Survival of the Fiercest


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.

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.”

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 Dupree—a “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 queen—like the divas gay culture deifies—is 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 be—as 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.

Candis stayed with two members of the Inner Sorority, Mimi Marks and Cézanne. “I felt a camaraderie with them right away, which is nice,” she says. “While I have a great camaraderie with many of the girls here, there aren’t that many transsexual performers here. That was a great part of it.”

This year she is preparing to serve up glamour the Continental way, in a $2900 custom evening gown (“crushed beading head-to-toe with rhinestones”) that reflects her new approach. Candis’s triumph raises the question of why the Continental style of drag, with its Southern sense of dramatic interpretations, never caught on here before. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that New York is a forward-moving place, an edgy place,” she says. “In the rest of the country, drag is a lot more traditional, a lot more melodramatic.” For Candis, the downtown approach works better. “I’m not going to do a Celine Dion song, because it’s tired.” But she admits there is a change coming, and that if presented in the right angle (perhaps without those Celine Dion numbers), Continental can catch on in New York.

“I think that when people see this,” says Scott Alan Cooper, a/k/a Michelle Dupree, “they’ll change their mind. Candis Cayne is a perfect example of that. She was always in that kind of East Village, kind of more bohemian style. I think that in terms of New York, Candis has been a good way for a lot of that community to segue back. And now that she’s been to Continental, and she’s saying, Wow, I’m like, Yes, honey, that“—cue the sweeping hand motion—”is what it’s about!”