First, there's the story about the women who have been working for months — nearly half a year — to prepare themselves for a beauty pageant. Daniela Vega, Ivanna Brunnely, Yeraldine Kennedy, Carolina Olivares, Jaqueline del Castillo and Isabella Franco is how they’re known on stage. They practice their walking, makeup, dance routines and talents. They work on their dresses which are so elaborate and heavy that they require a truck to move them to the competition site. And they’ve attracted the attention of film star Andie MacDowell.
But these women didn't begin as beauty queens. They didn't even begin as women. That's another story. Some of the six contestants in the third annual Miss Gay Latina transgender beauty pageant are currently undergoing hormone therapy treatment to alter their outward appearance so that it matches how they identify themselves: as women. The pageant is an opportunity to really be those women, and so they work tirelessly in preparation for the show.
They also have day jobs. One works at a plant nursery, one is a housekeeper, one works with medical records. Some are taking English as a Second Language classes at A-B Tech (and beyond that, their privacy is well-guarded). They're becoming women. Americans. Beauty queens.
And then there's the story of all of these stories being captured on film, by local filmmaker Rod Murphy. Murphy was introduced to the pageant last year by Jennifer Abbott, a physician at WNC Community Health Services. A few of the participants in the pageant are patients at the clinic, so the clinic's staff and extended family attend the event. "It's one of those things that, once you hear about it, it's like everybody knew but you," says Murphy.
As for the pageant, he describes last year's event (at a church on Haywood Road) as bursting at the seams with Mexican families, hipsters, yuppies and middle-aged folks. "It's something I'd never thought about," says Murphy. "After shooting some footage last year, I saw how visual it is and how nice and interesting each character was, how complex it really is. For me, this is about giving voice to people who might not have much of a voice. Some of them are immigrants, some are in transition. That was the inspiration."
Life’s rich pageant
For event coordinator Elio Gonzalez, the inspiration came from friends in Asheville (he recently moved here from Charlotte) who alerted him to the need for a beauty pageant.
"My goal was to empower the girls who enter the pageant, and benefit the clinic for this program," says Gonzalez. Proceeds from the pageant benefit WNCCHS's Transgender Health Program which, according to Abbott, is growing. “The clinic currently has about 35 transgender patients, both male to female, and female to male."
Gonzalez adds that the other aspect of the pageant is to "give the audience a sense of our culture with the different types of entertainment." He and Nelson Reyes — who is choreographing the performance — are from Cuba; many of the contestants are from Mexico. In previous years, their folk costumes — the opening act of the pageant — represented various states in Mexico. This year, they'll represent countries throughout Latin America, including Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
In Miss America-style, the contestants will first take the stage in their folk costumes during the opening production, which includes dancers from Asheville Contemporary Dance Theatre (of which Reyes is a member). The winner from last year's folk costume contest will award this year's winner, and then the contestants will perform their talents (Gonzalez's lips are sealed as to what the talents entail). Following an intermission and more talents, the evening culminates with gowns, which each contestant has painstakingly crafted over months, from found objects and recycled pageant wear, and at personal expense. And then, finally, a queen will be crowned.
"It's not only the gay part of it that you're going to see," Gonzalez insists. "This year we're going really big since we're doing it at a theater." Indeed, sized out of the West Asheville church, Miss Gay Latina has moved to the 510-seat Diana Wortham Theatre. The extravaganza includes two professional dancers from Mexico who also do drag, Latino pop singer Samuel Patoni (who Gonzalez points out is not gay) and transgender performer Nicole Sanchez. Previous winners, Yunuel Garces and Celine Rodriguez will be there too. But, says Gonzalez, the biggest celebrity of all is Cachita: “This year, people have gone crazy for Cachita." And for good reason: The transgender Cuban actress and singer recently relocated to Asheville.
Her move is a windfall for the Miss Gay Latina contestants, who can benefit from her experience. Famous on Spanish-language TV network Univision, Cachita allowed her gender reassignment surgery to be publicized. According to Gonzalez, Cachita is very open about the pros and cons of going through sex-change surgery, and the importance of finding the right doctor.
Though such issues are not for the faint of heart, Gonzalez says. "It's amazing to see how supportive the community, [the contestant's] families and friends are. Even though we're such a macho culture, when it comes to something like this — individuals preparing themselves [for gender reassignment] or taking the steps — they support it." He attributes that largely to the accepting nature of Asheville, and also says that, when it comes to both the pageant and Murphy's documentary, the ladies of Miss Gay Latina are not shy in the least: "They are ready to go."
Big screen aspirations
According to Murphy, the prospect of the film was a little scary at first, to some contestants. "We want to make a competition documentary with some heart," he explains. "Once we got the blessing from the clinic and people got to know us a little bit, the scary part went away. They let us into their homes and into their work, hanging out with them on the weekend. It got real easy real fast." He thinks that's because "They do want to get who they are out. A lot of it's about acceptance. Having a pageant and having 500 people clapping affirms this choice you've made."
Murphy's crew, which includes local filmmakers Paul Schattel and Pete Lutz, photographer Bill Rhodes and Murphy's wife Gina as translator, has been shooting since July. "We've been focusing on what's interesting to us, what's dramatic and what's working instead of just shooting blindingly," he says. "We're trying to follow certain story lines and edit as we go."
The project also attracted locally based actress MacDowell, who had been working with Murphy on a baseball documentary when he mentioned the Miss Gay Latina project. "I don't think many people realize that we have this contest in Asheville," MacDowell says. "The subject matter is fascinating; it's an amazing human interest story and they're beautiful people. Very colorful, wonderful energy. Visually, this is beautiful to look at."
MacDowell is able to work as a producer on this documentary because a TV show in which she'd planned to act wasn't picked up. "It's a godsend," she says: That loss meant she had time to work with Murphy. "It is a goal of mine to try to produce more, and to eventually direct something small." For now, attaching her name to the documentary is sure to be a boon for Murphy, who plans to start editing the film right after the pageant. He hopes to send the finished product to festivals starting next spring.
From the project, MacDowell takes away the idea that, "There are so many different kinds of people and I think it's a valuable lesson for all of us that we are different. …Everybody wants to fit in. It's a huge human need to not be ostracized. The great thing about Asheville is that so many different kinds of people live together in harmony." She adds, "On top of all of the lessons that can be learned, on top of all that can be said on a humane level, there is the contest. And that is just fun."
Fun is what Gonzalez has in mind, too. He promises the pageant will be "done in good taste and, for the people who come, it's a real representation of Asheville. It's not all Latinos. It's going to be 50/50 so the whole event is in both languages. Not everybody's gay but everybody seems to enjoy it."
And for the contestants, at press time still meeting each Sunday in the West Asheville church: "Even though I'm pretty sure they all want to wear that crown, they're supportive of each other," says Gonzalez. "After the pageant, it's like, ‘what's next?’"
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
what: Miss Gay Latina transgender beauty pageant
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Saturday, Nov. 6. Performance was completely sold out at press time.