It’s been almost a week since we have all returned from Texas. Well, of course I’m speaking of my fellow contestants from the Mr. Gay USofA contest this past week in San Antonio. 24 amazing men, proud and strong, stood among their peers and gave it their all in categories of Interview, Talent and the wide wild world of Clubwear. I was among these hungry men coming to claim what was ours always giving it one hell of a shot in the process! In the end there were 23 winners and 1 Ultimate Grand Supreme. Here’s the entire tale…
I’ve competed in pageants and contests for a good number of years but have just recently gotten back into it full-throttle with a determination I never had before. I was never ready to reign nationally. I am now. Every adventure into competition takes me on unique journeys that force me to face myself and my deepest fears while being super creative and productive towards a better me. Each time I’m left learning and knowing more about myself than I knew before. There’s a win!
My US Airways flight was on a Tuesday leaving Palm Springs around 7:50 a.m. which was a welcomed later call time than the usual 6 a.m.’ers when flying elsewhere. Tanned, buff and brazen, I boarded the plane and set off to show up and show out for the state of Texas and beyond representing the Mr. Gay Arizona USofA prelim I qualified in months ago. I knew going in that I am unlike anything the system had seen before, especially image wise. So the battle and uphill climb was ahead to get their attention and a reach at the crown. I knew that. I love a good challenge. And, yes I was challenged.
The plane landed in Phoenix for a decent layover. I immediately began stalking “Dance Moms” through the airport who were in front of me on the moving walkways. As I gathered my gig together to grab a few selfies with them my plan was in motion. I spoke to them like I knew them. “Nia! Nia! Love the show. Can we do a quick selfie?!” I shouted finally, camera in tow. “Um, sure. Um…”, she muttered. I could see they were in somewhat of a scheduled hurry. Holly turned around and I said hello, we love the show, etc. One of their entourage snapped a photo of the three of us and I let them go from the grip of a crazed fan. Jill came around the corner and I immediately grabbed her and we posed for the lens. She is absolutely gorgeous in person! Holly seemed very protective of Nia. I can understand since she had some beast of a bearded bald man running up to her daughter asking for a picture. Of the immediate cast, they were the only ones there. I told Jill, “Girl, good luck. We’re watching!” And she replied, “Thanks honey, we need it!” It was kismet.
The second leg of my trip to Texas boarded swiftly and I got into San Antonio around 5 p.m. later that day. I could see the skies covering the city with a darkness into the next two days of flash flooding. As I sit here now and nurse a travel cold, I knew then I would be dealing with this by dodging in and out of rain. I grabbed my rental car and headed to check into my hotel near the Riverwalk that a generous sponsor provided me. The Holiday Inn Express upgraded me upon arrival. Living! I quickly unloaded seeing what needed repaired on packed-away costumery and pageantry gig. It all actually made it there safely and intact. Whew! Of course they were the very last bags coming around the baggage claim belt, trust.
The skies opened up and after a good shower to wash off the travel grease, I headed over to Heat Nightclub for Mr. Gay USofA at Large later that night. I ran into a few friends and the ki-ki’ing began. The one thing I was missing during my hiatus from the competitive stage was that close camaraderie that you often find at these events and during pageant season. There is a true sense of family even though you may not know everyone that well just yet. Everyone is there for a common cause. The art of competitive entertainment and celebration of gay life brings such different but in many cases similar folk together sparks are inevitable and new friendships are born.
The competition drew a cute crowd who braved the rains to witness 6 incredible men compete for the title. Zayer took home the crown and sash deservedly. I pressed it back to the room to try and get some rest before the big days ahead. Unfortunately I didn’t sleep well while tossing and turning all night. Not a win.
Registration was at noon and as I walked into The Saint I was ready for the battle ahead. And man was it ever one. I introduced myself to a few of the contestants as we got going with schedules, applications, contestant number drawing, etc. I drew contestant #17 right in between two heavy hitters. We were in a fierce group I must say. Talent was that night so rehearsals would soon follow. I drove around the corner and caught up on emails and social media while I waited for it to begin.
