It’s trantastic: Miss NC US of A pageant lies somewhere in between
Bright cones cut swaths through the velvet shadows, dropping from hanging lamps that look like microphones and casting each tall bar table in its own nimbus of light.
On one tabletop a fragile column of smoke drifts up from a cigarette parked in an ashtray. On another is a shoebox containing a size 12 pair of Fioni rhinestone-embellished strappy pumps. Black. At still another sits a guy with a mop-top haircut and smoky, rockstar shades. Next to him a slim man with a ballcap over his shaved head trims and styles a wig of cascading auburn tresses, snipping and teasing until it’s big. Louise Mandrell big. Reba big.
It’s quiet in here.
In the elevated lounge the three judges sit at a kidney-shaped table. James, his voice raspy from overuse, looks sharp in a pressed, pink, stiff-collared shirt. Peter, something of an elder statesman, has his tall, lean frame folded into a bar chair and he’s got a pen in his long fingers. Versage looks like a skater boy, with a brown shag tucked under a backwards baseball cap, wire-rim glasses and, over a T-shirt, a loose, unbuttoned shirt that falls from his shoulders like it’s on a hanger.
The first candidate comes before them in a dark, double-breasted suit and red tie, his hair in a brush cut and stiff with product. He keeps his nerve in front of the panel, even when Versage asks the tough questions with no quarter given.
“I’m a down-to-earth person,” the candidate says. “The others I’m sure are as good as I am’… I just hope it works out. Thank y’all.”
Up next is the striking brunette in a tailored business suit, a white collared blouse offsetting her chocolate skin. Versage gives her the business, too, which is only natural since she’s going for the gig he once held.
“I have a rep for being hard,” he says, “but I judge everybody on the same scale.”
The third candidate wears ivory cowboy boots with a blue blazer, a dress shirt open at the collar. He’s a Nigerian, but his English is elegant and refined.
“Since you’re from Africa,” Versage asks, “how do you feel about all of this illegal immigration?”
The Nigerian delivers a reasoned response that satisfies the judges, makes them smile, even. Before the interview is over he’s taught them to say “yes” in Yoruba. Or maybe it’s Swahili.
After the interview segment, he’s a judge’s favorite. And tonight, in the heels, heavy makeup and evening gowns of Erika Diamond Sutton, he’ll try to parlay that into the title of Miss Piedmont US of A. Or is it she will try to parlay that into a title? I don’t know.
There’s something of a pronoun issue when you’re writing about drag queens. How do you refer to a man in heavy makeup, heels and a dress, particularly when the guy moves like a sultry, hip-swinging siren and uses the ladies’ restroom? What if he has boobs? At what point does a “he” become a “she”?
“It’s a trip to see them dressed as men and then watch them [perform as women] tonight,” says Chris Belton, part-owner of Warehouse 29, Greensboro’s gayest nightclub. He’s been here since the club opened 15 years ago and he’s seen his share of men in drag. There’s also something of a wardrobe issue for my female photographer who wonders beforehand about the proper attire for covering an event like this. She certainly doesn’t want to outdo anybody, but as a natural-born woman she feels she has to represent. She settles on a skirt with leggings and boots in dark brown. As it turns out, the only way she could outdo these performers would be with a Vegas showgirl’s costume rack at her disposal.
At 10 on Sunday night, while the rest of Greensboro prepares for a shortened work week or watches Denver take on San Diego, a crowd slowly builds in the main lounge of Warehouse 29, a neat brick building in a commercial district not far from the lights of downtown with lamps on the faÃ§ade and black shutters over the windows. Inside it’s one of the nicest clubs in town, done up in sandstone and black with subtle flourishes of wood, neon, mirror and chrome.
Men come through the heavy door alone and in small groups; they meander to the bar for drinks or ease onto tall stools, scanning the room for faces familiar and new.
Colored light patterns slide across the empty dance floor, occasionally playing across the giant TV screen that flashes a steady parade of dance videos from the last 25 years. Taylor Dayne’s “Tell It to My Heart.” “Shake Your love.” A pair of disco balls hang from the ceiling, waiting for the action to start.
Towards the back of the house Miss Jessica Jade, the reigning Miss NC US of A, in a hot pink ensemble with a high platinum wig and big rhinestone belt, talks about her year.
“Well of course I got to travel all across the state,” she says. “And I went to Dallas to compete for Miss US of A.”
And she’ll perform tonight, of course, in this preliminary event – Miss Piedmont US of A – her privilege as the holder of the tiara.
