COFFEEN --Newly crowned Miss Illinois County Fair Queen Summer Robbins' first pageant experience at age 5 set the stage for years of show experience that honed her skills.
Robbins, 18, of rural Coffeen, won the 1990 Little Miss Old Settlers Pageant in Hillsboro playing "God Bless America" on the violin.
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"After (my parents rented) me a violin, later in the year I decided I wanted somewhere to play. I wanted to show off my new talent," she said.
"The Little Miss Old Settlers Pageant had a talent, so I desperately talked my mom into letting me compete. ... Found out I loved it."
Winning the Miss Illinois County Fair Queen Pageant in Springfield, besting more than 70 contestants, is the latest in Robbins' pageant career that took off when she was 9 and won a statewide competition through the National American Miss.
She views her new one-year reign representing Illinois' county fairs as a chance to expand her horizons.
"Now I'll have the opportunity to travel the state representing agriculture and advocating for agricultural fairs. I'll reign over the state fair as well as the Du Quoin State Fair," said Robbins, the 2013 Miss Montgomery County Fair Queen.
A freshman honor student studying finance in the College of Business at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Robbins is known as a leader.
The 2013 Hillsboro High School graduate was class president from 2011 to 2013 and was a Land of Lincoln Honor Flight guardian in 2012 and a Daughters of the American Revolution representative last year.
Now, she chairs the College Relations Committee, serving as a liaison between the U of I's College of Business and the Illinois Business Council.
Her pageant experiences have sharpened her leadership skills and built her self-confidence, Robbins said, noting that the National American Miss competition "ended up taking me to the national pageant, the actual National American Miss pageant in Anaheim, California."
"That's definitely what started off, what I would say, my 'pageant career' just because that (pageant) system is very focused on building self-confidence in young women.
"It definitely helped me improve on my interview skills and people skills."
The emphasis placed on building confidence in an interview was a major part of the pageant systems in which Robbins has competed.
"Doing so many interviews through pageantry over the years, I now notice that when I'm with peers here at the university interviewing for a job position or a leadership position of some sort, I'm very much more relaxed," she said.
"Just the confidence that doing so many interviews and having so many critiques through pageantry has given me has made me a much better interviewer."
Robbins has competed for years in the National American Miss pageant system, placing in the top 10 nationally in 2012. The year before, she was Miss Illinois' Outstanding Teen (part of the Miss America organization).
Competing with self
Robbins' parents, Rick and Julie Robbins, rented her initial violin because they feared her breaking it, she said.
Or not sticking with it, her mother added.
"Violins are pretty expensive. We were able to rent her first violin for $12 a month," said Julie, who noted that Summer learned to read music before she could read story books.
"They start real small to fit the child, and you kind of grow with the violin. About every two years, we would have to move up in size in violin," Julie said.
"We finally purchased one, and then eventually, she won another pageant and she (took) her winnings from that pageant to purchase an electric violin. She plays the electric violin as well as the acoustic."
Summer credits her success to the support she receives from her family.
"I think one of the biggest obstacles that I've faced has been coming from such a rural place in central Illinois. We don't have neighbors. We don't have streetlights or stoplights. We're just very rural," said Summer, who has a sister, Amanda, 26.
"Just the cultural differences and learning how not to compete with others but to compete with yourself.
"In pageantry, if you compare yourself to the girl next to you, you'll never make progress. You really have to build off of your own strengths and work on your own weaknesses to succeed."
Julie said Summer has always had a positive attitude and an advanced level of maturity.
"We just tried to give her a positive outlook on life, told her she could do anything she wanted to do and just make the best of every situation that you can," Julie said.
Summer has plans to continue in pageantry.
"When I give up my title next January, I have aspirations of beginning to compete for Miss Illinois in the Miss America system," she said.