INT. Interview – Backstage Round-Up Saloon – Dallas, Texas – DAY
Judge: “You mentioned you we’re heavy into social media and have a successful blog. What hashtag would you use for your reign if you were to win?”
(P.O.V.) Judge’s score sheet: “Class Act suits you!”
Me: Smiley Face Emoticon. Fist Bump Emoticon.
Another year of #USofA male pageantry for the record books. Wow, where to begin?! There’s definitely been a few proud highs and more lows than I feel strong enough to mention here. But I will. Sorry to be so dramatic but “it’s been a year.” I guess it begins at the beginning of my run to become Mr. Gay USofA 2016. Perhaps before that in my first year where I made the Top 12 in ’14, dancing alone in San Antonio at nationals shocking everyone including myself. Then last year bringing my fabulous girls from L.A. to dance for the kids in Texas where I made the Top 12, once more, placing even higher than before. This was as I anxiously moved through six dancers to find two who were available learning choreography the day before while I shuffled to change airline tickets as soon as I arrived. Bless them! So many details worth mentioning but needless to say that’s why I hire professionals. But this ’16 run was a different beast for me. So much unpredictability I didn’t see coming. Here’s the true Tea with more honesty than perhaps I’ve ever shared before regarding competing in the world of male entertainment.
To know me is to know when I invest myself in something I give it my heart, soul, all my passion and then some. That’s who I am. If it wasn’t then why would I do it, I ask? Performing is something I get life from. Not every audience member gets me and I realize that. However, I get me and hope you do to because if you’re reading this, you must. This was my third year competing for the national title of Mr. Gay USofA. As they say it’s not a one year job it’s a lifetime of joy. I may sound like I’m still in pageant mode and I’m honest in saying, “yeah, you’re probably right.” (Cue laugh track.)
As soon as I returned from competing at nationals last year I wasn’t sure I was returning right away. I needed to let some feelings settle and see what time told. It told me I wanted to compete again and get redemption for mistakes and boo-boos made. Plus, I still wanted to be Mr. Gay USofA and that will never stop until I am. It could never happen and I’m aware of that. However, in my dreams I could and can. But at 48-years experienced (hate the word “old”) it’s definitely more on the dream side than reality. Scheduling wise added in with desire, I chose the preliminary in Sin City because I fucking love Las Vegas, clearly. To know me is to know this. To represent that city would be a dream and I hate sounding cliché.
I knew exactly what I wanted to do for talent, a mix of Sin City movie dialogue and dance music accordingly, and found it smart and on point with what I’d want to see as a judge. As a contestant I pride myself to think outside the box but seeing so many bucking inside a formula using what works so well for the audience makes me reevaluate it entirely. The one thing I’ve learned through this all is I don’t know everything, but I know a lot. I’m a work in progress. We all are or we’re done. And while I’m presenting myself for another’s perception of me to be made public though these experiences as long as my perception or opinion of myself is great, I’m good. In my eyes I’m winning. Only one person takes the crown. The rest of us must hold on to that moment and make more for ourselves, or not. That’s our choice to make by putting ourselves out there for both the possibility of ridicule and honor of adulation. The stage gives me life and that makes it all worth it. Every choice, chance and chase makes me a better me. I love competition, always have.
I arrived to the Sin City preliminary guns blazing. #TeamSteven had an amazing interview. Won the category! Showed up that night to a packed dressing room finding the only space off in a dark stank alley to somehow be competition ready for the stage lights at Piranha nightclub. I’ve made situations work but unfortunately this make-shift moment didn’t help. I’m not a man to mince words or make excuses (because I do have valid ones) but this was not ideal. Talent went well until I ran off to make a too-quick costume change and made a novice mistake by missing it. For a spilt second in my head I almost didn’t run back out as another voice in psyche screamed GO! It was slo-mo surreality considering how fast it actually happened. The rest of the routine was a blur as my darling Amber danced around me and I ran to the finish line, so to speak. Clubwear… eh, didn’t score well either. Wha-wha-whah! Moving on. Gutted. Disappointed. However, on an positive note I had a blast in Las Vegas once more, seeing shows, dinners and enjoying The Strip. I live my life.
