Moments before the pageant begins, Unreal feels every last downy hair on our arms come to attention.
Here we are in a gilded side hall to the Millennium Hotel's Grand Ballroom — in the dressing room, as it were, with the hair dyers buzzing, the sweet smell of sweat perfuming the air and two long rows of flesh beckoning us toward them.
Oh, the tits and ass! Where to begin?
Like the Oscars to a film writer or the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championship to an outdoors reporter, this is the cushiest of assignments for your humble correspondent: four nights, four categories, fifty contestants who'd cream in their jeans to be chosen as the lucky lady who wears the crown.
Strike the jeans. More like a banana hammock, several pairs of panty hose and tights.
Unreal, baby doll, welcome to the 38th Annual Miss Gay America Pageant!
Female impersonators (or drag queens; take your pick), these ladies of the night have descended upon St. Louis with so-called "dressers," makeup artists, wig-hair sprayers — full-on entourages toting valises stuffed with bling and booby pads. They will suit up as gentlemen for the Male Interview portion of the contest, but for most of the competition — Evening Gown and two talent events — they'll bring the illusion, as they say, of fabulous chicks.
Some will be buxom. Others big-bootied. Some will look ghoulish. Others drop-dead gorgeous.
It's been a rather long day of Drag Queens 101 by the time Unreal arrives stage-left for evening number one of the pageant. But what can we say; we're juiced.
"Hey, honey!" we hear a dude coo.
It's Roger Piatt, a wiry 137-pounder with legs that would make your mama whimper with envy. Within minutes we're BFFs.
"Even though I live here, I'm really nervous," says Piatt, half-nude. By day he's a chef for Schnucks. Come nightfall he's using his turkey knife to carve couch-cushion hips for his strawberry-blonde alter ego, Miss Vicki Vincent. "I'm used to going to Dallas or Memphis or something. To be a li'l country boy from Missouri and have this pageant here — this is amazing for me!"
Twenty years ago Piatt was the first Missourian to win Miss Gay America. He and other former winners are on the clock this week, massaging the mics as emcees and entertainers. At the age of 50, you could call him the matron of honor. He favors more conservative gowns and pantsuits. As of Halloween, he has been doing drag for 30 years. "I have aspired to still be wearing a dress," says he. "I promise you that!"
Piatt explains to Unreal the cardinal rules of the competition: Cheek fillers, lip injections and Botox are kosher, but contestants are banned from using hormones or any body work below the neck.
That's where the aforementioned panty hose and banana hammocks come in. "We call them 'tuckables,'" says Piatt with a giggle, "because you have to put away things that aren't supposed to be there. It's a stretch. No pun intended!"
Miss Gay America is all about poise and grace, channeling a real woman without becoming a real woman, Piatt explains. Sexy though it may seem, make no mistake: There's nothing sexual about it. "We're not prostitutes. We're not transies. We're just guys who dress as girls.
"I've always said there's structure to this pageant, rules and regulations. If you compete here, you have just enrolled in boot camp. And baby, if you are the hot bitch who can make it to the end, good for you!"
Some veteran contestants are vying for their fourth, fifth, sixth time. Others, to borrow a phrase, are having their cherries popped. On opening day the reigning Miss Gay America welcomes one and all at a morning meeting.
"I've waited a long, long time to get behind this table," purrs Carl Glorioso, a.k.a. Victoria Depaula. "My emotions are very, very high, so if I start to cry, just bear with me."
The Kansas Citian has a shaved head, olive-colored skin and sing-songy Southern timbre. Not the voice we expected from a dude stacked like a fireplug. "This year has been exhilarating in so many ways," Glorioso imparts. "I really got to experience the sisterhood that Miss Gay America is all about. It's so rich — the year, the legacy — and I'm so glad to be a part of your guys' family!"
Glorioso sought the crown for eight years. The last three times, he performed the same talent number — a Wicked medley — but ratcheted up the props to the point of renting a hydraulic lift that propelled him 22 feet in the air.
For the hopefuls Glorioso has just nine words of wisdom: "If you want it bad enough, it will happen."
