The Art of Drag

By Buddy Early, October 2017 Issue.

“She’s an America Girl.” To those in the know, that phrase means a female impersonator who has a polished look, is intelligent and professional, and aims to attain the highest standards of entertainment. It refers to those entertainers who have matriculated in the Miss Gay America (MGA) Pageant system, and in Arizona being successful in the system is, well, a crowning achievement.

Savannah Stevens, Miss Gay Western States America 2017.

Across the state on numerous nights throughout the week drag shows are hosted by a slate of former (as well as the reigning) Miss Gay Arizona America (MGAA) winners: Pussy LeHoot, Barbra Seville, Celia Putty, Diva, Nevaeh McKenzie, Savannah Stevens, Olivia Gardens. Virtually every female impersonator you’ll find on a local stage has had an America crown on his head at one time. That crown symbolizes “Excellence,” the brand of MGA since Arkansas’ Norma Kristie was honored as the first Miss Gay America in 1973.

These entertainers carry with them the duty to maintain excellence beyond their competition days, but many more continue to hone their craft—and hopefully snag that ultimate shiny hat—by returning to the prestigious pageant year after year.

This year’s Miss Gay America Pageant, which will take place Oct. 4-7 in New Orleans, will feature six contestants from Arizona. (Throw in one former Miss Gay Arizona now representing Texas and one former Miss Gay Tucson who resides in Key West, Florida, and Team Arizona will have an embarrassment of riches at the four-day contest.)

“I think that everyone coming from Arizona or associated with Arizona can be Miss Gay America this year,” said Josstyn Redulla, aka Miss Gay Arizona 2017 Olivia Gardens, who was a breath away from cracking the national pageant’s Top 10 in 2012.

Jessica Deveraux, Miss Gay Western States America 2017 1st Alternate.

That’s not hyperbole, either. In the past two years alone, Arizona has been represented in the Top 10 by three contestants: Nevaeh McKenzie, Barbra Seville and Savannah Stevens. The latter two are returning this year. Two newcomers to the system, Piper M’Shay and Claudia B., have been praised for bringing fresh approaches and attitudes, and another, Vanity St. James, had just stepped down from the title of Miss Gay USofA Newcomer two days prior to winning an America prelim. The two former Arizonans joining this group, Grecia Montes D’Occa and Jessica Deveraux, have had previous success besting competitors in evening gown and talent categories.

“This year there will be multiple [Arizonans] in the Top 10,” Redulla said confidently.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.” 

—Vince Lombardi 

As Suzy Wong, Arnold Myint has spent the past year traveling the country as Miss Gay America 2017 pushing the notion of excellence, which is as vital to the system as its motto: “Where boys are boys and female impersonation is an art.”

It goes beyond one’s general appearance, Redulla explained, stating that excellence includes being respectful to yourself and others, and maintaining a level of dignity within the community.

“The audience is looking at you and expecting that everything is the best,” he said.

For drag veteran Josh Sipe, Miss Gay Mid West America 2017 1st Alternate Claudia B., his first foray into the system and encountering excellence has changed his life.

“It honestly has made me a better entertainer … and it pushes me to be a better person,” he said.

Barbra Seville, Miss Gay Tennessee America 2017.

Even after 16 years in the business, the journey this year has been eye-opening for Sipe. For many years, he remained on the periphery of the system—as a fan, supporter and promoter—and continually reasoned that it wasn’t the right time to be a contestant. But a family tragedy made him realize that the time to pursue your goals is now, and he threw himself into competition mode.

Joining that sisterhood of excellence is priceless, he said, as the list of Miss Gay Arizona formers are “people I’ve admired in the community for so long.”

Tucson’s Alex Martinez (Vanity St. James), who recently wrapped up a reign as Miss Gay USofA Newcomer before being crowned Miss Gay Gulf States America 2017, admits the allure of the MGA system was always present.

“I ran for Miss Gay USofA Newcomer as a way to prep myself to run for Miss Gay America,” said Martinez, who confirmed that the values and benchmarks in the America system were instilled in him “since before I began my journey in female illusion.” 

“Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister.”

—Irving Berlin 

Olivia Gardens, Miss Gay Arizona America 2017.

