‘That would look like mud on stage. I don’t like it at all,” dismisses pageant consultant Kevin Callahan with a wave of his hand.
Christina Lee is standing in front of the dressing room mirror at Regalia, a Thornton Park store that specializes in pageant gowns. The dress she’s contemplating is a strapless turquoise-and-brown number studded with bright blue sequins. She sighs, makes a face and slips the gown off.
“I don’t want to settle. I want a dress that’s like, ‘Oh my God!’” Lee says with a squeal, her eyes widening.
She turns her attention to a sparkly, flowing, pale-pink halter gown, thinking it might be the one. It’s not. “I’m not feeling that one,” she says after a long glance and a lingering caress of the fabric.
Lee is a perfectionist, a diva and a professional. She’s been competing in beauty pageants for more than 15 years. After taking first runner-up at the national Entertainer of the Year Pageant in St. Louis last year, the 33-year-old thinks this might be her year to win it all, provided she can find that perfect gown.
Unless you’re a fan of drag pageants, though, it’s unlikely you’ll ever see which gown Lee finally chooses. She’s feminine, has long hair and perky breasts, but Lee isn’t really a woman. And the pageant she’s competing in isn’t going to make it to prime-time TV. She’s a transsexual who performs as a drag queen under the name Armani.
A bright pink empire-waist chiffon dress flanked with silver rhinestones catches her eye. She shimmies into it and walks out onto a boutique platform surrounded by mirrors. She holds her hair up and grins as Callahan zips the back, then fluffs the bottom of the dress. He stands with his hands on his hips, purses his lips and shakes his head.
“It’s too classic by design,” he says.
A Girl in Boys’ Clothes
Though anatomically a man, Lee’s identity is bound up in womanhood. She has been living as a woman since she was 13, growing up in the gay-friendly San Francisco area. She was a cheerleader and took dance and gymnastics lessons. Later she became a hair stylist.
Pageants came into her life unexpectedly. At 18 – the same year she got her breast implants -– Lee was working as a waitress at a karaoke lounge in her native Guam when the business was sold and the entire staff fired. She needed rent money, so when one of her roommates – who worked as a female impersonator – asked her to fill in for a performer who fell ill, Lee reluctantly took the gig at a company party.
“They asked me to just come in and lip-sync to a three-minute song and then paid me $300,” Lee says. “I thought, ‘I could make in one show what most do in a week.’ And once I got into it, I realized it was my calling, my passion.”
A month later Lee performed in her first contest, the fledgling Miss Gay Guam pageant, where she came in as first runner-up. She won the talent portion of the contest, and snagged “most beautiful,” all of which brought in enough prize money to pay her bills that month. A diva was born.
She moved to New York and began performing at local clubs and doing private performances. By 2002 she had moved to Orlando and was signed as a cast member at the Parliament House, one of the most desired spots for female impersonators in the state. There are a handful of local clubs besides the Parliament House that feature drag performers: Revolution Nightclub hosts pageants, and Orlando’s Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Center is the home of the Miss Gay Days Pageant. But the Parliament House is different.
“It just means you’ve made it,” Lee quips.
Her titles include Miss Gay Ohio America, Miss Gay Empire State and Miss Crash, another New York–based pageant. She finished first runner-up at the national Miss Continental pageant – one of the country’s biggest – last year and thinks her chances there this year are good. Nonetheless, her 2006 Miss Parliament House title is the one she is most proud of.
In a one-week period in late April, Lee traveled to Nevada and to Buffalo, N.Y., for female impersonator performances. She returned to her home in Sarasota (where she moved last year), then commuted to Orlando for her weekend gig at the Parliament House. She’s generally booked about four months in advance.
“I do have a jet-set life. Everybody knows me at the airport,” Lee laughs.
She moved to Sarasota several years ago, seeking a quieter life. Onstage she’s sassy and over-the-top, strutting around, winking at the audience and shaking her hips for $1 tips from rowdy drag-queen aficionados. At home she’s a practicing Buddhist who prefers to read books on the beach. She describes herself as a reclusive hippie striving for a typical suburban lifestyle.
“When I used to live in Orlando, everyone knew Armani. It ruined relationships with boyfriends,” Lee says. “I’m 100 percent opposite of my onstage persona. People that know me hate to be around me while I’m in Armani mode.”
Boy Queens and Trannies
Lee is known as a “trannie,” short for transsexual, in the performer and pageant circles. Her explanation is simple: She feels like a woman trapped in a man’s body.
Trannies are not to be confused with the boy queens, aka tittie girls, men who enjoy wearing lipstick, fake breasts and skirts on a part-time basis. Even among drag performers, there is confusion, says Danielle Hunter, entertainment director for Revolution Nightclub and a performer and pageant queen.
Hunter’s hovering over a mirror in Revolution’s dressing room, carefully applying a third color to her eye shadow. She’s wearing a jacket that occasionally falls open to reveal her breasts. In front of her are piles of brushes, eye pencils, blush compacts and lipsticks. Hunter says she isn’t a cross-dresser, and most in the pageant industry aren’t either. It’s a common misconception, she says.
“A cross-dresser is generally a married man that enjoys the feeling of women’s clothes. We call them the first wives club,” she says dryly. “About 99 percent of them are just businessmen who need the feeling of panties under their suit.”
Boy queens – men who live as men and dress as women to perform or for pageants – are guys who “enjoy the extra flair of looking like a woman,” she says.
“Then there are trannies, which is what we are,” says Hunter. “Some have had surgeries, and we live as females during the day.”
The final group in the drag-queen rainbow is men who’ve undergone a sex change and are now physically women. Oddly enough, Hunter says, they “usually aren’t accepted and the door is usually closed.”
