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Miss Gay America 2012

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Longtime MGA followers liken the level of this year’s competition to the glory days of the 1980s when titans like Naomi Sims, Tasha Kohl and Missouri’s own Vicki Vincent battled for the crown.

 

And while this is the first year in recent memory where no Missouri contestants broke the Top 10 on final night—they each represented well. Miss Gay Missouri 2011 Madison Elise and First Alternate Tajma Stetson, headed a cadre of bi-state “girls” who helped put “The Show Me State” on the map.

 

The Miss Gay Missouri America Pageant is the second oldest preliminary to MGA and was honored with the awards for Best Opening Production Number and Best New Promoters. Alternate Tajma Stetson also received The Jimmi Dee Award for Best Overall Contestant Not in Top 10.

 

Some 51-contestants competed in categories of evening gown, long talent, solo talent and male interview over three nights of preliminary competition at The Sheraton Capitol Square Ballroom (the latter two category scores carry over to final night). Afternoons were spent in rehearsal and meetings and exploring a bit of Columbus—a refreshingly contemporary and queer friendly city.

 

Final night competition was held at the uber-modern Capitol Theatre at The Riffe Center. MGA 2011 Coti Collins kicked things off astride a three tiered pedestal as the warm melodies of Lorrie Morgan’s “Something in Red” washed over the audience. Coti was joined first by a circle of friends, then a family of MGA promoters. Finally, 15-former MGA’s and 51-contestants—each ravishing in red—took the stage. Indeed, the scene the set for the magic to begin.

 

Chosen to compete on Final Night in the categories of evening gown, on stage question and talent were Miss Gay Tri States, Tanisha Foxx; Miss Gay Maryland Alt., Araya Sparxx; Miss Gay Oklahoma, Roxie Hart; Miss Gay Gulf States, Blair Williams; Miss Gay Mid East, Chantel Reshae; Miss Gay Heart of America, Sally Sparkles; Miss Gay Arizona, Celia Putty; Miss Gay Texas, Jenna Skyy; Miss Gay Atlantic States, Jessica Jade and Miss Gay D.C., Kirby Kolby.

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The evening proved riveting with guest performances by formers and contestants dazzling in modern and well-fitted gowns. But it was long talent—oftentimes performed with lavish props and back up dancers—that brought the audience to their feet.

 

Tanisha Foxx danced the house down with feathers, fans and dancers while Araya Sparxx transfixed and delighted with her Mary Poppins production. Former National Entertainer of the Year Roxie Hart danced brilliantly, as did Sally Sparkles—each with their own troupe and message. Blair Williams gave us Ziegfeld Follies while Chantel Reshae wanted us to “Be Italian.” Jenna Skyy was divine with high energy choreography, Celia Putty hilarious with her imaginative game show riff and Jessica Jade proved a “Big Time” show stopper.

 

But it was only appropriate that Kirby Kolby was the last to perform as she seized the moment to turn her “Sunset Boulevard” into a Broadway finale. Kirby’s Norma Desmond was spot-on—haunting, beautiful, revolting—a truly insane seductress. The veteran flailed before the audience as the curtain rose to reveal a full set of Victorian furniture complete with an actual grand staircase for the siren to descend.

 

“This time I’m staying, I’m staying for good—I’ll be back where I was born to be. With one look, I’ll be me!” she pantomimed, her hands pausing before the iconic Miss Gay America marquee. The room was on notice. After an 11-year absence from competition—the North Carolina native was there to win.

 

“I think it is so interesting that Kirby began his MGA journey with (essentially) the same number that he ended it with,” remarked long-time pageant participant and fan, Barbra Seville. “A song that might have just seemed like an effective talent actually mirrored his journey to the crown—being away from his fans, returning to his fans, and finding his place.”

 

Indeed, one of the great comeback stories was realized with the crowning of Kirby Kolby as the 40th Miss Gay America. First Alternate honors went to Jessica Jade for the second year running and Jenna Skyy, Araya Sparxx and Blair Williams took second, third and fourth alternate, respectively.

 

Individual awards included Kirby Kolby winning the Dani Deletto Male Interview, Ramona LeGer’ Evening Gown and Leslie Rage Talent Awards. Jessica Deveraux captured the Naomi Sims Solo Talent Award, Jessica Jade took the Lady Shawn On Stage Question Award, Angela Lopez received the Michael Andrews Photogenic Award and Chi Chi Ray Colby won the Lady Baronessa Congeniality Award. State Preliminary of the Year honors went to Miss Gay Arizona, Regional Preliminary of the Year honors went to Miss Gay Gulf States and the Norma Kristie Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Joe Angel (Tillie Lane).

