by: Kelly Robinson
A recent Sunday night at Club XYZ on Central Street was a special one for the club. In fact, it was a pretty special week, the club having just celebrated its 10th anniversary the night before.
The crowd was larger than usual for a Sunday, but no one wanted to miss the crowning of the club’s new queen. This year’s Miss Club XYZ pageant attracted a crowd that knows the performance level is high when the competition is fierce. Host Raz White, who recently performed a one-woman comedy drag show at the Tennessee Theatre, channeled the high energy as the show began, and set the tone for an evening of entertainment unlike any other.
Those who only know drag competitions from television shows like Ru Paul’s Drag Race may not realize that organized female impersonation pageants have a long history — a history that has its roots in Tennessee. The very first national-level drag pageant, Miss Gay America, was held in Nashville, Tennessee in 1972 at Nashville’s first gay dance and show bar, the Watch Your Hat & Coat Saloon. Founder Jerry Peek modeled the competition after the Miss America pageant, wanting to further showcase the talent in local and state female impersonation pageants that were cropping up all over the country. Norma Kristie won the first Miss Gay America title, and later took ownership of the pageant, which continues to this day.
The Miss Club XYZ pageant isn’t the only nightclub-sponsored pageant. It’s common for gay bars to hold their own competitions not only as a way of promoting their club, but also as a way of preparing local drag performers for bigger pageants. A club win allows a queen entry into a regional pageant, where the stakes are higher, the prizes are bigger, and winning means a chance to compete on a national level. Entering pageants is a huge investment in practice time and dollars, but winners can make back the money many times over in the performance bookings that follow a big win. The bigger the win, the better the bookings.
If you haven’t seen a drag pageant before, you’ll notice right away that they’re different from what Ondreah Montrose calls “real-girl pageants,” and it goes far beyond men in dresses. Drag pageants are far more likely to include entrants (and winners) of widely-ranging body sizes, ages, and ethnicities. As the reigning Miss Club XYZ, Ondreah spoke to KnoxZine before the pageant about how drag competitions are so much more about individuality. “What we do is so much more expressive, limitless almost. Real-girl pageants are so uniform. In the swimsuit competition, everybody is in the same thing, and even the gowns are only changed a little bit from each other. In drag, anything can happen. It’s so much more freeing.”
That “anything can happen” attitude was in evidence at the Miss Club XYZ pageant, as contestants made their first appearance of the evening with the theme “Little Black Dress.” Drag pageants typically have themes, ranging from simple concepts (“True Colors”) to pop culture references (“Boardwalk Empress”) to the flat-out whimsical (“Cosmic Couture”). In this round, the pressure is on to make a good first impression on the judges, but also to bring a personal spin to the theme. Contestant Xena Wilson brought on catcalls as she showed off an enviable figure in a low-cut black cocktail dress, modeled with a heavy dose of sass. It was Dolce Monique who took the theme to the next level, though, strutting proudly across the stage in black lingerie, complete with garters and stockings, while carrying a miniature hanger on which hung what was probably the littlest black dress in the universe.
The talent competition is even more unpredictable, and numbers can range from the silly to the sublime. Contestants sometimes incorporate backup dancers and elaborate stage props to enhance their performance. Ondreah explained the need for showy entertainment: “Because we can’t sing live, we have to compensate for that, the same way we do with looks. We compensate with hair, and breasts, and lashes … we put butts on.” Above all, though, she says, “It has to be entertaining.” Again, individuality is key.
Just as the theme and talent portions are wild and unpredictable, the evening gown segment is sleek, sophisticated, and fraught with regulations. Gene Nutter, known as Mama Gene to friends and as Queen Mother of Knoxville to the local drag community, talked about the significance of gowns: “Evening Gown is a whole different category. Evening gown is technical.” Gene continues, “It’s almost like the Olympics and the length of the jump.” Regulations include precise gown lengths, the fact that the hair must be up, and earrings can not touch the shoulders. Worst of all, though: “Woe be the person who creates a costume and not a gown.” Why all these regulations, when individuality is so prized? The Queen Mum says it’s because drag queens “strive for female perfection.” “A couturier,” says Gene, “would never let a gown go out that was 1 ½” too long or too short.”
Both Gene and Ondreah recognize the history of drag pageants as an important part of gay culture. Ondreah has a pile of pageant wins (including coming in 7th in a national pageant and winning Best Production), but is particularly proud of winning the more local title of Miss Gay Tri-Cities. Miss Gay Tri-Cities dates back even further than Miss Gay America, crowning its first winner in 1971. Ondreah was the 33rd winner, and to anyone in the know about drag, the list of title holders reads like a Who’s Who of Southern female impersonators (including Miss Tony Carlisle, another of the few Knoxvillians to ever win the pageant). Gene fondly remembered Francesca Walland, a national pageant winner who came from Johnson City. (“She won Miss Gay Tri-Cities?” I asked. The answer: “She won everything.”)
Gene remembers attending the 1983 Miss Gay America pageant in Charlotte, NC, held in 1982: “Francesca Wakeland dressed in red gingham beat out Brandi Alexander who was dressed in nothing but mink and chiffon — a bitterness that extends to this day.” The biggest drama may not have been onstage, though. National pageants were heavily attended in a day when gays were still publicly vilified, especially in the South. Gene reports that in 1982, evangelicals came out in full force with the intention of photographing, outing, and humiliating attendees. The organizers had other plans.
“The place was surrounded by klieg lights. They must have rented every klieg light in the state,” Gene recalled. As he and his friends pulled up to the Ovens Auditorium, they were greeted by a pageant worker who gave them very specific instructions he recalls to the word: “Children, park your car … and walk toward the light.” The organizers had thwarted the protesters’ plans, knowing that facing the huge lights would keep them from having any usable photographs. Gene still marvels over the genius of overcoming the intolerance in a non-violent and non-confrontational way. “Oh my God, to be a part of it!” he said.
The long history of pageantry was on Ondreah’s mind as she prepared to pass on her crown to her successor. “I stand on the shoulders of those who came before me,” she said when asked if it’s difficult to give up a title. “It’s nice to welcome someone into the family. There can only be one winner.” As the pageant neared its close, Ondreah performed a last number in her Miss Club XYZ crown, a mix of Nina Simone’s “I Hold No Grudge” and “Adios” by Jennifer Lopez.
This year the crown was awarded to Dolce Monique, with Xena Wilson as first runner-up. Thinking about Dolce’s clever take on a little black dress, her talent performance in which she used scissors to literally cut herself out of a dowdy dress to “Bad Reputation,” and her bio proclaiming her love for anime and video games, I couldn’t help recalling something Ondreah said earlier that evening. “What’s the best advice you can give to the contestants?” I had asked.
“Be yourself,” Ondreah answered.
For more articles by Kelly Robinson, please see Book Dirt.
Club XYZ is located at 1215 North Central St., Knoxville, Tennessee 37917; (865) 637-4XYZ
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© Kelly Robinson, 2013