Scanning the crowd, Unreal can't help but dig the diversity. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, the men are dressed in everything from golf shirts to sweater vests to painted T-shirts. Some carry shoulder satchels; some sport baseball caps.
"Sugar!" "Sweetie!" Old friends embrace as pageant director Aron Harvey, a.k.a. Catia Lee Love, leads a tour of the premises, pointing out the props and dressing rooms and repeating, "One dresser, ladies! One dresser only!"
We soon see why the pageant owners employ the no-nonsense Oklahoman to keep the show on track. "The smoother we flow, the earlier we get out," barks Harvey. "The earlier we get out, the sooner we get dick!"
There doesn't appear to be a New Yorker or a Californian in the house. No North Dakotans, Washingtonians or Mainers. Still, more than 26 states are represented, including a solid contingent from Missouri.
Erica Foxx — known by day as Michael McKinley, a 43-year-old manager at Enterprise in St. Louis — favors dramatic intonation and old-school acts like Diana Ross and Judy Garland. She hasn't a smidgen of patience for the current trends of the day, like open-toed shoes, and found herself in a bind earlier this year when pumps became scarce.
"I needed black-and-white-polka-dot shoes, I'd made up my mind. And it took me forever, but I finally found them on this sex website. I kid you not. It caters to transvestites. Men who dress like women and get turned on by that. Nothing to do with female impersonation! Transvestitism is a psychological disease. It is! Although I guess you could say I have a psychological disease because I'm so anal retentive about this."
Miss Gay Missouri 2009, Foxx says she's been perfecting the art of female impersonation for 25 years — but don't tell her parents.
Michael Klataske's father, on the other hand, will be in the house most of the week to watch his son, a.k.a. Jade Sinclair, swirl and chirp as the princess from Enchanted and strut to Madonna's "Vogue" while dressed as Nefertiti.
A financial analyst for US Bank, Klataske made the Top Ten last year but had less time to prepare this time around, what with all the mess in the banking biz. Never would the St. Louisan give up the thirteen-year pastime, though. "It can be addictive at times," he tells Unreal. "I'm actually really shy. Then I put on the mask and I'm very outgoing. My goal would be to blend the two together, and be an outgoing man."
Unreal spent most of our first afternoon with Clint Cedillo. The 29-year-old says he started drag more than a decade ago while sneaking into clubs with a fake ID. After only three years, though, his boyfriend made him quit. "He gave me an ultimatum," Cedillo recalls. "He said, 'Choose her or choose me.'"
Nine years later, Cedillo's back on the scene. "There is a negative stigma against impersonators within the gay community," explains the vice president of human resources for Wells Fargo who now performs under the nom de drag Kate Spade. "It's an irony, because we love to go to parties and shows and clubs, but probably 90 percent of gay men would never date a drag queen."
Cedillo is prepping for the male interview, his favorite event. "It's not only based on your answers, it's also about how you look — like a job interview," he says. "They're very stringent on the fit of the suit, and rather conservative. They say trendy suits don't appeal to all the judges. I wear a suit every day. So this is natural for me."
In case he wasn't lucky enough to draw a day-one assignment for the category, Cedillo stuffed his pocket with five hundys to entice anyone willing to switch.
Pageant organizers will tell you most competitors work in creative fields — music, hair, makeup. Fewer and far between are the white-collar professionals with big bucks to invest in the hobby.
That would be Cedillo. The St. Louisan has flown to Houston to hand-carry a $150, one-of-a kind wig made by a Mexican man named Lupe. For a second Lupe creation, Cedillo took his truck. (Watching the wig tumble along the airport's security conveyor belt had been too traumatic.)
For his maiden voyage to Miss Gay America, Cedillo has splurged on a Vera Wang evening gown that he had custom-fitted in New York. "It's the one Keira Knightley wore to the Oscars; I had mine made in emerald green," says he.
In all, Cedillo estimates, he's laid out "in the five figures" just to make it to and complete this pageant. "Oh, my God!" he exclaims. "That makes it so real. I could have taken a trip!"
The male interview merely requires a steamed Armani suit and a Tommy Hilfiger cravat tied in a perfect Windsor knot. No flyaway threads, no wrinkles and — God forbid — not a speck of lint. As Cedillo says, "It's all in the details."
