American Beauties

Don we now our gay apparel

She did not, however, win any national titles. She came close, placing in the top five for Miss Gay America three years in a row, but never wore the crown.

It makes no difference if you're black or white, if you're a boy or a girl/If the music's pumping it will give you new life, you're a superstar, yes, that's what you are, you know it.... Ineada and her two dancers waltz in a circle with their right hands joined in the center above their powdered heads. As the routine promenades to its close, white light from the stage falls onto Joie's face. It show not the look of a drag matron watching one of his protégé's best performances ever but the blank look of a detached emcee watching just another contestant. Joie must assume this face because, as a result of his status as a Miss Gay Missouri board member and as one of this year's hosts, the slightest display of preference could incite shrieks of protest from the other contestants.

But there will probably be no accusations of favoritism tonight. Ineada's performance is, so far, flawless. Even Kevin Little, Tajah Mahal's drag mom, leans against the back wall, admiring the routine. Oooh, you've got to just, let your body go with the flow, Oooh, you've got to...Vogue, Vogue, Vogue. The last three beats of the song bring the audience to their feet. Kevin shakes his head deferentially: "Everything Joie touches turns golden."

Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."
Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."
Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."
Jennifer Silverberg
Joie DiMercurio as Tumara Mahorning: "Everyone thinks you want to be a woman, and that's just not true. It's an illusion you're creating, a character."

By 1999, Joie had a master's degree in theater performance and was working days as a floral designer in St. Louis and performing nights as Tamarah Mahorning at Faces. In between, he continued designing costumes and choreographing talent routines for up-and-coming pageant contestants, even as he continued his own quest for a national title.

But he realized that in order to win the highest competition, he couldn't depend solely on hard-earned stage composure. As Norman Jones, president of the national Miss Gay America Pageant, notes, the judges are professionals who look for contestants who are professionals. "Back in 1972, when I first competed, we just put on our makeup, went onstage and did our things," Jones says. "Nowadays, you have to be an artist. You have to be an artist who creates the perfect illusion."

Joie decided that he would enter the Miss Continental Plus Pageant in 2000. It would be the biggest challenge of his professional career, because, unlike the Miss Gay America system, Miss Continental allows contestants to augment their bodies below the neck. Good drag depends on exaggeration, and Miss Continental allows contestants to take it as far as they can.

The pageant was held in Chicago at the Park West and the Baton Lounge, and Joie's costumes, props, helpers and dancers filled two vans and a car. For the past year, he'd concentrated on his talent pieces, because he had to somehow grab the judges' attention and he knew it would take more than faster songs, bigger wigs and more glitter. Because theater was his specialty, he chose songs that told stories, stories on which he could create the perfect illusion, and he designed costumes that went beyond anything he'd created before.

He'd have to stand out right away, so Joie took a chance. The judges, he knew, expected to see Cher or Donna Summer or Judy Garland and to hear disco or big band or recognizable tunes from Broadway. But when Tamarah Mahorning took the stage on preliminary night, the judges heard the song "Zombie" by the Cranberries and saw something onstage that more closely resembled a swamp monster than a beauty-pageant contestant. This, Joie wanted to tell them, was not just another drag queen.

Although the song is Top 40, it is dark in both its rhythm and lyrics, which describe man's inhumanity toward man: With their tanks and their bombs and their bombs and their guns, in your head, in your head, they are crying. Tamarah materialized as a zombie clad in ripped burlap and straw while, around her, eight dancers encased in white body bags rose slowly from the stage floor. Their movements were eerie, slow and jerky, making it seem as if they were trying to claw their way out of their body bags as the zombie, feet barely moving, swayed back and forth as if in pain.

Joie wanted the judges to be sucked into the drama of the piece, to see the ghostly figures and feel the haunting rhythm and hear the prophetic words: It's the same old theme since 1916, in your head, in your head, they're still fighting.... The zombie and the phantoms pivoted and swirled on bent legs and rotating hips in perfect unison. Threatening. Menacing. Searching, digging, clawing for a way out of the grave. When the song ended, the audience sat in stunned silence. Then, as if suddenly awakened, they erupted into a standing ovation.

Tamarah made it to the Top 10 the next night, and, after another round of interviews, plus rounds for evening gowns, swimsuits and talent, he was crowned Miss Continental Plus 2000.

"Zombie" was so effective that Joie decides later in the year to "loan" the routine to Tajah Mahal to use at the Miss Gay Missouri Pageant.

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