Victoria tells Unreal she's a successful entrepreneur, the owner of a landscaping company and a hair salon/day spa. "But I'm not ready to give up my title at all," says she. "Crowning is very surreal. It took me a long time to realize I'd won. I kept thinking I'd woken up from a dream. I haven't had any negative experiences as Miss Gay America. It's been amazing. There've been no mean or jealous people that came my way."

Not so for the hours leading up to her big win last year. Depaula tells Unreal how it was discovered that the cable had been cut on her 22-foot hydraulic lift for the Wicked medley. And that somebody had severed the clasp to her cape. "When they found it, I knew somebody was on my side." Without the Wicked number, Depaula would've been toast.

The hugely elaborate talent category is the main thing that's changed since the pageant debuted in 1970. "It used to be you'd just come out, do a song, and dance a little," says Joe Angel, a.k.a. Tillie Laine, an Oklahoman who considers himself the pageant's unofficial historian, having spectated since 1979. "It's now more about telling a story with your talent."

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 Brandon Eisman did. The night prior, the 29-year-old Kansas Citian, bringing the illusion of Deja Brookes, had showcased a peppy number from Hairspray — with his real mother playing his character's mother. "It's my mom's first time doing this," Eisman told Unreal. "It's good for us to be up there together."

Unreal was half-daydreaming through yet another Gloria Gaynor act when we managed to bump into a straight guy. He was there as a sort of wingman to Alyssa Edwards, a former Miss Gay USofA and thus a pseudocelebrity among these ranks. The wingman — we'll call him José — was looking for an escape.

"The guys here are so forward!" he tells Unreal. "See that guy right there? He came right up to me and said, 'You let me know if you need head later.'

"They'll put their hand right here" — he reaches for his groin — "and say, 'Heeey.' I'm like, 'Hey, man!' It's off the chain!"

José proceeds to explain how torn he is about Edwards' pursuit of the crown. In his male life, Edwards is Justin Johnson, owner/operator of a successful dance studio that has trained talent for reality shows in addition to Dallas-area girls.

"He works all the time. All the time," says José. "This is a hobby for him. He doesn't even really date dudes. But she wants to win this thing so bad. I know how much she wants it. He's so successful, though, I don't know what'll happen to the studio if he wins."

Unreal is just glad to know we're not the only ones facing the s/he quandary. "Some of the guys keep getting really pissed off at me when I call her Justin. It's stupid," José confides. "Alyssa and Justin are two different personalities, OK? I mean, come on. This is fictional, man. It's not real."

The house is full and the booze is flowing on the final night of competition. You know the aroma around the cologne counters at Macy's? Times a hundred.

Tonight's show caps a solid week, with some 5,000 tickets sold. As the Top Ten contestants are announced — to the strains of "We Are Family," en techno — the crowd's on its feet, stomping and wooting wilder than a bunch of, well, wilder than a bunch of bitches in heat.

Backstage begins to buzz as the lucky ladies hie to their mirrors. There's Tajma Stetson, a bespectacled clarinetist from Kansas City competing for only the third time in his life; Coco Montrese, a pretty African American who dances for Walt Disney World in Florida; Kristina Kelly, a Virginian who designed his own evening gown and the one plus-size queen to make the cut.

A former MGA circles the room to wish everyone luck with a kiss and squeeze of the bicep, while promoter Robert York catches eyes in the blue suede jacket he had airbrushed with a portrait of Depaula.

Unreal's knuckles buckle watching three dressers strain to zip Tatiyanna Vouché into her mermaid-hemmed gown. Yowch!

The Evening Gown category's not complicated: Working in a triangle, float about the stage. Don't trip. Don't show any tattoos or veins. Tits up, girls. And don't forget to smile!

The ladies chosen as this pageant's finalists also epitomize an unspoken rule: Sparkle. Every one of their dresses, in champagne, honeybee yellow, teal and the ever-dramatic black, is punctuated with enough rhinestones to stop traffic. No way you could buy these numbers at Plaza Frontenac.

Scores from the Male Interview and Solo Talent categories carry over to this evening's final elimination. Once the evening gowns are dispensed with, all that remains is the seven-minute second Talent portion. Contestants re-perform their number, adding props or dancers if they wish.

Alyssa Edwards, the Texas dance teacher, is up first. She takes the stage in a white tutu and leo, with a partner wearing a white button-down and pants. The bit opens with a monologue — girl unhappy with boy — then segues into a lyrical dance to the strains of Celine Dion. Jeté, pirouette, swoop and swirl, by the end of the song, they are once again amoureux.

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