In 2016, while RuPaul’s Drag Race was turning drag into popular entertainment for everyday Americans, while encouraging queens to express themselves artistically, another drag institution, Miss Gay America, was struggling to keep its cultural currency.
While RuPaul was encouraging his queens’ “charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent,” the MGA contestants were being told to color inside the proverbial lines.
Miss Gay America is the oldest and largest drag pageant system, with state and regional preliminary competitions held across the country, from the gulf coast to the north, and east to west. Over the past few decades, while drag was flourishing both in queer enclaves and in pop culture, the owners of the pageant got stuck in a rut, and the ladies who sashayed away with the crowns were too often churning out dated looks, and tired hairstyles, nails, and shoes, all too reminiscent of an ’80s prom. Year after year, contestants would play to the owners’ predilections (including the color purple), and attempt to replicate what the previous year’s winner had done. With those stale tasted, the contestants were forced to abide by an absurdly long list of rules. Forget the avant-garde. These strictures were becoming more like those of a debutante ball—and nothing like some of the gender-fuck styles of RuPaul’s more radical queens.
Miss Gay America was founded in Nashville 45 years ago by Jerry Peek. After seeing his first ever drag show in Indianapolis, Peek decided to convert his failing country and western bar into a cabaret in 1971. Inspired by the original Miss America pageant, Peek created his own competition. The next year he sent out 400 letters to gay bars that hosted drag shows around the country. To his surprise, that first year saw more than 30 contestants hoping to compete for the crown. The event was so popular they had to turn away would-be audience members at the door.
In 1975, the pageant was purchased by Norman Jones; he ran it until 2005, and has been credited with making it a household brand in the drag world. Some of drag’s greats were fostered by this system, including Randy Fenoli who won Miss Gay American in 1990 as Brandi Alexander; he now hosts TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress. RuPaul’s Drag Race star Coco Montrese also launched her career after winning Miss Gay America in 2010. She was awarded a contract in Vegas after her reign, fulfilling a longtime dream of hers to be a “Las Vegas show girl.” Today she performs at Frank Marino’s Divas.
Back in those early days, the pageants were fun affairs full of competition and comradery, and weren’t inhibited by all the rules, which have arguably stifled the system. When Jones took it over, the contestant rule book was a brief two pages, but today it’s many, many times that, roughly 38 pages. Jones explainsed that the promoters and contestants felt they needed more guidance as time went on, so it grew. “As the pageant progressed of course you had to have more rules,” he tellsold me, “but now it just seems like they’re ruled to death.” Queens risk losing points for having visible tattoos or using excessive profanity—two elements that are virtually omnipresent in some episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Despite the efforts to rejuvenate the system, some antiquated rules remain. The contest discourages “campy” makeup for title holders. (Sorry, Bob the Drag Queen.) No feminizing surgical enhancements are allowed below the neckline—hormones are also prohibited, and organizers reserve the right to request a physical or medical examination if they believe a contestant violates these rules. MGA prides itself on being a competition where, as its slogan says, “boys are boys and female impersonation is an art.”
Has MGA become a vestige of a misty “female illusionist” past, when being outrageous either wasn’t permitted or advisable? It’s a “symbol of excellence,” according to the pageant itself, but what does it mean to win a title today? And is a Miss Gay America renaissance on the way?
After years of languishing, and playing also-ran to RuPaul’s Drag Race, the pageant circuit is coming out of the dark ages. Enter Michael Dutzer and his partner, Rob Mansman, who purchased Miss Gay America in February 2016 with a vision for the future. Dutzer, himself a drag performer, and Mansman, had promoted state drag pageants for the USofA system, so they understood the challenges facing the MGA—and perhaps the pageant system as a whole.
“That’s just not the future of drag, you know,” RuPaul’s Drag Race star, Trinity Taylor (below) says. Taylor explains that despite her household name-status in the world of drag, she wouldn’t be allowed to compete in Miss Gay America because she’s had some work done. “That’s almost like the opposite of what this culture is about. Drag is supposed to be about expressing yourself and your creativity and what you want to present versus being under all of these strict rules.”
“To have something so pinpointed that you only want the same exact replica of what you had before, is just not the future of drag.”
“No longer does a national title get you work as much as, you know, it used to,” Taylor says. She claimed that now girls do it because they love to compete. They don’t do it because they need to compete to get your name out there. And she would know, seeing that she’s won over 20 pageant titles, and two national ones.
“This new wave of drag which is social media, YouTube, Drag Race, has really infiltrated. This used to be an underground art. Now it’s mainstream and so you don’t have to do pageants to get your name out there. You could do Drag Race, obviously, if you get on but there’s other ways too like YouTube and just social media in general. There’s just so many more great ways to promote yourself than there used to be.”
RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars and pageant veteran, Alyssa Edwards (below) agrees, explaining how in the south, you got work based on which titles you had. This isn’t really the case anymore. “I think drag in general has evolved. I think times have evolved.”
