Miss Gay D.C. America pageant
6 to 11 p.m.
2009 8th St., N.W.
Admission: $10 (those who attend can stay at the club all evening)
When Jen Corey, a straight 24-year-old Chevy Chase resident, was asked to judge the Miss Gay D.C. pageant in 2010, she had no idea what to expect.
“I’d never even met a drag queen or female illusionist,” Corey, who was asked because of her Miss America success — she made the top 10 that year, says. “I’d seen ‘The Birdcage,’ that was about it. I didn’t know anything but it was refreshing to see how much it paralleled the Miss America pageant … and I was really impressed, impressed with how all the details work together. I mean, they know how to do hair and makeup better than I do. I was so impressed with how seriously they took it. I really thought it would be a little bit of a joke, but it wasn’t at all.”
Competing is a hardcore business — contestants, who must have had no augmentation from the neck down, bring an impressive level of talent and detail to the contests, both for the Miss D.C. title and the national Miss Gay America title. And the hard work and determination is paying off on the national level. Three of the last four national titleholders have represented D.C. in the contest. They aren’t all D.C. residents — the local title doesn’t have a residency requirement — but the District has an impressive track record at nationals.
In addition to four top 10 finishes at nationals, three Miss Gay D.C. America titleholders have taken the national crown — Victoria DePaula (Carl Glorioso) in 2008, Coti Collins (David Lowman) in 2010 and Kirby Kolby (Mark Smith) in 2011. Promoter Robert York bought the D.C. franchise in 2006 and helped increase its prominence nationally (prior to 2006, only one Miss D.C. winner had won nationals — Sabrina White in 2002).
York, a former Mr. Gay U.S.A. regional title holder, and a group of friends saw the potential within the region and thought it would be fun to try to raise its profile. The contest had been in existence since 1984 but next weekend’s event is its 25th (it wasn’t held a few years). Now York runs it with his friend Brian Alexander. He says the appeal for him is the chance the forum gives those involved to give back to the community in a fun way.
“We’ve seen some really talented people over the seven years who are deeply committed to the art form,” he says. “And who are equally committed to giving back to the community. We’ve been involved with Whitman-Walker Health, the Trevor Project and so on. Last year, Coti was really involved with speaking out against bullying and gay youth. Victoria did a lot with HIV and AIDS. It’s not just about winning the crown. It’s about doing something with it and giving back.”
A new Miss Gay D.C. will be crowned next weekend at Town. Admission is $10 and those who come to see the pageant can stay all evening at the club. It starts at 6 p.m. Contestants will compete in five categories — interview, evening gown, male interview, solo talent, group talent and on-stage question. He’s not sure how many will compete this year — registrations are accepted until the day before. Usually just five or fewer enter because it takes a lot of preparation. And though some past contestants have been in the house casts at Town or Ziegfeld’s or active in the Academy of Washington, the rigors of being a titleholder are often more than those who perform every weekend in the clubs can commit to. Winning on the national level, especially, can be an all-consuming endeavor. For Coti Collins, though, it was worth it.
Lowman, who has family in Virginia and went to college in West Virginia, now lives in Raleigh, N.C. where he’s been for about eight years. He works by day as a vet assistant but it’s a highly flexible work situation that allows him time to leave for months at a time and perform in Vegas or compete in pageants. He did “La Cage” in Vegas for seven years and does impersonations of Judy Garland and Dolly Parton on stage. For three years in the late ‘90s he was on tour with Reba McIntyre as a sort of drag version of herself. He eschews the drag label though and says he’s really an actor at heart.
He’d been in pageants years ago — he had a rather ignominious start placing 70 out of 71 in the ’87 contest. But the next year he made the top 30 and then in 1990 he was in the top 10. But years of professional work sidelined him and he took a long hiatus until 2005 when he decided to try again and take care of what he calls “unfinished business.” In 2010 he succeeded and was named Miss Gay America 2011.
“I felt complete,” he says. “It was a goal and a dream that was fulfilled. People said, ‘You’re too old to win a pageant,’ but never let anybody else determine your self worth and I never did. I promoted myself and I knew what I could do. It was an uphill battle — I was one of the older contestants, but I was still prepared to win and with the help of Robert and the D.C. family, I accomplished my goal.”
Former judge Sonya Gavankar-McKay, a Miss America vet, says she’s been pleasantly surprised at how professional the pageants are.
“These guys really have a sense of moral character and it’s impressive,” she says. “There’s the drag community and they’re always a little tongue in cheek and sassy and fun and that’s great, but there is an expectation in the pageants that these guys are expected to carry themselves with decorum and class and it speaks a lot to how they appreciate and respect their craft.”
Lowman says York helped him in some of his weaker categories of competition and says though the gowns and wigs can be expensive, winning was not something a dollar value could be put upon.
“Can you put a price on a dream? No, you can’t,” he says. “I’m a pretty passionate person and I try to do my best in everything I do whether it’s female impersonation, casino shows or mowing the grass. I want to be the best I can be. I want to be remembered for making a difference and changing people’s lives. Anybody can just rollercoaster through life, but it’s the ones who do it with passion who make the difference.”