It’s an hour to showtime, and wigs, sequins and high heels are scattered around the dressing room. Men find their sparkling evening gowns and gather around mirrors propped against walls. "I need help getting a sister into a corset over here!" calls one assistant, while Gizelle, the backstage coordinator, reminds: "20 minutes til top 12!"
It’s Friday night at the Rose Room in Dallas, and this is the finale of the Miss Gay Texas America pageant. Performances since Tuesday showcased the 30 contestants who traveled to Dallas after winning preliminaries in their Texas hometowns. They also participated in closed-door interviews with judges, vying for the job of Miss Gay Texas America while wearing suits and ties.
The top 12 was announced on Friday, then whittled to five. But only one queen can win. This year, it was Violet S'Arbleu, a 30-year-old Houston drag queen who, even with eight years of performance experience, wore lucky socks on Friday in hopes of clinching the crown this year.
Miss Gay Texas America is a preliminary pageant to the national Miss Gay America, which is the first and longest-running female impersonator competition.
Some contestants have come back year after year, while others are first-timers -- “baby queens.” But the collective agreement is that in addition to the honor of the crown and the chance to give back to the LGBTQ community, joining the sisterhood of Miss Gay Texas America contestants is a prize in itself.
Hu’nee B, 26, from Houston, says sisterhood plays out before, during and after the pageant. When contestants learn who else will be competing, they find each other’s social media profiles -- but not to viciously scope the competition.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve been stalking you on Facebook, you’re amazing, I love you, you’re everything, you’re beautiful,” Hu’nee B gushes when meeting other contestants for the first time. “And then you go from only seeing your idols to meeting your idols. And then from there your idols become your friends, and your sisters.”
She quotes Asia O’Hara, Miss Gay America 2016: “You never know when someone’s going to look at you -- and that’s the moment you become an idol in their eyes.”
In true sorority fashion, past winners came to support their sisters. Dessie Love-Blake, Miss Gay Texas 2014, arrived to the Rose Room as a man with short hair. After a quick turn-around, Dessie took the stage in a glamorous, blonde wig and red evening gown. You'd never know her zipper split less than 30 minutes before showtime.
Then, suddenly, lights, camera, action: The first top 12 qualifier announced is Chloe Knox, a tall blonde who will later call herself a “glamazon.” Her mouth and eyes grew wide with shock when her name was called; she made the cut, for now.
Then it’s a blur of elaborate, themed performances. Many of the "forevers," or previous winners, perform, including a cheerleader routine and a Beyonce set so fierce it feels almost like Queen Bey herself graced the stage.
The contestants’ talents carried Vegas flair: costume changes, backup dancers and a MadTV comedy lip sync by Ivana Cupcake. Evelyn Said brought down the house performing as Hillary Clinton in a white pantsuit.
Violet S’Arbleu performed to Dolly Parton’s “A Lil’ Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place,” an old-timey country number from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
Having nabbed a front-row seat, I’m close to the action -- which also means that at one point, I glanced down and saw glitter on my jeans, which seemed to have materialized from mere proximity to glamour.
It was after midnight by the time the top five were announced. “[With] all the hard work and dedication that each one of us has put in, whoever wins, they deserve it,” Asteria Eos said before the show began. “None of us take this lightly.”
The excitement was palpable. “This is America!” exclaimed MC Chanel LaMasters, observing the black, Latina, Asian and white contestants who made it that far.
As the floor thumped with dance music pounding in the bar below, contestants strutted across the stage for the evening gown portion, after which comes the moment of truth: onstage question and answer.
The reigning Miss Gay America Suzy Wong asked Violet S’Arbleu, “Should you win Miss Gay Texas America tonight, what one thing would you change about yourself when you wake up tomorrow?”
She responded: “The first thing I will do tomorrow is force myself to overcome all of my self doubt that holds me back every single day. ... As the next Miss Gay Texas America, I will certainly work even harder to show other people that it's OK to be yourselves and it's OK not to doubt who you are.”
Nailed it. Amid tears, the fourth-time competitor from Houston was crowned this year’s Miss Gay Texas America.
“We all find strength through this character that we portray, and I want to encourage people, especially new queens and new entertainers, it’s OK to just show who you are and not be scared of that,” she says.
Meanwhile, the queens who didn’t win the ultimate prize had two things on their minds: sleep and coming back next year.
Top 5 contestant Hu’nee B says she can’t wait to “Go home and sleep! And not wear makeup, and grow a beard and grow my eyebrows back.” Of course she’ll be back next year, but for now: “Girl, I am going to relax, relax, relax. I have a mani-pedi already scheduled on Monday.”
With dance music still pounding at 3 a.m., the queens removed their makeup, packed up their flowing gowns and sparkling jewelry, and headed home to sleep with dreams of next year’s pageant.