Queen for a day

Though the uncertain weather forecast played havoc with many folks' weekend plans, you had to hand it to the producers of Sunday's Miss Gay Orlando 1999 pageant for seeing Hurricane Irene as the dried-up hag she was. A Friday-night call to the Parliament House revealed that the 26th annual contest of cross-dressing would go ahead come hell or high water.

"Rain doesn't stop drag queens," I was assured.

But before anyone had to augment their ensembles with waders, the skies cleared and blessed the competition with a perfect evening that brought out a standing-room-only audience -- a diverse crowd that lived up to the pageant's goal of making it impossible to tell who was who or what was what.

Straight couples hobnobbed with men dressed as men, women dressed as men and noncompeting female impersonators in minidresses and viciously teased hair. From a distance, I was almost certain that one waitress, dressed in a Mama Cass Elliott getup of muumuu and matching headband, was an actual girl; that is, until she started taking drink orders in a basso profundo voice James Earl Jones might covet. I have to get these contact lenses replaced.

When the glittering curtain in the motel's Footlight Theater parted to signal the start of the show, those of us in the elevated back row had to crane our heads to see through the packed house. Many latecomers were forced to witness the entire extravaganza from a kneeling position. Yes, there's a joke in there; and no, I'm not going near it.

Gaying it safe

For all its inherent bodaciousness, the competition was surprisingly conservative from an aesthetic standpoint, with not one but three lip-synched renditions of Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'" -- the drag national anthem. The guest-star appearances that filled the lulls between segments goosed the level of daring a bit, as when the Mama Cass clone mimed a few measures of "Dream a Little Dream" while munching on a sandwich. But a sick, sad impulse within me hoped for something more tasteless -- like a live replication of Britney Spears' cosmetic surgery. Maybe next year.

The outgoing Miss Gay Orlando 1998, Carmela Marcela Garcia, enacted a medley of "How Sweet It Is" and "Love Will Keep Us Together" as her supporters pelted her with dollar bills. The contestants weren't allowed to accept tips, but the other artistes were entitled to all the Benjamins they could carry ... a more direct payoff than that "scholarship" nonsense other pageants bother with.

While Garcia worked it on stage, her companion for the evening schmoozed the room. In keeping with the night's "Austin Powers"-inspired "Shagadelic" theme, she was chaperoned by a midget who was attired in a Peggy Lee wig and go-go boots that matched her own to a tee. As "Mini-'Mela" passed among us, he comically bemoaned his arduous makeup ritual and the too-short dress he had to keep pulling down around his hips. Introduced as Richard Bianco, he was said to be "straight, married and the father of three children." A roar of applause toasted his good sportsmanship. No one will ever call that guy a big drag.

There he/she is

At four hours, the pageant was as punishingly long as most awards ceremonies. Yet there was no time for the interview portion, the event I had most anticipated. An emcee said the Q&A was instead conducted earlier that afternoon, when "most of you were not present" -- as if this vital element were no more important than an award for Best Foreign Short. Given the profanity that flowed like wine during the rest of the night, however, most of the contestants' comments probably would have been unfit to print in a family newspaper. Or even this one.

That suspicion was confirmed by Garcia's abdication speech, in which the raging -- excuse me, reigning -- queen bid farewell to her crown. "I've tried my best to be the best drag queen," she blubbered through real tears. "If you have a dream, don't let no motherfucker stand in your way!" I smell a desk-calendar deal here.

The judges' final assessment left me rather cold. The winner was redheaded Amber Mills, who lost me by referring to Sweet Charity as director/choreographer Bob Fosse's "masterpiece" long before she favored the talent competition with a routine from "Guys and Dolls." Susan Whitney, an Iman-like Amazon who masterminded a nice emulation of the boardroom scene from "Mommy Dearest," was relegated to second runner-up. I was consoled by the knowledge that Chi Chi Lalique -- who had re-created the "Vitameatavegamin" sketch from "I Love Lucy," and looked fabulous in her royal-blue-and-gold evening gown -- was first runner-up, and would take over "should the winner get pregnant." If that happens, I won't dream of standing in her way.

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