Not only do they get more work but according to Norman Jones, RuPaul’s queens are getting the more lucrative gigs: “Who’s padding their bank account? A [pageant] legend? No. A legend is sitting on here judging a panel for a hundred bucks and a buffet… But the ones that have changed and overhauled their look and is constant with today’s mainstream—they’re the ones banking. They’re the ones making $3000 and $4000 a night.”
Taylor believes that in order for pageants to evolve they need include more innovative and creative categories so that they’re not just limited to the traditional beauty queens. She thinks that the scoring system needs to also change to attract more diverse entertainers.
Conversely, Coco Montrese (below) explains that the reason she first chose to compete in the Miss Gay America system in 2008 was because of the rules, claiming that it made her the entertainer that she is today.
Coco’s drag mother, Mokha Montrese, taught her that the university of drag was pageantry. “Pageantry is where you learn the discipline…you learn how to be on time, how to be self-sufficient, do those things on your own and how to adapt to certain environments,” Coco says. “A lot of people don’t make it in this business because they become these one hit wonders.”
Taylor insists that the pageant system helped to make her a polished and well-rounded entertainer who can perform under tight circumstances. Edwards feels the same, agreeing that the guidelines and boundaries can be a good thing, but still stressed that drag is art and art is subjective. It’s easy to be placed into a box with pageantry, which is like putting a rat in a cage, as she put it.
Dutzer and Mansman obviously have their work cut out for them, running a pageant in 2017, and they know it. Dutzer is upfront the challenge of living in a media-driven society where more value is placed on entertainers from television than those in the competitions. “With the way we’re going I would love to see us on TV, because drag is becoming more accepted and more mainstream, and you’re finding more people from different cultures and different walks of life attending shows and seeking out that type of entertainment.”
Under their new direction, they’re working to adapt to these changing times. This is the first year they’ve included a “Presentation” category where the contestants must come up with a cohesive look for the theme of the event. It’s always been a part of the pageant; it just hasn’t been judged so the queens didn’t make as much of an effort. It provides something different beyond just the evening gown and talent and it allows the judges to see how creative the queens can be with the theme.
“I think I’ve lifted a cloud of seriousness and really made it fun again, and basically, to be very candid, I feel like it’s cool,” Arnold Myint, a.k.a. Suzy Wong (below), the reigning Miss Gay America says. She is the first Miss Gay America crowned by Dutzer and Mansman since they’d purchased the pageant. “I feel like we’ve turned Miss America onto a cool page.”
At the Miss Gay New York America preliminary pageant in late July at the Hudson Terrace in Manhattan, the new attitude was on display. The theme for this year’s New York preliminary was “America,” but when Bruce Springsteen’s, “Born in the U.S.A.” started to play, the “cool” factor that Wong emphasized wasn’t really coming through. Was this part of some grand subversion?
It was. Sure, there was some of the usual fare with one queen in particular sporting a Vegas showgirl look, but there were some really imaginative outfits too. Aspiring queen Sofonda Cox came out looking like your best friend’s desperate-to-be-hip mom. She was taking selfies on her phone and sipping on her Starbucks: a picture perfect—if basic—American look. Then there was, Molly Alice Minx, a personal favorite, dressed in puritan garb, playing out a bent interpretation of Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. These queens were inspired.
Despite some joyful moments of subversion and self expression, the pageants still maintained that classic glamour that one might expect from the original Miss America competition, particularly with the “Evening Gown” category. With Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind,” playing, each girl came out decked in rhinestones, glam jewelry, and some big hair too. Each toured the stage while the emcee announced details of her attire, mentioning the designers and jewelers who may’ve assisted in the creation of the female illusion. After making the rounds, the queens took center stage, picked a question card and were quizzed on their past or potential future in the event that they were to be crowned Miss Gay America. They answered all smiles and congeniality, but there was something stiff about some of the responses, like some were still playing to the judges rather than just being themselves. Perhaps these things take time.
No doubt the pageant system holds a very important place in drag history and can shape new drag talent by offering a level of discipline that’s difficult to find anywhere else. Still, since a girl can now make a name for herself with a smart phone and YouTube account, it seems that if pageants want to stay relevant, they need to continue to do what Miss Gay America has started doing: encourage a new wave of radical queens to be themselves through things like creative new categories. And although rules are important for any craft, there’s inherent conflict in the idea of encouraging a queen to be herself but then handing her a 39-page handbook by which to do so.
“I love watching this new generation of drag…It’s amazing, I appreciate it so much,” Edwards said with excitement in her voice. “It’s like, forget the rules, forget the handbook, because—who wrote that in the first place? When you look back at Divine and entertainers like that, they weren’t following no handbook. In fact, they were making the handbook—the history book.”
The Miss Gay America 2018 competition runs October 4 to 7 in New Orleans.