What does it take to enter a contest or pageant and run for a national title? You may think you have an idea but there’s so much that goes into it that no one sees. Until now. I’m going to give you my tale, take and takeaway from this year’s Mr. Gay USofA competition in San Antonio, Texas., from a competitor’s point of view. Mine. My story may be quite similar or surprisingly different than my fellow contestants, but it’s my version and I mean no offense or foul to anyone by anything I share. What happens when grown gay men chase a prestigious pageant crown?! Somethings I’ll keep to myself. Everything else will be told. Here’s what happens…
It’s hard to know where to start because this run actually began during my time in the contest last year. I knew as I was standing onstage in the Top 12 last November that I would be back this year. I was blessed and thankful to have made the top ranks by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin dancing alone so this year would have to be different. I knew I must bring more if I wanted to continue climbing to the top. So, that began my journey to last week’s competition. An amazing journey I am better because of taking.
For me personally, running for a national title is presumably like getting pregnant and having a baby. You find a system to knock you up with the seed of dreams. You nurture your package for months while getting ready. You arrive at nationals and have your baby while afterwards as your hard work is out in the world for others to appreciate there’s a post-partum depression or empty nest syndrome that often seeps in. We ask ourselves, “Now what?” Or… “What’s next?!” Our hearts and souls go into what we present to our peers and public to be adjudicated and judged. The world of competitive entertainment is not for the faint of heart. I’ve gotten stronger as I’ve grown with it.
I qualified in June at the Mr. Gay California USofA preliminary by placing first alternate to my good brother Xavier Valentino, and I won the Interview category. Then it was off to plan nationals! And the woes ensued. I immediately started praying to the gay pageant gods for a good dose of gay strength. When I began to cast dancers for my Talent productions I thought it would be the easiest part. I was very, very wrong. I knew I’d be using two dancers from L.A. who could keep up with me and my dance style. They are hard to come by because I consider myself a professional dancer and must have equal talent around me. That costs not only in sweat but monetarily, also!
I had two girls set, flights booked and costumes set in motion. In the next week, they both got better paying gigs and I couldn’t be too mad because they were my close girlfriends. I was paying them well but others were paying them more. They both replaced themselves with other talented girls and covered their bases with fulfilling their commitments by getting their replacements where they needed to be. Then one of the new girls was offered a better gig, as well. She replaced herself immediately. Then one of my new sweethearts at 26 years young had a stroke three weeks before the competition. She rested for two weeks, we rehearsed in L.A. once and it was all set. Even though she had no feeling in her right arm, we were hopeful. I felt as if I was in such a holding pattern during these weeks I was almost forcing myself to keep moving ahead and hope for the best. The show must go on!
I landed in San Antonio for the contest only to have her boyfriend leaving me a desperate message about her having a relapse back in the hospital and clearly wasn’t able to perform for me. While grabbing my rental car and baggage I was also on the phone handling this. I called my other dancer and she had already grabbed her best girlfriend and was teaching her the moves to ship her to Texas the very next day! I spend two hours on the the phone once I checked into the hotel with American Airlines trying to get tickets switched out and set. I needed a good hug. My husband was back in Palm Springs so FaceTime had to suffice.
I really wasn’t sure what more I could take. I’d have to continue with my reliable resiliency. I actually handled it well, considering. Eh, maybe there was a meltdown or two but who is counting? I knew I would have to make whatever work once they both arrived in Texas. I was hopeful true talent would prevail. I went out to support the big boys competing in Mr. Gay USofA at Large the first night in town but didn’t stay out late. I was so drained from the previous few weeks of limbo with performers, there was one point I didn’t know if I’d have dancers or not. The desktop on my MacBook is quite comical with a handful of flight reservations never used.
The next day my dancers arrived, Kelsie and Kristine (dancers 4 & 6 of the set.) I figured once I sat in Interview and the judges asked my how I was I would just laugh out of release. It’s been a road! Bless the girl’s hearts they rehearsed in the fitness center each morning and every chance they had. Kristine truly stepped up and learned the routines in two days! We actually stayed up the interstate a minute or two away from the host hotel just for some peace and quiet. So the fact we were piecing it together in the final minutes was better we were tucked away from the scene.
