Royalty Strutting on an American College Stage: Miss and Mr. Gay ISU 2014
Walter Beck goes on the road with a journal in hand to cover the Miss and Mr. Gay pageant at the Indiana State University.
“Shaved her legs and then he was a she,
She says, ‘Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.’” –Lou Reed
“King for a day, princess by dawn
Just wait ’til all the guys get a load of me…” –Billie Joe Armstrong
I fell into this story almost by accident. Nick (aka Nikki Saint-Queer) asked if I could help him out with some publicity for his upcoming drag show, Miss and Mr. Gay ISU. He just wanted a Facebook post or something, but I said to hell with that and invited him on my radio show The Rainbow Asylum.
After his appearance on the air, I knew one of us was going to have to be at the show as a representative of the show and it would have to be me since my co-host lives in Phoenix.
With me slated to go to the show anyway, I mentioned it to Bryon at Polari. With the amount of stress I had been under at work and the personal mess I was in, Bryon suggested that I cover the show as Polari’s Gonzo Correspondent to the Colonies. I needed a weird gig to take my mind off things.
Photos courtesy of Tanya Starcher and Breawna Renee (Click images to enlarge)
The stars had aligned and the gods were smiling, so I started getting the details and necessary credentials taken care of.
Getting the credentials and details ironed out proved to be a greater challenge than I expected. I wasn’t worried about whether or not Polari would take the story. Bryon trusts my talents completely, which is a bit frightening, he knew all he had to do was turn me loose on whatever scene I was heading to and I would send him the results.
The press credentials were a bit harder. My connection for this story was an old friend from Indiana State, Nick Penington; he was in Head Chair of the committee that put on Miss Gay ISU pageant, so I went to him to get the necessary credentials and other items to go into this mess. He was more than willing to give me whatever access I wanted, but there was a certain reservation in his voice. Nick and I have known each other for years and he knows that I have a strong crazy streak in me. It works great on a picket line, but Nick was worried how well it would work on a story about one of the biggest productions he’s ever taken on.
He kept saying “Don’t slander us.” I don’t think he was worried too much about slander; I would be going into an event with a strongly sympathetic crowd. I think he was worried that I would do something off the wall just for the jolly hell of it. Go backstage with a head full of amyl nitrate and start giggling uncontrollably at the drag queens or sneak a pint of Wild Turkey into the venue, down it, and start drunkenly hassling the crowd, shoving my tape machine in their faces, demanding they denounce Governor Pence on the record. Nick wouldn’t put that past me.
But I assured him that I would maintain myself for the event. The story would be weird no doubt, but there wouldn’t be anything in it I couldn’t defend later. The Indiana Statesman would be there and they would take the straight journalism angle, print the winner’s name and picture and the usual babbling press clipping you send home to mom. I was going in as the gonzo journalist, a representative of the largest digital queer arts rag in the UK.
The real challenge was getting the necessary time off work to cover this properly. When I sent in my time off sheet, the floor boss got ugly with me and started threatening my job, insisting that the supervisor would fire me for requesting the time off. I gave her the time off sheet anyway, to hell with it. I hadn’t been on the scene armed with a notebook and tape machine since May and if they wanted to play heavy with me, I was ready. If it meant losing my job to cover this story, it was a necessary expense.
With the total access secured and the day off relatively sure, I got together the necessary materials and headed west towards Terre Haute.
I arrived on campus after nearly getting into a car wreck on the way there, feeling momentarily as though this story was cursed from the beginning.
The drag pageant was in University Hall, a bigger venue than the last pageant I had been to. Nick told me the crowds had gotten too big for it to be in the student union. So they had moved on up, filling up the big theater in University Hall.
The first thing I noticed when I arrived was a disclaimer, absolving Indiana State and Spectrum from any and all responsibilities for any crass shenanigans that may happen on stage. It seemed weird, it was a drag show, it was supposed to be risqué. I asked Nick about it and he said it was necessary, some lady had asked about bringing her grandkids, so they had to make sure the show was relatively clean.
Nick was certainly nervous before show time, running around frantically trying to get everything set and ready before the doors opened at 6:00. He also seemed nervous about his performance, he said he hadn’t performed in six months and didn’t know how it would go over.
With Nick dashing all over the place, I started wondering amongst the small crowd of set-up people and ran into Keisha Von Lord, a local heavy in the drag circuit. She told me how happy she was about being in the British press and demanded a British husband, telling me that Polari’s readers should find her one.
The backstage area became more frantic as the clock ticked down, a thousand different things going on at once. Some chick offered drinks; I said I’d take a Pepsi. I could have done with some Wild Turkey, but under the circumstances, Pepsi was fine.
The people in the backstage area seemed concerned about their reps, even in this new frontier of social and political acceptance, they’re still worried about pushing their act too far.
It became a bit of an uncomfortable scene for a street-fighting writer to work in.
It was a sympathetic crowd, no doubt, but I didn’t see any serious action freaks; nobody that seemed willing to commit random acts of weirdness in the name of queer anarchy just for the sole purpose of freaking out any normies in the crowd.
Professionalism is the rallying cry now, a true testament to the slickness of the digital age.
Maybe it’s the final stage of the Movement. Kids born into a world where acceptance is the norm and serious opposition is the exception, chalked up to bad luck.
One of the judges seemed to be more on my level, saying, “If it’s not slander, it’s not fun.”
At around 5:30, my coffee wore off, so I accepted a couple of generic caffeine pills from somebody in the group. I couldn’t collapse from exhaustion with door time less than half an hour away.
I had the best seat in the house reserved and went into the theater for the show to begin.
Keisha was the MC for the gig, getting the crowd riled up before the first entertainment started. The entertainment would be local drag queens, Nikki Saint-Queer, Eve DePuss, Cheryl Teasman, and of course, Keisha. These native bigwigs would provide the intermission for the actual competitors to be ready for their performances.