The history of gay drag pageantry is short and sparsely documented, but most agree it began in earnest after the 1969 Stonewall riots.
At one time in New York City, it was against New York State Liquor Authority policy for bars to knowingly serve homosexuals and doing so could cost a club its liquor license. The policy was challenged and rescinded in 1966 after a series of “sip-ins” by gay activists and the number of gay bars in the city began to rise. Still, in 1969 the NYPD staged a raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, triggering a violent response that lasted several days. Some say the aggressive response by the gay community was galvanized by the death of Judy Garland a week earlier; others say the riots were a matter of “enough is enough.” Either way, the event is seen as a watershed moment in the struggle for gay rights and the date, late June, is still commemorated in many cities as a day of gay pride.
Gay culture came out of the closet after Stonewall, setting the stage for elaborate drag pageants in clubs across America. Miss Gay USA was one of the systems that arose from the scene as it became organized. In the 1990s it was renamed Miss Gay US of A after legal threats from the Miss USA pageant.
Warehouse 29, which has been open for 15 years, hosts several stages of the national affair each year: the Miss Greensboro US of A, Miss Piedmont US of A and Miss North Carolina US of A.
Tonight Miss Piedmont will be crowned and take home the prize of $250, a tiara and earrings designed by Versagarama Designs and entry into the state finals in March.
Four entrants will vie for the title, in the categories of interview, evening gown and talent. And past titleholders are on hand to perform between pageant segments.
And it should be noted that $250 doesn’t even begin to cover the costs of wardrobe, wigs, costume jewelry, makeup and time spent rehearsing. In fact, taken by itself the prize money wouldn’t buy a decent pair of shoes.
It’s a damn good crowd for a Sunday night in Greensboro, maybe 50 people and growing, and the murmurs rise in decibels as the room becomes lubricated with liquor and expectation.
Then the theme from “Pokemon” erupts from overhead speakers and Versage, judge number three and Miss NC US of A 2003, explodes onto the stage from behind the side curtain.
But gone are the baseball cap and glasses, the baggy shirt and serious demeanor from the interview earlier in the day. Now Versage prowls the large performance space in a towering hairdo the color of Dr. Pepper, a flowing white Greek goddess dress and seriously high denim boots, a lady of the stage and a saucy one at that.
She spins and sings and peels off the white dress to reveal a tattered denim jumper that shows off her toned legs and ample cleavage – I’d put her at a C. She’s throwing high kicks and dirty smiles and eventually strips down to a thong fashioned from cutoff jeans, eliciting aroused hollers from the crowd.
Next up is Melania Cortez, done up in J-Lo fashion with a wild bronze mane and stiletto boots. A line forms at the corner of the stage, men with dollar bills in their hands which they give reverently to the reigning Miss Piedmont, who tosses them in a corner of the floor before continuing her high-energy routine. Then comes Jessica Jade, who’s got kind of an Anna Nicole Smith thing going: She’s a bit’… bigger’… than the other performers, with a more Rubenesque build, but her routine is athletic and strong and she, too, inspires a long line of tribute-givers at the corner of the stage.
I believe she throws a wink my way before making her exit.
This is not my first experience with drag queens. Not by a long shot. As a bartender in New Orleans and a resident of the French Quarter I saw so many men in dresses that after a time they didn’t even raise my eyebrows. So I know that the range of appearances runs from the high camp, matronly caricature – think Miss Divine or John Lithgow in The World According to Garp – to the unnervingly realistic, like Jeremy.
Jeremy was a thin blond dude who hung out at one of the bars I worked. He was partial to moderate, tasteful makeup and little black cocktail dresses worn to such an effect as to inspire romantic attention from bar customers who assumed he was a woman.
One night I overheard a frat-boy tourist from Kentucky talking to Jeremy at the jukebox.
“What was your name again?” he asked.
“Jeremy. It’s French.”
It’s true that drag has come a long way since Shakespearean actors bent genders in Stratford-upon-Avon, and this era of cosmetic surgery and advanced hormonal therapies finds female impersonators in various stages of transmogrification, often making it a difficult proposition, indeed, to discern or even define their true gender.
Which, I guess, is kind of the point.
“This pageant, the US of A, there’s no limitations. I guess that’s the best way to put it,” says Kent Woofter, Belton’s partner in Warehouse 29. “They can use padding but they can also be interested in altering themselves. Melania [Cortez, reigning Miss Piedmont US of A], when she won, she had no work [done] at all. But it’… propelled her to do more. Some people are just in it for the theatrics; they want the makeup, they want the wigs. But US of A doesn’t separate those folks. Someone who is a traditional male can come in and compete.”
