiaras.
Though he’s just an average teenage boy, Peters is also a trailblazer. He’s the first male ever to be chosen as an Eagan Funfest ambassador, a role equivalent to that of a pageant winner.
“I was a bit nervous about [being the only male],” he said. “At the information session, I only saw a few boys and I was like, ‘Aahh!’ ”
At official events, Peters will wear a suit and tie instead of a gown, and a medallion rather than a tiara.
But other than that, his role is the same as that of the ladies. Ambassadors represent Eagan at more than 50 events during the year, helping out as volunteers, attending coronations and waving to crowds in parades.
“It’s kind of fun to say he made history,” said his mom, Shawna Peters. “He really did.”
And he’s representative of a new era, one in which a few communities are opening up their citywide pageants to males — and changing their competitions’ focus in the process.
“We used to have a traditional pageantry royalty program, with a queen and princess and all of that,” said Mike Ferber, a coordinator of Eagan’s Ambassador program.
In 2012, however, organizers transformed the annual Fourth of July pageant into a program emphasizing volunteerism, public speaking and leadership, Ferber said.
Since they were changing the program’s criteria and goals, Cory Hilden, secretary for the Funfest, wondered why they didn’t allow young men in their program, as St. Louis Park does.
“I think there’s certain young men that this is good for them, and why not let them have the opportunity?” Ferber said.
Northfield also includes boys in the “Defeat of Jesse James Days” ambassador program. In St. Paul’s Winter Carnival and Minneapolis’ Aquatennial, there are both male and female ambassadors at the senior level, Hilden said.
The Eagan competition has been open to boys since 2012. But for two years, no guys stepped forward. “No one was brave enough until this year,” Ferber said.
This year, the three male candidates “kind of hung together,” but embraced the fact that they were the first boys to participate.
Peters said that he’s always been open to new experiences. When there’s a chance to try something new, “I’m the first one to say, ‘Hey, I’ll do it,’ ” he said.
Barriers surrounding gender roles — and what activities boys or girls are allowed to do — are breaking down, he said. “I think it’s definitely changing, but it’s not happening at a rapid pace,” he said.
‘Right up his alley’
Shawna Peters saw information about the Ambassadors program in a newsletter and thought of her son immediately.
“I thought it just looked right up his alley,” she said.
He likes to volunteer, she said, and “is kind, with a big heart.”
“He’s got a comfort about himself that I don’t always see in high school boys,” she added.
“I didn’t judge him, but [Reece is] what we’re looking for,” Ferber said.
Peters, who will be a freshman at Eagan High School, wanted to be an ambassador because “I really love Eagan,” he said. “I think it’s not only about representing the community, but helping the community.”
In addition to volunteering, he has participated in Destination Imagination (DI), a creative problem-solving program, for six years and recently competed in the improvisational category, which “really improves on-the-spot talking and performing,” he said.
The DI experience was helpful, since ambassadors were judged in part on public speaking ability. They also attended many events and met lots of new people when they were candidates, the teen said.
He also enjoys riding his scooter, reading and drawing — “nothing really extravagant,” he said.
His mom said the family “couldn’t be more thrilled” that Peters was picked. At the competition, he received the Teen Spirit award, formerly known as Miss Congeniality, voted on by fellow candidates.
“They voted for him, and we about fell off our chairs,” Shawna Peters said.
Ferber said other cities have said it was “kind of cool” to have boys involved. But he acknowledged Peters will be the lone guy sitting among a lot of queens and princesses at events, including the “sparkle section” at other cities’ coronations.
When he was in the running to be an ambassador, he “hung out with both genders equally,” Peters said.
Now, the ambassadors — five girls and himself, ranging from age 10 to 17 — are all on friendly terms. “I mean, I don’t know who wouldn’t get along with these people,” he said.