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Culture A crown fit for a queen 

Miss Gay SA is back, my pretties. Don’t forget to curtsy.

A few Saturdays back, in keeping with decades of hallowed tradition, our nation crowned its 80th Miss America under the glittering neon stars of the Vegas strip.

And you missed it.

No, it’s OK; don’t feel bad. So did roughly 99 percent of the country. It was on CMT, for crying out loud — how were you to know? Truth is, ratings for the once-mighty pageant have been foundering in recent years: 2004’s record-low audience of 9.8 million caused every major television network to pass on the event this year; its cable debut drew less than a third of that number. And with only three Texas-born coronations on record since the inaugural year, 1921, and none from San Antonio, it would seem the Atlantic City-born institution is in danger of losing its relevance down Alamo way. Have we got a replacement for you.

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“If you were Miss San Antonio, you ruled, OK?” says pageant organizer John Carroll. Sweet Savage, above, ruled as Miss Gay San Antonio-America and Miss Gay Texas-America.

How about a pageant that has enthroned 10 Texan Miss Americas in a little more than 30 years, and whose reigning champion at the state level is a San Antonio native? How about a pageant whose local success and fan base have helped inspire the powers that be to move the state showdown from its perennial home in Dallas to North Main? How about a pageant that defies conventional classification, confounds your sense of pronoun assignment, and rocks with the force of several Tina Turners?

Miss America, meet Miss Gay America. Miss San Antonio, meet Miss Gay San Antonio.

Bring it on, bitch.

For the uninitiated, Miss Gay San Antonio-America is the recently revived female impersonation pageant that serves as the city-level feeder system for the weightier Miss Gay Texas-America and Miss Gay America competitions. In short: Male performers who dress and act as females (“drag queens,” commonly) will compete against one another for the privilege to advance to the national stage.

“You just don’t walk out there in anything,” says John Carroll, whose JEMS Productions is coordinating the pageant, which takes the runway February 19 at the Saint. “This is such a level of excellence. People are very thrilled to see this return.”

In 1977, Pauletta Leigh became the first contestant to wear the Miss Gay San Antonio crown. Others followed, and the pageant soon established itself as a much-anticipated annual fête, growing steadily in popularity until about five years ago, when the celebration regrettably ground to a halt.

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Larry Edwards, aka Hot Chocolate, whose Tina Turner impersonation has earned him Las Vegas fame and numerous film roles, will co-host the 2006 Miss Gay San Antonio pageant.

“We lost some key people,” Carroll says simply, a touch of sadness in his voice. “We understand that we are going to lose people. It’s very sad, but it’s a fact of life.”

One of those key people was inaugural crown-winner Leigh, who will be honored at the 2006 pageant.

“We got so lucky,” says Carroll. “You hope that first person you find is such a strong, solid person that you can build on, and Pauletta was a major icon in our city. He had a 30-year, nonstop professional career as an entertainer. That’s pretty much unmatched.”

Carroll, who has been involved in some capacity with Miss Gay San Antonio since 1979, says he and his partners took their time reviving the pageant because they wanted to plan sufficiently and “didn’t want to start something we couldn’t finish.” Now, he says, they’re ready.

“It’s going to be big,” agrees John Downum, owner of the Saint, who says the bar will likely host the event for years to come. “That’s all I can say just from the initial reaction we’ve gotten nationwide, it’s going to be big.”

The Saint, Downum says, has been hosting drag pageants for more than 25 years.

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Sweet Savage

Carroll hopes the 2006 installment will pick up where its previous incarnations left off in terms of popularity and prestige — which, to hear him tell it, are appreciably large (high-heeled) shoes to fill.

“If you were Miss San Antonio, you ruled, OK?” Carroll says matter-of-factly. “That was the bottom line.”

He should know: Carroll, a seasoned impersonator and native San Antonian himself, won the crown in 1990, but says he declined to enter the fray this year in order to ensure success on the production side. He does, however, hint at a comeback, likely sooner rather than later.

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“You never retire from doing this,” he says, with detectable fondness. “It becomes part of your blood.”

Contestants in the pageant must be at least 21 years old, anatomically male, and residents for a minimum of 90 days of the city they hope to represent. There is also, interestingly, a “no-surgery” clause, specifying that “absolutely no breast implants, cosmetic or body enhancing implants below the neck or silicone (or any other similar type product/chemical) injections, excluding the face, will be allowed before or during the contestant’s reign.”

But Carroll is quick to deflect the notion that the pageant condemns those who go under knife or needle:“We certainly don’t look down on anyone who chooses to do that,” he says. “That’s all a personal choice; to each `his` own.”

The clause Carroll says, is purist. Impersonation is posited widely by those who participate as an art form, akin to the creation of a character in acting. (Carroll mentions Shakespeare’s day, when leading “ladies” were limned by male actors skilled at concealing their most tell-tale “talents.”) The quirk here may be that being more “method” an actor than the next guy doesn’t make you more respected or authentic as an artist — it makes you more of a cheater.

Other rules and categories tend to conform (more or less) to the mainstream Miss model. Talent and evening-gown components are scored by a panel of judges. Notable differences: (1) There is no swimsuit competition and (2) the interview is conducted with the contestants out of costume, as males.

Miss Gay San Antonio

10pm Sun, Feb 19

The Saint
1422 N. Main

Larry Edwards, sans makeup, designer wig and other significant addenda, is an unobtrusively pleasant-looking fellow. Besides a disputable resemblance to Lynn Swann, there isn’t much that would cause you to pick him out of a crowd. Avec arsenal, however, scout’s honor: Dude’s a dead ringer for Tina Turner. Seriously. Almost to the point where they could switch one out for the other and touch off a “Paul is Dead” controversy. Edwards, whose stage name is “Hot Chocolate,” began performing steadily after winning a Halloween costume contest in college, and has over 25 years become one of the more recognizable acts in the world of impersonation, appearing in Atlantic City and Las Vegas as well as in such films as What’s Love Got to Do With It? and Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. Edwards has also held the Miss Gay Texas and Miss Gay America crowns (though he’s coy about revealing which years). As a 2006 pageant judge, then, he presumably knows what to look for.

“A very professional person, someone who has the charisma and the talent,” Edwards says. “A well-packaged person: talent, beauty, and the ability to communicate and be a symbol of excellence.”

Carroll agrees, saying that by putting forth a positive and admirable example, the winner has the opportunity to be an effective, responsible spokesperson for the gay community.

“We’d like a very visible Miss San Antonio,” he says, “who’ll hopefully cross some lines with her professionalism.”

And, of course, pray for world peace.

By Brian Villalobos

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