As soon as I returned I mapped out my next move to the California preliminary. I had a talent production in-the-can from prep I had done for the previous year when I got first alternate so I jumped in and got started. Hired my girls, rehearsals in L.A., all that fun stuff. I bounce right back, I must say. Can’t keep an old dog down. Well, at least not this one. I enjoy it too much to let things like that fumble slow me down. I admit my mistakes and can honestly say that when I read scored comment sheets (and it’s usually not right away, it’s maybe a day or two later, realizing there’s nothing I can change immediately) I see and agree with the majority of what the judges have seen so I’ve not been terribly surprised much. I usually know it’s happening while it happens. I’ve judged many contests so I’m honest in my own performance.
However, once in a rare while I get someone trying to get me right together with some score, comment or opinion that I absolutely do not agree with. That’s that evil loophole – subjective opinion. But thankfully highs and lows are usually dropped so overall it’s as fair as it can be. Though I have competed at a contest before and afterwards handed sheets that were missing scores so that was a hard pill to swallow. I’d rather not say where and when but at that point what’s done is done. So yeah it can be, shall we say, disrupting to one’s faith when those questions arise. Competition is a gamble in more ways than the naked eyes see. Play along or step aside for the players who desire to slay the game.
The California preliminary was once again in glamorous Bakersfield. Without getting into sordid details that really don’t matter now (saving them all for the book!) I missed some last minute changes to the schedule and venue which threw a few plans/staging off kilter. We adapted. Husband Jacques came along for the ride and enjoyed his front row seat to everything male pageantry. He was there in Dayton a few years ago when I competed for All American Gent when I found out quickly that my hiatus from the arena of competition showed. I believe there are still pieces of my face embedded into the stage at Masque and that is no lie. #PokerFace I feel honesty is the best thing I can give anyone who allows me to express myself through words by reading them. I hope to inspire like I believe I do by being true to myself and the moment and not being afraid to expose that.
When it came to the competition itself, in hindsight I would have changed little about my Clubwear (agreeing with judge Alyssa Nicole Whitney “less is more, sweetie”) and Talent went very well considering the unplanned stage changes in dimension and size. My girls were phenomenal and always a crowdpleaser! Interview went well considering at one point I had to offer talking about myself to break the silence happening. In the end, I once again received the Maid of Honor position to Patrick Mikyles from Dallas’ winning bride placement. I did in the process get my ticket to compete at nationals so I was happy about that part of it all. Off to prepare for nationals one month away! There were moments driving back to the desert where I seriously contemplated not competing at nationals. But if at all possible I always follow through my commitment which is exactly what I did. I’m very happy with my decision to proceed to nationals. I was hoping third time would be my charm!
I knew it would be cutting it close qualifying at a prelim so close to the end of the competition year but it was a true make-it-work moment. I used all of the resources I had at my disposal since I am self-sponsored when it comes to the pageant bill paying and had already tapped my preliminary budgets trying to qualify through the year. I said from the beginning of getting back into this world four years ago I wouldn’t go broke nor beg people for money. Well, honey. The well is dry. It’s been very important to me to win but a secure future is as well. The only reason I would ever stop competing would be financial. I consider that my only weakness. I can hang with these kids all night and buck along side them and get my life feeling right at home among them. However the other bills don’t stop coming and I don’t have that outlet or vehicle like a showbar to raise funds and fan bases to help out. I realize that. I’m not sure many of the young ones know that yet. I didn’t at their age. I hope my journey shows them it can keep going for them at any age while my words tell them to plan ahead being mature in the process.
