Tennessee-raised drag queen Eureka O’Hara (aka David Huggard) isn’t interested in people pleasing.
“I talk too much and too loud. Some love me, others throw out hate,” she admits. “But you’ve got to be yourself to free yourself.”
Many know the plus-size entertainer from her debut in season 9 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” when her big-boned body positivity earned her the title of “Elephant Queen.” But locals might also recognize Eureka as the two-time winner of the Miss Blue Ridge Pride Pageant, having earned the crown in 2011 and 2014.
“Eureka is an entertainer of massive talent and the only queen in our history to take the crown twice,” says pageant director Michael-David Carpenter.
On Thursday, Sept. 28, a dozen queens will vie for the title (and a $13,225 prize package) in this year’s Miss Blue Ridge Pride Pageant — part of Asheville’s annual Pride Week. Guests can expect plenty of hairspray and sass as contestants field interview questions, model evening gowns and perform their signature routines. Any drag, transgender and female impersonators 18 and older within 200 miles of ZIP code 28801 are eligible to compete.
Onstage, judges scout for talent and personality. Carpenter mentions one of the most memorable performances from Miss Blue Ridge Pride 2015, by Ida Carolina. With same-sex marriage inciting controversy on Capitol Hill and beyond, Ida did a theatrical impersonation of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.
But judges are also looking for professionalism since the reigning queen serves as ambassador to the Blue Ridge Pride Center for a year. That role entails showing up for the Asheville community in a number of ways, such as attending at least three Blue Ridge Pride events, rocking the Asheville Mardi Gras Parade and completing an additional 10 hours of community service.
In that respect, the pageant is about more than looking good and performing well.
“It’s a platform that can be used to vocalize LGBTQ+ issues that our community is currently facing,” says Ginger Von Snap, Miss Blue Ridge Pride 2016. Since taking the title, Ginger (aka Kaleb Sisco) has used her position to raise awareness of underrepresented subdivisions on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, like transgender youth and those who are gender-fluid. She has also worked to dispel misconceptions about drag culture.
“People see us as freaks or as a commodity,” she explains. “I want them to know that we’re not just nighttime performers.”
With that in mind, Carpenter is moving this year’s pageant from Scandals Nightclub to the Asheville Masonic Temple. The pageant’s start time also shifted, from 9 to 7 p.m., with a cocktail party at 6 p.m. Carpenter says the change is part of a larger movement to make drag more mainstream.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, it was thought to be more of an underground thing,” he explains.
“It was taboo,” adds Eureka. “Often associated with drinking, drugs and sex, people saw it as a joke or something of malice.”
First aired in 2011, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” humanized the art form by bringing queens (at least virtually) to living rooms across America. In doing so, the Emmy-winning series presented drag for what it truly is: the art of gender expression.
“Femininity is so much a part of a gay man’s identity, yet we’re told that guys shouldn’t act like that,” says Eureka. She has been asked to return to season 10 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” — she injured herself during a cheerleading routine in season nine. “Drag is a way of finally celebrating our feminine sides.”
But for Ginger, who is organizing the opening performance for September’s pageant, the art goes beyond masculinity versus femininity. She thinks drag should challenge gender expectations, not enforce them.
“Many times, the drag community is guilty of submitting to society’s norms,” says Ginger, mentioning that bearded queens, for instance, are severely underrepresented. “People think that the female illusion is the only way.”
She continues, “But drag isn’t just that. It’s never been just that.”
WHAT: Miss Blue Ridge Pride Pageant, missblueridgepride.com
WHERE: Asheville Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 28, 6-10 p.m. A meet-and-greet will be held at 5:30 p.m. $12-$18