Louise Deser Siskel didn’t always know she wanted to be Queen. In fact, when she decided to try out for a spot in the royal court of the Tournament of Roses, it was more on a whim than anything. Little did she know that on top of exams and college applications, she’d soon be dealing with the duties of being Rose Queen, a time-honored tradition in Pasadena, and one for which she represents many firsts.
“I think if you watch the tape, you can definitely see that I was shocked. I didn’t expect to make it to the finals, let alone onto the court,” said the newly-crowned Siskel on a recent phone call. “I didn’t really think seriously about what it would mean to be on the court until I got to the third interview round.”
The Tournament of Roses has been around since 1890, and the first Rose Queen was crowned in 1905. Past Queens have included silent film star May McAvoy, Fay Lanphier, the only woman to hold both the Miss America title and the title of Rose Queen at the same time, and actress Sophia Bush, who’s starred in “Chicago P.D.” and “One Tree Hill.” The Queen presides over the Rose Bowl and rides on a float during the Rose Parade.
The process of applying to be the Rose Queen is a lengthy one. In the initial round, hundreds of young women line up for the chance to make a fifteen-second speech to judges about why they want to be Rose Queen. From that pool, the field narrows down over several increasingly lengthy interview rounds until a group of finalists are chosen. “The process is entirely anonymous,” according to Siskel. “You’re given a number, and the judges don’t know anything about your background.”
Siskel is still processing the emotions of being chosen to be Queen. “It didn’t sink in…until a week later,” Siskel said. The role comes with a lot of responsibilities and time commitment. The royal court is expected to attend over a hundred events during the lead-up to New Years Day. “It’s definitely a lot to manage. I’ve been handling it. I have a lot of help from my mom among other people, and my school has been wonderful about helping me with my school work, and of course, my college apps.”
Extracurricular activities are nothing new for Siskel, whose interest in science has lead to some extraordinary opportunities. “I’ve always been interested in science,” said Siskel. “My first book was an atlas of the human body. My favorite thing to do as a kid was to make my grandfather lie down on the floor and I’d perform surgeries on him while he was asleep, and when he wouldn’t wake up after I’d finished my surgery, I’d poke him and say ‘grandpa, you’re supposed to be alive!’”
Siskel was able to work with NASA’s Ames Research Center studying the effects of medication on human biology in space. She liked the biology more than the space part. So luckily for Siskel, she received an opportunity to get more involved with research. “I got something called the Emperor Science Award, which is a grant that pairs students with mentors in their area,” said Siskel. “I was paired with a mentor named Dr. Shehla Pervin, who’s at Charles Drew University, in the LA area.”
Dr. Pervin’s work examines the difference in mortality rates between African-American and Caucasian women with breast cancer. “Her work is looking at triple negative breast cancer specifically,” said Siskel. “And it’s looking at addressing health disparities and racial injustice.”
Siskel wants to study biology in college, and she’s applied early-decision to the University of Chicago. She loves the school, and much of her family hails from the area. Siskel jokes that she’ll have “lots of people to do laundry and hopefully buy me dinner when I cannot eat one more cup of noodles” if she gets in.
Chicago is also a place that helped shape her Jewish identity. “Many of my favorite memories are centered around our Passover dinners,” said Siskel. “My family in Chicago throws very elaborate Passover seders. There’s a different theme each year. It’s a serious affair!”
Siskel, who has attended Temple Sinai of Glendale since she was a kid, credits the Jewish traditions of tzedakah, welcoming the stranger, and talmudic debate, with helping shape her into the person she is today. “I think Judaism has been a way of connecting to a community of people… to my family, and to my heritage.”
So it’s notable that while Siskel is both the first Rose Queen from her high school, and the first Rose Queen to wear glasses, she’s probably also the first Jewish Rose Queen. Heidi Hoff, the senior director of marketing and communications at the Tournament of Roses says that “to the best of our knowledge, it is assumed that Louise Siskel is the first known or officially documented Jewish Rose Queen.”
Siskel’s friends are excited for her and have supported her throughout the process. Several actually came to the event where the Queen was chosen wearing “Queen Louise” t-shirts, something that made Siskel nervous. “No one knew if I would be Queen yet. So I was upset before coronation because I thought it would be super awkward if I wasn’t Queen,” said Siskel, who now laughs about it. “They’d have to do the walk of shame out of the building in the Queen Louise shirts.”
While she hasn’t made anyone bow down in her presence, Siskel has had some fun with the role. “I tried to get the organization to add knighting people to my official list of duties, but I have not gotten their approval,” she joked. The only request she’s received is from her mother, who asked if she could pack her onboard in a suitcase when she found out the Rose Court gets to ride in the Goodyear Blimp.
Siskel has been impressed by how much the community respects the tradition. “One of the things I love about being on the court… is that people in Pasadena really do value this tradition and look up to members of the Rose Court,” said Siskel. “I’ve had the opportunity to advocate for my values, for the values of my family, of my community, and for the values of the tournament and the city of Pasadena.”
As for other young women who might want to become Rose Queen some day, Siskel has simple advice. “Be yourself. For me it was important throughout this process that I didn’t compromise who I was, and that I didn’t pretend to be someone that I’m not. I wanted to be selected for the court and to be selected as the Queen because they valued me as a person and what I believe in, rather than because I was being who I thought they wanted me to be.
JONATHAN MASENG IS A CONTRIBUTING WRITER TO JLIFE MAGAZINE.