The interview differentiates Miss Gay America from two similar pageants, Miss Gay USofA and Miss Continental, where body work is allowed and swimsuit competitions figure in the mix. Some observers say Miss Gay America is the pageant for queens with brains.
The winner's work is nearly full-time and consists of presiding over preliminaries in other cities, traveling and performing. The seven-minute male interview is thus a chance to flaunt some managerial and role-modeling skills. In qualifying pageants, Cedillo had been asked questions like, "If you could be any flower, which one would you be?" And, "What's been your biggest struggle as a female impersonator?"
"It's all about Clint, not about Kate," he reminds himself before facing the firing squad. "Your bio is past-present-future. Talk about the functions of Miss Gay America. Tell them which ones you'd be best at. Don't forget one thing that's always impressed them: I've been accepted to Washington University Law School, and I've deferred enrollment until fall 2010 because I was competing this year. I'm the smart girl."
By day two, Unreal is dizzy.
"Muffin!" "Baby!" "Precious!" We've been called every sweet-something in the book, but when it comes to addressing the queens — he/she, him/her — our grammatical notions are all fucked-up.
And talk about all the beauty tricks — "Sweet baby Jesus in a Crock-Pot!" as one of the emcees likes to say.
We've learned that the best silicone boobs resemble chicken cutlets, that duct tape is the drag queen's enemy and toupée tape a girl's best friend. We've seen corsets in silver, thongs in gold and, perhaps best of all, learned that Cover Girl doesn't cover boy. (Wax it, sister.)
In a tenth-floor suite covered with sparkling booty, Unreal even meets Lucinda Holliday, a.k.a. Larry Moore, the Harry Winston to female impersonators.
Holliday's creations — all handcrafted in Austrian crystal — come in an array of shapes including stars and moons, leaves and dog bones, and go from $15 for a simple pair of earrings to $1,000 and up for a three-and-a-half-pound necklace. He custom-designed jewelry for the current queen, not to mention six other winners. He competed once back in the mid-1990s but prefers spectating these days. "I tend to be a little vulgar," he says. "They frown on that. But you know, it's very difficult not to say a good 'motherfucker!' every now and then."
This Unreal does indeed know. In fact, amid all this preening we have begun to notice everything that's awry in our own outward presentation: terrible posture, troubled skin, a foul mouth.
It seems like a good time to flee the mirrored rooms and refresh ourselves with the rules of engagement, all four pages of them.
Damn, that ol' Miss Missouri 1989 was right!
The bylaws cover everything from pyrotechnics (not allowed) to panty hose (essential) to rap sheets (no pending felonies, if you please). Miss Gay America herself must not arrive late for performances. She may never consume alcohol while wearing the crown. She must always drink with a straw so as not to sabotage her lipstick.
Tightening the disciplinary screws was the primary objective for Terry Eason and Larry Tyger when they bought the pageant five years ago. "There were a lot of unspoken rules when we inherited the organization," Eason explains. "For us it didn't seem fair to say, for example, 'You'll get an administrative deduction if you use liquid onstage,' if it's not in writing."
Eason, a banker who lives in Mississippi, entertains in nearby Memphis on occasion. His partner, an appliance salesman, can't be bothered. "Larry tried drag once. He said, 'Never again!' He complained the entire time. He kept saying, 'My feet hurt!'"
The couple has not yet had to revoke a crown for infractions, though they field plenty of anonymous e-mails alleging foul play. "I'm sure there's been someone on hormones and gotten away with it," Eason concedes. "Though, I always say, 'I'm just a piece of cheesecake away from having man breasts.'"
Unreal asks Eason to settle the he/she-him/her dilemma. Pray tell, what's proper? "We tell all the contestants: You need to know when to be a male and when to be a female. It is a psychological thing. We try to say 'he' all the time, even though we might call somebody by their female name."
The first time Unreal saw it, it took us by surprise. A former Miss G.A. had taken the stage for some mid-competition entertainment. She was doing a gospel number when less than a minute in, lines started forming at each side of the stage. Wow, thought Unreal. Are they going to be saved?
It was as if the pews had emptied for Communion. But wait — was that cash being pressed into the performer's hands?