Nikki St. Queer opened up the show, strutting out like a motherfucker as the crowd went completely apeshit. It was to be her last performance, an epitaph for Miss Gay ISU 2013 and she wanted to start her last gig off with a bang.
After Nikki, Eve and Keisha performed a couple of numbers. They were much more subdued in their performances, working ballads and bluesy numbers. That’s not to say they weren’t loud and outrageous in their own ways. Eve came strutting down that stage looking like the strange bastard offspring of the patron saint of drag, Divine.
With the crowd properly warmed up by the performances of the local bigwigs, it was time for the competition itself to begin. The first part would be the talent portion of the gig, where the contestants would try their hands at whatever numbers they picked.
Most of the contestants followed the time-honored tradition of miming along to a chosen song, although one contestant, Jackie Von Lord, added her own twist by using a second person laying on the stage covered in blood. The song itself was in Japanese, but between the blood and the over-the-top performance, it’s something Ed Wood would have been proud of.
The highlight of the talent portion came from one of the king contestants, Maxwell Styles, who instead of miming to a song, went out on stage with an acoustic guitar and did a rendition of Green Day’s “Good Riddance”. It was one the rare shines of something truly original during the talent portion.
Following closely behind Maxwell was Charlie, who while still using a back-up tape, still actually sang his song.
After the talent portion, Keisha called an intermission. I made a beeline for the door to smoke a cigarette and see if I could catch any interesting jabber amongst the crowd. One group got into a serious discussion about who would win the competition, if it would come down to the enthusiasm of the amateurs or the polished strut of the competitors who had done drag before. They were talking like serious track buffs before post time at a horse race. I started wondering if anybody was betting on the outcomes or even if maybe I should have laid some money down myself.
The intermission was over and it was time to get back to the theater for the next rounds of entertainment and competition.
It was round two of entertainment from the bigwig queens and Nikki opened up the second part as well. She came strutting out in red sparkles and black leather to the tune of this driving heavy bass pop number. She looked sweeter than the darkest sin.
Cheryl was next up and her performance turned into a comedy of errors, the sound guys kept getting the tapes mixed up, cueing up the wrong songs. But she went along with it, delivering a crass performance, fucking with the audience, making crude gestures. She was saying to hell with the disclaimer and Jesus, the crowd ate it up.
It was time to bring the constants up for the next part and it was the Evening Wear portion. Keisha had lost her notes on the contestants’ get-up, so she improvised; casually commenting on what each constant was strutting out in. The queens showed off the usual line of evening gowns, sparkles, glitter and plenty of accessories. The kings strutted out a little finer, with Charlie in particular showing off a suit and top hat that looked like something out of an early 90’s King Diamond show.
We had one last round of entertainment and competition before the judges would render their verdicts.
Q&A sessions were next for the contestants with Keisha improvising her questions. While Keisha may have shown her knack for working off the cuff, but the contestants stuttered and stammered their way through most of the answers. It seemed to be a bit of a wash, with no contestant really coming out swinging during the session. Maybe if they had been less concerned with the judges and answered out of pure instinct, it would have been better.
Tensions in the crowd rose as the contestants left the stage, it was the last part, judgments would be coming soon.
The final entertainment began with Nikki Saint-Queer’s requiem for her drag career. She hadn’t performed in six months and this would be her last number. She worked a ballad on stage, closing it out like a queen. Even though the performance was mimed, she made that entire crowd feel every note. Some guy sitting two seats down from me began silently weeping; Nikki wiped the kid’s tears from his face, smearing his eyeliner.
The judges were ready and the winners were announced. Jazzmain won Miss Congeniality, the skinhead girl Scarlett took the title of Miss Gay ISU, and Charlie took Mr. Gay ISU. There were roars from the crowd and a few murmurs of dissent.
The show was over, I was hoping to corner the winners and get them to babble something into my tape machine. But Nick told me to head over to ZimMarss for the unofficial after party.
I gathered my notebook and tape machine and headed off to the bar.
I got to the bar right as it was opening and asked the bartender for a frosty mug of Budwesier. I sat there, sipping the lonely beer, and watching some of the queens starting to trickle in. I should have been more focused, but 24 hours without food was starting to show. I could have done with another round of caffeine pills, but I didn’t see anybody offering any and my own stash of Stacker 3s were in my black satchel.
The vibe of the bar started getting a bit ugly with various people chiming in with their thoughts on the judges’ decisions; I could get a general sense of brewing anger. But I couldn’t pick out the specifics. Besides, I didn’t really want to know, I just wanted to drink my beer and unwind for a few minutes before the second show of the night started.
Nick finally arrived and after a cigarette, we hustled into the showroom, watching the usual cast of regulars strut on the stage. The crowd was much more relaxed than they had been on campus, most of them had been working tirelessly, going without food or sleep for the past 24 to 48 hours and they were anxious to let their hair down and get into some serious drink.
The crowd held up dollar bills for the performers. The only one I held up a dollar for was a male stripper named Eros. I was starting to crash and the temptation of a cut young man in a jockstrap was too much to resist, so I slipped a dollar into his jock and let him tease a lonely journalist for a few minutes.
Nick and I dodged out of the bar at around 1:00, he was tired and I was tired. I let him drive since the beer and Jack Daniels were making my head reel a little bit, combined with no food.
It finally ended at around 2:00 AM; Nick and I had Rally’s and then collapsed from pure exhaustion.
I woke up early on instinct, momentarily confused about where I was.
Then it hit me, I was free again, if only temporarily. I was crashed out on a recliner in the cheap apartment of an old friend. I wasn’t locked up in some cold gray factory, getting covered in red ink and cursing my existence.
I was free. I was alive.