Asheville, North Carolina, touts itself as the hippest city in the state, but in a Southern town of 90,000, trailblazing coolness has its limits. Despite copious boutique restaurants and yoga studios, there are still a lot of business chains and box stores, unsightliness and sprawl, even Confederate flag stickers on pick-up trucks. Locals are reaching—vastly overreaching—when they refer to Asheville too often as the San Francisco of the South. But only one of those two cities had a Latin transvestite and transgender pageant in a sold-out theater this month, and it wasn’t that other, more famous one.
The 7th annual Miss Gay Latina Asheville competition was advertised heavily downtown. On the electronic marquee of the Diana Wortham Theater, where it took place, a 500-seat venue that recently hosted acts like Paula Poundstone and the Paul Taylor Dance Company; on posters in always-busy restaurants; on postcards that featured the six previous winners, in wigs, gowns, and make-up, superimposed lightning shooting from their elegantly extended fingers. On November 1st, six new hopefuls took the stage in front of a packed, overheated audience.
Hipsters and baby boomers. Straight people, businesspeople. Black, white, and brown, the audience was a demographic commingling worthy of its own poster, for diversity. Show organizer Elio Gonzales held the first year’s pageant in an old church in 2008. But the event soon outgrew the building’s 200 seats, confirming Gonzales’ hunch that Asheville “needed to give the girls here a chance to perform,” and that there’d be a market to watch them do it. This year, he’s got more than 15 sponsors, from restaurants to lawyers to a hotel and the local Blue Cross and Blue Shield branch. The Cuba-born Gonzales has been involved in a lot of both Latin and gay Latin festivals and events throughout North Carolina, which he says just keep growing.
"One year, this girl came out in Japanese make-up and sang ‘I Will Always Love You’ to a baby, then powder blew out of her hair and like 40 babies dropped from the ceiling. One lady slit her wrists on stage and rolled around in her blood."
Gonzales acknowledges that there is no lack of Latinas represented in the national pageants, Miss Gay America and Miss Continental and Miss Gay USofA, but he wanted a show that incorporated “roots and history.” The contestants must present a traditional folk costume, interpreted in drag-queen style, from their country of ancestry. “I’m not saying that the other, national competitions aren’t classy,” he says. “But I wanted this one to be classier.”
And so the pageant unfolds as a mix of standard drag-show elements—many of the entertainment acts between the events (stylized folk costume, talent, evening gown, interview, the latter of which took place in front of judges earlier) consist of lip-synching while collecting dollar bills from audience members—and art. The Alayo Dance Company, in town from San Francisco, performs a lengthy, contemplative modern-dance piece. There are other moments where drag and art intersect: For her talent, contestant Tamara Martell, representing Mexico, does a bewildering lip-synch in a wheelchair that ends with her tearing her wig apart, trying and failing to stand, then dragging herself across the stage, limp-legged. The next contestant, Kendra Kavalli, also representing Mexico, also does a lip-synch, but not before coming onstage to the theme from Terminator (dun-dun dun-dun dun-dun). Yet another lip-synch is dedicated in part to a Pepsi bottle.
(Photo: Miss Gay Latina Asheville 2014/Facebook)
Probably these contestants are not polished enough to win a national female-impersonation title. When an entertainer from Chicago who does have a national title, Miss Continental 2013-2014, takes the stage, the slickness and superior choreography of her lip-synch stand out in glaring big-city contrast. But the audience doesn’t mind. “It’s different than a night on the town [in Asheville], like theater or dinner,” understates one guy when I ask him during intermission if he’s here because he knows anyone involved with the show. He doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop him from yelling “Woooo-OOOOOOO-oooooo” at more or less every turn in each performance. He ended up coming the first year by some sort of chance, and has been every year since. He was here the year Andie MacDowell was around (MacDowell, then a local, co-produced a documentary about the 3rd annual Miss Gay Latina Asheville, which appears to be in indefinite post-production). He says it used to be even weirder. “One year, this girl came out in Japanese make-up and sang ‘I Will Always Love You’ to a baby, then powder blew out of her hair and like 40 babies dropped from the ceiling,” he says. “One lady slit her wrists on stage and rolled around in her blood. Another did this scene about a jilted lover and she killed her husband. It was very dramatic. Like a telenovela.”
He is not the only one shouting throughout the performances. When the men from the dance company come on, someone wolf-whistles and yells “Take off your shirt,” and by about halfway through the whole event (between the entertainment and the competition elements, the pageant is three hours long), much of the audience is screaming for Lupita Vega, representing Spain.
Vega, contestant No. 5, first came out in a flamenco folk costume. She appears to have brought some and won over additional audience members, who cheer her name throughout the evening gown portion even when she’s not the one on stage. She appears to be middle-aged, with the body type of your unmotivated uncle. In fact the only contestant here whose figure conforms to improbable feminine beauty “standards” is Josie Glamoure, a 24-year-old representing Cuba who performs at the nearby nightclub Scandals and didn’t seem especially optimistic about her chances backstage before the show started. Everyone was getting ready quietly, keeping to themselves. “It’s too early to tell,” she said, shrugging demurely, when I asked her if she might win.
She doesn’t. While Glamoure takes home the trophy for Miss Photogenic, Lupita Vega sweeps several others—including Miss Popularity and Best Talent, and tying for Best Interview (but losing Miss Congeniality)—before also taking the crown. The audience erupts like members of a football team just winning the SuperBowl, men, lesbians, maybe literal or adopted sisters, and other drag queens leaping out of their seats and bellowing. Vega will take home $450, plus another $150 when she comes back next year to crown Miss Gay Latina Asheville 2015. Her fans, now subjects, continue cheering for a long time, unconcerned about the show being a little long, its participants small-town. After all, everyone has to start somewhere. Gonzales, the show’s organizer and founder, has secured the rights to the name Miss Gay Latina America, a national title. He hopes to hold the first one in 2016—right here in Asheville.