After deciding quickly what I wanted to compete with in Dallas for nationals I planned a budget and very much stuck to it. Unfortunately I couldn’t swing bringing my girls for L.A. which gutted me but they understood. Fortunately I gained two new good friends in Kira Daniels and Ali Anthony Lauren both from Texas willing to jump onboard with #TeamSteven learning choreography privately on YouTube, generously supportive and reliable. I had my Good Judy (code name for someone you count on, trusting and very close) Ron Hankey a choreographer from Florida come in and be my support system and dresser. We had some really, really close connections from both tears of emotion to tears of laughter. You know that good laugh where you cry?! I got us lost on those roads in Dallas and we were delirious with laughter. And that was my team. I worked within my means and and damn proud of what I accomplished.
I flew in on a new American Airlines jet after a wee morning drive to LAX from Palm Springs. Whew. I believe I was awake at 3:30 a.m. with my selfless hubby driving. Hey, we saved over $400 on airfare this way. No Tea. I dealt with it. We pulled over as soon as we got in L.A. and while I stood in the rain peeing next to the car through the open door played “It Never Rains is Southern California.” It was a moment. LAX was fine, grabbed some food and found my gate. Thankfully the paparazzi left me be. They can be way much at times. (Canned laughs here, please!)
After checking in to the hotel in Dallas I ran out grabbed a few things for the room, unpacked, settled in, all that. Assessed any travel damage to my gig. All good! I know how to travel and make the most of it. Monday evening at Round-Up Saloon I watched as my darling Dakota Whitney captured the title of Mr. Gay USofA at Large ’16 after trying seven times before. I’ve never met anyone who stays truer to his own self, unapologetic and brazen but humble to his core. I love him and he surely deserved the win! We spoke afterwards and he is truly living his dream. I’m so happy for him! I ran into many friends there for the week which I love because it’s really like homecoming with a sense of brotherhood and family. There’s so much hugging and hellos I honestly am not sure I know them all but I tried.
Bedtime called my name soon after the long day and sleep wasn’t far behind. Tuesday I had some breakfast downstairs and rehearsed with Ali in his room before registration at the club at noon. 27 guys from across the country showed up to show out and everyone did just that in there own special way. I was still meeting contestants during the final moments of competition! There’s a lot of ground to cover competing nationally. Tons to keep up with when you do it right. It takes someone with their act together to keep it all together. I feel like I am that person, easily.
I drew contestant #11 from too cute Superman buckets that reigning Michael LaMasters provided for us contestants to chose from. He has been amazing all year! I was happy with that number. It meant I had Interview in just an hour or so. After hearing details and whatnot about the nights to follow I ran back to the hotel, changed into dress clothes. Then back at the club as rehearsals were in progress for other guys, I began my concentration pace wearing a path in the carpet waiting to go in thinking of what I wanted to say to the judges. They want to know why you’re there and where you’ve come since last year. I was able tell them that and a bit more in my seven minute time frame. I actually said everything I wanted to share somehow working it all in perhaps a bit wordy at times but overall very happy with it. I have a lot to say which is better than having nothing to say. I’m causal and conversational which has always worked well for me. I have won Interview in the prelims I’ve entered. It’s the other categories that get me right together.
That evening I had the Clubwear category. Again, so subjective. What I would wear and most of us would wear in real life isn’t what wins. The best way I can describe what the judges are looking for while clearly never giving them that because I always score low is “Fashion Drama.” Thanks to Gear Leather in Palm Springs and a few good friends I was able to piece together a look I was proud of and stayed true to my esthetic because that was my game this round and where I believe I thrive. Easy and true to myself hopefully walking away proud and not feeling shorted or regretful. I accomplished that.
Funny true story tho! I’m out at the bar having a cocktail with Ron and getting a bit teary eyed telling about the time at registration my first year in San Antonio when someone very, very close to the scene laughed directly in my face when finding out I was a contestant and how I had to be resilient beyond possibility right then and there. It was my moment of clarity that first year that it wouldn’t be a cake walk returning as I stood tall extending my hand introducing myself with a big smile.
So, I turn to go backstage to check on my things that I had dropped off at Round-Up Saloon and everyone was already dressed lined-up to go out for competition. I dropped every piece of clothes I had on to the floor and slid into my clubwear in two minutes flat while the boys stood in line watching me like the Tasmanian Devil loose. Ron came back and was like “Oh F!” and began sewing my shirt into a taper and finishing me off for stage. Luckily I walked back when I did. It was actually kinda funny. Thankfully I’m fast.