Registration was at noon on Wednesday where we would draw numbers and move into the competition. For the most part, everyone was really nice and welcoming. I stood and smiled while soaking it all in and extended my hand to say Hello to those who gave me a chance. I knew a good number of the guys from last year. Many of us who made the top spots last year came back for more and we get along great so it was a pleasure to see them. After announcements were made, I drew contestant #11, and we were divided into groups. Thankfully the dancers would have extra time to rehearse since the first night I would have Interview during the day and Clubwear at night. We pressed it back to the hotel to prepare for the days ahead after swinging through Whole Foods to provide for my vegan dancing girls.
Interview went very well, except I gave a completely botched-up answer on something and they all clocked me. They should have because it was not an opinion question but a “this is the only answer” answer. Not sure where my mind was at that point but I admit it caught me off guard. (Ladies & Men of USofA, be clear about the scoring system. They will ask!) In hindsight, I felt like I was on a good roll and when I was thrown my initial reaction was to hastily say the first numbers that came to mind. I cringe thinking back on my flub because if I had taken just another second or two to answer I would have said the correct scoring details because I do know them. Overall, I got my key points across, was my true self and still feel great about my interaction with the the judges. I even slipped an “Old School in the House – Yes, God!” for them and they cackled. Then in the end I was asked if I wanted to leave them with any thoughts. I thanked them for their time and let them know that my dancers were already paid up so we wouldn’t mind performing again final night. I wouldn’t be mad about it. They lived! It took them a split-second but they gave a good chuckle.
Wednesday evening for my group was Clubwear. This category will be the death of me. (cue laugh track) On the score sheets the title of the category is “Fashion” and that’s what they are looking for. Last year winner Jeffrey wore a bedazzled beaded & stoned suit with nude illusion while this year the Clubwear winner wore something more along the lines of sportswear, as if he was heading to go ride his horse on a chilly day at the Jockey Club. What I would wear to an actual club and what the judges are looking for is completely different. It’s the most subjective category I’ve seen in a competition. I wore something clean and solid, so I thought. Last year I went more edgy but figured I step back into the box for this time. After a few rounds at it now, I believe they are looking for fashion drama! They didn’t completely live for what I chose even though I believed it fit me well and would be strong/solid enough to get me in. They got me right together about a pair rhinestone shoes I wore but said my modeling was, as always, on point.
The next day we had Talent rehearsal back at the club. It went very well! As we returned to perform that evening we had a good number of people come to us and compliment our number from rehearsal. We felt really good! Not everyone takes the time to compliment others so it means so much to us (and me) when they do. My best friend Tyler flew in for support which was a thrill! Our performance went over very well. The best way for me to describe it would be a jacked-up rhythm mix of both choreographed dance and dialogue. As the music started off by Pete Burns singing “I want surprises” that’s what I gave them. We hit the “Daddy Bear” gig from 30 Rock, into some Arianna Grande breakdown sliding into the Munsters theme and ending with The Wanted and Journey’s “Anyway You Want It.” In a Snapchat world, time is of the essence so keep the audience hooked and then let them go. Another round of great responses!
Friday was our final day! There was a contestant brunch at HEAT Nightclub where the contest was being held and then a rehearsal for the opening production that evening. We quickly ran through our finals’ Talent onstage blocking without music before heading back to the hotel. I gathered my gig for the evening, checked it twice and rested for just a minute before heading back up to the club for competition. Going in I felt confident I’d make the twelve but there’s still that question in your mind of “What if I don’t?!” It’s disappointing when you don’t. I’ve been there not hearing my name called before. It’s not fun. You must go into Friday night with everything ready even though not everyone will continue on in the hopes of becoming “America’s Next Top Male Entertainer” better known as Mr. Gay USofA.
I decided to dress in my Carmelo Roman hand painted icon tuxedo jacket and aristocrat gig for the futuristic Tomorrowland opening theme because my future involves wearing clothes and costumes that haven’t been predictably worn before. I like taking something out of the box making people ask and think before comfortably settling into the already done. As cute as the naked boys were, and I love a smooth rump to roast, they were second guessing their choices as we waited outside in the Texas breeze going into the crowded club before the contest began. The opening went off without a hitch and I was happy to be the first one called out for the Top 12. I came down, drew a new contestant number #8 and found my place in line to mentally get ready for new rounds of the two categories that evening while they announced the final twelve.