 

MGA has always held firm to its tradition that requires its contestants be all male—hence no hormones or body work below the neck is allowed. Indeed, after witnessing this last pageant—the art form and this system appear as popular as ever.

 

 

St. Louis Gayborhoods

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Following WWII, middle class white families vacated America’s inner cities for suburbia in great numbers while many LGBTers remained decidedly metropolitan. Back then, we didn’t see the need for the big backyards or quiet cul-de-sacs that attracted parents of young children to the county. Further, we weren’t as paranoid about racially mixed neighborhoods or ailing schools or the elevated crime stats of urban dwelling.

 

“Gays might also have been less likely to have the financial means to relocate to suburbia,” explained Ian Darnell, a Ph.D. student in American history and member of the St. Louis LGBT History Project. “Flamboyantly gay men and gay men who had gotten in trouble with the law had severely limited employment opportunities. So did gays who had been ejected from the military—and they also couldn’t take advantage of the generous veterans benefits that helped so many other young men hoist themselves into the middle class and to relocate to suburbia.”

 

The Central West End would become one of St. Louis’ prominent gay neighborhoods with its disproportionately large and visible LGBT population vis-a-vis the rest of the metro area. Indeed, the CWE was a growing hub of queer social life throughout the 1960s, and by the 1970s—was the epicenter of Gateway City LGBT politics.

 

“First, I’d say it had to do with its status as liminal racial territory,” offered Darnell. “The area itself had a mixed black/white population, and it was at the edge of the ghetto. This racial betweenness kept many straight whites out and property values low—but was less objectionable to the gays.”

 

Darnell also points to nearby institutions of higher learning (Washington University and Saint Louis University), a major entertainment district (Gaslight Square), Forest Park and the local art and theater scenes as major draws for young, unattached, adventurous and idealistic residents—all traits that made the area more hospitable to queers. 

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Eventually heterosexual awareness of the CWE with its newly rehabbed homes, businesses and nightlife led to yuppies moving back to the neighborhood and city officials taking note. So much so that in 1984 the St. Louis LGBT publication, No Bad News hit the streets with a January 1984 cover asking “Are Gays Being Pushed Out of the Central West End?”

 

In the mid 1970s, St. Louis Mayor A.J. Cervantes acquired development rights to an area surrounding the central Maryland/Euclid corner as rumors of anti gay policies at the Maryland Plaza Redevelopment Corporation grew. Seemingly overnight, rents were raised and certain leases were not renewed. The first queer casualty was famed gay disco Herbies’ nightclub on Maryland Plaza. Soon other LGBT bars and businesses shuttered or moved to more affordable addresses. Similarly – LGBTers experienced sticker shock as apartment and home rentals skyrocketed.

 

Indeed, the neighborhood around Waterman and McPherson known as “Homo Heights” throughout the 1960s and 1970s was predominantly queer no more.

 

The St. Louis LGBT community has also played a large role in the revitalization of areas such as Soulard, South Grand and Lafayette Square. But if there is an heir apparent to the CWE, one needs look no further than The Grove.

 

In the early 1980s, the stretch of Manchester Ave. between Vandeventer and Kingshighway was in terrible shape. But pioneering LGBT bars such as Genesis I & II, Spikes and Attitudes laid the foundation for a rebirth of the neighborhood as seen in today’s vibrant entertainment district anchored by five queer bars and the LGBT Center of St. Louis, along with a host of diverse eateries and watering holes.

 

Still, there are concerns among many in the LGBT community that history could be repeating itself and what happened in the CWE could happen in The Grove.

 

A longtime LGBT Grove business owner points to the courting of the “straight hipster” crowd and minimal LGBT presence at GroveFest as examples.

 

“The majority of the murals that were painted in the Grove about a year or so ago didn’t have a single gay bar on them,” they explained. “You will see Atomic Cowboy, Sweetie Pies and Gramophone. Just recently after complaining several times they started adding the gay bars. It kind of seemed like they were trying to white-wash us out. Even the article which announced the Grove sign dedication didn’t list the gay bars.”

 

gayborhoodnbn84The truth is, it’s a mixed bag. While Pride St. Louis and The LGBT Center of St. Louis both participated in this year’s GroveFest, the annual festival was moved further down Manchester and away from our bars. Still—The Grove website does make a point to include a LGBT narrative in its history, along with quotes from queer community members. Vital VOICE has also confirmed the absence of any organized participation of LGBT business owners at neighborhood meetings.

