As Miss Gay America, Montrese is not only the face of the storied pageant system—but also it’s administrator—and must perform and preside over each state and regional contest across the country.
Montrese, who was first runner up at the national pageant held here last fall, assumed the title of Miss Gay America following the dethroning of Alyssa Edwards. But with seven preliminaries under ‘her’ corset—and with an air of professionalism and grace—Montrese has proven ‘she’ is the right Miss Gay America for the time.
Vital VOICE Magazine was delighted to be granted an exclusive interview with the reigning symbol of excellence while the entertainer was in town for Mike Divoky and Rodney Brown’s, Miss Gay Heart of America pageant.
In a wide ranging interview, Montrese talks about her return to St. Louis, her start in female impersonation, and what really happens when the airport x-ray spots the scepter and crown.
Colin Murphy: When you were last in St. Louis in an official capacity, it was for your coronation. I haven’t had a chance to talk to you since then—what stands out about that evening for you?
Coco Montrese: I think initially just having Victoria [DePaula] crown me is the thing that stands out for me the most. That was always a dream of mine and we grew really close over her year. She basically schooled me on a lot of things and groomed me to get myself ready to go back to competition. So actually having her have that chance to crown me was the amazing part for me.
CM: How has your life changed since being crowned Miss Gay America?
Coco: Dramatically—and it’s all been for the best. My life has changed a lot—my schedule is really, really hectic but my personal life has changed.
This is one of my main goals in female impersonation. I set this goal and my other goal is to be in a show in Las Vegas. And this is opening up a lot of opportunity for me, even in that realm. Things have happened since then that I’m not at liberty to discuss right now, but I will in the future.
CM: Now Hot Chocolate went from MGA to Las Vegas-
Coco: Right—so there’s some things that are going to work out well for my future that I’m excited about.
CM: Can we surmise that Janet Jackson will have something to do with it?
Coco: [Laughs] Yes—we do love Janet Jackson. She is the ultimate in my realm of impersonation. I love performing her.
CM: Did you see Janet on American Idol? She looked fantastic with the short hair.
Coco: I got tons of calls after that! [People said] Oh my God—we can’t wait to see you in the short hair and the dress and doin’ that song! So I’m sure that’s in the works. It just happened last night—the night before last. But yes—she will pretty much have something to do with my future.
CM: We’re here, of course, for Miss Gay Heart of America and you held that title when you were crowned MGA. Will this be an emotional step-down for you?
Coco: This is going to be a very emotional step-down for me. I think it’s going to be one of the most emotional step-downs for me because my history with Miss Gay Heart of America was with me through most of my journey at Miss Gay America. It was the main pageant in my journey. Miss Gay Florida America—which Florida is my home—was my very first. Heart of America was my second preliminary where I was first alternate my first year and then I came back to win my second year. Which completed the three year’s I competed for Miss Gay America.
When I picked Heart of America as my preliminary it was one of the smartest things I have ever done in my career. Not knowing Mike and Rodney personally— when I got online to research each pageant to decide what regional I would go to, that was the one that stuck out the most. And then I remembered meeting them at Miss America when I was Miss Florida America and their demeanor and their pleasant attitude and just their love for the system helped me to make my decision to go to Miss Heart of America.
Once I made my decision my mind was made up. I didn’t harp on it. It wasn’t a long decision. It was right after America and it was like, Okay, that’s the one, that’s where I’m going. And I put my total focus on Miss Heart of America…
CM: What was your toughest category when you competed at America?
Coco: I would think it would be gown. It’s funny now on the road, because I have to tell the contestants—for so many years people have had this structured idea in their minds of what you need to look like for evening gown at Miss Gay America. Well back in the day when those things were in
play—yes, you needed to conform to that. Now we’re a little bit more open—we’re allowing you to be creative—we encourage you to express who you are and show who you are in a feminine way, as long as it’s elegant and presentable and suitable to you, then you can do it.
This past year when I wore the evening gown I wore final night a lot of the contestants were like, whoa—you’re taking a big risk. And I said, it’s what I’m comfortable in. I would rather wear this and be comfortable on stage than to wear something that fits the mold of what everyone thinks it should be and I’m not comfortable in it. So I’m telling the girls this year that they need to step out of the box and allow themselves to be creative, but at the same time, remember that we’re sophisticated and we’re elegant…
CM: How did you get your start in female impersonation?
Coco: It’s so funny. I was in college and I was away and I grew up in a family where I’d never been away from home—it was my first time away from home—but my parents took care of everything. All of my schooling was paid, I was sent an allowance—I was one of those silver-spoon kids you hear about. And I wanted to break away from that but I never could find a way to do it.
