Survival of the Fiercest

Five New York Girls Strive for Drag Divinity at the Miss Continental Pageant

Candis Cayne bounds onto the stage in a belted white dress with tattered streams and spray-painted graffiti; it's very Christian Dior meets Tina Knowles. "I have to tell you I was a little depressed before I came out tonight," she tells her audience, as an offstage fan blows back her strawberry-blond tresses.

"I got my gown delivered to me in the mail for the pageant I'm entering, and it wasn't what I expected, but then I tried it on," she chimes, nailing her punch line with a pose out of a Féria ad. For the past few weeks, her Monday-night show at Chelsea's Barracuda has doubled as a fundraiser. Passing around the tip jar, she pumps her fist in a call to victory: "Onward to Chicago, to win!"

This Labor Day weekend, Candis and four other New York girls are heading to Chicago to compete in the Miss Continental Pageant, a showcase for performers specializing in a kind of drag that runs on high-voltage glamour. Candis will be joined by Angela Carrera, Barbara Herr, Bambi "International" Star, and Victoria Lace, ladies who've built their reputations in the city's Latin gay clubs, places like Escuelita, Krash, and Lucho's.

“I’m not going to do a Celine Dion song, because it’s tired”: Candis Cayne.
Photograph by Bryce Lankard
“I’m not going to do a Celine Dion song, because it’s tired”: Candis Cayne.

If a Miss America girl is discovered to have had a nose job or her breasts done, it's a scandal—but for a Miss Continental hopeful to have had implants or a bone reduction is routine.

Since the mainstreaming of the gay community—a development shaped in part by drag—New York "girls" have been left in the background as the boys took to the hypermasculine, steroid-fueled circuit. With Wigstock, the open-air drag expo, in its final year due to mounting debt and caving ticket sales, the torch has been left to a disparate group of mainstays and their loyal followers. For them, the Continental pageant represents the way queens used to do things—an ultra-feminine brand of escapism, stylized, a little tacky, even. But where it flies, it wrings an almost pious fervor from its fans. In the world of homogenous gods that is Gay New York 2001, what's needed the most is the power of a few goddesses.

The man behind Continental, pageant owner Jim Flint, is an enigma. "I don't like bad drag. I just can't take bad drag. I love beautiful, beautiful drag," Flint says on the phone from the office of his Chicago travel agency. He started Continental in 1980 as a rebuttal to pageants like Miss Gay America, where stringent rules barred transsexuals and transgender women. The pageant grew so popular that it spawned a spin-off, Miss Continental Plus, for girls 250 pounds and over, of which there have been 12 winners. Flint says he dreams of one day holding the pageant and a Continental revue in Las Vegas.

In the straight world, beauty pageants stand as a tired anachronism of the limited spheres women were allowed to occupy in American culture. Pageants for biological women leave aspiring professionals grimacing in swimsuits and ball gowns.

But in the gay world, especially for transgender women who work as drag queens, pageants come from somewhere else. While straight pageants present a fantasy image implied to be attainable, drag pageants make fantasy the point. If a Miss America girl is discovered to have had a nose job or her breasts done, it's a scandal—but for a Miss Continental hopeful to have had implants or a bone reduction is routine.

With cosmetic surgery so prevalent these days, Continental judges are looking more at talent and presentation. It's all about the late Continental winner Tandi Andrews, clad as Wonder Woman, springing out of a Plexiglas plane to roar into a lip sync to Bonnie Tyler's "I Need a Hero," or Cézanne re-creating Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation dance routine, perfectly in step with her dancers. "It's about spectacle," says Scott Allen Cooper, a/k/a Michelle Dupree, a former Miss Continental now appearing in the Off-Broadway show Bombshell: The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe. "It's about becoming something that people want to look at. It's even more effective because you're a guy."

In addition to talent and interview, queens are rated for living up to the formal rigors of female impersonation. Drag after all, is simply an acronym from Elizabethan theater: DRessed As Girl.

Carry O'Neal, co-owner of Regalia, an Orlando atelier that makes custom clothing and gowns (average price: $3000), says the pageants are unforgiving. "The ones that are very competitive at the start—like Candis—their goal is perfection," he says. "Not only in the illusion, but perfection in talent, perfection in evening gown. They [the judges] can't find one thing wrong with them onstage."

Of the country's five major pageantry systems for drag, many consider Continental the best. "Continental girls are the most talented, the prettiest, and usually the smartest," says Martina Diamante, Miss Georgia Continental. "It's the total package."

Since most of the contestants are transsexuals, the Continental look involves appearing both glamorously finished and as "real" as possible. Continental standards demand that contestants stop working on "drag time"—that long-held tradition of showing up late—and give up speaking in slang. "If you go into interview and use a double negative or the word ain't, just go home," says Angel Sheridan, the current Miss Continental Plus. "They've made that so important now, that whole interview spokesperson thing."

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