 

Our community needs a few things to happen to improve LGBT standing along Manchester. First—unlike previous St. Louis gayborhoods—we don’t live in The Grove. There are hundreds of houses in need of a little lavender TLC and rehab. We should invest in the neighborhood by not just patronizing, but living there as well. This will go a long way in making our voices heard.

 

What’s more—both The Grove organizers and the LGBT community need to better their communication. Instead of endless infighting, we queers must form a cohesive caucus of community members who regularly attend neighborhood meetings and add to the discussion.

 

And as for the powers that be in The Grove—they should be more sensitive of our history, and like other minority groups, our struggle to maintain cultural relevance in the neighborhood.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY: DARIN SLYMAN & ADALAIDE BALABAN


 

Vintage Drag & River Queens

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Up until 1971, Massey had only dressed in drag twice for the Mandrake Society’s annual Halloween Ball. The event was a fundraiser for St. Louis’ first LGBT rights organization, and the novice queen caught the attention of the legendary Miss Tracy.

 

“They were starting a new show and Tracy asked if I could fill in for two weeks and just help them out until they found another regular,” Massey told Vital VOICE last August. “So Miss Tracy sort of started me on this—and certainly on the way to the show I didn’t have a name, and they came up with one. Tracy always razzed me about being sweet and all that good stuff: ‘You’re just so fucking sweet—Sweet as candy.’ So I became Miss Candy.”

 

Known as the First Lady of Drag, Miss Tracy was born Rudy Hendrickson in Canton, Missouri where he excelled in theater and dance. By 1964 he was living in Los Angeles and working as a chorus line dancer when he was asked to play a woman in a straight club on the Sunset Strip. The 19-year-old dazzled that evening and immediately went from making $95 a week as a boy to $650 a week as a female illusionist stripper. Miss Tracy was born and the trailblazer would champion the art form for the next 40-years.

 

“Like Adam and Eve, darling—I’m Eve,” said Hendrickson in an interview shortly before his 2003 death. “As far as everybody else, that’s why they call me mother, because I’ve helped thousands get started. I created the first legitimate paying show in St. Louis in the late 1960s at Helen Schrader’s [in East St. Louis].”

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The Stage Show which started out at Schrader’s and soon moved across the street to The Red Bull and later Faces was called “The River Queens.” Tracy eventually moved on, leaving Candy to keep the show running with cast mate Donna Drag, who along with his twin brother, Lana Kuntz; Empress of the Midwest, Claire Sheridan; Toast of the Town, Toni Taylor; and Mr. Edye Gregory were just a few of the marquee entertainers to strut the stage.

 

In 1974 Candy James entered the fledgling Miss Gay Missouri, America pageant—but with little intention of winning.

 

“When I was announced the winner, I was kind of surprised,” he said.

 

Indeed the performance of Liza Minnelli’s “Mammy” had dazzled the MGM audience, even though many had mistakenly thought that Massey, who sported his own hair, was channeling the late Judy Garland. The mistake proved prophetic as Candy James would soon become known for her dynamic but tender portrayal of the queer icon.

 

By 1977 Massey was at the top of his game and was tapped by former Red Bull owner Jerry Edwards to be the Show Director at his new late night entertainment complex, Faces. It was the East Side’s largest club and the pinnacle of after-hours LGBT nightlife.

 

“Jerry was probably one of the fairest people I’ve ever, ever, ever dealt with in drag,” said Massey. “He’s one of those people that, when he hired someone to do something, he didn’t care what it cost. As long as you did what he asked you to do, and you achieved that goal, he didn’t hassle you remotely. He was just so very, very good about stuff.

 

Candy James and The River Queens had become the regions preeminent female impersonation review. The show included two production numbers and in-between the regulars’ sets there was an hour of new talent which gave birth to the likes of Petrina Marie, Christi Cole and Melinda Ryder.”

 

“Just about everyone who became anyone performed with us,” offered Massey. “And it’s not that we made them anything—it’s just that we were the show to be at and we had as many people as we possibly could. We really tried to book people quite often and move the show around and change things.”

 

Tracy2Midway through our interview, Massey reaches for a yellowed and tattered photo album from beneath a pile of papers. The well worn keepsake falls open to a page devoted to his mentor, the late Miss Tracy.

 

“Probably the person I trusted most—and I did my own thing, but I listened—was Miss Tracy,” Massey explained. “She used to just amaze me—and I certainly didn’t need protecting, but she felt that I did—and if anyone said anything to me or about me that was bad, she was more than willing to take them on.”

