To a lot of people, drag pageants seem like a childish hobby for the self-absorbed. For those in the know, pageants are part sport, part community service. It's a game where the cleats are stilettoes and the only stats that matter are beauty, glamour, elegance, sophistication, talent, class and a desire to do good within your community.
With Miss Gay America's newest regional preliminary pageant Miss Gay Great Lakes America, local and national talent get one more chance to serve realness to the judges and their community.
"Pageantry is all about self-betterment; you have to push yourself to become a better person," reigning Miss Gay America Sally Sparkles says. "With female impersonation, you have to push yourself to be a better entertainer. Those people that win get to be a role model and a source of inspiration for all those around them, if they're in it for the right reasons."
Among the many national titles available to female impersonators, MGA is widely considered the pinnacle of traditional drag competition. As such, the inaugural MGGLA, which takes place Sept. 19-21 at the Cavern Club in Ann Arbor, is something of a salute to the caliber of talent in the area.
"Drag pageantry is a reward for being one of the best in your craft," Miss Gay America owner Terry Eason says. "Obviously being booked at the best bar is great, but pageants can give you something to strive for."
When it comes to drag pageantry, the level of completion borders insanity. With so much talent pooled from all over the country, MGA proves to be one of the fiercest title fights around. That fierce competition is also what ensures competitors are in top form when they hit the stage.
"When it's as difficult to win Miss Gay America as it is, it keeps you grounded, it makes you motivated," Eason says. "It can give you something to strive for. At the same time, it rewards you when you overcome those obstacles and get better at your craft."
It also makes sure that, even though only one woman will walk away with the title and prizes, the audience is the one who really wins.
Motown legends Martha and the Vandellas will be kicking off the three-day event, which includes a parade, five-part competitive portion, crowning ceremony and a performance from Sally Sparkles. Even with all that, the competitors have no chance of getting lost in the crowd.
"There's going to be some good talent there, some that have placed in the top 10 of Miss Gay America before. I think the competition is going to be there," Eason says.
Eason made sure to note that, just like everyone outside MGGLA, he has no idea who will actually take the stage. In fact, during regional qualifying competitions, the names of entrants and judges are kept under wraps. The names of the judges will be released the morning of the event, but the contestant's identities won't be known for sure until they set their impeccably pedicured feet on the stage.
The secrecy may seem extreme, but it's an attempt to enhance and maintain the integrity of the competition.
"We really hold true to our integrity and we follow the rules and we try to make it as fair as a pageant can be," Sparkles says proudly, her sweet-as-Southern-sun-tea accent never more pronounced. "People can always cry foul and that it's rigged, but the America system does everything in its power to make sure that the integrity is held within our pageants."
As a pillar of old school drag values, MGA and MGGLA hang their hats on that competition integrity and the professionalism with which their selected contestants perform.
"Those that are familiar with pageantry in general, I think they're going to come and be surprised by, number one, the professionalism," Eason says.
Although he didn't directly produce MGGLA, Eason is proud of the show they're putting on.
"I think they've worked really hard to show Ann Arbor a top-notch, quality pageant," Eason says. "I think whoever wins and gets first alternate, they're going to represent the city well at Miss Gay America."
Miss Gay Great Lakes America
The Cavern Club Event and Entertainment Complex
210 South First St., Ann Arbor