Onstage at V/SF, 15 semifinalists stand in a carefully posed row, bleach-white smiles frozen on their faces, anticipating the naming of eight finalists. The diversity of the contestants is refreshing, and surprising, given its lack in a great many gay clubs. Outfits range from overalls to ball gowns to suggestive negligees. Every age group, ethnicity, and, most important, body type is represented -- from the comfortable plumpness of Ventura's Spanky to the willowy physique of Justice Halston, from the no-nonsense stature of Sacramento's Mercedes to the voluptuous curves of Rene Russell.
"Female impersonation is very, very different from drag," says Daniel, standing near the door in a bright Hawaiian shirt and casual shoes. "It's an art form."
Among the gender illusionists, only a small portion have tells -- a barely noticeable Adam's apple, a thick waist, meaty hands. For the most part, contestants are smooth, seamless, soft, and sexy. Corsets cinch waists to Barbie-doll proportions, professional manicures elongate fingers and slim hands.
As the finalists step out of line, their expert smiles melt into genuine elation and their faces brighten under heavy layers of makeup base. The contestants pose seductively in front of the judges, who are: Emperor 23 Brian Benematti of San Francisco; Miss Gay America 1992 Tiffany Bonet of Winston-Salem, N.C.; Miss Gay America 1995 Patti "Le Plae" Safe of Dallas, Texas; Miss Gay America 1996 Kerri Nichols of Charlotte, N.C.; and Sister of Perpetual Indulgence Mary Margaret X-Plosion of Seattle, Wash.
The losers -- "There are no losers, here," reminds co-MC Lucy Manhattan of San Jose -- muster enough sportswomanship to congratulate their rivals and slip into the dressing room before their mascara begins to run.
"They knew they didn't have a chance," says Seth Natchez, "but it's crushing all the same. It takes a lot of courage to enter a statewide contest, not to mention all the money in clothes and wigs, and all the months of rehearsal. It must be a drag."
Pleased with his spontaneous pun, Natchez sidles to the edge of the sunken dance floor, where co-MC Miss Gay Land of Enchantment Celia Putti is gyrating in a micro-miniskirt and well-stuffed pink turtleneck. Natchez hands her a dollar bill with a stripper-friendly crease down the middle that Putti deftly shoves down the front of her shirt, along with two fake snakes, a small pink jar, an open can of soda with straw, and a pile of tips. This is only buildup to Putti's Judge Judy routine.
"That girl's a riot," says Natchez after receiving his air kiss. "This girl's a dream."
Miss Gay America Maya Montana slinks onto the dance floor wrapped in a shimmering black cape with a high, bejeweled collar. She is a tiny thing with a large suggestive mouth and heavy-lidded eyes. The Falls Church, Va., native sashays along the edge of the crowd, ignoring the money protruding from outstretched fists. She unfurls her cape with a snap. Huge bat wings spring from her delicate body, which is just barely clothed in an intricate network of leather and metal links. She is a fantasy novel made flesh. She is what all hopeful Miss Gay Americas aspire to be: completely convincing.
"Each of tonight's contestants took part in an onstage male interview yesterday," says Manhattan. "This is the true art of female illusion. There are no hormones or silicone welcome here. Everyone here must feel comfortable with their male side."
A closer look around the room is proof. The crowd is a mixture of drag revelers, gender illusionists, and royal impersonators. Emperors and empresses of the court system established by Widow Norton are in abundance, as are representatives from past pageants, visiting Sisters, and local drag luminaries. But many of the performers in the audience are in "boy face."
"This walk takes work, honey," says a blond queen perched on fuzzy stiletto slippers. "You think I do it when I don't have to? Heavens, no."
The creative fashion segment of the competition begins with a 9-foot, black-satin-and-gold-lame serpent gown and ends with an elegant Versace ensemble worn by San Francisco's Mizz Monique Moore. Local bias aside, though, it is a Jennifer Tilly look-alike from Hollywood named Coco who steals the segment with a classic lilac and periwinkle sundress stylishly accessorized with a simple pearl choker and a dramatically veiled sun hat. The crowd is audibly charmed.
During the onstage interview segment, nerves reach a fevered pitch. Contestants are seen pacing in the back room dabbing perspiration off their upper lips. Their answers are clumsy and often irrelevant. While we are all thanking each other that this is not a spokesmodel contest, Jennifer St. James is asked to look in a mirror and explain what she sees.
"I see someone with a lot of makeup on," says St. James, who is easily twice the age of the youngest competitor. "I also see someone who is sincere, genuine, and honest, and I'm doing the very best I can do." The already vocal St. James fan club easily doubles in size.
During the talent competition, St. James appears, along with two highly praised go-go boys, as a Vegas showgirl; Mercedes performs in front of a very large silver Mercedes; Jackie Lee drives around in a pink Barbie car with a matching parasol; Coco performs a fanciful ballet number after three nymphs emerge from under her gown; Rene Russell shows off her perfect curves with the help of a skintight catsuit, and her enviable acrobatic skills with the help of two studly Borneo headhunters; and Monique Moore performs the "Name Game" in front of a neon set.
While the girls stand in line awaiting the final declaration, they hold hands for moral support, glancing nervously at the judges, and smiling those television smiles. Alina Malletti sings "Winner in You." The moment couldn't be more hackneyed, but it's real. The stress is palpable.
When Jennifer St. James is finally announced first alternate and Rene Russell becomes Miss Gay California America, the crowd erupts in applause and tears. Maya Montana and Malletti surround Russell, hiding the sobbing winner as they attach the shimmering crown, which she will wear to the national competition in Little Rock in October. If the diamonds aren't real, there is no doubt about the tears.
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By Silke Tudor