 

Indeed Tracy, Candy and their ilk not only shaped, but lived the history of the art form. From the days of police raids and drag performers having to recruit lookouts during St. Louis shows to the heyday of the Red Bull with Martha Raye and Phyllis Diller in the audience—they saw it all.

 

“The sad thing about what’s happening right now is that the bars themselves are not willing to invest,” Massey stated. “If you go anywhere now you’re hard-pressed if you can get $25 to perform (if you’re a name.) When Faces first started in 1977—everybody in the cast and our guests made $50 a night plus drinks and tips.”

 

“You couldn’t get $50 today if your life depended on it,” the legend continued. “Unless you’re Miss Gay America—people in this city aren’t going to do it. And it’s the bar owners’ fault… they’d say, ‘you know we can get a group of crazies up here and no one cares and they’ll all come and look.’ Well that’s very true. But if you want something good, you have to pay for it—and drag is not cheap.”

 

Asked if he has any advice for younger performers and Massey doesn’t hesitate: “Learn a skill—learn how to sew, how to do hair or build a set,” said the former Miss Illinois America, Miss Midwest America and Midwest Entertainer of the Year. “You’ll be self sufficient and won’t have to depend on others all of the time.”

 

Massey admits a lot has changed since the early days when The River Queens would hang fruit cans from the ceiling for lights and took turns standing at the record player to queue the next entertainer’s song after exiting the stage. But some things remain timeless and the veteran urges entertainers to be open to trying some of the time honored standards or Broadway numbers.

 

“I think the new kids who are coming up—they’re talented, but they’re missing a lot,” said the veteran who still performs weekends at The Grey Fox. “They’re focusing on current music, and that’s okay—but there’s an awful lot of clever, incredible stuff out there.”

 

BELOW: Listen to a 1990s interview with the irrepressable, Miss Tracy. This audio tape was found stored beneath the entertainer’s bed following her death in 2003.

 

 

 

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF JIMMY MASSEY, JONAH GIBSON & STEPHEN ADAMS

Springfield’s Smokey’s Den

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I wanted to hear more about Smokey and the now shuttered but significant gay bar. So when Club Escapade’s Bobbi Nix offered to drive me up there to meet the reluctant LGBT icon and pioneer, I jumped at the chance.

 

Schneider picked up the nickname “Smokey” while playing softball and at 82, is still quite the pistol. She now lives in a retirement community near Annie, her friend and companion of over 40-years.

 

“Yeah I sit here with all these old straight women, bless their hearts,” she quipped. “I do have a good time with them. I used to be criticized because I was gay so who am I to criticize them because they’re heterosexual.  I get along fine with all of them.”

 

Realizing early on that there wasn’t a place for LGBTers to go and be safe, the Jacksonville, Illinois native worked out an arrangement with the owner of The Tropical Isle at 127 N. 5th street to purchase his bar. Smokey’s Den opened on October 30, 1966 but would later move to 411 E. 296178_10150355643077018_672192017_9749422_4081539_nWashington street. For a short while there was even a second Smokey’s bar in the county. But it was Smokey’s Den that would become an Illinois institution over the next four decades.

 

“Police walked the beat back then and they’d come in the bar and sometimes they’d check ID’s but usually they just looked around and left,” Smokey recalled. “We got real acquainted—boy, they were just like family to me. They never bothered me one bit.”

 

Still, it was 1966 and Smokey warned her “kids” to be careful.

 

“At the start when the police would come into the bar the kids would yell, “switch” because the boys were dancing with boys and then the boys would grab a girl,” she explained. “Then one night they [the police] came in and somebody yelled “switch” and all of the sudden he [the officer] took his nightstick and slid it down to the floor and said, “Carry on kids.” And we did ever since.”

 

Smokey’s Den was also one of the first bars in the state to marquee professional drag shows starting in 1967. “The Smokettes” were well known throughout the Midwest and South and were the brainchild of Smokey’s cousin Bobby Pierce, who she credits with creating the troupe.

 

“I said, I’ll tell you what—I’ll let you guys go ahead and try it,” said Smokey, who would go on to become the first owner and promoter of the Miss Gay Illinois America pageant. “We had a little stage across the back and they changed in the women’s bathroom. When they announced them and they came in from the front of the bar to “Shangri-La” I could not believe it. They looked gorgeous.”

 

The Smokettes proved a major draw, including from St. Louis where “masquerading” was illegal. Bob Martin’s bar would even take patrons up by the busload and make a night of it.

