In 1973, Norman Jones saw a flyer at an Arkansas bar for the first Miss Gay America (MGA) pageant. At the time, Jones—who goes by the name Norma Kristie in drag—would wear male clothes to gigs to avoid a crossdressing arrest, and said people would often yell "fag" or "queer" at him on the street like they were first names.
Still, Jones, a self-described "country bumpkin" queen, wanted to compete against girls with "movie star" looks, in a pageant modeled after traditional beauty pageants like Miss America and Miss USA. So she borrowed a dress, made her way to Nashville, and, to her surprise, took home the very first crown.
"The first runner-up was so stunning I didn't think I could compete," said Jones. "Ten years later, a promoter told me I won because I looked more real. Everyone else had on so much makeup."
Two years later, Jones would go on to purchase the competition from its original owner. And over the next four decades, Miss Gay America has maintained that focus on the "real"—drag that creates a female illusion in its performers. The pageant also codified its rules and expectations; a Miss Gay America can't have visible tattoos, for example, and must drink her liquids through a straw.
Now, in the pageant's 45th year, Miss Gay America has moved toward a less-rigid focus. Last week, 41 queens gathered in New Orleans to compete for the pageant's crown title. Those who made it there earned their spot by winning one of 22 regional preliminary competitions nationwide; more than a thousand queens competed this year, the organization estimated. Deva Station, a Colombus, Ohio–based queen, took home this year's crown.
"We want someone who can help make Miss Gay America current," said Arnold Myint, who performs in drag as Suzy Wong and was 2017's Miss Gay America. "Someone who can help the brand be in a place of popular culture."
In 2009, the first season of RuPaul's Drag Race brought drag out of gay bars and catapulted it into the national consciousness in a way it hadn't quite been before (complete with Vaseline filter). And while queens like Divine, Coco Peru, or RuPaul herself had found a national audience by then, Drag Race spoke to a Tumblr-era zeitgeist of fandoms and promotion—one that would go on to become a movement larger than the sum of its parts.
Ru girls have gone on to perform with the likes of Miley Cyrus, appear on SNL, and shake up music charts. The show, in many ways, has brought drag into mainstream American culture. And as such, it has changed the economics and culture of drag. Where pageant titleholders—many of whom spent years and decades honing their craft—once claimed the most enviable perch in American drag, that honor now arguably belongs to Drag Race winners.
"There are pros and cons to [_Drag Race_]," said Myint. "We live in a world of media, and the visibility of television kind of leaves us in the shadows to the mass public."
As Myint unpacked in New Orleans for last week's MGA, he acknowledged that Drag Race has helped drag find a new level of acceptance.
The previous day, he said, a "little old lady" in the plane seat next to him asked if he was a singer, because he was crying and moving his lips (he'd gotten emotional thinking of his upcoming final MGA performance).
"I told her, 'Oh no, honey, I'm a drag queen,'" Myint said. "She said, 'Oh, that's cool,' and that was that. She didn't even blink."
MGA contestants are judged in five categories: evening gown, solo talent, talent, and two types of interviews, male (in suit) and onstage (in drag).
"Pageantry is like the college of drag," said Martin Cooper, whose drag persona Coco Montrese was crowned Miss Gay America in 2010 after that year's initial winner, Alyssa Edwards, was stripped of her crown. Notably, both Montrese and Edwards appeared on season five of RuPaul's Drag Race. "A lot of girls don't like pageantry just because they don't want to get up on time and go to class," Cooper continued.
Cooper, who described his MGA reign as the "pinnacle" of his career, traveled to New Orleans last week to act as a "lady in waiting" for longtime friend Suzy Wong (because "that's what sisters do," Cooper said). He said he's proud of Wong's evolution over the past year.
"Pageants help you learn to deal with certain things under pressure," Cooper said. "They take discipline."
Ben Nolan—known as Mary Nolan in drag—said the discipline and growth he'd seen in some pageant queens drew him to this year's competition. He'd done drag for years but entered his first pageant two years ago after a personally rough year. He wanted "a new beginning, to see something beautiful."
Nolan, whose talent mixes comedy, dancing, and acting, won 2016's Miss Gay Ohio America. Nolan's drag isn't what you'd see from your "typical Miss America contestant," he said, because he's "a hyperbole of the definition of femininity."
"I have broad shoulders," he said. "But don't worry, I'm pretty."
Nolan qualified for this year's MGA as Miss Gay Northeast America 1st Alternate. He estimates he's spent "thousands of hours" preparing for the upcoming pageant, from dance practice to makeup techniques and how he'll look on stage.
"A lot of people are putting their heart and soul into the competition," he said.
Nolan said the pageant's new ownership has helped take the competition in a new direction. "Our current system is changing," Nolan said. "It's evolving and becoming a different brand than people are used to. That makes me feel more welcome in the system."
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In 2016, married couple Michael Dutzer and Rob Mansman decided to buy Miss Gay America. Beforehand, they'd found success in varied business ventures, like advertising, orthodontics, and investing in websites.
"From the time we bought the pageant," said Dutzer, "we had a plan to make it as big as we possibly can."
Dutzer said their iteration of Miss Gay America will look to the future while keeping true to the past. The pageant's focus will remain on female illusion, which is more specific than the umbrella term "drag." According to its rule book, MGA doesn't allow contestants to have "surgical enhancements" below the neck, including "feminizing surgeries," or the use of hormones or hormone therapy.
People often ask about this rule, Dutzer said, especially as trans rights continue to be imperiled nationally. The rule, he insisted, is part of the pageant's history, and is about body modification, not self-identification. A contestant who lives as a woman, Dutzer said, recently competed, though they hadn't taken hormones or had feminizing surgery.
"It's not a matter of not wanting to be inclusive," said Dutzer. "We just want everybody to be on the same playing field."
But it's one that can be seen as constricting, especially as some other pageants, like Miss Gay US of A and Miss Continental, don't have the same restrictions. Trans queens play an integral—and often overlooked—part of drag history. The earliest seasons of Drag Race played into that history; RuPaul at one point faced controversy over the use of trans-insensitive language in the show, for which the show's staff apologized. Drag Race has had a number of contestants come out as trans after their appearance on the show, and this past season featured its first openly out contestant, Peppermint, who placed second.
Dutzer and Mansman have made changes to enhance the pageant's entertainment value, production value and organization, Dutzer said. Norman Jones, who owned the pageant in its early years, talked about the recent live streaming of Miss Gay Arkansas and the use of drone technology for video recordings—a far cry from the early days, when she had to covertly arrive at drag gigs to avoid being harassed.
"With drag becoming more mainstream because of television, the pageant has to do the same thing," said Dutzer. "We have to evolve with the times."
Meanwhile, commenters and critics online continue to debate whether Drag Race has enhanced or detracted from drag in America.
"It's always a topic with the old-school mentality of drag and what's to come," said Myint. "The ones who are truly talented and serious always end up with longevity."
Cooper, for his part, is thankful he competed on Drag Race, which he attributed to exposing him to an entirely new audience.
"We wear wigs and perform," said Cooper, "but there's a business side to it."
And being on Drag Race can certainly help that business. After appearing on Drag Race, contestants can command thousands in appearance fees for gigs, Dutzer said, because "everyone wants to see a Ru Girl."
The pageant's co-owners hope to help Miss Gay America contestants capitalize on drag's current moment in pop culture.
"We're trying to put our contestants on a visible platform as well," said Dutzer. "They work hard and deserve it."