So I went out with some friends one night and they took me to this club and I saw this entertainer and her name was Mokha Montrese. Wow! I just looked at her in amazement and watched her and watched this presence that she had on stage and just the things that she could do with her eyes and facial expressions on stage. She was very talented but there was something about her that was more than just her talent, more than her kicking her leg, more than her doing pirouettes and showing us that she had dance skills. There was something inside of her that just could draw you in on stage and that was the entertainer I wanted to be. I said that’s the person I want to be. I want to be this entertainer that draws people in.
So I got to meet her afterwards and I was completely terrified. I’d never seen a drag queen before in my life, I’d never met one and she was really nice to me and said, oh you’re really pretty. I should put you in makeup one day. And I was like, oh no—not me.
CM: Famous last words, right?
Coco: Tell me about it! So one day, she did—she put me in makeup—and I entered the talent show. I made tons of money and I enjoyed myself—I felt free—I had a great time on stage. And when I got back I counted the money and thought, hmmm—that’s not bad. Maybe I could do this and I won’t have to ask my parents for money for school.
So I kept doing the talent show—I kept winning and kept making money, and after awhile, I got into it really heavy. Then the owner of the bar said, you should do this pageant coming up. And that was when Miss National was around. So I entered Miss Dixieland National [and I won]…
CM: And you soon made the jump to the America system—how did you know that this was going to be a good fit?
Coco: I researched more pageants and I found Miss America and everything about Miss America described me and what I like to do in my life. I’m in college becoming a professional and wanted to have my outside life as a professional, but I enjoyed entertaining as a female. That was my persona—I loved creating that illusion—but I did not want to give up who I really was. And Miss America let me do that…
I see my relationship with Miss America as a real relationship and in relationships I think you should be monogamous. What I mean by that is, if I’m persuing the title of Miss Gay America, I’m not going to be competing for Miss Gay America, Miss US of A, Miss Continental all at the same time. Somebody, somewhere, in those relationships is going to get the short end of the stick because I’m going to put my whole heart in one. You can’t divide that up among the others. And that’s why I say it’s a relationship and you need to be monogamous. I decided to be monogamous when I said, I’m gonna stick this out until I win Miss Gay America.
Now everyone asks, will you do any other pageant systems when this is over? I believe my relationship with Miss America is what it is. I can’t predict the future. However, I know right now in my life, this was all I wanted. This is the highest honor for me in female impersonation.
CM: I don’t have any interest in rehashing the politics and drama, but I would like to ask a different question: You’ve handled stepping in and assuming the role of Miss Gay America with such grace and professionalism. But there continues to be a handful of vocal critics and snarky message board posts. How do your rise above it?
Coco: It’s so funny because I don’t really subscribe to them. Because right now I feel I have a job to do and if I let that distract me it can consume you. So I don’t allow the people around me to actually bring that into my circle. However, there’s no way you can avoid hearing some of the things that are said and sometimes they are very funny to me—I laugh about them. Because if you think about it, in every pageant you go to this shouldn’t be a big issue because they always say, if the winner cannot fulfill their duties, the first alternate will take over the role…
CM: So what was it like for Miss Gay America to meet Miss America?
Coco: It was a little nerve-racking for me at first. She was already at a function, she was at a gala and I think she was kind of taken off-guard by it. But we actually got a chance to meet and take the pictures and her family was there and they got to take pictures. For me it was very monumental. I don’t think it’s ever been done in the past and for it to be me and to happen to me, I thought it was an honor. To go down in history as the first reigning Miss Gay America to meet the reigning Miss America and be able to be photographed together—it was a surreal experience, it really was.
And then it happened in Washington, D.C.—The Capital. And right after I met her I went out to the White House and just coincidentally the president was leaving so it was a surreal day for me. The helicopter is going up and all of the guards and the dogs are there and there I am standing with my crown on. It was just an amazing, amazing day.
CM: Last question—do you flag airport security all of the time carrying the crown and the jewels?
Coco: All the time—it never fails! Give yourself 20-extra-minutes, because they always do. But most of the time they always want pictures and they want the promo and they want to say they were able to meet Miss Gay America. Even if I’m tired and fatigued, I allow myself that time to be that voice and be informational to them. A lot of times they want to know more about it and that is my chance to give the heterosexual community the opportunity to understand that we’re a little more than what you think we are.
People always ask me would you ever go on a talk show, would you ever go on The Wendy Williams Show? And my answer is yes, absolutely I would—but with stipulations. I don’t want to go on there and talk about where I put it or anything like that. I want to talk about the issues in the gay community, our rights and what we as a people expect out of everyone else because I want them to see us in a different light. I don’t want them to see us as—oh, you’re Miss Gay America—you dress up in women’s clothing. No, that’s not what this is all about. I want them to see the true side of our community and what we’re all about.
BY: COLIN MURPHY – SENIOR WRITER