 

Smokey shrugs off any talk of being a trailblazer in the LGBT community, stating: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. But I’ve never, ever felt important.”

 

Indeed, the octogenarian has seen a lot of things change and for the better in way of equal rights for the LGBT community, including Civil Unions in Illinois.

 

“It’s like anything else that comes up—people are against it but they might as well forget it—because eventually, down the line, it’s gonna be accepted,” she offered. “We’re here and we’ve got just as much right to be able to claim our lover on taxes and hospitalization as everybody else that pays taxes. God knows I’ve paid enough.”

 

After cutting her teeth working at her parent’s tavern and then running her own place for 36-years, it was time for Smokey to take it easy. When Smokey’s Den closed its doors on February 22, 2003 it was the oldest gay bar in the state and one of the oldest in the nation under the same owner.

 

“I miss my bar,” said the matriarch to generations of LGBTers better for the oasis of diversity and acceptance she provided. Indeed, three years before Stonewall and Mary Lou “Smokey” Schneider was breaking down barriers and making history along the prairie. Important work indeed.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY: CHUCK ATTEBERRY & BOBBI NIX

Growing American Youth Thriving

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Being a teenager is tough—and for LGBT teens this fact rings doubly true. But today’s youth are embracing visibility on a level never seen before. Sure, those of us who came before helped pave the road—but the current generation has seized the wheel with vigor. Whether forming Gay/Straight Student Alliances at area schools or taking their same sex date to prom; today’s LGBT youth are quickly shattering the prism through which our community is viewed.

 

In late 1979, Al Macabeo, a member of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) recognized that there was a complete lack of information or any legitimate activities for Gateway City LGBT youth. Accordingly, he obtained permission from the church’s Board of Directors to organize a social support group.

 

When the group first met at the church; a Victorian three-story house on Waterman in the Central West End, they didn’t have a name and the meetings were quite small. In early 1980 the group took the name “Pride” and the late Bill Cordes, who would play an instrumental role in the organization’s success over the next 20-years, came on board as sponsor. But the church was uncomfortable with some older people hanging around the group and organizers quickly changed the name to “Under 21 Group.” Few liked the name; so in June 1980, members voted and “Growing American Youth” was born.

 

While the format of the youth group has changed throughout the years to suit the needs of its current members, it has remained a constant in our community. It is a safe-haven for our young people and continues to produce generations of well adjusted and productive LGBT community members.

 

I first discovered Growing American Youth my senior year of high school. I’d known I was gay since before junior high and sadly, started experimenting at far-too-young of an age. Luckily in 1989 someone did me the favor of talking to me instead of just taking me home. I’ll never forget his words—“You need to take your happy butt to Our World Too and talk to Bill Cordes.”

 

Our World Too was St. Louis’ gay bookstore. It sat next to Magnolia’s on Vandeventer and was owned and operated by Bill from 1987-1999. I can’t begin to tell you the level of love and affection I have for that man—he changed my life. There was never a stupid question you could ask him and believe me, I had plenty. Bill opened my eyes to the possibility and power of community—he gave me books to read and I quickly became a student of queer history.

 

All of these things have remained a constant in my life. Still the greatest gift he gave me was entry into Growing American Youth. In 1989/90 the group met in the basement of the old MCC Church on Dolman.  The neighborhood may have been run-down, but seemed like grandest place on earth. There, I had found my tribe—peers just like me and together we discovered ourselves, our community and each other.

 

Back then sneaking into your first gay bar was the right of passage—the Internet was still a government secret, and there were no gay coffee houses or 18-and-up nights at the clubs. It seemed all we had was The West End Cafe, the Hampton “Gay Denney’s and the safety of our group—but that was more than enough.

 

I remember interviewing Bill for Vital VOICE shortly before he died; we both got such a kick out of it. I’ll share a bit of what he said:

“Our community is our home. Let it become a shambles, ignore it and it will not shelter you when you need it. Put in the necessary maintenance and it can be something from which you can draw support, friendship, love and much more. Community quite literally has made such a huge difference in so many peoples’ lives—often giving them the means to survive.”

 

Indeed, Growing American Youth has given our young people not only the means to survive—but to thrive. I still see a few of the peers from my class and not surprisingly, we are all active within the LGBT community. That’s a testament to Bill and Growing American Youth. And given the strides the present generation has made—there’s no telling of the heights our community will reach.

 

For more information check out www.growingamericanyouth.org or if you’re an alumnus like me – join the Growing American Youth Alumni Page on Facebook.