WEST BRANCH (Detroit Free Press) - At the Glass Slipper downtown, teenage girls and their mothers zipped past colorful gowns of silk and tulle earlier this week.
A few miles away at Ogemaw Heights High School, "Go Heights Go!" and "Beat Those Vikings" are painted on the windows.
But the excitement around homecoming in this northern Michigan farming town has a different feel this year, and the star on the field won't be a football player.
Whitney Kropp, a 16-year-old sophomore, gained national attention -- and support -- after she was made the butt of a cruel joke perpetrated by some classmates.
Many of those in the crowd will be wearing orange, Whitney's favorite color, when the Ogemaw Heights Falcons take on the Cadillac Vikings in tonight's big game.
- VIDEO: Bullied teen nominated for homecoming court
"She is kind of like a hero to everybody around the country," Whitney's grandmother Linda Jarrell said.
Whitney rose to hero status in her grandmother's and others' eyes with her decision to serve on Ogemaw Heights' homecoming court, even after learning her nomination was a joke meant to humiliate her.
On the day after Whitney's 16th birthday, her name was announced over the school's PA system as the homecoming court representative for the sophomore class. But her joy quickly melted.
"She was very, very happy about it," Jarrell said, "until all the other kids started laughing and told her it was a joke."
Whitney -- whose grandmother said wears her hair in different colors, wears dark colors and is "not a really popular kid" -- wanted to turn down the nomination. But her family members encouraged her to hold her head high and accept it. And so she did.
Now, many of the residents of the town of 2,100 people have rallied around her, as have people from throughout the nation.
Local business owners touched by her story donated a dress, shoes and other items. Before Saturday's homecoming dance, an employee of Whit's End Hair Studio will do her makeup and style her newly cropped locks. Another woman donated jewelry, and someone else a corsage.
"That's just how West Branch is," Whit's End manager Jen Case said. "Anytime a family or specifically one person is in need, usually we all just rally together."
Jessica Zettle, owner of the Glass Slipper formal wear, and two couples chipped in for Whitney's red gown.
"I think that every child, every person, should always be able to feel good about themselves and wonderful in their own skin," Zettle said in her shop Wednesday.
Whitney's story quickly spread far beyond her hometown. Splashed with anti-bullying messages, the Support Whitney Kropp Facebook page had more than 95,000 "likes" Thursday evening. NBC's "Today" show recently visited Whitney's home.
Jarrell said her granddaughter has been overwhelmed by the news coverage. So have some residents of West Branch, where quaint shops line the main downtown thoroughfare. Farther out are dairy farms and rolling cornfields.
Some residents say the incident has wrongly cast West Branch and its high school in a negative light.
The news media are "making the entire thing sound like we're a bunch of backwards, nonsense hicks that walk around with sticks and beating on people," said Russ Daly, 41, who has a daughter at the high school and said he thinks the incident has been blown out of proportion. "That's the persona that's getting out there, and I'm not happy with it."
Tristan Hewitt, a 16-year-old junior and a football player, said Whitney won the nomination with 17 votes -- two more than the runner-up. Ogemaw Heights has 800 students, with a sophomore class of about 180.
Some of the votes could have been cast by Whitney's boyfriend and friends, he said, besides maybe 10 or so kids who nominated her as a joke. The ballots were anonymous.
"There has not been a big group of bullies" as some reports have implied, Tristan said. He said the school works to combat bullying and has held anti-bullying assemblies.
Tristan said Whitney's male counterpart on the homecoming court turned down the post because he doesn't enjoy the spotlight, not because he didn't want to appear with Whitney, as some people said. The teen later accepted the nomination.
Sitting in a downtown bar, fly fishing guide Michael Bachelder, 49, said he wonders how winning a contest by popular vote could be considered bullying. Bachelder was homecoming king of his senior class in 1982 and his class representative the three years before that.
Jarrell said it wasn't the win, but the ridicule from classmates afterward, that hurt Whitney. "She didn't feel like she belonged there after that," the grandmother said.
Jarrell said she's proud her granddaughter accepted the nomination. She hopes the decision helps victims of bullying find strength.
"She stood up for herself," Jarrell said, "and she's given other kids and adults the courage to do it, too."
Following the flurry of preparations, Whitney will walk in her gown tonight on the football field during halftime, escorted by her father and grandfather. There, she'll be formally introduced as a member of the homecoming court.
"Every single person who walks on that field that night wants to feel like a star," Zettle said, "and they are."
Contact Ann Zaniewski: 313-222-6594 or email@example.com