The next night I had Talent. I chose to do my impersonation of Pitbull with some casual back-up hopefully being strong enough to allow me a place in the finals on Thursday because I love doing him as a character. Do I look like him 100%? Of course not. But I can give the illusion and actions of Pitbull. I feel his music, the cadence of his lyrics and what he stands for which is having a good time. It tickled me reading a judge’s comment saying that the talent was “not me.” I had a blast doing it and felt redemption from dancer wardrobe malfunctions of last year staying truer to how Pitbull performs not as Steven performs. I produced a fierce film to play behind us on the screens but because of copyrights I opted for a simpler one with name logos instead that I made quickly in three hours before flying out. What I had planned to do for final night was so damn cute I’d love to share but perhaps another time it will see the spotlight. Until then back into the vault it goes. Damn.
When it was all said and done what I brought wasn’t enough to secure me a place in the Top 12. It was a major disappointment but I wasn’t shocked. I said from the beginning seeing the rehearsals that there were a lot of great kids competing this year. The talents were no joke! Some of them were no short of amazing! I wasn’t able to bring enough to compete equally and realized that going in. Once the twelve were called and we were excused, I was a bit numb at first and then felt fairly depleted all-around, energy and otherwise. I wasn’t sure if the mascara I had on was waterproof so I kept the tears at bay. I’m man enough to be honest in admitting that.
As I was changing out of my presentation clothes on Cedar Springs at my car in front of the club and gathering my gig together after the announcement of the twelve, I took time to begin the processing of what just happened before heading back in. I called Jacques and hated to disappoint him with the bad news because I know he sees how much passion and time I invest here at home so we were missing one another especially bad at that moment. The rest of the evening included watching the contest and supporting our twelve brothers with various good friends, nursing battle wounds with fellow non-twelvers in the balcony, enjoying my last few moments of the experience and grazing on a slice of pizza down the sidewalk that gave me complete life. It was difficult at times to stand and watch the contest after not moving on while reminded of past brothers and sisters who’ve also missed the mark and sadly stood off stage crying while the show went on without them. My late dear sister Ashley Kruiz being one of them. I was confident in myself because I knew I gave all that I could give so there was nowhere I’d rather have been than right there with everyone else.
I knew that Texan cutie Desi Andrews was going to win from the first few moments of the week. There were a few standouts I loved see do well but I knew Desi would be successful. I’ve been around a few blocks in my day and could witness his ascension to the title through his personable interactions to being so damn cute and his talents productions were off the chain. I encourage him to use his voice as his lady Miss Gay USofA Aurora Sexton is doing with her reign. We need positive role models in our community who are not afraid of using their voices when given the platform. The Top 12 was chock full of show-stopping talents across the spectrum of entertainment. It definitely was a tough year of competition.
Final thoughts… I have a new found respect and friendship of a few special people who I didn’t feel as though I’d connected with in years past but truly did this year. Actually I believe as a whole people were more welcoming of me this round. Perhaps some soon realized that I was in it for the long haul and not going anywhere. USofA created the DNA of what makes me a competitive entertainer. I celebrate that! Thank you Craig Henderson for keeping our dreams alive by providing this arena! I had a great time in Dallas competing. I’m damn proud of what I accomplished and able to walk away with knowing I’ve given it my all! The life of an entertainer in an industry such as this is often difficult full of late nights, personal sacrifices, bad eating habits and the like. It’s not for everyone but I enjoy the challenge! The spotlight feels too good to me and becoming a better version of myself while learning more about what I can accomplish completes me. As I say, it gives me life! In the end I do this not only for my own enjoyment but to encourage and inspire others to never let anything or anyone stop them from doing what they love. I’ve been doing this for the better part of 25 years. I hate to imagine ever stopping. But for now… It’s break time. I have a piggy bank just desperate for some plumping. #LiveLifeNow X