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The 22 former Miss Continentals and 11 Continental Pluses are referred to as the Inner Sorority. For these sorors, benefits mean sponsorship and an agenda full of bookings across the country. The oldest members, nearing their sixties, still perform. For transgender women, a Continental title means they can continue their art lucratively in a world in which job options are otherwise limited to the nightlife industry, low-wage jobs, or advertising other services in the back of this newspaper.
Miss Continental's image of buxom transsexuals has been drawn so closely that when Michelle Dupreea "boy queen" (pageant-speak for a drag queen who lives as a man)won in 1999, fans and contestants decried the decision as an outrage.
It seems silly to take something like drag pageants so seriously, but they represent the overcoming of obstacles in a vessel so dazzling no one can deny its power. "For gay people, they go for the pageantry, the fantasy, the glamour," O'Neal says, "the idea that gay men who look so humble on the street can look so beautiful onstage as a woman."
Drag, as done in the rest of the country, may be over-the-top, but it's not senseless. In places like the Deep South and the Midwest, it answers a spiritual need in gay communities, giving men and women alike a way to commune with the energy of femininity and sensitivity in a patriarchal culture. A drag queenlike the divas gay culture deifiesis another rendering of the ur-mother, like a modern-day Black Madonna.
Queens pack tapes of Celine Dion singles for lip-synching, just in case an audience demands heart-wrenching melodrama, an on-call outpouring of female energy in a theatrical space that can often resemble a place of worship. "I definitely think that drag has that religious aspect to it, where the club is like church and we're the goddesses," says Diamante.
At La Escuelita, Angel Sheridan sits chatting with a group of performers. Off to one side, the late Lady Catiria's evening gown and crown from Continental sit in a display case, as though in a museum. "I think drag takes the ideals that were set by people like Max Bennet and all the Hollywood people that wanted to capture on film this perfect beauty or this ideal of glamour," she says. "They just started a person and created an illusion. It creates this perfect illusion, especially with what the Continental system always strives to be. Even the people in the system who do comedy, there's always an air of glamour, of the ideal woman."
Early in their drag careers, these girls were already well familiar with the pageant and what it represented. Bambi, now the reigning Miss Washington D.C. Continental, moved to New York six or seven years ago to train at the Eighth Street Studio. "I wanted to become a woman, I wanted to transition, and I wanted to study acting," she says, pushing back her blond locks. "I just started doing shows because reality fell upon my little naive head that the regular world just wasn't so ready for a transsexual actress to just walk in and audition."
Helped along by Angel, Miss Sherry, and promoter José Abraham, Bambi decided to compete in a Continental preliminary. "I just made the decision that if I was gonna do this, I want to do the best," she says. "I didn't see videos or anything."
Angela Carrera, Miss Escuelita Continental, says she first saw a Continental video in 1985, when she was a teenager just starting to live as a woman. "Being a young transsexual, I thought, 'Oh no, drag was just for men who dress as a girl,' " she says. "But Continental opened me up to the fact that transsexuals were able to compete on a national level."
New York has always maintained its different attitude about what drag is, or should beas Angel discovered when she first began coming here from Florida in the mid 1990s, with the promoter Suzanne Bartsch. "I was a drag queen with all these people that resembled nothing of a woman," she says. "You know, very talented, and all these things, but it wasn't drag."
Drag queens were brought to parties to give attitude and supplement the outrageousness of the era's superclubs like Roxy and the Limelight. "But now that's burned out, because as entertainment value, there's no developing of that," she says. "And it got to the point where it just got so big and so outrageous, and it was like, OK. New York is very jaded that way. 'Seen it.' "
If there's any signal that things might be changing, it's the recent conversion of Candis Cayne into a favored Continental contender. "I had never thought to do any pageants, because I'm one of the downtown girls," she says. "I had done things in Europe and am well known here in New York, but I had never gone into the United States to take on this part of the world."
Candis found out about Continental while working as an assistant choreographer on the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, where she had met the Lady Catiria, who kept suggesting that she go and compete. "I was like, 'I dunno, it's not really my thing.' Then Catiria died, and that was really heartbreaking. I was willing to discover new things, and in New York there was nothing going on." She went last year, and ended up placing as second runner-up, a rare occurrence for new contestants.