Elio Gonzalez can say with certainty he will not be changing the name of Miss Gay Latina Asheville, the drag pageant he started in the city a dozen years ago. The event’s Latinx heritage, after all, is paramount to its pedigree. Before he even moved to Asheville from Charlotte, Gonzalez launched the event to coincide with National Hispanic Heritage Month. And, for years, the audience predominantly tapped Western North Carolina’s Latinx communities.
But, after more than a decade producing Miss Gay Latina Asheville, Gonzalez can also say with certainty that the event has now moved beyond the boundaries its name might suggest. To wit, it returns to the Diana Wortham Theatre stage at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Nov. 2, more than two weeks after Hispanic Heritage Month has ended. And, in 2017, Dorae Saunders became the contest’s first black winner; this year, the expanded field even includes a performer traveling from Canada.
The crowd’s racial diversity has shifted, too, says Gonzalez, so that there’s more balance. When the entertainers parade across the stage, dressed in the customary attire of another country, they are welcome to represent any nation, inside or outside of Latin America. Per its mission statement, Miss Gay Latina Asheville is now open to “any performer, regardless of sexual orientation, nationality, or gender identification.”
“The beauty of this pageant is that it doesn’t matter if you are skinny or heavy, the most beautiful or not,” says Gonzalez, a social worker in Asheville by day. “Whoever comes with the strongest package — the interview, the costume, the talent, the evening gown — is going to walk away with the crown. If I look at all my former contestants, I have all types and shapes and colors and forms.”
For Gonzalez, the steady stretch of the pageant’s limitations reflects a regional ethos of inclusion, a primary impetus from the start. Asheville has always been receptive to the pageant and its diversity, Gonzalez notes, a proud host of such a wide cast. For outsiders, it may come as a surprise that such pockets of inclusion exist in North Carolina, its reputation recently hamstrung by backward bathroom bills and legislated sexism — especially at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains.
But Garo Sparo, a long-thriving New York couture designer who has worked with the likes of Gwen Stefani and Nicki Minaj, knows better. When he was a teenager, his family left Long Island for North Carolina’s Triangle area, where his father worked for a high-tech firm. Sparo designed and crafted dresses for his high school friends in Apex, a passion he eventually honed as a college student in UNC Greensboro’s fashion program. The acceptance and encouragement he found in the state helped push him to New York, where he went from designing for “drag personalities and socialites, kind of the same thing,” to recent work for “Miss Universe” and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” He returns to North Carolina this year to judge Miss Gay Latina Asheville.
Sparo arrives in Asheville — a city he visited every autumn with his family while living in the Triangle, for sojourns along the Blue Ridge Parkway to take in the seasonal color — after an especially busy year. In late May, he wrapped the 17th season of “Project Runway,” the popular Bravo reality series where fashion designers compete by creating new looks with specific themes or material constraints in mind.
Sparo emerged from the “nonstop insanity” in third place from a field of 16. He added royal blue, stegosauruslike spikes to one model’s shoulders for an episode called “The Future Is Here” and fused the fashion of Bootsy Collins and Elton John during a tribute to the piano rock royalty. In his quarter-century in the fashion industry, he’d done plenty of judging himself, ranking contestants in enormous drag pageants called “Goddess Balls” and at futuristic “cyber-style” shows in the ’90s, but he’d never been critiqued in that way himself until arriving on television.
Those evaluations were revelatory experiences for Sparo, giving him new insight into what it takes mentally and manually to be reviewed and ranked in such a frank way. And in making the transition from the judged back to the judge, he has this advice for this year’s contestants in Miss Gay Latina Asheville: “As long as you are putting yourself out there, honing your skills and making sure you are putting out a beautiful package that says, ‘It’s all about me,’ you’ll shine.”
That is the essence of inclusion, after all, and that is the essence of Miss Gay Latina Asheville.
WHAT: Miss Gay Latina Asheville
WHERE: Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, 18 Biltmore Ave., dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 2, 7:30 p.m. $30 general/$75 VIP (includes admission to the pre-event celebration on Friday, Nov. 1, 7 p.m., at Contemporaneo Asheville Gallery)