There S/he Is! The Miss Gay America Pageant prances into St. Louis — and Unreal drinks it all in like a camel at Hoover Dam

Moments before the pageant begins, Unreal feels every last downy hair on our arms come to attention.

Here we are in a gilded side hall to the Millennium Hotel's Grand Ballroom — in the dressing room, as it were, with the hair dyers buzzing, the sweet smell of sweat perfuming the air and two long rows of flesh beckoning us toward them.

Oh, the tits and ass! Where to begin?

It took eight tries for Victoria Depaula, the outgoing Miss Gay America, to nab the crown.
It took eight tries for Victoria Depaula, the outgoing Miss Gay America, to nab the crown.
As Unreal learned, it takes more than Cover Girl to cover boy.
As Unreal learned, it takes more than Cover Girl to cover boy.

Like the Oscars to a film writer or the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championship to an outdoors reporter, this is the cushiest of assignments for your humble correspondent: four nights, four categories, fifty contestants who'd cream in their jeans to be chosen as the lucky lady who wears the crown.

Strike the jeans. More like a banana hammock, several pairs of panty hose and tights.

Unreal, baby doll, welcome to the 38th Annual Miss Gay America Pageant!

Female impersonators (or drag queens; take your pick), these ladies of the night have descended upon St. Louis with so-called "dressers," makeup artists, wig-hair sprayers — full-on entourages toting valises stuffed with bling and booby pads. They will suit up as gentlemen for the Male Interview portion of the contest, but for most of the competition — Evening Gown and two talent events — they'll bring the illusion, as they say, of fabulous chicks.

Some will be buxom. Others big-bootied. Some will look ghoulish. Others drop-dead gorgeous.

It's been a rather long day of Drag Queens 101 by the time Unreal arrives stage-left for evening number one of the pageant. But what can we say; we're juiced.

"Hey, honey!" we hear a dude coo.

It's Roger Piatt, a wiry 137-pounder with legs that would make your mama whimper with envy. Within minutes we're BFFs.

"Even though I live here, I'm really nervous," says Piatt, half-nude. By day he's a chef for Schnucks. Come nightfall he's using his turkey knife to carve couch-cushion hips for his strawberry-blonde alter ego, Miss Vicki Vincent. "I'm used to going to Dallas or Memphis or something. To be a li'l country boy from Missouri and have this pageant here — this is amazing for me!"

Twenty years ago Piatt was the first Missourian to win Miss Gay America. He and other former winners are on the clock this week, massaging the mics as emcees and entertainers. At the age of 50, you could call him the matron of honor. He favors more conservative gowns and pantsuits. As of Halloween, he has been doing drag for 30 years. "I have aspired to still be wearing a dress," says he. "I promise you that!"

Piatt explains to Unreal the cardinal rules of the competition: Cheek fillers, lip injections and Botox are kosher, but contestants are banned from using hormones or any body work below the neck.

That's where the aforementioned panty hose and banana hammocks come in. "We call them 'tuckables,'" says Piatt with a giggle, "because you have to put away things that aren't supposed to be there. It's a stretch. No pun intended!"

Miss Gay America is all about poise and grace, channeling a real woman without becoming a real woman, Piatt explains. Sexy though it may seem, make no mistake: There's nothing sexual about it. "We're not prostitutes. We're not transies. We're just guys who dress as girls.

"I've always said there's structure to this pageant, rules and regulations. If you compete here, you have just enrolled in boot camp. And baby, if you are the hot bitch who can make it to the end, good for you!"

Some veteran contestants are vying for their fourth, fifth, sixth time. Others, to borrow a phrase, are having their cherries popped. On opening day the reigning Miss Gay America welcomes one and all at a morning meeting.

"I've waited a long, long time to get behind this table," purrs Carl Glorioso, a.k.a. Victoria Depaula. "My emotions are very, very high, so if I start to cry, just bear with me."

The Kansas Citian has a shaved head, olive-colored skin and sing-songy Southern timbre. Not the voice we expected from a dude stacked like a fireplug. "This year has been exhilarating in so many ways," Glorioso imparts. "I really got to experience the sisterhood that Miss Gay America is all about. It's so rich — the year, the legacy — and I'm so glad to be a part of your guys' family!"

Glorioso sought the crown for eight years. The last three times, he performed the same talent number — a Wicked medley — but ratcheted up the props to the point of renting a hydraulic lift that propelled him 22 feet in the air.

For the hopefuls Glorioso has just nine words of wisdom: "If you want it bad enough, it will happen."

Scanning the crowd, Unreal can't help but dig the diversity. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, the men are dressed in everything from golf shirts to sweater vests to painted T-shirts. Some carry shoulder satchels; some sport baseball caps.

"Sugar!" "Sweetie!" Old friends embrace as pageant director Aron Harvey, a.k.a. Catia Lee Love, leads a tour of the premises, pointing out the props and dressing rooms and repeating, "One dresser, ladies! One dresser only!"

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