I went backstage and prepared for Talent. My dresser Ron Hankey, who turned it out during the Tuesday competition his first effort at a nationals, was right where I needed him! I was doing an updated version of what I did for my California prelim which was a mix of Pitbull’s hottest music. Both of my national mixes had about four sets of mixing skills from different people tweaking it to perfection. My OCD kicks in and I usually have to rework and then some after hearing it a few good times. I had hooked up with my buddy and former Mr. Gay USofA Christopher Iman about playing a cameo as Chris Brown and he was down to join us on stage. I knew I needed an extra element final night so he seemed perfect. I was right! When he popped out, the crowd lived! And he is so damn smooth his strong cool presence was major asset to the final picture.
As performers we can practice for weeks, months or more, and plan every detail. But when the lights hit you and your distance from the actual judges is less that two feet away, things can happen and they see it all. We had a few very slight moments that weren’t perfection and that’s what costs points. From the original costume fittings, the cast changed and bras didn’t fit perfectly which caused wardrobe malfunctions. We had a spacing issue or two which caused a collision played off well but seen nonetheless. Again, considering the obstacles I faced with dancers and that’s no offense to any of my dolls, I’m happy with getting the job done as well as we could. In reality, we turned the party! At 47 years, I’m damn proud of what I – and we – accomplished! I’m so glad I had quick learners and responsible professionals in my court and on my team.
For Clubwear, I wore a sexy pink cuffed shirt with a black vest and pink Swarovski buttons, and denim slacks that fit my ass like a glove. I love to model and could do it for hours. Comparative Clubwear was all over the board with glitz or not, and color or solid black. Overall I stick with 90% of what I did for competition and wore all week, and that’s a great feeling. In hindsight of course I would change a few things but I can not. We move on from what we’ve already done and hopefully learn from those choices that didn’t play out while nurturing the ones that really did. Until you ask the question you will not know the answer to anything. Each time I learn more of what works and what needs work!
Going into crowning I honestly didn’t feel as if I would be winning once Jeffrey Kelly Abess stepped down from gloriously reigning the year prior minutes later but I felt proud of what I did and was so happy to be part of the twelve. The category awards and Top 5 spots were announced. Unfortunately I didn’t hear my name called so I stood and respectfully clapped along with my fellow brothers who also didn’t hear their name called before we were released from the stage. I gathered my things, dancers and score sheets before saying a few goodbyes. We all had early flights the next morning so staying out wasn’t on anyone’s agenda. Since being out way later than we wanted to be all week, I didn’t mind getting back to the hotel to finish packing my gig for the flight back home. No bitterness. Simple exhaustion.
I sent a few texts out to good friends and a Facebook congratulations to our new Mr. Gay USofA ’15 Michael LaMasters while noshing on turkey from my fridge. A few short hours later at 4:30 a.m. I ran one of dancers to the airport and then rolled back into the hotel to crash again for a few hours before checking out. The drizzling rain made roads slippery as I navigated us back to San Antonio International Airport. Standing in security I ran into the lovely Fontasia L’amour and Xavier who were also heading back to the west coast. I perched up at the gate and caught up on email and social media while I waited for my plane. Some slight “bird watching” ensued before I happily boarded both legs back home to Palm Springs via Phoenix.
I had a really great time! I’m always able to learn more about Steven Michael when I put myself in these great situations. I become a better, more creative version of myself. I’m able to get my life and as they say “get me a piece.” And I’m able to inspire others to never let anyone tell them no if they truly want something no matter what their age, image, shape, size, race, anything. I hope people see me as an inspiration because in all honesty, I inspire myself. I want people to think outside the box and set trends instead of follow them. If others would be the movers and shakers then they wouldn’t feel obligated to move when someone else shakes the stage, and they don’t. Someone asked me a few weeks before I departed to compete why it was important to me to go and do this. This is why.
Out of 25 men vying for the national title I placed 8th overall, up from 11th in preliminary nights. Last year I placed 12th overall. Final verdict… I did the damn thing. And will I be back, you ask?! Only time will tell. As I’ve said it before, “Dreams Never Die.” But for now, I’m sitting back for a minute, reflecting and enjoying the holidays. And of course, stocking the bank back up. I graciously thank Craig Henderson for continuing the legacy that is USofA and providing the great platform for male entertainers to aspire to, and to my judges for being fair towards me and keeping it real. I appreciate my fellow contestants for keeping me on my toes and for making me better than I would have been without them. Thanks to my many generous sponsors and amazing support team! You made the adventure that much greater because of what you did for me. You know who you are! I’m humbled. ❤️