We soon see why the pageant owners employ the no-nonsense Oklahoman to keep the show on track. "The smoother we flow, the earlier we get out," barks Harvey. "The earlier we get out, the sooner we get dick!"

There doesn't appear to be a New Yorker or a Californian in the house. No North Dakotans, Washingtonians or Mainers. Still, more than 26 states are represented, including a solid contingent from Missouri.

Erica Foxx — known by day as Michael McKinley, a 43-year-old manager at Enterprise in St. Louis — favors dramatic intonation and old-school acts like Diana Ross and Judy Garland. She hasn't a smidgen of patience for the current trends of the day, like open-toed shoes, and found herself in a bind earlier this year when pumps became scarce.

By day, reigning queen Depaula owns a hair salon and a landscaping company.
By day, reigning queen Depaula owns a hair salon and a landscaping company.
Foam tushies and boobies take no time to set in place, unlike wigs and eyelashes.
Foam tushies and boobies take no time to set in place, unlike wigs and eyelashes.

"I needed black-and-white-polka-dot shoes, I'd made up my mind. And it took me forever, but I finally found them on this sex website. I kid you not. It caters to transvestites. Men who dress like women and get turned on by that. Nothing to do with female impersonation! Transvestitism is a psychological disease. It is! Although I guess you could say I have a psychological disease because I'm so anal retentive about this."

Miss Gay Missouri 2009, Foxx says she's been perfecting the art of female impersonation for 25 years — but don't tell her parents.

Michael Klataske's father, on the other hand, will be in the house most of the week to watch his son, a.k.a. Jade Sinclair, swirl and chirp as the princess from Enchanted and strut to Madonna's "Vogue" while dressed as Nefertiti.

A financial analyst for US Bank, Klataske made the Top Ten last year but had less time to prepare this time around, what with all the mess in the banking biz. Never would the St. Louisan give up the thirteen-year pastime, though. "It can be addictive at times," he tells Unreal. "I'm actually really shy. Then I put on the mask and I'm very outgoing. My goal would be to blend the two together, and be an outgoing man."

Unreal spent most of our first afternoon with Clint Cedillo. The 29-year-old says he started drag more than a decade ago while sneaking into clubs with a fake ID. After only three years, though, his boyfriend made him quit. "He gave me an ultimatum," Cedillo recalls. "He said, 'Choose her or choose me.'"

Nine years later, Cedillo's back on the scene. "There is a negative stigma against impersonators within the gay community," explains the vice president of human resources for Wells Fargo who now performs under the nom de drag Kate Spade. "It's an irony, because we love to go to parties and shows and clubs, but probably 90 percent of gay men would never date a drag queen."

Cedillo is prepping for the male interview, his favorite event. "It's not only based on your answers, it's also about how you look — like a job interview," he says. "They're very stringent on the fit of the suit, and rather conservative. They say trendy suits don't appeal to all the judges. I wear a suit every day. So this is natural for me."

In case he wasn't lucky enough to draw a day-one assignment for the category, Cedillo stuffed his pocket with five hundys to entice anyone willing to switch.

Pageant organizers will tell you most competitors work in creative fields — music, hair, makeup. Fewer and far between are the white-collar professionals with big bucks to invest in the hobby.

That would be Cedillo. The St. Louisan has flown to Houston to hand-carry a $150, one-of-a kind wig made by a Mexican man named Lupe. For a second Lupe creation, Cedillo took his truck. (Watching the wig tumble along the airport's security conveyor belt had been too traumatic.)

For his maiden voyage to Miss Gay America, Cedillo has splurged on a Vera Wang evening gown that he had custom-fitted in New York. "It's the one Keira Knightley wore to the Oscars; I had mine made in emerald green," says he.

In all, Cedillo estimates, he's laid out "in the five figures" just to make it to and complete this pageant. "Oh, my God!" he exclaims. "That makes it so real. I could have taken a trip!"

The male interview merely requires a steamed Armani suit and a Tommy Hilfiger cravat tied in a perfect Windsor knot. No flyaway threads, no wrinkles and — God forbid — not a speck of lint. As Cedillo says, "It's all in the details."

The interview differentiates Miss Gay America from two similar pageants, Miss Gay USofA and Miss Continental, where body work is allowed and swimsuit competitions figure in the mix. Some observers say Miss Gay America is the pageant for queens with brains.

The winner's work is nearly full-time and consists of presiding over preliminaries in other cities, traveling and performing. The seven-minute male interview is thus a chance to flaunt some managerial and role-modeling skills. In qualifying pageants, Cedillo had been asked questions like, "If you could be any flower, which one would you be?" And, "What's been your biggest struggle as a female impersonator?"

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