After a genuine effort of hiring dancers locally in San Antonio, I finally decided that it would be smarter for me if I danced alone. This was the best thing I could have done for many reasons without going into details. My mix consisted of songs about working and was something I tend to give when producing a talent. Slow beginning, meat in the middle, power at the end, explosion. “Working Man,” Rush. “I Go To Work,” Kool Moe Dee. “Werqin’ Girl,” Shangela. “Working Day and Night,” Michael Jackson. “It’s Steven, Bitch/Work Bitch,” Yours Truly with RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Latrice Royale mixed by Derriel Carter née Delorian Chase. I loved the mix and DJ DC always works with my OCD and turns it out. The routine was heavy on choreography and full of sass.
Later that evening I got back to the club and checked in. Now, to know pageantry is to know there’s often a lot of waiting around so one must be prepared for that. You can’t go out into the club too much because you’re in gig and being backstage can only go so far. It gives you time to get up in your mind. Plus, if I may be brutally honest I went through a major bout of loneliness that first night because the fact that I had traveled there alone truly sank in. Even though I knew some people there it solidified the truth I was standing on my own like I never had before. I became very proud of myself and quickly had to shake the blues away because I was wearing red for Talent. The show must go on. Thanks to those who answered my pity party texts that evening. To know me is to know I tell it like it is.
I began getting dressed and realized that a mirror on the pants I had brought was starting to peel off. I quickly dabbed glue and held it in place while praying the pants would make it through the routine. Them bitches, err, britches were tight. They held together, however, my fan kick that usually scrapes my nose gave it parallel. I was through. I think I had decided even before I was finished dancing I’d be having my husband Jacques FedEx me some dance panties for finals if I blessedly made it through. The number was received well and I left it all on the floor. As a soloist I had a good amount of floor to cover but people can rarely keep up with me so again I’m thrilled I danced alone. For 46, I can still twirl. (I could barely walk the next few days I should add.) I headed to the hotel, had some food and went to bed.
Thursday I spent around the hotel resting and then off to Macy’s to see about a shorts option for final night. I found some great Under Armour to go under the shorts Jacques was sending me. I just couldn’t go into finals and deal with those tight pants again. I needed to kick and twirl showing what I could do.
I had Interview around 3 p.m. back at The Saint. I was dressed to impress for verbal success. I love the Interview category. It doesn’t matter if you bring a dozen dancers or spend $10K on an evening gown, it’s about smarts and communication. I have no problem talking to someone else. I walked in and made them laugh, listen and learn more about me and why I was there. Overall I said what I wanted to and felt amazing about it. Their response was very good. And I understood everything they wrote on my score sheets.
That evening I had Clubwear which in all honesty could easily be called Runway Fashion category because that’s what the contestants seem to bring. I definitely stood out. I dressed how I would go out to a club draped in a tailored blue gingham shirt and my fabulous Tom of Finland jeans by Carmelo Roman of Nashville. I’ve had those jeans since ’97 and I can still squeeze my ass into them. I worship them and they have seen their share of events. They always get attention and usually take people by surprise. The are one of a kind and one of my most prized material possessions. I modeled the house down and felt incredible. I owned the moment. I had to. I stayed true to myself. And the preliminary competition was over. One of the many reasons I love USofA is that there’s only three categories.
Friday morning I had a bite downstairs at the hotel and decided to get out and enjoy the city before the contestant/promoter brunch back at national owner Craig Henderson’s The Saint. I went down to The Alamo and had some quick food at Joe’s Crab Shack at Riverwalk bringing the remainder back to the room for warming up after the pageant. You have to be smart and creative when it comes to dining on these drag trips. Boy – Girl, it’s all drag. The hours do not provide for the ideal culinary schedule. Think ahead or go hungry. The weather had cleared up so the day was everything I needed for the night ahead.
During the brunch we had some pasta and salad while going through some final night details, category awards and the like. It was very casual. I sat next to my partner in shine from Team Arizona USofA, Mr. Gay Arizona USofA Cruz Carter. So sweet. It was our first year competing at USofA and I loved having him with me. Alongside our promoter Ismael Ramirez who won Best Regional Preliminary, we rocked the house.
I got back to the hotel and began gathering my gig for final night. There was quite a load heading back to the car when I left later that evening. Of course, as contestants we all hope and plan on making the finals but there were 24 of us and only 12 would get in. Going into final night I really felt on the border of the cut. I knew doing a solo talent against many-dancer productions would be an uphill climb. Talent has the most points. I didn’t know how it would fall when announced. But everything had to go, nonetheless. I believe that I am the only contestant that danced and lip-synced alone for Talent. Kudos, me.
