“This year, Miss Gay Latina Asheville is going global,” says founder and organizer Elio Gonzalez. “The competition has gotten so much publicity in the drag world, now I have competitors coming from not just Asheville, not just North Carolina. California, Phoenix, New York, Atlanta. And these are big names coming to compete.”
Gonzalez has a right to be proud. He started the Miss Gay Latina Asheville drag pageant in 2008 in a West Asheville church that held 200. It outgrew that venue by its second year and moved to its current annual home at the Diana Wortham Theatre. This year’s performance, on Saturday, Nov. 5, will be the pageant’s ninth. During its short life span, our culture has experienced a massive change in exposure to transgender issues and appreciation of drag culture.
This awareness has been helped in part by the rise of Logo TV‘s “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Launched in 2008 by artist RuPaul, the series has become a sleeper hit with millions of viewers from all walks of life. Weekly, they cheer contestants on through drag challenges and performances in an attempt to become “America’s Next Drag Superstar.” This year, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” helped break Nielsen records for TV viewership on Logo, and RuPaul won an Emmy for Outstanding Host for a Reality or Reality-Competition Program.
The show helped acclimate America to the campy aesthetic of drag queens and establish drag pageant formats. Both translate well to Miss Gay Latina Asheville, which takes a traditional beauty pageant program (interview, costume, talent and evening gown) and injects flair and cultural awareness. In the costume category, for example, contestants will present a traditional look from the country or region they choose to represent. Previously, the focus was on Hispanic countries, but this year, contestants can choose any location in the world.
“It’s my favorite part of the pageant,” Gonzalez says. “It gives you culture, history. You learn something. Contestants spend a lot of money and time putting these costumes together. They’re going to come up with something really special.”
While many drag shows take place in bars or clubs where there might not even be a backstage in which to change, the local pageant “takes care of contestants and respects and appreciates their effort,” Gonzalez says. “When they go to the green room, they’ve got food, they’ve got water. For some of these girls, they come into the theater and say, ‘This is like a dream come true.'”
In the time of HB2, such awareness and recognition of transgender issues couldn’t be more timely. All are welcome to compete, regardless of experience or sexual orientation, and all are welcome in the audience. And while the template of a beauty pageant may seem outdated and superficial, Gonzalez says it’s not necessarily the most beautiful who will win. Strong personalities, costumes and performances might trump outward appearance.
Some of the contestants will be local, but the majority are seasoned veterans who participate year-round on the drag-pageant circuit. “These girls love competing,” Gonzalez says. “They invest so much money and time in their talents, participating in big competitions that take place all over the U.S. For them, it’s an honor to be recognized, because that opens doors for them to more opportunities. They can stay busy all the time.”
One such established figure is Mokha Montrese, who has earned many national titles, including Miss Gay USofA 2015. She will be a celebrity judge for Miss Gay Latina Asheville and give a performance during the show. Miss Gay Latina Asheville 2015 winner Valeria Coutier will also be onstage with the Night Boys, a small, six-person dance company from Miami.
Coutier also lives in Miami and predominantly speaks Spanish. Through an interpreter, she discussed the dual roles a title like Miss Gay Latina Asheville bestows. “I’m an entertainer, but I am also an educator,” she said. “The stage has been a classroom for me to educate the public — both gay and straight — on the perspective of the transgender community.”
Of her fondest memories from last year’s pageant, Coutier says, “the public, the competition and, most of all, the acceptance from the Asheville community.”
This year, the title brings other substantial awards, including cash, jewelry and cosmetics. “The winner will walk away with almost $2,500 in prizes,” Gonzalez says.
For those thinking of attending who fear they might feel out of place, Gonzalez says the audience is usually 60 percent heterosexual. While the show comes just after Hispanic Heritage Month, the audience breaks evenly between Hispanic and non-Hispanic, and many walks of life are represented by the audience. “There is a pastor who comes every year and brings tons of people from his congregation,” Gonzalez says. “He always says this is one of the best events in Asheville.”
The Talent and Interview category will be conducted in Spanish and English with professional translators. Gonzalez has two emcees, one in English and one in Spanish. “We think of Latinos, especially the Latino male, as such a macho man, big machismo,” Gonzalez says. “They come to this event, though, and they’re the first ones to clap.”
“Everything is about unity, not discriminating or hating each other,” Gonzalez says. “Once the audience sees the contestants perform, they don’t care if it’s in Spanish or English. They go crazy.”
WHAT: Miss Gay Latina Asheville
WHERE: Diana Wortham Theatre, 2 S. Pack Sq. dwtheatre.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 5, 7:30 p.m. $22