The sisterhood of entertainers in this is unique, and the reason why “Team Arizona” is widely known, anticipated and referred to each year at the national pageant. The solidarity and support among the contestants and friends who make the trip is second to none.

“We’re all friends and we all work together a lot,” Redulla said of this sorority. “Here in Arizona we have a group of entertainers who continue to challenge each other to get better.”

That bond and the joy for their sisters’ success was never more evident than in the 2015 pageant, when Nevaeh McKenzie and Barbra Seville were both called out into the Top 10; or in the 2016 pageant, when the final name announced was Savannah Stevens, leaving Seville grasping his hand but standing in 11th place.

“Since we are removed from much of the [national] drag scene, we inspire, rely on and support each other in a way you might not see everywhere else,” said Richard Stevens aka Barbra Seville, Miss Gay Tennessee America 2017.

“I can’t thank the Arizona America family enough for being so welcoming and supportive,” gushed Nik Stetz, aka Piper M’Shay, who qualified as first alternate to Miss Gay Arizona on his first attempt.

Piper M'Shay, Miss Gay Arizona America 2017 1st Alternate.

Last year Stetz participated in Stevens’ talent number and the week of exposure to the system and competition led to him catching the bug.

“Sitting back and watching the other contestants, I realized it was something completely within my reach,” he said.

The respect for the scene in Arizona is no secret, as Stevens noted that 2016 Miss Gay America Asia T. O’Hara (Antwan Lee) admitted to being nervous coming to the state for his duties. Each year the reigning national titleholder is told by those before him of the reception to expect. Many previous symbols of excellence have been welcomed by the red carpet … literally.

“When Miss Gay America comes to town for Miss Gay Arizona, she is almost always in awe of how we do things,” boasted Daniel Eckstrom, who has been promoting the Arizona pageant since 2007. “From the contestants, to the venue [and] support from the community and formers, Arizona does it right.”

“The MGA title is so respected in Arizona because it is the only national title to really take root,” Stevens said. “Most of Arizona’s most beloved entertainers were born of that system.”

Grecia Montes D'Occa, Miss Gay Texas America 2017 1st Alternate.

And it’s not just the queens who are beholden to excellence, but fans as well. Being introduced as Miss Gay Arizona at a local drag show often is met with thunderous applause, loud cheers, and enough tips to pay off an Arizona summer electric bill. Savvy Arizona audiences know of the hard work and dedication an individual has put forth to win the crown, and recognize the commitment to serving the community.

“Repping Arizona at Miss Gay America is a big deal right now,” said Redulla, who points out the high expectations come from fans not just here but across the country.

Added Sipe: “If you look at how many contestants we have qualifying, you have to believe we are doing something right.”

 “With one week to go before the pageant, I was finishing my outfit, rehearsing my talent, brushing up on current events, and running 18 miles a day on about 400 calories. I was ready.” 

—Mary Johanson, Drop Dead Gorgeous

Claudia B, Miss Gay Mid West America 2017 1st Alternate.

Make no mistake, even with the sisterhood and camaraderie this group of contestants is headed to New Orleans to slay. (That means they’re preparing to do exceptionally well.) The preparation includes countless hours of talent rehearsals, numerous gown fittings, several mock interviews and as many fundraisers as one can schedule before October.

While the journey to this national stage—and pageant itself—is an experience each contestant will carry with them forever, they all want to win.

A more diverse group of contestants you will not find. In qualifying, the Arizona queens have featured Broadway-style production numbers, celebrity impersonations, live singing, and one contestant even played the cello. Presenting “who you are” is something Myint and the national office have been emphasizing this year.

That emphasis bodes well for Arizona’s contestants, who have a history of presenting outside-the-box packages at Miss Gay America and not always being rewarded for such boldness. For a national pageant that has often battled a reputation of requiring its contestants fit a certain mold, this emphasis is an important one.

Vanity St James, Miss Gay Gulf States America 2017.

“Arizona contestants are unique because the push the envelope and take risks, something the Miss Gay America system is craving,” Eckstrom said.

“[Our] entertainers are out here on our own, compared to many of the MGA contestants,” Stevens added. “It’s great because we have a style that is unique. I think many of our girls are more current and in touch with today’s style of female impersonation.”

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