The official prize for Miss Gay America is a purse of $7,500 and a trousseau overflowing with free gifts and services from pageant sponsors. But it turns out that the real money — upward of $70,000, $80,000, $90,000 — is made on the road, from those tithers at the sides of the stage.
"It's a sign of respect," explains Mark Coleman, a.k.a. Charity Case, a former St. Louisan who holds the titles of Miss Gay Missouri 1987 and Miss Gay America 2001 — and owns bragging rights as the only plus-size guy to win the national contest.
"When I did my final number as Miss Gay America, I made a lot of money."
A lot? Like...?
"Like almost $3,000. Twenty minutes' worth of money. Victoria will make a killing on her last night."
Speaking of Victoria Depaula, where is that lady? It's Friday night, and Unreal's been trying for three days to track down the queen. We finally corner her at her dressing table, with two fans blowing and a hairdresser trying to tease her brandy-colored mane in place. "When is Andy gonna be back with my boobs?" she's yelling to another handler.
Victoria tells Unreal she's a successful entrepreneur, the owner of a landscaping company and a hair salon/day spa. "But I'm not ready to give up my title at all," says she. "Crowning is very surreal. It took me a long time to realize I'd won. I kept thinking I'd woken up from a dream. I haven't had any negative experiences as Miss Gay America. It's been amazing. There've been no mean or jealous people that came my way."
Not so for the hours leading up to her big win last year. Depaula tells Unreal how it was discovered that the cable had been cut on her 22-foot hydraulic lift for the Wicked medley. And that somebody had severed the clasp to her cape. "When they found it, I knew somebody was on my side." Without the Wicked number, Depaula would've been toast.
The hugely elaborate talent category is the main thing that's changed since the pageant debuted in 1970. "It used to be you'd just come out, do a song, and dance a little," says Joe Angel, a.k.a. Tillie Laine, an Oklahoman who considers himself the pageant's unofficial historian, having spectated since 1979. "It's now more about telling a story with your talent."
Like Brandon Eisman did. The night prior, the 29-year-old Kansas Citian, bringing the illusion of Deja Brookes, had showcased a peppy number from Hairspray — with his real mother playing his character's mother. "It's my mom's first time doing this," Eisman told Unreal. "It's good for us to be up there together."
Unreal was half-daydreaming through yet another Gloria Gaynor act when we managed to bump into a straight guy. He was there as a sort of wingman to Alyssa Edwards, a former Miss Gay USofA and thus a pseudocelebrity among these ranks. The wingman — we'll call him José — was looking for an escape.
"The guys here are so forward!" he tells Unreal. "See that guy right there? He came right up to me and said, 'You let me know if you need head later.'
"They'll put their hand right here" — he reaches for his groin — "and say, 'Heeey.' I'm like, 'Hey, man!' It's off the chain!"
José proceeds to explain how torn he is about Edwards' pursuit of the crown. In his male life, Edwards is Justin Johnson, owner/operator of a successful dance studio that has trained talent for reality shows in addition to Dallas-area girls.
"He works all the time. All the time," says José. "This is a hobby for him. He doesn't even really date dudes. But she wants to win this thing so bad. I know how much she wants it. He's so successful, though, I don't know what'll happen to the studio if he wins."
Unreal is just glad to know we're not the only ones facing the s/he quandary. "Some of the guys keep getting really pissed off at me when I call her Justin. It's stupid," José confides. "Alyssa and Justin are two different personalities, OK? I mean, come on. This is fictional, man. It's not real."
The house is full and the booze is flowing on the final night of competition. You know the aroma around the cologne counters at Macy's? Times a hundred.
Tonight's show caps a solid week, with some 5,000 tickets sold. As the Top Ten contestants are announced — to the strains of "We Are Family," en techno — the crowd's on its feet, stomping and wooting wilder than a bunch of, well, wilder than a bunch of bitches in heat.
Backstage begins to buzz as the lucky ladies hie to their mirrors. There's Tajma Stetson, a bespectacled clarinetist from Kansas City competing for only the third time in his life; Coco Montrese, a pretty African American who dances for Walt Disney World in Florida; Kristina Kelly, a Virginian who designed his own evening gown and the one plus-size queen to make the cut.
