Queen for a Year 

The oldest national pageant for drag queens will be held in Memphis.

There she is: perfect posture, stunning gown, elegant jewelry, and not a hair in her flawlessly coiffed 'do out of place. With her cupped hand waving like an oscillating fan, Miss America's the embodiment of beauty.

And that's about what you'll see at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday, October 16th. Only this time, Miss America will be a he.

Since 1972, Miss Gay America has been crowning some of the nation's most talented drag queens. It's the oldest and largest pageant for female impersonators, and for the first time, Miss Gay America will be crowned in the Bluff City.

"You're going to think, Oh my God, I can't believe that's a man in a dress," says pageant co-owner Terry Eason. "This is their time to create that illusion."

Eason and Larry Tyger bought the pageant from the first Miss Gay America, Norman Jones (aka Norma Kristie), this year. The couple lives in nearby Nesbit, Mississippi, so a pageant in Memphis is convenient. But in some ways, the locaton doesn't make much sense.

"When you're thinking about a town with a lot of female impersonators, you don't think of Memphis," says Eason. "It's conservative and in the Bible Belt, and that may be a drawback."

But the organizers decided to take a chance with Memphis, and they're hoping to attract not only the gay community but heterosexuals as well.

"This is an art, and even heterosexual couples will come out amazed at the quality. It's not out of taste at all," says Tyger.

In keeping with the idea of female impersonation rather than transformation, the pageant has one important rule: no augmentation below the neck. Contestants can have silicone lips or facial alterations but no breast or hip implants. Eason says these rules ensure that men really are creating the illusion of being women. They rely on breast and hip pads. Some even paint on cleavage.

The contest begins with 58 contestants, all of whom have won a state or regional pageant to qualify. Representing Memphis is Demonica Santangelo (above).

Preliminaries for the pageant began at Backstreet in Midtown on Wednesday. They'll continue through Friday when 10 finalists will be selected for Sunday's pageant.

In the preliminary competition, contestants compete in evening gown, talent, and interview, where they wear male attire for a sit-down Q&A with the judges.

"They'll be in a business suit as though they're applying for a job," explains Tyger. "Being Miss Gay America is a job, not just a title. There are a number of appearances throughout the year where they won't be in female attire."

As Miss Gay America 2006, the winner receives $7,000 from the pageant, $3,500 worth of jewelry from two sponsors, $500 in shoes, and $500 in MAC cosmetics.

"Most of the former winners will tell you, though, that it's not about the money, it's about the prestige," says Eason. "To be Miss Gay America is to be the best of the best."

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