To get to the dressing room at Warehouse 29 you must go out a back door, cross the patio and enter another door by the volleyball court. Mirrors and counters line the walls and costumes and dresses hang from anywhere you can plant a hook. Now the crew of performers readies for the talent portion of the competition. Melania Cortez, wearing boy shorts, a giant blond Mohawk wig, a couple strips of black duct tape and very little else, leans towards a mirror and applies another layer of eye makeup.
“Melania,” the bartender said to me earlier, “I don’t care where you’re sitting – up close, from afar – she’s hot.”
It’s true: She could go into any bar in the country and be among the best-looking women in the place. Except, of course, that she’s a dude. And it’s unnerving to watch her ready herself for one of her racier performances. It makes me thankful that I’m not young, single and drunk.
In another part of the room Fantasia LaMoore, who was dressed in a suit during the interview process this afternoon, has made the transition to the fairer sex. She shimmies into a short, frilly number that shows her muscular legs and minimizes the broadness of her shoulders.
“We’re gonna do a ‘Mad TV’ skit for talent,” she says while applying makeup to her partner.
Arabia Knight Addams, a crowd favorite who lives in High Point, digs through a makeup case the size of a tackle box. She finds a small bottle of liquid adhesive and applies it to her earring, a big rhinestone-studded star.
“So they’ll stay on while I’m dancing,” she says. “[I’m performing] a high-energy dance. I usually don’t rehearse; I like to freestyle.”
This will be the seventh go at a US of A title for Arabia, a hair stylist and makeup artist by trade, though she’s won the Miss Venus International and Miss Galaxy International pageants in the last two years.
As she puts the finishing touches on her face she looks over at Melania, who’s still showing a lot of skin, and says with in a sweet voice, “I swear I do, I hate you. I’ll love you later but right now I hate you.”
Erika Diamond Sutton, the charming Nigerian, stands in the corner while her stylist balances on a chair and applies a big, big black wig. Think Cher circa 1990.
Out on the barroom floor the crowd has surged to perhaps 75 souls, among them a handful of towering beauties in high hair and bejeweled gowns, false eyelashes and French manicures.
“I’ll remind you all that there’s no tipping during the talent competition,” says the evening’s emcee Monica Marlo, and then she introduces contestant number one, Milenia Campos, dressed in a slinky orange number with silver flames on her opera gloves. She’s brought a couple friends onstage with her for a wild dance number to Deborah Cox’s “Absolutely not.”
Told myself, I won’t complain
But some things have got to change
Not gonna be a victim of,
all your social push and shove
Right or wrong, you’ll judge the same
My picture never fit your frame
What you thought, you’ll never know
You can’t see me, with your mind closed
At a point near the beginning of the dance she releases a live cockatiel on the stage.
Then it’s Fantasia mouthing the words to a “Lowered Expectations” skit from “Mad TV” and then a segue into a dance number to a Gloria Estefan song. “Conga.” And even though the CD skips a bit she manages to keep the beat.
Arabia saunters from behind the curtain to Whitney’s “I’m Every Woman” in a long red dress, lip-syncing along with the words. And then the beat speeds up; Arabia tears away the dress to reveal’… a full-on Wonder Woman costume, shiny red boots, golden lasso and all. She whips and spins and puts her hand to her ear while the theme music from the 1970s TV show plays, finishing the dance with a cartwheel into a split.
Last up is Erika Diamond Sutton done up as Diana Ross in a big mohair coat and mouthing the words to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Her body language is unwaveringly feminine and graceful, and when she slides the big coat to the ground she’s got a crazy red dress on underneath.
And then the judges convene.
The contestants stand on the stage in a row, holding hands and breathing heavily with excitement. Current titleholders stand off to the side as Monica Marlo prepares to announce the evening’s winner.
A hush governs the room as she names Erika Diamond Sutton the first alternate, who will join the winner in the Miss NC US of A pageant in March. But the tiara and earrings go to hometown favorite Arabia Knight Addams.
She accepts the crown and moves slowly on the stage in a victory dance of sorts to another Whitney tune, “I Will Always Love You.”
If I should stay,
I would only be in your way
So I’ll go, but I know
I’ll think of you ev’ry step of the way
Smoke pours from a machine at the rear of the stage and the fans line up and she receives them one by one, accepting hugs and tender kisses and wads of folding money that she unfurls and holds in her hands like a bouquet as the overhead lights sweep over her glowing countenance.
The seventh time, it seems, is the charm. And Arabia Knight Addams will go on to represent the Piedmont in March.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.