A former MGA circles the room to wish everyone luck with a kiss and squeeze of the bicep, while promoter Robert York catches eyes in the blue suede jacket he had airbrushed with a portrait of Depaula.
Unreal's knuckles buckle watching three dressers strain to zip Tatiyanna Vouché into her mermaid-hemmed gown. Yowch!
The Evening Gown category's not complicated: Working in a triangle, float about the stage. Don't trip. Don't show any tattoos or veins. Tits up, girls. And don't forget to smile!
The ladies chosen as this pageant's finalists also epitomize an unspoken rule: Sparkle. Every one of their dresses, in champagne, honeybee yellow, teal and the ever-dramatic black, is punctuated with enough rhinestones to stop traffic. No way you could buy these numbers at Plaza Frontenac.
Scores from the Male Interview and Solo Talent categories carry over to this evening's final elimination. Once the evening gowns are dispensed with, all that remains is the seven-minute second Talent portion. Contestants re-perform their number, adding props or dancers if they wish.
Alyssa Edwards, the Texas dance teacher, is up first. She takes the stage in a white tutu and leo, with a partner wearing a white button-down and pants. The bit opens with a monologue — girl unhappy with boy — then segues into a lyrical dance to the strains of Celine Dion. Jeté, pirouette, swoop and swirl, by the end of the song, they are once again amoureux.
Unreal is wo/man enough to admit that when we'd seen the talent the evening prior, we'd actually felt our throat close when the piece ended with the tender offering of a red rose.
Tonight the house seems to shake with a thunderous ovation.
Next comes Stetson with a comedy bit from MADtv, playing a hilariously awkward old lady who bumbles about a thrift store before bursting into an expert jazz clarinet solo. He too brings the house to its feet.
After Vouché performs a good-enough-for-Broadway tap routine to a 42nd Street medley, Unreal is flummoxed. We want to pick a favorite...but whom?
Backstage, the bona fide Miss Texas 2008 twirls about in preparation for her part in a dance bit. "I just gave up my reign in July!" gushes the beauty queen, a petite white-blonde who can't be all of 24.
"He's gorgeous!" she says of Sally Sparkles, her Dallas-based drag man, who choreographs for the Miss Texas pageant. When Sparkles asked her to perform with him at Miss Gay America, she didn't waste a breath. "Hell, yeah!"
By the time Depaula's farewell slideshow begins, the clock's neared midnight. As photos of a pint-size drag princess scroll by, Depaula narrates: "While other boys were playing cops and robbers, I was impersonating Madonna and Paula Abdul...."
Eventually Depaula, decked out in a red, white and black rhinestone-studded gown, moves center-stage to greet her acolytes. All 50 contestants, along with all the formers, pay her a final tribute, complete with a hug and cash money.
The departing queen turns to greet the audience, all the while stuffing the dough into a hot-pink shopping bag. A train of taped-together bills is draped over her arms like a stole.
"Oh, man, now I'm really gonna cry!" says a man rolling up to the bar as the first bars of Jordan Hill's "Remember Me This Way" pipe through the speakers.
At the back of the ballroom, Edwards' wingman is jittery. "I'm so nervous," he confides. "Win, lose, tie, I just want it to be over."
Unreal knows the feeling. So does the owner of the Miss Gay Missouri pageant, Joey DiMercurio, who's been assisting a number of the locals from day one and is now shifting from foot to foot alongside us. "It's been a long week of hell," he says. "Drag hell."
At last we hear the magic words: "Fourth alternate...third alternate.... Ladies and gentlemen, your first alternate, contestant number fifteen, Coco Montrese!"
Unreal is suddenly grabbed at both shoulders by a linebacker of a fella in a fleece. "IT'S ALYSSA EDWARDS!"
As Montrese accepts his consolation prize, Edwards, resplendent in magenta, remains planted in his spot at stage-left. He's staring at the floor, then bending over, teetering, back and forth. Uh oh. Is he gonna throw up? Faint?
As he's ushered to center-stage, Unreal sees that Edwards is aquiver with the thrill of it. If we didn't know better, we'd swear the ecstatic queen was having an orgasm.