Contrary to popular assumption, the contestants in the Miss Gay Missouri Pageant (or for the Miss Gay America Pageant system, of which it is a part) do not want to be women. They are not men in the midst of a sexual identity crisis. They are not contemplating major surgery, and they do not dress as women in their daily lives. "The America system fits who I am -- in my normal life, I'm not that feminine,' says Ineda Cochtael, who was crowned Miss Gay Missouri last month.
Dieta Pepsi, who won the contest in 1991, puts it more bluntly: "I like being a boy. I like having a penis."
And Vicki Valentino, who won the title in 1995, explains the attraction of entering the contest. "It's a good opportunity for you if you are a guy and want to dress as a female and entertain," he says. "And then, at the end of the night, you go home and take your face off and go to work the next day as a gentleman."
Unlike other contests such as Miss Continental and Miss US of A, the America system demands that all contestants be men in the strictest sense -- no surgical augmentation below the neck. This means all the curves these men present are of the foam-rubber variety: no silicone injections, no hormones, no implants. The challenge for each man is to be inventive, resourceful and practical when creating his female look, because he must not only create a believably feminine body but also ensure that it stays in place. And that means a whole lot of duct tape, super glue, foam padding and layers of stockings come into play.
Some local contestants have entered (and won) the Miss Continental and Miss US of A, which are geared toward transgenders. Those contests allow anything short of sexual reassignment. A competitor who is "all boy" could easily find himself going up against someone with enlarged breasts, hips and cheekbones. "The intimidation factor is unbelievable," says Valentino. "You're sitting next to somebody who's got cheeks and titties, and you're just sitting there, trying to pull your girl out." Miss Vogue, the 1994 Miss Gay Missouri, found it frustrating competing in the Missouri Continental Pageant. "All those girls were just standing there, nude except for pantyhose, stepping right into their gowns," he says. "Me, I had to pull at all my hose and tape, trying to make sure my boobs were straight."
In the America system, the maleness of the contestants is itself a factor in their favor. Although the contestants are judged in five categories -- interview, evening gown, creative fashion, onstage interview and talent -- they begin with the interview, which is conducted privately while they are dressed in everyday wear -- that is to say, in male clothing. The idea is to give the judges a glimpse of the man behind the makeup and thereby let them assess the contestant's radical transformation into a female persona in the other four categories.
Once a competitor slips into his female role, the judges look for a convincing illusion: Someone who is able to take the stage with grace and swagger, attitude and raw sex appeal, able to move and shape the crowd with his look and performance and to entertain above all with an individual talent uniquely his own. Ineda impressed the judges when he performed Madonna's "Vogue" and strutted onstage with four backup dancers, all dressed in 18th-century garb. And Tajah Mahal went a step further by impersonating a woman dressed as a man in his role as Annie Lennox, lip-syncing to the singer's "Missionary Man." Dressed in a tuxedo, with short platinum-blonde hair and spidery black eye makeup touched with rhinestones, Tajah crawled to the very edge of the runway and mouthed, "I was born an original sinner," right into the faces of the judges, then cartwheeled his way back upstage.