Coco Montrese, an Orlando boy queen, is getting dressed nearby. He’s in tights – shirtless – with a stocking cap over his head, putting on his fake breasts to go under a bright red Spanish-style dress. He’s already duct-taped the male parts that could give the whole charade away.
“I’ve beat girls in a pageant and had them say, ‘How’d that boy beat me in a pageant?’ Or say someone’s not a true entertainer because they had their body altered. Some bars say you can’t work because you have titties,” Montrese says.
He pauses, turns around and pointedly notes: “I don’t like to be called a drag queen. I’m a female impersonator.”
The Bronze Bombshell
It’s a typical night at the Parliament House’s Footlight Theater. An old queen is flipping through his wallet, displaying an out-of-focus photograph of himself dressed as an unattractive woman in a long dark wig and a black miniskirt. Nearby, two men are tonguing each other. Lee, working as Armani tonight, is backstage touching up her lipstick and making sure the night’s low-cut outfit will hold up.
As the “Bronze Bombshell,” Lee struts onstage in a
flesh-colored body suit cut well below her belly button, with strategically placed sequins covering parts that need covering. Her long blond wig looks windswept, and she whips off a pair of sunglasses as she shakes and gyrates to the beat. She’s lip-syncing to upbeat pop music, dancing across the stage with shakes, shimmies and the occasional kick or cartwheel. The audience cheers.
“You’re someone else when you’re kicking and spinning to the music onstage,” Lee says.
This is Lee’s night job, what she does between pageants. Her routine isn’t as polished and put-together as her talent routines for the pageants, but it’s close.
Drew Sizemore, assistant front desk manager for the Parliament House, calls Armani a “talented show queen.”
“She’s in pageant mode. I can tell because her makeup is flawless and it’s all about the routine,” Sizemore says. “She uses the nightly shows as dress rehearsals.”
And her stage show is no small production. About a year ago, Lee held auditions to pick 10 backup dancers. She’s preparing for the year’s biggest pageant, the Entertainer of the Year contest in St. Louis in July, but her plans are secret. She won’t talk about what moves she’s working on, her music or her dress, lest she tip the competition. There’s too much at stake.
“With this much money invested to win I just can’t divulge what I’m doing.” (Last year’s number saw her dancing to the Happy Feet theme song with garbage-can lids as props.)
To date this year, it has cost Lee about $30,000 to compete. But she stands to make a six-figure income in prize money if all goes well. That’s why she’s so tight-lipped about her preparations, says Ted Jones, one of Lee’s consultants. “Anything that gets out could be damaging to her whole package. They try to keep everything so confidential.”
Jones says drag queens are not above sabotage to win. He’s seen dresses ripped and high heels weakened by competitors seeking an advantage.
“It’s the same as real girl pageants,” he says. “It’s cutthroat. This is a national title. This is their career. They don’t gamble with that.”
Contestants at the St. Louis contest are judged on two talent performances, two nights of creative evening wear, a question-and-answer segment and poise. Lee’s got that in spades.
“I’ll bring four gowns and if I’m contestant No. 20 and the first 19 girls have been wearing yellow and I’m wearing yellow, I’ll toss on a fuchsia gown,” Lee says. “These are things you learn with time.” (An entire spare bedroom in her Sarasota apartment is devoted to her racks of gowns, costumes, shoes, props and tiaras.)
It takes a team of about a dozen hair, makeup and style consultants advising, primping and preening to be a serious contender at national pageants, Lee notes.
One of her consultants checks out the competition, rushing backstage if last-minute changes are necessary. For the St. Louis pageant, however, the evening-gown category requires “creative gowns,” which means altering off-the-rack gowns; the bigger and bawdier, the better. Last year, she popped out of a specially made cocoon filled with hundreds of butterflies.
First place in St. Louis is $12,000. The first runner-up gets $1,500, which Lee says wouldn’t even come close to paying the $4,000 hotel bill for her and her entourage, not to mention their fees, costumes and travel expenses.
“Obviously there’s lots of money and lots of credit-card bills,” Lee says.
And, it must be said, the politics and drama are even more exaggerated than in “real girl” pageants, Lee says.
“There’s a lot of crying afterward, honey,” Lee says. “I always say: ‘Get ready for the cracking,’ looking at faces about to crack. It is a tough pill to swallow.”
Drama in the Dressing Room
At Regalia, Lee has rejected more gowns and is now eyeing one she spotted when she first entered the boutique. It’s a beaded, black-and-nude gown with one strap, dotted with white and silver sequins and a slinky beaded train that Lee calls “very Bob Mackie-ish.”
But the sample-size gown won’t fit her size-10 body. She convinces a tiny pageant queen who happens to be in the shop to try the special-order $3,400 gown on for her.
“I hate not being able to try it on. I’m going to want to kill myself when she comes out in that small dress,” Lee whines.
“You’re not going to kill yourself,” one of her consultants reassures her, rolling his eyes.
A Regalia clerk pulls aside the dressing-room curtain to help the tiny woman zip the back of the dress.
“Oh, there’s plenty of room to zip this up!” he yells, salting her wound.
“That’s too much!” Lee retorts, covering her mouth in feigned shock that the thin woman was able to squeeze into the size-6 dress. She scrunches her face as the clerk asks the woman how old she is and hears her high-pitched reply: “I’m only 20.”
As the woman walks out of the dressing room to model the dress, Lee just stares. Finally, she smiles.
Did she go with the black-and-nude number? Maybe, maybe not. Lee’s temper flared at the idea of revealing her choice in this article, and for the sake of peace in the dressing room we agreed not to give away her secret.
“I don’t think you understand how serious this is,” she firstname.lastname@example.org