At the club dressed in my Presentation look of a solid white rhinestone jacket with red tie (the theme was red, white and/or blue) I was ready for the moment of reckoning. I was in a good mood because I knew I had done my best given the situation I faced. We all came out onstage for the opening number and I got me a piece in the spotlight before finding my place perched in front for the results.
It was coming full circle for me on a personal level. I competed in Miss Gay USA (during the days before USofA) against Tandi Andrews the year she won and I most definitely did not. I did competitive drag at 19 for a few years and simply let it go. Find me a stage and I will transform into any character. I love the spotlight and seek it out whenever I can. It feels good to me!
I was the second one the announcer called out. I was floored. My stunned reaction was real. I walked up to the judges table and drew my new number, #12. I walked up on the upper level and hugged it out with Montell Infiniti-Ross (I believe) before finding my place in the lineup. The rest was a blur. I remember looking down at the last guys standing there and feeling like hugging a few of them who had brought a big package a very long way. We were excused and I quickly ran to my car to grab my things. Since I was #12 I had some time to prepare for Talent so I settled into the thought of making it in my first year all by myself. A few fellow contestants checked in on me but I was in good shape.
For my final night Talent I lost the pants and slid into a pair of dance shorts encrusted with bling so I could move. The crowds were crazy for the other contestants. I hoped I’d have some vocal support as well as I performed. It was my time and after stretching good backstage I headed up to compete. I changed very little and overall I again was very happy with what I had accomplished. It was again well-received and I knew I had done everything I could have.
Next was Clubwear. I knew that when looking around I really didn’t have the same type of gear that many of the other contestants had so I stuck with my edgy look and inadvertently stood out regardless in a black knit skull cap and black scuba-esque top, same Tom of Finland jeans among tailored blazers with chains and even more show glitz. The category is super subjective. After comparative judging we were finished for the night until crowning.
I dressed in my solid black tuxedo and the group of us proceeded back to the stage. I soaked up that spotlight one last time as we stood and they announced the winner and and his court. Mr. Gay USofA 2013 Christopher Iman did an amazing job this past year and was incredibly relatable to us contestants his entire reign. Returning competitor Jeffrey Kelly Abess came out on top becoming Mr. Gay USofA 2014 with Xavier Valentino as his first-alternate. I have no shame in saying I placed 12th because I set out to make the Top 12 and I did just that (by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin!)
These experiences have always been my win because as records show on paper I’ve “lost” more than I’ve “won” but the journey can and will never be taken away for that I’m certain. I live life and am passionate about chasing my dreams. That will never change. I was told by a fellow Top 12’er that I inspired him. That meant a lot to me. I hope to inspire others to stand up and give competing a try no matter what their age, image, background, solo or otherwise. The spotlight feels good. Bask in it. I do.
It was a late night and I was one of the last ones to leave after ki-ki’ing the ki backstage with Mr. E.O.Y. Matthew Kelly who was in town for support and a national walk. We put the talking down. I pressed it back to the hotel room soon after. I’m not about staying up too late and I was exhausted ready to go home. I sat in the bed in and watched the Weather Channel eating coconut cream pie and drinking cold milk. Times have changed.
Saturday I did some laundry at the hotel, packed, returned my rental and flew out in that afternoon with tunnel vision towards Palm Springs. At the airport I ran into the lovely crew of Fontasia L’Amour, Kalil Valentino and Xavier heading back to Los Angeles. We spoke a hot minute and I soon found my gate. It felt good to touch down in the desert upon my return hours and times zones later. I had an amazing time competing at Mr. Gay USofA. I’ll be back.
I wanted to take a few moments to thank my sponsors. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have been competing. They are very important to #TeamStevenMichael and they deserve to to be mentioned. Latrice Royale, SKINN by Dimitri James, my partner Marc St. Jacques, Joe Blasco Makeup, iamstevenmichael.com, Carmelo Roman of Nashville and amazing friends.
Thank you to judges Simba Hall, Big Fee, O’Dey Davenport Brooks, Mike Fornelli and Kimbol Purkerson. It was nice to sit and talk with you during Interview and see your faces on the panel. As I mentioned sometimes you sit in front of judges and wonder who and why. The 5 for this year were qualified, welcoming and familiar. Thanks for the comments, your time and attention!
To Craig Henderson, David Bridgman and the staff of The Saint, thank you for putting up with a group of grown men chasing a crown. There would be no contest without you. See you next year! X