"It's all about Clint, not about Kate," he reminds himself before facing the firing squad. "Your bio is past-present-future. Talk about the functions of Miss Gay America. Tell them which ones you'd be best at. Don't forget one thing that's always impressed them: I've been accepted to Washington University Law School, and I've deferred enrollment until fall 2010 because I was competing this year. I'm the smart girl."

By day two, Unreal is dizzy.

"Muffin!" "Baby!" "Precious!" We've been called every sweet-something in the book, but when it comes to addressing the queens — he/she, him/her — our grammatical notions are all fucked-up.

First Alternate to Miss Heartland shakes in shock upon winning Miss Gay America 2010.
First Alternate to Miss Heartland shakes in shock upon winning Miss Gay America 2010.
Miss Gay America queens, past and present.
Miss Gay America queens, past and present.

And talk about all the beauty tricks — "Sweet baby Jesus in a Crock-Pot!" as one of the emcees likes to say.

We've learned that the best silicone boobs resemble chicken cutlets, that duct tape is the drag queen's enemy and toupée tape a girl's best friend. We've seen corsets in silver, thongs in gold and, perhaps best of all, learned that Cover Girl doesn't cover boy. (Wax it, sister.)

In a tenth-floor suite covered with sparkling booty, Unreal even meets Lucinda Holliday, a.k.a. Larry Moore, the Harry Winston to female impersonators.

Holliday's creations — all handcrafted in Austrian crystal — come in an array of shapes including stars and moons, leaves and dog bones, and go from $15 for a simple pair of earrings to $1,000 and up for a three-and-a-half-pound necklace. He custom-designed jewelry for the current queen, not to mention six other winners. He competed once back in the mid-1990s but prefers spectating these days. "I tend to be a little vulgar," he says. "They frown on that. But you know, it's very difficult not to say a good 'motherfucker!' every now and then."

This Unreal does indeed know. In fact, amid all this preening we have begun to notice everything that's awry in our own outward presentation: terrible posture, troubled skin, a foul mouth.

It seems like a good time to flee the mirrored rooms and refresh ourselves with the rules of engagement, all four pages of them.

Damn, that ol' Miss Missouri 1989 was right!

The bylaws cover everything from pyrotechnics (not allowed) to panty hose (essential) to rap sheets (no pending felonies, if you please). Miss Gay America herself must not arrive late for performances. She may never consume alcohol while wearing the crown. She must always drink with a straw so as not to sabotage her lipstick.

Tightening the disciplinary screws was the primary objective for Terry Eason and Larry Tyger when they bought the pageant five years ago. "There were a lot of unspoken rules when we inherited the organization," Eason explains. "For us it didn't seem fair to say, for example, 'You'll get an administrative deduction if you use liquid onstage,' if it's not in writing."

Eason, a banker who lives in Mississippi, entertains in nearby Memphis on occasion. His partner, an appliance salesman, can't be bothered. "Larry tried drag once. He said, 'Never again!' He complained the entire time. He kept saying, 'My feet hurt!'"

The couple has not yet had to revoke a crown for infractions, though they field plenty of anonymous e-mails alleging foul play. "I'm sure there's been someone on hormones and gotten away with it," Eason concedes. "Though, I always say, 'I'm just a piece of cheesecake away from having man breasts.'"

Unreal asks Eason to settle the he/she-him/her dilemma. Pray tell, what's proper? "We tell all the contestants: You need to know when to be a male and when to be a female. It is a psychological thing. We try to say 'he' all the time, even though we might call somebody by their female name."

The first time Unreal saw it, it took us by surprise. A former Miss G.A. had taken the stage for some mid-competition entertainment. She was doing a gospel number when less than a minute in, lines started forming at each side of the stage. Wow, thought Unreal. Are they going to be saved?

It was as if the pews had emptied for Communion. But wait — was that cash being pressed into the performer's hands?

The official prize for Miss Gay America is a purse of $7,500 and a trousseau overflowing with free gifts and services from pageant sponsors. But it turns out that the real money — upward of $70,000, $80,000, $90,000 — is made on the road, from those tithers at the sides of the stage.

"It's a sign of respect," explains Mark Coleman, a.k.a. Charity Case, a former St. Louisan who holds the titles of Miss Gay Missouri 1987 and Miss Gay America 2001 — and owns bragging rights as the only plus-size guy to win the national contest.

"When I did my final number as Miss Gay America, I made a lot of money."

A lot? Like...?

"Like almost $3,000. Twenty minutes' worth of money. Victoria will make a killing on her last night."

Speaking of Victoria Depaula, where is that lady? It's Friday night, and Unreal's been trying for three days to track down the queen. We finally corner her at her dressing table, with two fans blowing and a hairdresser trying to tease her brandy-colored mane in place. "When is Andy gonna be back with my boobs?" she's yelling to another handler.

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